Jun 20
AJET Chair Kay Makishi (front row, left) at the Spring 2014 AJET Opinion Exchange Meeting in Tokyo, June 2014. (Courtesy of CLAIR)

AJET Chair Kay Makishi (front row, left) at the Spring AJET Opinion Exchange Meeting in Tokyo, June 2014. (Courtesy of AJET)


By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ magazine. Eden lived and worked in the core city of Iwaki on JET, and is JETAA New South Wales‘s webmaster, meaning he is the voice on all the online and social media for the Sydney-based chapter like Twitter, Instagram (both @jetaansw) and Facebook.

At the start of this year, dramatic changes took place as CLAIR (the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) formally announced changes to its relationship with AJET (the Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching), with the full details made public by the latter on their Facebook page on a post dated January 27. The immediate outcome of this decision means that AJET’s participation and input at CLAIR-organised events such as the Tokyo Orientation and After JET conferences will be discontinued.

While AJET has had a low profile in the collective consciousness of many on the programme, these changes will inevitably impact all JET participants, most immediately in how conferences will be held and run, and how AJET will continue to represent and assist the needs of the JET community. Historically, the volunteer organisation has existed from the start of the JET Programme and is run by JETs to benefit and support participants in Japan. Now, it faces the biggest challenge of its 27-year history.

For those who may not have heard of or know about AJET, its constitution describes it as a volunteer organisation whose purpose is to foster a successful working relationship between JET Programme sponsors and participants, as well as to promote and support the JET community. In turn, it presents itself as a representative of the same community. Founded in 1987 right from the start of the JET Programme itself, AJET’s early work was very much focused on providing a support network for the first participants.

Kay Makishi (Fukuoka-ken CIR, 2011-14), 2014’s outgoing AJET chair who completed her one-year term on the AJET council, sums up her focus on the JET community: “I wanted to see more energy spent on starting projects like our Professional Development Conference Calls…[and] collaborating more with JETAA so JETs have more support finding jobs post-JET,” she explained.

AJET offers resources to empower JETs to get more out of their time on the programme than just teaching, and part of this was to increase involvement with other Japan-related organizations and local communities. Indeed, AJET has demonstrated an ability to network and connect with well-known organisations, like JALT, Temple University Japan, and International TEFL and TESOL training. Mention must also be made of AJET’s ability to mobilise resources and people for charity and volunteering work, notably during 2011’s Tohoku disaster.

But perhaps AJET’s most significant achievement is its involvement and establishment of a working relationship with JET Programme sponsors, beginning with participation in workshops and orientations at CLAIR-run events (from 1988 onwards), and providing feedback (in a representative role) from JET participants to the three government ministries that administer the programme. Certainly this relationship was very advantageous for AJET. For example, in recent years AJET has leveraged its growing involvement in CLAIR-run events like the Tokyo Orientation to spread its brand and presence, conducting numerous workshops, and recruiting participants to its mailing group and publications, including their AJET Connect magazine.

However, CLAIR’s announcement in January was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to many. In October of last year, Makishi received a visit by the Director of CLAIR, Takahashi Masashi, along with CLAIR’s AJET liaison, and was personally informed of the decision. The official reasoning CLAIR gave was that AJET, as a volunteer organisation not technically employed by CLAIR, was not covered for public liability in CLAIR-organised public events such as the Tokyo Orientation, where interactions with corporations could give rise to potential legal risks (e.g., accidents).

With the actual connection between the two organisations being rather undefined (AJET does not receive any official funding from CLAIR), ultimately CLAIR’s position this year was perhaps not too surprising in retrospect. On their Facebook page, AJET stresses that the changes announced only affects those that AJET had been historically active in (such as the information fair at conferences). While AJET’s involvement in other ways have not been completely ruled out (for example,  AJET online publications editor Steven Thompson (Fukushima-ken, 2011-present) states that AJET Connect, which is produced by the JET community, will still be distributed), at the time of this writing, it’s not yet known what this really means or what form, in practical terms, it will take.

