Nov 16

JET ROI: Japan Times readers respond to Debito Arudou’s “Don’t Blame JET for Japan’s Poor English”

Back in September the Japan Times ran a column by Debito Arudou titled “Don’t Blame JET for Japan’s Poor English.”  The article defended JET against criticism of non-improving English test scores.  But it also waded into some generalizations that prompted some thoughtful responses.  (Thanks to CLAIR-NY’s Matt Gillam for the heads up.)

Click here to see all of the responses.

The final word on JET, for now

Arudou misses the mark

Debito Arudou’s recent article on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme (Just Be Cause, Sept. 7) and many of the responses which followed (Have Your Say, Oct. 12):

I do agree that there are some systemic challenges educators must attempt to overcome in order to provide these kids with the English education they deserve. But Mr. Arudou’s arguments are so simultaneously inflammatory and reductive that I cannot believe a reputable publication would venture to publish them.

He is right to have concerns about the very real institutionalized handicaps in the Japanese educational system, but his ideas are so ill-articulated (“Group psychosis?” Are you kidding?) and, frankly, ignorant that I fear the real problems (and solutions) become lost in the muck.

The article itself misses the opportunity to shed light on what is actually happening in Japanese schools. Mr. Arudou is right to worry that cutting the program and withdrawing the significant foreign presence in Japan might be counter- productive, but I do not believe that that is because the Japanese are suffering from “eigo psychosis,” whatever that means. The “problems” are institutionalized at this point — a reflection of the greater cultural conflict Japan faces as it strives to look forward while staying rooted in history and tradition.

The push/pull between The Way Things Have Always Been Done and the goals of competitive internationalization is perhaps most obvious in the classroom. I teach in a senior high school, and I have found that the students are incredibly overworked. In most subjects, they are not encouraged to have opinions or speak up in class, which in a course that requires participation for effective learning, is crippling. They are already ranked and categorized by their supposed ability and often made to believe that they are not capable of being anything more. They are driven by the need to pass absurd tests that will determine the course of the rest of their lives.

Simply put, these kids are downright exhausted — and maybe a little demoralized. As are the teachers; they are bogged down with huge amounts of responsibility and juggle the demands of too many classes, too many club commitments, and too much red tape. Both students and teachers often devote hours a day just to commuting back and forth to school, and teachers often shuffle between multiple schools. With all the other balls in the air, both the students and teachers can hardly be expected to pick up the slack of a limping foreign language educational system on their own.

This is where the benefits of the JET program are clear. Though the JET program is not perfect, I do agree with Mr. Arudou that it is not to blame for the problems of English education in Japan, and in fact alleviates some of the pressure on both students and teachers.

Still, his characterization of JET and Japanese schools misses the mark. The primary goal of the JET program is indeed to couple internationalization with English instruction, but that is not a “vague” goal to those to whom it applies — it is instead a powerful mandate to ALTs working across the country. It compels us to not merely show up to work every day and toss out vocabulary words, but to get involved in our schools and communities in a substantial way.

We JETs do not take our purpose lightly, nor do we treat our time in Japan as an extended vacation. Perhaps the author of the comment “Taking more than we gave” forgets that it is not easy to uproot oneself and start a new life, alone, halfway across the world — especially since many of us are isolated either geographically, socially or both.

Also, his or her statement that “any foreigners . . . brought to Japan . . . should be trained and experienced teachers” betrays the true meaning of multiculturalism in education: That diversity and richness of experience is what makes truly well-rounded educators — not necessarily a B.A. in education.

Bringing in foreigners with the same experiences and education defeats the purpose of bringing them at all. My experience with gender studies at the University of Virginia varies greatly from my predecessor’s background as an advocate for children with special needs in Australia. And yet, my students have gotten to know us both, and I believe wholeheartedly that they have taken away pieces of those experiences from us as we give of ourselves in and out of the classroom.

We can only do so much, of course, but that’s all anyone can do — and if we are opening one student’s mind, or exposing one Japanese person to a different way of thinking, or taking home with us a part of the Japanese spirit, for that matter — then we’ve done our job and it’s worth it.

Pushing bold statements that “once the fun is over, however, we wheel the human tape recorder out of the classroom and get back to passing tests,” or that there exists some sort of “rent-a-gaijin phenomenon,” only betrays the little victories we fight for in Japan and makes it harder for anyone to believe that anything can ever change.

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