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Friday, October 17, 2014

Relevance Of JET Programme: Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Maia, a current member of the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme in Japan and author of the interesting Maia Does Japan blog, which despite my hopes it was porn-related, was instead a simple misunderstanding on my part.

Anyhow, recently Maia wrote about how she was sitting in school studying Japanese when she heard a couple of Japanese teachers complain about her - chatting amongst themselves in Japanese with the belief that no gaijin would be able to understand what they were clucking about.

Turns out Maia says she DOES understand, and realizes they were speaking negatively about her.

I feel bad for Maia. I don't mean to appear to pick on her in the few blogs I have mentioned her in.

She's a JET. And so was I. And when you're a JET, you're a JET all the way. From your first cigarette till your last dyin' day. When you're a JET if the spit hits the fan, you got brothers around, you're a family man.

Okay, enough of that gay banter.

Basically, it means that I am a team player... even if I am better than you, or you than me - there is no "i" in TEAM... though there is an "i" in WIN. Go JETs. Just not the Winnipeg or NY Jets. I hate you both. I would like to be in San Juan, however.

So… I was wondering, and during a complain out loud diatribe to my buddy Vinnie via e-mail, I wondered why Maia seems to have such crappy luck re: Japanese teachers.

In the past, this poor person has been severely under-utilized, often left to grow mushrooms from weeks of non-activity as an assistant English teacher (AET) .

I wondered if she was just a weak person, and NO ONE (other Japanese folk) had offered to adopt her to provide protection. Sharks - no matter the society - tend to circle the weak before... well... whatever it is that sharks tend to do.

There is also the possibility that mental illness is involved, and that she only think she hears the negative - but let me state right now, that I do NOT believe that to be the case in this instance. I do not know Maia. I have never spoken or written to her. I am sure that what she has written about her so-called life in Japan has been both terrific and terrible.

I can't relate - and for that, I am both lucky and glad. I pretty much went through three years in Japan as though I was able to poop thornless roses and the people and children all loved me for who I was.

I want to believe that, and I have no reason to believe, other than the pooping of roses, that it wasn't as real as I recall it to be. Time does have a way of distorting one's memories, but aside from my own self-manifested women-problems, life twas but a dream for me in Japan.

So why would I even bring up something such as mental illness when I have no reason to suspect its appearance? Because when one is trying to come up with answers: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Or so claims the character Sherlock Holmes applying Occam's Razor.

So… poor Maia… I only ask these questions because by all appearances she has had a tough go of it being accepted as an AET in Japan... so why would she stay for a second year? What is the allure? There's another adage that claims that insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

And that leads me to the JET Programme.

Vinnie pointed out that when I first entered the gladiatorial arena that is Japan, the JET Programme was a mere three years old in 1990. He says: "The program was new and many schools had ALTs for the first time. You were probably one of the first three or four they had. Now the program is 27 years old and some schools (and the teachers) have had a variety of JETs so the novelty has worn off for them. I've seen hints of this in other writings."

Well, who am I to disagree? I mean I could disagree if I wanted too, but Vinnie's point is anti-moot. It's valid, Chachi. And, for the record, I was the second AET working for the Ohtawara Board of Education.

I replied back:

Yes. Familiarity breeds contempt. In one of my earliest blogs, I wrote something similar:

During Year one, the students were all: "An-do-ryu-sensei!!!! Yay! Konichi-wa!"
Life was golden.

During Year two: "Konichiwa An-do-ryu-sensi."
I was still feeling the love, and while I may have felt life was golden, perhaps it was just gold-plated.

Year Three: "An-do-ryu... are you still here?"
Fool's gold. See... Familiarity breeds contempt.

I wasn't as special to the older kids because they had seen me and my antics for three years. I was old hat. I was also so familiar a face in the city that I was more of a fixture, rather than a curiosity to be gawked at.

I take that as a good thing. I wasn't just the gaijin... I was the gaijin who came to supper and then loosened his pants and stayed to see what was for dessert for the next three years plus.

Now let's look at things from the point of view of the Japanese... 27 years of watching people come and go... teachers seeing gaijin walk in like the world owes them a living. There's also 27 years of a JTE watching a 'friend' leave for home... maybe feeling jealous or jaded or just plain rebuffed.

Or... maybe it's the idea that the gaijin aren't needed for the same reason it once was.

Has Japan and its needs changed in the past 27 years? Damn... one hope's so.

Between 1990-1993, I was in Japan to internationalize. Not teach. I did not have my TESL (Teaching English as a second language) qualifications. Aside from being a private music teacher and community soccer coach, I was not a teacher... at least not in the same sense as a JTE (Japanese teacher of English)... I was told prior to leaving Toronto for Japan, that I was there to show (teach) the Japanese that they aren't as special as they think they are... that they can't have that attitude and succeed as part of the global (English-speaking) community.

