Importing Diversity


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the JET Program But Were Afraid to Ask

By Justin Tedaldi (Kobe-shi, 2001-02)

(Winter 2006 Issue)

“They hired me for this!?”

What JET hasn’t ever said that? Though anyone who’s been on the program probably finishes richer for the experience, some come away with the feeling that they learned more about its host country and its people than the other way around—a definite contrast from the aims of the JET Program and its goals concerning internationalization.

To shine a light on this dynamic, JET alumnus and current anthropology professor David L. McConnell took his experiences to the extreme by writing the very first academic study of the JET Program.  Published in 2000, Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program dedicates the bulk of its 280 pages to the stormy relationships between the Japanese ministries and CLAIR that administer the program, and the JETs faced with adapting to cities and schools that many not necessarily know what do with (much less have a need) for them.

But McConnell isn’t anti-JET.  He uses the friction generated in the birth and early years of the program (most of his research is dedicated to personal experiences and interviews with JET administrators of the late 1980s) to draw an interesting parallel between how JET accepts and places its applicants with how Japan itself is similarly selective in picking foreign labor.

Most telling are the interviews the author conducted with former JETs and prefectural administrators who are more than vocal in describing what they think works in the program and what doesn’t.  Despite the years of hindsight, it’s fascinating to read about the origin of the JET Program (it was first presented as a “gift” to the American delegation at the “Ron-Yasu” summit in 1986 between President Reagan and Prime Minister Nakasone) and how the Ministry of Home Affairs struggled with the Ministry of Education to make JET a reality.

These episodes are interwoven with snapshots of Japan’s own checkered history of internationalization and the delicate balance the ministries exerted to maintain between the private (the Japan teachers’ union was less than pleased to have to work with a bevy of untrained young visitors from abroad) and the public (having more foreigners working in the country and teaching English is good PR) facets of Japan.

The book is not without weaknesses.  First, the author apparently never met a case study he didn’t like.  The “categories” of JETs, instructors and administrators and their cornucopia of quirks is so exhaustive that non-JETs will be tempted to read only the interview portions of the chapter to get to the juicy bits.  Additionally, if you’re looking for an equally balanced view of life as a CIR or SEA, forget it.  Despite what the title says, the book’s concentration is on the ALT experience and how it ties into internationalization Japanese-style.  JETs who have recently returned to their home countries and scan this book may even take offense at all the “problems” the author describes regarding the system when much of the data is drawn from the first few years of the program (and when its long-term future was never a sure thing).

The book really shines as a primer for prospective JET candidates.  The screening and interview process—which the author sat in on in numerous occasions—apparently hasn’t changed much since the early years of the program, so more than a few hints for a successful interview can be gleaned.  The same can be said for the right/wrong way to behave professionally in Japan.  Since most JETs start their careers with the program right out of school in the respected field of education, depending on where they’re placed or who they work with, teachers will either be thrilled to work with the JET or will want little to do with them.  One standout quote provided from a teacher of Japanese is the feeling that a more “individual” method of teaching would take the focus off the students’ entrance exams and take away from their finely-tuned cramming skills and “good of the group”-isms.

Ultimately, Importing Diversity makes valuable reading for those interested in Japan and the inner-workings of any society based on a microcosm that is Japan’s JET Program.  The style may be a bit too academic for some, but the substance is the clearest JET’s-eye view of Japan yet—at least until that CIR book makes its way to the shelves.

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