With the JET Programme potentially slated for the chopping block, it seems that nobody is showing enough concern for the program's future. Cue JET alumni:
When current participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program gather, the discussion often focuses on English teaching methods. When the program's U.S. alumni get together, however, talk often turns to a weightier subject: U.S. foreign policy toward Japan.
Although the program has an uneven track record when it comes to improving Japanese students' English, it has quietly and unexpectedly become a powerful tool for achieving another objective: grooming the next generation of American leadership in U.S.-Japan relations.
US-Japan relations? Foreign policy? This sounds important.
The program's success in this regard is perhaps best demonstrated by the number of former JETs occupying Japan-related positions in both academia and in the U.S. government. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo alone employs 25 former JETs, and JET returnees have done Japan-related work at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
"The JET program created a fairly large cadre of people who had Japan experience," says Ben Dolven, a former JET and current director of the East Asia division at the Congressional Research Service, the official think tank of the U.S. Congress.
"You've got a core of people who have had this experience all over, who are now part and parcel of U.S. policymaking on Japan," he said.
In other words, "We worked in Japan and many of us got jobs related to Japan, so we need to keep JET." That's incredibly weak. There's more:
Dolven said that because JETs often work in rural areas, the program gives them a more nuanced view of the "real" Japan, a background that provides crucial context for better understanding the country and making informed policy decisions.
"There are lives being lived all over the country, and if you are just focused on Tokyo, you miss so much," Dolven said.
JETs have lived in "real" Japan, so they know better. People who have been to places like Tokyo or Kyoto don't know the truth only JET's can experience.
If these self-important and smug pronouncements are defenses of the JET Programme, then it can't be axed fast enough. When word came that JET was potentially on the government chopping block, I initially thought that Japan stood to lose a valuable source of goodwill. While the goodwill garnered by JET is certainly a valuable thing, I find it far-fetched to think that US-Japan relations will take a hit if JET is cut.
What made the government panel on waste so compelling was watching the mandarins squirm in their seats as they struggled to justify their existences. The panel put JET under the microscope because it doesn't think the program provides any bang for the taxpayers' yen. In their report [PDF], they note that the program has remained virtually unchanged in its 23 years and that the responsibilities at the national and local levels remain vague. One can't help but think that if the JET alumni were to the face the panel, their justifications would get more than a few laughs.