Scott sat looking out the window, watching a group of boys playing baseball in the school yard. Poor kids, he thought, they are the real losers in all of this. He looked down at a copy of 500 English Sentences and the endorsement letter on his desk. He glanced at the clock and realized that he had to have an answer for Mr. Honda within the hour. He was feeling very frustrated and stressed from the events of the past 10 days. He decided that he would go to the karate school after work, something that always made him feel better. He sighed as he thought about what he had to do next
Scott was 26 years old and had been living in Japan for 18 months. He was born in Auburn, Massachusetts, and had spent most of his life in the United States. Scott’s father was a successful entrepreneur who believed that hard work and good old-fashioned principles were the ingredients to success. He always taught his children to stand up for what they believed in and to never sacrifice their values in order to get ahead. Scott’s mother was a housewife who took care of the family home and the children. She loved to travel and encouraged Scott’s father to take the family abroad every year so that their children would have a better understanding of the world around them. Scott was a very disciplined student. He was an English major and had been on the dean’s honor role for every semester throughout his four years at college. During his senior year, Scott worked as a teaching assistant, grading papers and tutoring students. Scott started studying karate when he was a junior in high school. He enjoyed the physical workout and the disciplinary aspect of the sport and continued to train throughout his undergraduate years. By the time he was ready to graduate, Scott had earned a third-degree black belt.
It was through karate that I first became interested in Japan. I thought it would be enlightening to experience Japanese culture and learn more about their ways of thinking. My goal was to one day go over to Japan and train in a Japanese karate dojo (school) and learn from a real karate sensei. My biggest problem was to figure out how to go about doing this. I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of just moving to Japan to study karate, and since I didn’t speak the language I figured that my chances of working for a company in Japan were about nil.
In the fall of his senior year, Scott saw a poster for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program at school that advertised teaching jobs in Japan. He had heard of other students going over to Japan to teach English but had never given any serious thought to a career in teaching, even if only for a short time. To work as an assistant .
English teacher on the JET program, applicants had to have a bachelor’s degree and an interest in Japan. Knowledge of Japanese language or a degree in education were not listed as requirements. This was what Scott had been hoping for: an opportunity to go over to Japan to continue his karate under a Japanese instructor as well as a chance to put his English degree to good use. He wrote the address in his notebook and sent for an application that very night.
The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program
Before the JET Program
The origins of the JET program can be traced back to 1982. In that year, the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho) initiated a project known as the Monbusho English Fellows (MEF) Program, which hired Americans to work at the local boards of education in order to assist Japanese English teaching consultants who acted as advisers to the Japanese teachers of English in the public schools. The task of the MEFs was to oversee the junior and senior high school English teachers and to assist them with their training. In 1983, the British English Teachers Scheme (BETS) was inaugurated by the Ministry of Education. However, from the outset the British teachers were stationed at schools, and the goals of the program did not only concern English instruction but also sought to increase mutual understanding and improve friendly relations between the peoples of Japan and Britain. While there were some differences between the two programs, both shared a common goal: inviting native English speakers to Japan to assist in improving foreign language instruction.
The Birth of the JET Program
The realization that Japan must open itself more fully to contact with international society began to foster an awareness of the importance of promoting internationalization and international exchange at the local level. This brought about not only expanded English instruction, but also a rapid increase in exchange programs. Taking these new circumstances into account, the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs in 1985 released a paper titled “Plans for International Exchange Projects” as part of its priority policy of local governments for the following year. In the paper, the Ministry of Home Affairs proposed a definite course for the internationalization of local governments, which ideally would lead to smoothly functioning cultural exchanges. All of these ideas were finally implemented in a concrete project: the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program.
The Ministry of Home Affairs abolished the two projects currently in effect (MEF and BETS) and created a new one that was entrusted simultaneously to three ministries: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, the concept of appointing local authorities to implement the program and act as host institutions was preserved. While discussions were held with each of the local authorities to work out the details and ensure the smooth implementation of such a massive program, the formation of a cooperative organization for all local governments was expedited.
The Creation of CLAIR
CLAIR, originally the Conference of Local Authorities for International Relations, was established in October 1986 by the Todofuken (the 47 prefectures of Japan) and the Seireishiteitoshi (the [then] 10 designated cities) as a cooperative organization responsible for implementing the JET program in conjunction with the three Japanese ministries just named.
