JET alums rally to save group’s funding from chopping block

NEW YORK — More than 40 former Japan Exchange and Teaching Program alumni from across the United States recently holed themselves up in a Manhattan hotel to figure out how to sell their organization’s value to the Japanese government as potential budget cuts loom large.

“I think the Japan Exchange and Teaching Alumni Association of the United States delegates came to understand how important it is that we continue to demonstrate the value of JET and JETAA,” Megan Miller Yoo, the association’s president, told Kyodo News in a recent interview after the three-day meeting ended Aug. 15.

As a former assistant language teacher who spent two years in Hyogo Prefecture at Akashi Shimizu High School, she stressed the importance of coming together with one voice.

“We now have a unified goal and position, which enables us to send a strong and consistent message to the Japanese government and to our local communities that JET and JETAA are not only worthwhile but essential to U.S.-Japan relations.”

While the group meets annually, this year’s gathering was largely focused on the recent announcement that Tokyo is reviewing its funding for the JET program itself and the JET Alumni Association, which now has 51 regional chapters in 17 countries.

The JET program was launched in 1987 to improve Japanese students’ foreign language skills and to promote intercultural exchanges at all levels. So far, over 52,000 people have cycled through as either assistant language teachers, coordinators of international relations or sports exchange advisers. About half of them are American.

The volunteer alumni association was then formed two years later. Currently, there are nearly 23,000 alumni who are registered with regional chapters worldwide.

The Philadelphia native also stressed how the alumni organizations were invaluable in promoting the objectives of the JET program and how funding was earmarked for “extensive” activities.

Given the present situation, she and other alumni are worried that possible funding cuts would curtail their programs. Beyond utilizing the alumni each year to help select new participants, organize departure seminars for newcomers and support programs for the returnees, Yoo emphasized how the benefits extend to the greater community as well.

She highlighted how the 19 regional chapters in the United States play important roles in promoting outreach activities that interest Americans in Japan.

For example, she said, the New York chapter sponsors the “Japanamania” program for children. With their familiarity and enthusiasm for things Japanese, former JETs who used to work in classrooms and local governmental offices often lead activities, such as dressing kids up in cotton kimonos, called “yukata.” The experience often provides inner-city youth a rare chance to step into another world.

“We want to take examples such as these and other things that we are doing and demonstrate to Japan and Japanese taxpayers that we are providing value for Japan and not just for our own member activities,” she added.

At the start of the annual conference, Japan’s Consul General in New York Shinichi Nishimiya met with the participants to help mobilize them.

“Today, JETAA chapters not only play an essential part in the selection, orientation and return of JET participants, they are organizations composed of individuals who will be at the vanguard of the Japan-U.S. relationship for years to come,” he was quoted in a press release.

Besides the JET alumni who continue working in various Japan-related fields nationwide, the alumni are quick to point to some former participants who are also making inroads in Japan.

They include Anthony Bianchi, a city assembly member in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, and Toby Weymiller, who is currently building an environmentally sustainable cafe in Hokkaido.

Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki spoke with members for the first time on Aug. 15. Yoo described how he had encouraged them to help Japanese people better understand the contributions the JET program and alumni associations make.

Participants noted his suggestions that alumni better highlight the program’s results, show its improvements and explain its value.

Other ideas, including the JET Ambassador and Reverse JET programs, were floated.

The JET Ambassador idea would encourage former participants to share their knowledge in local classroom settings.

The Reverse JET aims to send Japanese English teachers to English speaking countries. After returning home with a better linguistic command, they would be better equipped as teachers themselves.

Yoo, who now works for Swiss Reinsurance America Corp., is concerned about the likelihood that the alumni association could face funding shortages first.

“We have been told that the JET program will continue in some form for the next few years but the funding for JETAA is a little more difficult to convince people of the value,’’ she said.

If JETAA survives unscathed, she believes her association could prove helpful in drawing up suggestions to revamp the program.

An immediate aim of the meeting is to turn over a report to the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations in Tokyothat outlines the contributions of the American alumni activities.

CLAIR was formed in 1988 to support local internationalization efforts and along with other governmental agencies manages the JETprogram.

In the longer term, JETAA is preparing to present a 10-point document. Modeled after a similar one tailored for the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the U.S. government, it would highlight the benefits of the alumni association.

While some have suggested that Japan should forgo JET and hire private English teachers in its place to save money, Yoo insists that the program helps cultures build bridges at the local level.

“You are not just teaching at the school, but you are really involved in the community, in the students’ lives and with the other teachers as well,’’ she said.

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