The JET Program's Finest Hour
July 9, 2011
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme
(JET) was established in 1987, the same year that nine U.S. Congressmen, in a very visual display of Japan bashing, sledgehammered a Toshiba radio into smithereens at a Capitol Hill press conference.
The program was intended to help “internationalize” local communities in Japan by bringing in native speakers to teach junior and senior high school students. But its greatest success may actually have been the creation of a huge reservoir of goodwill towards Japan, especially among the 55,000+ worldwide alumni of the program.
Their support this spring, in the aftermath of the devastating March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, may have marked the program’s finest hour. “Japan, in this difficult hour, is reaping the benefits of years of dedication to internationalization in the form of JET,” writes Emily Metzgar, journalism professor at the University of Indiana and herself a JET alumna, in a piece titled “This is What Public Diplomacy Looks Like”
Online Forums Connect Survivors
Within hours after the disaster, Eric Butler, a former JET who lives in Calgary, Alberta, created a Facebook page, Foreigners from Miyagi
. He intended it as a place to discuss how to help the quake victims, but within days it attracted nearly 700 users, many in Japan, and morphed into a forum for those seeking the whereabouts of JETs or others in disaster areas. [NB. Credit for the original reporting on this should go to UBC journalism student Jamie Williams who chronicled it in his piece, “Social Media's Role as a Crucial Lifeline During Japan Disaster”
It soon became clear that the dialog format of Facebook made it difficult to find information, so Eric, with the help of Sendai JET coordinator Iain Campbell, language teacher Greg Lekich and other volunteers on both sides of the Pacific, added a searchable wiki, which in turn was linked to a Google map of the disaster area. The power of that combination was soon felt when the Miyagi JETs initiated a systematic search for (then) missing JET Taylor Anderson.
“We’ve developed a really clear picture of where she’s been and what she did after the disaster, and how people can look for her,” Eric told Jamie Williams
in the days before she was found. “And we’ve managed to coordinate quite what I feel is a fairly professional search effort for a bunch of mismatched volunteers across the Internet.”
Unfortunately, Taylor became the first known American victim of the tsunami when her body was found in Ishinomaki city.
Editor (and JET alumnus) Steven Horowitz began a similar effort providing up-to-the minute updates on JETwit
, a blog that has evolved into the de facto central information source for the JET alumni community. But he also saw his role as helping JET alums become involved in the relief effort, listing opportunities for volunteers, translators, even offering practical advice for those in Japan. And he recommended that JETs get the word out: “Make yourself available to talk to schools, churches, companies, other organizations. Engage your grad school or college alumni offices. Wear a button that says, ‘Ask Me About Japan.’”
Alumni responded with enthusiasm, whether in response to JETwit's call to action or simply out of an intrinsic desire to help the country that had become a second homeland to so many of them. They took their stories to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Louisville Courier-Journal (KY), Washington Post
, Boston Globe
, Claremont-McKenna College
website and , Washington State University
, among others.
Some, like Harvard physician Stuart Harris, weren’t content to stay at home. Within days of the quake, he was already in Japan offering his expertise in emergency medicine to the communities in Iwate where he had once worked as a JET volunteer 20 years before.
JET Fundraising Tops $300,000
By March 15, the 19 American chapters of the JET Alumni Association
(23,000 members worldwide) had jointly set up the JETAA USA Japan Earthquake Relief Fund
. Over the next few months, chapters in countless American cities —New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Columbus (OH), among others — organized local fundraising events. As of June 8, they had collectively raised $60,000 for the fund, but when one adds other fundraising events they participated in, the amount jumps to $343,000 (as of May).
Other alumni chose to pursue their own individual fundraising efforts. Since 2008, 5-year JET veteran Michael Maher King has been running a nonprofit assisting orphanages in Fukui prefecture, after having learned that one of his students was an orphan. After the tsunami hit, Smile Kids Japan
teamed up with Tokyo-based NGO Living Dreams to take on the task of helping the huge number of kids newly orphaned by the disaster in Tohoku. Together they plan to provide basic necessities and eventually counseling for kids at 18 orphanages in three prefectures and have raised $45,000.
JET alumnus Anthony Bianchi
, who has taken Japanese citizenship and is now a 3-term councilman in the Nagoya suburb of Inuyama, returned to his Brooklyn high school for a fundraiser and raised around $18,000 for tsunami victims.
Scotsman David Chalmers, in his first year in far off Ehime prefecture, conceived of the “Man up for Japan”
event to encourage people to denote “1-man” yen (10,000 yen or $124) from their paychecks to various relief charities.
And Akita JET Paul Yoo created The Fruit Tree Project
to provide fresh fruit to occupants in evacuation shelters who rarely get them. So far, he has raised nearly $15,000, enabling it to deliver nearly 30,000 fresh bananas, apples and oranges.
Jim Gannon, a JET alumnus who now works as executive director of the Japan Center for International Exchange
(JCIE), sees JET’s impact primarily in the mobilizing and channeling of resources rather than in direct fundraising. In an email, he said, “Many JET alumni are now mid-career professionals who are well positioned to bridge the two societies and help direct resources in a more effective way, keeping momentum alive.”
JET’s Role Noticed in Japan
Fortunately, JET’s role has not gone unnoticed in Japan. The director-general of the
public diplomacy department
of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) sent a letter to the alumni association
thanking JET alumni for their contributions to the relief effort. And CLAIR
(the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, which manages the JET program), recognized JETwit in particular for its “sustained and far-reaching efforts.” The Japanese media has also noted the dedication of JET volunteers who have remained in their communities, and the sacrifice of the two JETs who died in the disaster: Monty Dickson and Taylor Anderson.
Yet, ironically, the future of the JET program remains in question, given the Japanese government’s continuing budget woes. But JETs’ response to the Tohoku quake and tsunami may have won it some new allies.
“The future of the JET program itself should be clear under the beacon of light cast by the tragic deaths of these two young people,” writes former deputy press secretary Taniguchi Tomohiko of MOFA
who describes the program as one of the “crown jewels” of Japanese diplomacy. “The last thing we should be considering now is packing up our banner and quitting.”
Today, the change in sentiment toward Japan (as compared to the time of JET’s founding) is palpable. A lot of that, of course, is sympathy in the wake of the disaster. But surely, some of the change has to be attributed to the quiet success of the 24-year-old JET program — which has seeded America with more than 26,000 Japanophiles — which, as the program likes to point out, amounts to nearly 1 in 1,000 Americans.
A disclosure: Chin Music Press itself is, in a way, a product of the JET program. CMP co-founder Bruce Rutledge took part in the Mombusho English Fellows program, a precursor to JET. Other alumni include book designer Josh Powell and marketing assistant Jessica Sattell.