I was there to break down cultural barriers while showing you can still maintain your own culture. I never thought Canada was better than the US or better than Japan - and vice versa, despite how often then Japanese would try to show me how cool and better Japan was. It wasn't better. It isn't better. It is cool, however, but so is West Side Story.

Japan is just different.

The blog is my way to celebrate the differences - I get that now - and that it's okay to be the nail that stands up sometimes... you don't want to snag yourself on the nail, but sometimes different happens.

In that sense, I think Japan has succeeded.

Y'know... I once had a shirt made up for myself with a famous Monty Python quote. On the front: "We're all individuals." On the reverse: "I'm not."

I just LOVE that line... and funnily enough, five or so years later when I went to Japan, that saying meant soooo much... I never had to say it, but I knew what my job was.

Teacher of English? That was just a cover.

Nowadays... maybe the Japanese get it... sort of... but having someone come in and internationalize is no longer fresh. A different method is required. Having the JETs come in and take an active role in teaching English... holy crap... Devil's Advocate here... but that would make me, the JTE feel like people don't like the way I do my job of teaching the kids English.

Resentment could easily rear its ugly head.

I could see how a foreigner assistant might be utilized to accentuate proper pronunciation - I did plenty of 'Repeat after me" drills. I also did plenty of performing monkey acts to make the kids look forward to English, whereby if they weren't careful they might learn something (to paraphrase Bill Cosby from Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids).

But what about Maia? Myself, I came off as confident, witty, loving to laugh - a regular guy who wants to learn everything about everyone and everything. BUT, and this was also a BIG help... I came across as the helpless man... which the Japanese women loved... everyone wanted to make sure I was okay... to help... the men, too… they don't want me to appear weak. I appreciated the help at first.

Then I became more confident in my abilities to survive Japan. You have to recall that I had never left home before - not even for seven years of post-secondary education. I had no idea how to shop, cook, clean - do any damn thing… it's why I lost 10 pounds in two weeks… and also why I was able to gain it back (and more) as I learned how to cook, clean, shop… everything… even sew, of which I was just so-so. But I did it!

Later, Japanese folk might come over to my house and marvel at how clean it was, wondering if I had a girlfriend. Excluding Noboko, all my girlfriends were not as tidy as… well… me, to be polite.

They would come over for a visit, and spy my flower display - and ask if I took an ikebana class. It could be them blowing hot smoke up my ass (it didn't feel as weird as you might think), or... it was them realizing that I'm now confident to try things myself. It's why in Japan, for school club participation I did every club but English.

Ah... opinionated gaijin... good times.

Vinnie says: You pressed that button activating the question, "What is the purpose of JET?"
That has been debated up and down the line including at the government level. Is it just an internationalization program so the kids get used to seeing a round-eye without freaking out? Perhaps. That is why so many JETS end up in the inaka. But now JET is expanding and this year started sending more kids to placements like Tokyo. PM Abe has publicly stated that the English teaching needs to improve and expand before the 2020 Olympics. As part of that JET will expand (especially in elementary schools). That sounds a bit like needing them to do some teaching of that there English stuff. The problem in the near future may be expanding the numbers without changing the purpose or selection process. They say they are going to pump more money in the program. Perhaps change the salary scale to include bonuses for those with a CELTA or a teaching degree attracting more teacher-oriented applicants. Perhaps have a one-week prefecture seminar with the JETs and JTEs to learn how to be an effective assistant in the classroom. Perhaps pay some of the experienced JETS with good reviews to stick around giving schools the opportunity to dump bad selections and have one of them step in the breech.  The next few years should be interesting.

Me again... for the record, when I was there, JET did offer three-day long meetings for JETs of several prefectures to get together and to learn teaching techniques.

Now... for some reason... after three months, I was asked to lead a seminar on how to survive Japan... I am pretty sure I was suffering from alcohol poisoning, had spent the night making out with a 35-year-old former nude model from Edmonton because Ashley had broken up with me two days earlier... and I had no script.

From what I recall, it went well, and more boozing and whoring went on.

The one thing I recall from my session - besides having a dry mouth, was me telling people to recall that we are not in Japan to be a teacher of English. We can assist with that, but in Japan, we are not on the same par as the Japanese teachers. We don't know their system - at least not intimately. We are here to internationalize.

It's why there's that whole 'assistant' part of the whole AET make-up. The folks who work for the private teaching schools... those people are teachers. I don't know if they are any good, but at least they can run a class any way they want to.

Despite Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (surname first) saying he wants Japan to speak better English by the time the country hosts the 2020 Olympics, the song remains the same: Is the JET Programme still relevant in today's Japan OR, how can it be better utilized by Japan?

Does Japan need to change or does JET?

I think Japan has already changed - and while we can talk about how Japan may not speak English as well as it did in the past - the fact remains that JET as an internationalization fraternity is long past its prime and that having AETs in place is great, but perhaps better training from JET needs to be done with the JTEs to demonstrate how two heads can be better than a two-headed monster.

Andrew Joseph

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