CLAIR’s Role in the JET Program
To ensure smooth implementation of the JET program, the three ministries, the local authorities, and CLAIR were all given specific functions. The functions that the conference attempted to fulfill for implementing the JET program were as follows:
1. Advice and liaison during recruitment and selection.
2. Placement of participants.
3. Participant orientation, conferences.
4. Guidance for local authority host institutions.
5. Participant welfare and counseling.
6. Travel arrangements for participants coming to Japan.
7. Liaison with related groups and institutions.
8. Publications and reference materials.
9. Publicity for the program.
The larger goal behind these functions of the conference was the promotion of international exchange at the local level. Independent of this development, the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (a publicly endowed foundation) was inaugurated in July 1987. The council’s main duty was to study and survey participating nations’ local authorities overseas with the ultimate objective being to support local government programs for the promotion of internationalization. By fostering international exchange at the regional level, the council came to assume the same duties as the Conference of Local Authorities for International Relations. It was suggested that both organizations merge since they held information relevant to each other’s work and shared the goals of improving work efficiency and performing their tasks more effectively. Moreover, the annual growth of the JET program led to an increased number of interrelated duties and tasks. Thus it was necessary to strengthen the structure of the Conference of Local Authorities for International Relations.
It was decided that the operations and financial assets of the conference would be assumed by the council, and in August 1989 they were amalgamated, under the acronym of CLAIR, to form a joint organization of local public bodies in Japan to support and promote internationalization at the regional level.
Scott reviewed the JET information he had received. There were two different positions available: (1) the coordinator for international relations (CIR) and (2) the assistant language teacher (ALT). The first position, although it sounded interesting, was out of The question since knowledge of Japanese was a requirement. Scott applied for the second position because as an English major he felt that he was qualified to assist in the teaching of English. Scott was chosen for an interview and was successful in obtaining an offer to teach English in Japan.
The JET program and CLAIR were very good at trying to prepare the participants for their stay in Japan. I attended several workshops and orientations concerning my job in Japan as well as seminars on what to expect living in such a different culture from my own. I remember thinking some of the potential situations they were preparing us for seemed a bit unrealistic and that I would probably never encounter them, but I found out soon enough that Japan and the United States are culturally a world apart, and I was glad to have received the predeparture training. Without it, I would have thought that I had arrived in Wonderland with no idea on how to behave at the tea party.
Scott’s Situation in Japan
Scott was sent to a small village on the northern island of Hokkaido, where he taught English at Naka High School. At first, Scott had some difficulties adjusting to living in such a remote place. The people were friendly, yet since they were not accustomed to seeing many foreigners, Scott always felt that he was on display, or that his every move was under scrutiny.
It was strange being the only non-Japanese person living in the town. I was there to do my job, and study karate, but somehow ended up as the town celebrity. Everyone in town knew everything about me. They all knew where I lived, when I entertained guests. I felt like my every move was monitored. It got so bad that I even had to hang my wash inside my house because people started to tell me that they liked my colorful boxer shorts.
People not only watched what I did, but how I did it. Everyone wanted to know how the American talked, walked, and ate. People asked me daily if I could eat with chopsticks. I made a conscious effort very quickly to blend in as much as I could. It was either that or get angry, and I don’t think people were being malicious, they were just overly curious.
The biggest problem that Scott encountered from the start was feelings of incompetence and frustration. The only people in the whole village with whom he could speak without much difficulty were the Japanese English teachers at the high school. If he ran into problems at the bank or supermarket, he was forced to rely on a mixture of basic Japanese and English accompanied by an elaborate display of sign language which more often than not ended in frustration. To overcome the communication problems, Scott began studying Japanese every night at home. He also found a Japanese language teacher at the high school who agreed to tutor him.
Until I moved to Japan, I never realized how frustrating life can be when you cannot even do the simplest tasks for yourself like read your electric bill or use an automated teller machine. I felt pretty helpless a lot of the time, and no one seemed to understand what I was going through. Whenever I had a problem involving a language or cultural misunderstanding, I would go see Mr. Honda, the head of English, not only because his English was the best of all of the teachers, but also because he had lived abroad in England and Australia, and I figured that he would be able to understand what I was going through.
