Now in its 29th year, the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme has welcomed more than 55,000 people from 62 countries to deliver grassroots international exchange between Japan and other nations. This column features former JET Programme participants who keep the idea of fostering mutual understanding firmly at heart.
Not quite sure in which direction to head after graduation from university, I took a temporary job looking after foreign students of English at the Bell School of Languages, in my hometown of Bath. The school is one of a network, the first member institution having been founded by Frank Bell OBE (1916–89) in 1955.
A Cambridge graduate and British Army officer interned by the Japanese in Java in 1942, Bell ran an underground university for his fellow prisoners of war. At the end of World War II, on his return to Cambridge, he was inspired to establish the school. Later, this grew to become The Bell Educational Trust, created to promote intercultural understanding through language education.
When I took on my new role at Bell, my knowledge of Japan was cursory at best, but I was soon intrigued by the country and its people. I enrolled on an introductory language course at the local night school and later applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.
The following year—in July 1996—I flew to Tokyo, en route to a small town in rural Fukuoka Prefecture. There I was to become an assistant language teacher at Asakura Higashi High School. The local community became my home for the following two years. Then I moved on, in my final year on the programme, to an office-based post at the prefectural headquarters in Fukuoka City.
While working at the school, my duties revolved around team-teaching with Japanese teachers of English. I presented various activities such as role play and word games and, once my colleagues learned that I had a teaching qualification and some classroom management experience, I was given freedom to play a greater role in the planning and organisation of the lessons.
Outside school, I regularly took part in cultural festivals, international exchange events, and the occasional local drinking party.
The time that I spent in the community while on the programme was immensely enjoyable, offering priceless insights into Japanese society and culture.
As a programme run by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), it is, of course, funded by the population, who might ask what return they have seen on their investment. There are now more than 57,000 alumni of the programme worldwide, at all levels of society.
This represents a remarkable achievement in terms of soft power. Simply put, the Japanese government has created a global cadre of advocates. At the very least, there are a huge number of individuals who hold a positive and favourable impression of the country.
The programme was conceived to promote international exchange on a grass-roots level. As Japan embraces globalisation, a further move would be to require all potential Japanese teachers of English to spend a year in an English-speaking country before moving into the profession. Within a few years, the impact would be dramatic; Japanese firms would have the global talent they so desperately need given the growing labour shortage.
Further, it may help to create a more open, cosmopolitan and inclusive mindset—something that would surely bring a smile to Bell’s face.
Following the programme, I returned to the UK to pursue postgraduate studies at the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, where I gained a Master of Science in East Asian business and a PhD in international political economy.
I later returned to Japan as a MEXT scholar at Hitotsubashi University. I then took a position as a lecturer in Japanese business and economics at the University of Sheffield before again returning in Japan in 2006 as an associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University.
Subsequently, I became a tenured professor at Doshisha Business School in Kyoto, where I helped to establish their global MBA. Since then, having become the director of the Economist Corporate Network for North Asia, I have continued lecturing as an adjunct professor at Keio University and Globis Management School in Tokyo.