JET participants expressed their dismay and concern online over how this will affect AJET’s future—specifically, in relation to the support and information that up until now was provided as a matter of course, and with the potential loss of knowledge and networking opportunities that may happen from not being able to engage with JETs directly. But while there was positive support noted for AJET on the issue, there were also negative feedback—tense and frank exchanges about the nature of AJET and its actual worth and standing.

There were vocal accusations over perceived flaws in AJET’s structure and hierarchy, with gripes of exclusivity and lack of transparency in its operations, even going so far as to question the organisation’s relevancy. Some believed that AJET historically had a conflict of interest as an advocacy group by relying too much on their association with CLAIR, with the result that JET interests were not being fulfilled adequately as claimed. Though harsh, Makishi regards these criticisms as a positive sign of the community’s passion and engagement. “A lot of problems came up for discussion…[but] it’s good to see where AJET stood with the community,” she said.

Internally, among the organisation’s committee members, the mood was sombre. Makishi said that everyone was “shocked at first…many were disgruntled at the frank and blunt message, which [at the time] had been delivered without context.” They debated on what their response would be. Two options were available: make a lot of noise and publicity by speaking to journalistic contacts, or wait and see how the issue would resolve itself.

“There were lots of discussions, lots of staying up past midnight…we kept going over and weighing the cost and benefits of each option…I spent a lot of time talking to other people, too, getting advice on how best to proceed,” Makishi said. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and it was decided to take the latter option, as doing so otherwise would take too much time and energy away from AJET’s core work. The best response, the AJET committee decided, would simply be to present the facts and official statement as known. “We based our decision on taking into consideration the Japanese way of doing things and the fact that we want AJET to grow 10 years from now,” Makishi explained. “That means keeping friendly relations with CLAIR.”

In the meantime, Makishi and the rest of the committee turned to work on areas that were more within their control, and to further take into account the criticisms about AJET. She stated that “It was clear that positive change was needed…to be [more] open, inclusive and helpful,” and that a renewed emphasis was placed on repairing and fostering relationships with the community. Improved transparency and accountability was one of her goals when becoming chair—“which is why we posted this announcement in our [online] media,” she said.

In the time since that announcement, AJET’s diplomatic approach appears to have been the right one. CLAIR and AJET have kept communication lines open and continue to collaborate, and earlier this month CLAIR had a recent Opinion Exchange Meeting with AJET—something Makishi believes has happened because AJET had proven themselves to be capable of being cooperative and calm in their response. “It’s purely my own speculation. But, if I were in CLAIR’s shoes and if any organization made our organization look bad, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to make much of an effort to reach out and collaborate as much as possible with them,” she said.

Keeping in mind how slowly and cautiously the wheels of Japanese bureaucracy turn, there’s still a question mark hanging over the future. Makishi said that AJET will continue to conduct itself in a way that will not ruin their chances of potential future positive cooperation: “Looking back, I think the liability reasoning made sense, because knowing how Japanese government agencies always run things by the book, I can see where the changes are coming from.”

AJET continues to move forward. The new National AJET Volunteer system was created to collect and streamline the process of matching volunteers to AJET projects as part of the effort to get JETs more involved with their community. One of these projects, the Race to the Top Challenge, ambitiously set the bar high, and aimed to raise at least ¥1 million raised for charity and 10,000 volunteer hours of community service. According to the AJET Volunteering and Charity page, they more than doubled their results at ¥2.1 million raised nationally, with around 3,700 hours clocked in.

Ultimately, Makishi believes that future members of AJET and their peers will continue to develop a stronger sense of community and pride within the organisation. “I think AJET—in fact, also JETAA— should be a more holistic part of the JET Programme, as it would benefit Japan in the long run,” she said.

It is early days yet and the dust is still settling from the outcome of CLAIR’s reforms. The first real consequence may come in July when the newest generation of JETs arrive in Tokyo for their orientation before heading to their respective posts. But there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Judging from the continued spirit of cooperation from all sides, it is clear that CLAIR still values the continued input and hard work that AJET has done, and still continues to do, on behalf of all JET participants.

For more on AJET, visit their homepage at http://ajet.net.

one comment so far...

  • Rashaad Said on June 22nd, 2014 at 4:05 am:

    So what does this mean for the future of the JET program?

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