Mr. Honda was the head of English at Naka High School. He was 46 years old and had been teaching English at various schools in the prefecture for more than 22 years. In his youth, Mr. Honda had studied English at Oxford and had spent two summers in Australia on homestays. His command of spoken English and his vocabulary were quite remarkable. Mr. Honda acted as a mentor to Scott. He considered Scott as his kohai (junior) and believed that as a good Japanese manager, it was his duty to guide the young foreigner throughout his stay in Japan. Mr. Honda showed this same kind of paternalistic concern for all of the junior English teachers and counseled them on everything from lesson planning to when they should think about marrying. None of the younger teachers in the English department made any decision without the approval of Mr. Honda. Scott thought that this was a waste of talent and initiative. He knew a couple of young teachers who were very dynamic and had some creative teaching ideas, yet were forced to use the dated teaching methods of Mr. Honda because he was their superior.
Although he never expressed it openly, Mr. Honda did not really like dealing with these young ALTs. He found it insulting to work with such young foreigners, who more often than not had no formal training as English teachers yet were hired to tell him how to do his job better. He did not share in the opinion that these foreign assistants were experts in English teaching just because they could speak the language fluently. Mr. Honda, as well as the other teachers on the staff, had trouble adjusting to the ALTs since they were hired on a yearly contract basis, which was renewable only to a maximum of three years. This left the school barely enough time to get to know an ALT before he or she left and another took over. Mr. Honda also didn’t like the fact that these young assistant teachers were earning nearly the same salary as he each month, despite his 22 years of experience.
In spite of his feelings for ALTs in general, Mr. Honda liked Scott. He not only felt that Scott was qualified to be doing the job but also thought that Scott was adapting very well to the Japanese style of management.
Scott works very hard. He shows great enthusiasm for teaching English at our school. He is very pleasant to work with and is making a big effort to learn the Japanese language and ways. It is a pleasure to have such a good teacher on our staff.
Acceptance in the Group
Scott joined the local karate school and began training every night after work. I felt very much at ease at the karate dojo. Despite the fact that I had no idea what my karate teacher and the other men were saying to me, we seemed to get along very well because we were all there for a common goal: to study karate. I think the other members accepted me into their group because I showed them that I was serious about the sport and had a determination to learn. At first, I saw the other members only at the karate school, but after a few months, they started inviting me to dinners and other social gatherings. Sometimes we even went out drinking after practice. It was good to feel like I was a part of something. I was tired of being treated like the “funny gaijin” all the time.
For the first few months, Scott felt isolated at work. Excluding the English teachers, many of his coworkers did not talk to him at all, which made him feel unwelcome at the school. It wasn’t until he asked a young English teacher about the situation that she told Scott how several of the teachers were afraid to speak to him because they felt that their English skills were too weak. Scott told the young teacher that it was he who should be embarrassed for not speaking Japanese. After that, Scott made an effort to speak in Japanese, even though his mistakes often made him feel ridiculous and self-conscious. The other teachers slowly began to warm up to Scott and started to converse more with him at school.
Scott went out of his way to get involved at school. He not only taught his courses but also became involved with many of the clubs after school. He ran the English-speaking club and helped coach the karate club. He was also willing to come in on weekends when there was a special event going on at the school.
I got involved with extracurricular activities at school, not necessarily for altruistic reasons, but I guess because aside from karate, there was really not much for me to do in such a remote place where I could barely speak the language. I guess the other teachers thought that I was different from some of the other foreigners who had worked at Naka High because I was putting in extra time and work. Whatever the reason, they began to treat me like one of the group.
Scott had been in Japan almost a year and made the decision to renew for another. He asked to be transferred to Satsuki, the capital city of the prefecture, because his girlfriend back in the United States was thinking of coming over to Japan and there would be no work for her in such a small town as the one he was in. The teachers at Naka High were sad to see Scott leave and gave him a huge farewell party at which everyone made speeches saying how they would miss him.
It was kind of sad to leave Naka High. Once I got to know them, the teachers at Naka were quite a down-to-earth group who treated me like I was one of the family. The problem was that life in such a small town no longer offered what I needed. My girlfriend wanted to come over to Japan and I knew that she could get a job in Satsuki. My karate sensei also told me that if I wanted to test for my fourth-degree black belt, I would get better training at one of the bigger karate dojos in the city, and this was the reason that I came to Japan in the first place.
