The thirtieth anniversary of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in 2017 is a good time to take stock of the contributions this large scale, government-sponsored international exchange effort. Supported through a unique partnership among three Japanese government ministries, and administered by a fourth pseudo-governmental entity, JET is known primarily as a program that places native English speakers in Japanese public schools for tenures of a year or more. Outside of Japan, the JET Program, when it’s discussed at all, is often dismissed as just another way for young college graduates to postpone taking on the responsibilities of adult life. Even in the United States – home to more than 50% of the program’s 60,000 alumni – JET typically flies below the radar. But The JET Program and the US-Japan Relationship: Goodwill Goldmine points to compelling evidence that those who see little of value in JET’s 30-year track record just aren’t looking hard enough.
My work focused on the program’s American alumni community finds that the JET Program’s greatest contribution is not the English language instruction work with which it is most frequently associated. In fact, that aspect of the program’s performance is probably its weakest link. Instead, I argue that JET’s ability to expand Japan’s soft power influence among college educated professionals abroad is where the program’s real value lies. In The JET Program and the US-Japan Relationship I demonstrate that JET has generated a tremendous reservoir of goodwill toward Japan among alumni and their associated networks, specifically on the community of more than 30,000 American alumni and the increasingly far-reaching consequences of the JET Program for the U.S.-Japan relationship.
As an alumnus of JET, I found writing this book satisfying on a personal level. As an academic whose research focuses on public diplomacy, I found the effects of this surprisingly understudied exchange program instructive. Indeed, in the book’s conclusion I argue “As the JET Program experiment continues into its third decade, it is an international exchange effort that has yielded significant soft power benefits for Japan. Those benefits extend well beyond the expectations of those who first proposed the program’s creation 30 years ago. The program has created a new generation of Americans with interest in and affection for Japan, the advantages of which reach far outside Japan’s borders to include the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship writ large. At 30 years and counting, the goodwill just continues to accrue.”
Of course, the big question scholars (should) ask about their research is “So what?” What do we learn about the broader world as a result of The JET Program and the US-Japan Relationship? Here’s a quick and dirty summary of my work’s implications: Scholars and policymakers are traditionally reluctant to assign hard, national security outcomes to public diplomacy efforts such as international exchange programs. The generation of soft power is seen as valuable to a country for reasons of attraction, but that’s typically as far any analysis is taken. But while soft power has its own rewards, in a world dominated by considerations still best described as realist, this book lays out a process through which a public diplomacy effort undertaken for the long-term with a minimum of government interference has the potential to generate hard, tangible, and measurable benefits for the sponsor – and for its key strategic partners. The JET Program and the US-Japan Relationship offers a case study documenting the variety of ways the JET Program does just this for Japan and for its important economic and security partner, the United States.
The first USJETAA reunion taking place in Washington, DC on August 4 – 6 is evidence of this book’s conclusions in action. The event’s agenda hints at the wealth of human capital contained in the American JET alumni community. Hundreds of alumni will attend the week-end’s events with the result being yet another tangible manifestation of the goodwill goldmine generated by Japan’s JET Program over the last thirty years.