Book Review: Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program

(Photo credit: The Book Depository)

by Matt Nelson

What happens when you throw thousands of fresh-faced foreign graduates into a system and a country known for bureaucracy, insularity, and inflexibility? You get something that eventually became The JET Programme as we know it today. Although you may work on JET, you probably know very little about its start and how it all came together. A social program unrivaled in modern times, The JET Programme has more participants than the Peace Corps and a bigger budget than the U.S. National Education Association (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) combined. The purpose of starting the program differs depending on which of the three government ministries you ask, but, in any case, it boiled down to the “internationalization” of Japan.

Author David L. McConnell uses The JET Programme as a case study of what the program means to Japanese people, the government, and the young adults coming over to help catalyze it. He follows the program’s inner workings during the first thirteen years; its trials, tribulations, and triumphs, as well as how problems were resolved and why they came about in the first place. Although technically an academic work, he uses extensive personal interviews he did with those involved in the program, which makes it smooth and keeps the reading lighter and more fun.

Be aware, it does get a bit American-centric, but then again so is The JET Programme and most of Japan’s foreign relations. He also states this throughout the book, and only at the very end during his conclusion and epilogue does he really directly tie the program and the pitfalls of the meanings of “internationalization” in Japan to his intended focus: ideas of “multiculturalism” and “pluralism” in the U.S.

You may not fully agree with his conclusions about U.S. pluralism and American sensibilities about multiculturalism, but it should be easy to see how the juxtaposition between the Japanese people trying to implement “internationlization” through JET and the attitudes of the foreigners employed by JET raises interesting questions about your own attitude and culture. Even though it is was completed in 2000 it is still extremely relevant to today’s situation and culture (both in Japan and the U.S.) and will undoubtedly give any reader (foreigner and Japanese alike, ALT and JTE alike) some things to think about.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you are a current, former, or prospective JET. You will probably learn something about your experience teaching English in Japan that you did not realize before, perhaps even something about your own culture, yourself, or your own habits and preconceived notions of internationalization.

Next time you want to complain about your situation at work – no matter whose “fault” it is – read this book and you’ll see that the same problem has undoubtedly come up before and you may even find out why it occurs in the first place. Although whether or not that problem has gotten better during the 20-plus years of The JET Programme may be somewhat subjective, the book does show that the vast majority of those involved recognize the need for constant improvement. The where, how, and why are the tricky business; good luck!