The city was quite a change for Scott. Since many foreigners lived there—English teachers, university students, and businesspeople—he did not receive the same attention as he had in the village. Compared to the small town, it was like living back in the United States. Nishi High, the school where Scott was assigned, was not at all like Naka High. Instead, it was a large academic high school where there was a particular emphasis placed on preparing for the rigorous university entrance exam. Only students who scored in the very top percentile were admitted to the best universities in the country, and Nishi prided itself on the number of students who were accepted to Tokyo University, the best in the country.
Scott was not the only foreigner working at this school. John, a 22-year-old from Australia, had just been hired to replace a Canadian woman who had spent two years teaching at the school. John had just graduated with a degree in chemistry, but he had studied Japanese for about seven years before moving to Japan. One surprise Scott encountered was that Mr. Honda had also been transferred to Nishi High to head their English department. Mr. Honda spoke very highly of Scott to the teachers at Nishi and, as a result, Scott was put in charge of the advanced English class, which was cramming for the university entrance exams. The English department used a textbook titled 500 English Sentences, which had been written approximately 10 years before by members of Nishi’s staff. The book had become a standard and was used by virtually every high school in the prefecture. The teachers who wrote it were all subsequently promoted to work as advisers at the Satsuki Board of Education. Scott had tried the book in his classes, but thought that it was an inferior text riddled with grammatical inconsistencies, spelling mistakes, and archaic usages of the English language. Although this book was part of the curriculum, Scott refused to use it and instead taught from the other texts. Scott assumed this was not a problem since none of the other teachers ever mentioned the fact that he did not use the text in his classes.
In the Limelight
After three months of working at Nishi, Scott found out that there was going to be a prefecturewide English teachers’ convention held at the school. Scott was surprised when the English staff asked him to conduct a demonstration class for one of the seminars. He was told that, in total, about 200 teachers were expected to attend. Despite initial misgivings and stage fright, Scott’s demonstration class was a huge success, and Nishi High received outstanding commendations from all the teachers who attended and from the board of education. The English teachers at Nishi praised Scott for bringing honor to their school. Scott was glad that everything had gone well, but he did not think that he deserved the only credit.
For various reasons, I was awarded much of the credit for the outstanding commendations, though I felt most of the work had been done by the regular English staff. Anyway, at this point I had built an excellent relationship with the school’s staff, and found that this made the whole working situation function much easier, made getting things done possible, and kept me “part of the loop” in decisions in the English department. Scott began to receive more and more responsibilities at work. The English staff would consult with him on problems big or small concerning the teaching of English. Although Scott and John both arrived at Nishi High at the same time, Scott was considered sempai (the senior). Scott attributed this to a combination of his age and the fact that he had already worked one year at another school in Japan.
It was a bit unnerving that I was given more authority than John, I had been in Japan one year longer than he had and was a few years older, but he was able to speak their language fluently and was a capable teacher. The Japanese English teachers treated me as though I were John’s superior and often put me in an awkward position by making John answer to me.
One afternoon while Scott was sitting at his desk in the staff room, he was approached by several of the Japanese English teachers, including Mr. Honda. Mr. Honda began by inquiring after Scott’s health and complimenting him on his students’ recent test scores. After several minutes of small talk, Mr. Honda cleared his throat and got to the point. He laid a copy of 500 English Sentences on Scott’s desk and smiled at him. Scott thought that Mr. Honda and the other teachers had finally come to ask him to use the text in his class. “Yes, it’s a textbook, and a humdinger at that,” said Scott. Scott’s comment was met with confusion, nervous laughs, and several coughs. “No,” replied Mr. Honda, “We were hoping that you would be so kind as to help us in repairing any errors there might be in this text for republication by the prefecture.”Mr. Honda continued saying that Nishi High had been assigned the duty of editing the text and resubmitting it to the publisher for printing.
