Fast Track: Joining the JET-set in Japan

British graduates teaching English in the Land of the Rising Sun are helping to foster closer ties.
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If you could pluck up enough stamina to turn on the radio at the crack of dawn on a Thursday morning, you should be able to hear either Fiona McMahan or Christopher Lacy speaking about their experiences and way of life in Japan.

They take it in turns to give Radio Five Live listeners a weekly account of what it is like to teach English to youngsters in schools at Shikoku and Hammamatsu. And if you can't face the radio at 4.50 am, you could always tape this part of the Up All Night programme.

Fiona, 23, read business studies at the University of Ulster, and Christopher, 22, studied history and politics at the University of Leeds. Both are among the hundreds of British graduates who, year in, year out, are carefully screened before being chosen to spend a year teaching at junior and senior high schools throughout densely populated Japan, all expenses and a generous salary paid. Despite an initial culture shock, many so enjoy the experience, they stay on for a second year.

I recently spent a week on an interviewing board at the Japanese Embassy, cross-examining candidates who had applied for a place on this scheme. It was a gruelling task. If you have ever had to award points for personality and character, motivation and cultural awareness, you will know what I mean. Try it sometime. Then divide the sheep from the goats - in this case, a matter of distinguishing the excellent from the brilliant. I was lucky in that my two panel colleagues, Nicolas Maclean and Lesley Parkinson, could not possibly have been more experienced.

Nicolas Maclean, executive director of Prudential Corporation Asia, and one of the country's foremost authorities on that part of the world, started this scheme 20 years ago. At first, no one wanted to know. Had it not been for an article by a Japanese journalist who supported Maclean's plan to improve relations between Europe and the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme (JET, as it is now internationally known) might never have taken off.

Indeed, so great was the scepticism that a pilot programme, launched in the summer of 1978, simply bore the name of the Man from the Pru. Had it crashed, he would have taken the rap. But, far from crashing, it soared. And, in a typically educational move, Maclean's name was immediately dropped and replaced with a more suitable acronym: the British English Teaching programme (BET). It did not become JET until 1985, by which time 25 countries were involved, making it one of the biggest educational exchange programmes in the world. So far, more than 3,800 young British graduates have spent at least one JET year in Japan and, as an additional bonus, most of them return to the UK speaking reasonably fluent Japanese.

My other panel colleague, Lesley Parkinson, heads Park Media Productions and makes radio programmes about Britain for Japanese listeners.

In 1991 she applied for a JET place herself. By the sheerest coincidence, her interviewer was Maclean ("I remember him as a tough questioner", she recalls). She was successful and was sent to Ogaki Shogyo Koko where she stayed until 1993. Her experience was so positive, she remained in Japan for a further 18 months, working as a freelance journalist. Lesley even presented a weekly half-hour football programme on Japanese radio and wrote a book, published in Japanese in 1994, on Gary Lineker's two- year stint over there.

This year, a 30-minute programme on British music and fashion produced by Lesley, was sponsored by Rover Japan. It was broadcast throughout Japan on 31 January and was the first to sound a fanfare for UK Festival '98. Lesley, who also produces for BBC Radio Five Live, was responsible for the weekly feature logging the lifestyles and teaching experiences of Fiona and Chris throughout their first year as JET teachers. They are just two out of 550 or so young and vibrant Britons sent annually to Japanese junior and senior high schools.

So who are these keen, high-flying would-be jetters and from which colleges do most of them come? More than half (55 per cent) are women. They generally make better interviewees, and appear to spend more time preparing themselves for the 25-minute ordeal. Almost 60 per cent of them pass the interview with flying colours. Of the total number of men and women who reach the screening stage, 28 per cent have studied humanities, followed by social sciences (25 per cent), languages (17 per cent) and sciences (13 per cent). Fewer than 8 per cent have read business studies - a surprising figure, in view of Japan's many business attractions.

Another surprise factor is that fewer than three per cent of those screened have studied Japanese as a main subject. Although spoken Japanese is not given marks by interviewing panels, candidates are asked whether they can muster "a few words". Once again, more women than men have taken the trouble to learn a few basic phrases.

But I noticed during that week-long session of interviews that grammar ain't what it used to be. Far too many candidates were unable to punctuate a simple (English) sentence and I was shocked at the number who could not cope with apostrophes, especially differentiating between its and it's. Most were advised to beg, borrow or buy a decent grammar book - and study it - before taking the plunge. It wouldn't do for our best graduates to teach Japanese youngsters ungrammatical English.

But they are classroom assistants, working with and for the permanent Japanese teacher of English. What if this man or woman produces a howler on the classroom board? Should it be corrected? The advice is, of course: never in front of the pupils or other teachers. It would be too embarrassing and considered a loss of face. If it's a real whopper, it would be advisable to wait for a quiet moment when alone with the teacher... And even then, think twice before jumping in with a correction that might offend.

If there were an applicants' league table, Leeds University would top it. Last year, 65 out of 71 Leeds' applicants were shortlisted for interview.

Others in the "Top Ten" are: the universities of London, Cambridge, Sheffield, Manchester, Oxford, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter and St Andrews

Kathryn Verey, of the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) who coordinates the JET programme, said that when it was launched as JET in 1987, there were just 848 participants from four countries. "Today, Japan is host to 5,350 graduates from 25 countries. The British input is an important one and gives Japanese youngsters a most valuable insight into British lifestyle and culture. As for the graduates who participate, they benefit from a great experience of Japanese life."

One thing is clear: the JET programme has developed into one of the most important of Anglo-Japanese links. Britain's graduates are not only teachers of English but also diplomats who embody the culture of the land of Shakes- peare, Milton and Keats. When Tony Blair flew to Tokyo in January for talks with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (remember the latter's humble public apology for Japan's gruesome activities in the war?) both rated JET highly, saying it forged valuable personal links.

Let the last word go to a former assistant language teacher. Katharine Murray studied economic history at the University of Glasgow and spent two years on the JET scheme at Ibaraki. "Those two years were challenging both personally and professionally but I discovered resources within myself that enriched my life and taught me a greater sense of individual and cultural identity." She returned to Britain three years ago - and works as an export promoter for the Japanese Trade Centre.