He said that Scott’s help would be greatly appreciated since he had been an English major at university and the Japanese teachers already knew that he was a more capable teacher. Mr. Honda also said that they desired Scott’s help because he was a native English speaker and he would have an excellent grasp of both current and colloquial usage of the language, something which none of the Japanese English teachers had. Scott agreed to help them with the project and asked Mr. Honda how soon he wanted the manuscript returned. Again Mr. Honda cleared his throat and said, “Very soon.” “How soon is very soon?” asked Scott. Mr. Honda replied that the manuscript had to be into the publisher within 10 days. Ten days seemed unreasonably short to Scott, so he asked Mr. Honda how long he had known about the project. Mr. Honda replied that the school had been asked to do the project more than six months ago. Not wanting to ask why the English teachers took so long to begin working on the manuscript, Scott took the project and promised to have it back within a few days.
Mr. Honda smiled and thanked Scott. Scott went home that night and started working on the project. I was glad to have the opportunity to do something productive and lasting. I had hated this text since I had first seen it and had secretly ridiculed the foolish foreigner whose name and recommendation graced its inner cover. I exalted in the opportunity to finally dismember the text and replace the reams of errors with actual functional English. Scott worked on the manuscript every night for four nights, putting in an average of eight hours of work each night. He returned the text to Mr. Honda on the fifth day, full of red ink: corrections, sample replacement sentences, and explanations as to why the changes were necessary. To Scott’s surprise, Mr. Honda did not thank him for the work. Instead, he looked very uncomfortable and smiled nervously as he flipped through the marked pages of the manuscript.
Two days later, Mr. Honda returned to Scott’s desk. He praised Scott for his work and reminded him of their mutual indebtedness. He talked about the weather, asked Scott how his karate training was progressing, and inquired about Scott’s girlfriend’s health. Eventually, Mr. Honda turned the discussion to the manuscript. Apologetically, he said, most of the corrections could not be used. Scott was confused and asked why. Mr. Honda revealed that he had given the corrected manuscript to John to look at and that John had disagreed with some of the corrections. Scott became concerned and asked to see the manuscript to see the contended corrections. Upon reviewing the manuscript, Scott noted three places where John had marked disagreement. John had also noted that the differences with these three sentences were probably due to usage in Australia compared with the United States and that since he was not an English major, like Scott, Scott was probably correct. Mr. Honda agreed that Scott’s corrections were valid and went back to his desk.
Mr. Honda returned an hour later to say that despite their earlier conversation all of the corrections could not be used because it was so late in the process and that it would be very troublesome for the publisher to make so many changes. By now I was getting frustrated. I told Mr. Honda that he should have thought of this six months ago when he first learned about the project and then asked him which was more important to him, the publisher or the students?
That night, one of the junior members of the Japanese English staff offered Scott a ride home. They discussed various topics, including how much Scott liked living in Japan. The young teacher then told Scott a story involving a junior member of the staff who tried to be helpful by correcting a memo that his boss had written. Since the memo had already been circulated once, the subsequent recirculation with the corrections resulted in a great loss of face for the boss. This resulted in strained relations, even though no offense was intended. By the time the teacher finished his anecdote, they had already arrived at Scott’s house. He thanked the teacher for the ride, then got out of the car.
The next day, Scott did not discuss the topic of the manuscript and the situation seemed to have resolved itself. He assumed that Mr. Honda would go ahead and not use his changes, but he was unsure of what he could do about it. After a few days of silence between Scott and the English teachers, Mr. Honda and the same group of English teachers came over to Scott’s desk. This time they looked extremely nervous and spoke in very polite keigo (extremely respectful Japanese) that Scott could barely follow. Upon reaching some sort of consensus among themselves, they presented Scott with a single sheet of paper. On it was the verbatim endorsement of the previous issue of 500 English Sentences with a blank line and Scott’s name typed under the blank. “Would you be so kind as to sign this?” asked Mr. Honda. Scott was shocked. He thought the issue was closed when he had made a fuss about the corrections.
I looked at the group and plainly and directly said that there was no way that I would sign such a statement since I felt that the text was substandard and that my integrity as a teacher would be compromised by signing the statement.
Scott suggested that Mr. Honda ask John to sign the endorsement, but Mr. Honda replied that due to his seniority, English degree, and good association with Nishi High, the board of education had personally asked for Scott’s signature. Mr. Honda then added that he needed to send it in to the publisher by 5:00 p.m. that same day.
What to Do
Mr. Honda went back to his own desk, and Scott sat thinking about what he should do. All he could think about was having his name endorsing a text that he considered to be substandard. He didn’t see how he could knowingly sign his name to a project that he knew was flawed.