The Assistant Language Teacher System within the Bigger Picture of Soft Power
In practice, the ALT system is an international youth exchange program meant to brand Japan. Perhaps summed up best by the attitude and words of a Prefectural Advisor in Sendai: ?It is not about importing cultural diversity but about learning things like calligraphy, flower-arranging and karate then going home and saying how great Japan is”. There is little to do with professionals teaching English. In fact, the Japanese term for the program translates as ?youth exchange.? If the program really wanted to teach English then why aren?t ALTs required to be certified teachers or postgraduates in TESOL? The mixing of student exchange with professional expertise is a common problem in international programs. As Canadian foreign policy analyst Thomas Axworthy notes, ?Encouraging youth activism and promoting good governance abroad are both excellent goals. The problem is, they can’t be met by the same organization.? However, the ALT system was established in 1985 with goals of both youth exchange and English teaching, but apparently the emphasis on youth exchange has dominated.
The result in the schools is that the ALT system employs many non-professional teachers with the goal of developing communicative competence, but instead they are frequently in the classroom reduced to human tape recorders. Consequently, 20 years later the Ministry of Education is still reporting that children are graduating without the ability to hold a simple conversation in English. Garbage in, garbage out, one might think, but not if the most important goal in the ALT system is that the ALTs return to their home countries with a good image of Japan. In fact, the seminal book on the ALT system, Importing Diversity, opens with ?Japan has an image problem.? And so, as many readers of Naomi Klein?s No Logo will recognize, it is just about branding Japan. Just as British Petroleum has invested millions of dollars in a public relations campaign to insist that it is environmentally friendly while it drills in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, so Japan spends millions of dollars each year on the ALT system to create an image that it is becoming more multicultural while the students are left no better off.
However, the reality is that in recent years, Japanese institutions are seemingly becoming less tolerant rather than more so. Recent studies of Japanese universities show that the percentage of non-Japanese professors has actually declined in the last few years. Further, the government implemented a snitch website in 2003 where anyone could anonymously fill out a complaint to the police regarding foreigners, and options for legitimate complaints in the on-line form could be as vague as ?he makes me nervous.? Finally, this year, in 2005, hotels began unfairly demanding foreigners to hand over their passports to be photocopied. These do not seem like steps towards creating a society that accepts diversity.
Moreover, in the ALT system, there is a systemic disregard for basic human rights. It could well be that over 1000 workers are working on illegal contracts written by local boards of education with no health insurance, improper car insurance and lack of regard for minimum rights set by Labor Standards Law and Union Law. In the climate of deregulation of the 1990s, Dispatch Law was amended and private outsourcing companies were allowed to develop the business of farming out ALTs to Japanese schools. Now, the Ministry of Education reports that 1500 jobs, approximately a quarter of all ALTs, have been privatized. One of the most commonly heard reasons for turning to outsourcing companies was that local boards of education did not want to deal with the foreign teachers. Little if any money is saved by using a private company. Therefore, it may be more about avoiding problems that ALTs and other migrant workers face: discrimination in finding an apartment, workplace harassment, and insurance scams. However, the lure of the potential for amakudari positions and kickbacks may be equally as inviting.
The Soft Power Agenda
The ALT system is a prominent piece in Japan’s and America?s soft power politics. The term soft power was coined by Joseph Nye to ?describe a nation?s ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power ? the ability to coerce ? grows out of a country?s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of its culture, political ideals, and policies.? Incidentally, in 2005 it was reported in the Daily Yomiuri that one ALT was fired for his continuous complaining against one particular country. Isn?t unfairly firing someone for anti-war comments a matter of free speech and human rights? What kind of image does that evoke? I guess this ALT was unable to portray the image of the US that was acceptable, so he was silenced.
In Nye’s latest book, Soft Power, he even exemplifies the ALT system in Japan as a success of soft power. ?Japan has developed an interesting exchange program bringing 6,000 young foreigners each year from 40 countries to teach their languages in Japanese schools, with an alumni association to maintain the bonds of friendship that are developed.?
Earlier he described how such international exchanges fit into the scope of soft power. ?The third dimension of public diplomacy is the development of lasting relationships with key individuals over many years through scholarships, exchanges, training, seminars, conferences, and access to media channels. Over the postwar decades, about 700,000 people have participated in American cultural and academic exchanges, and these exchanges have helped to educate world leaders like Anwar Sadat, Helmut Schmidt, and Margaret Thatcher.? Margaret Thatcher? Isn?t that a sign of a failure of international exchange? Didn?t she even say that there is no such thing as society?
It seems the purpose of the ALT system is to produce a few elites whose personal contacts in Japan will help America?s success in world politics. This may be at odds with the Japan?s goals to develop children with ?English abilities? but maybe not with its soft power goals of trying to create an image of Japan of calligraphy, flower-arranging and karate. In fact, Nye even reports on the disappointing results of the ALT system, not realizing though that the goal of international exchange might be a part of the problem. ?Japan?s English language skills, according to one journalist, rank ?among the worst in Asia, making it difficult to attract international talent to universities.?? Another part of the problem may be that policy makers like Nye are satisfied with just counting how many foreign bodies there are in Japanese schools rather than understanding the quality of their teaching. A common mistake that administrators make: equating quantifying with understanding. Sure, there may be more foreign ALTs at more Japanese schools, but with illegal outsourcing contracts and corporations that flagrantly violate workers’ rights, working and teaching conditions are considerably worse as well, and the goals of teaching and branding suffer. Would it occur to administrators that in order to get successful teaching outcomes you also have to have good working conditions that ensure job security with qualified teachers? Democratic Party of Japan Diet Member Kazuo Inoue has posed this very question to the Japanese Minister of Education. It turns out that only 12 ALTs in Japan are employed on an equal working status with their Japanese counterparts. Even so, they are most likely returnees.
Now, Joseph Nye is not just anybody. He was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and was formerly the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He is still an editor of Foreign Affairs. Not coincidentally then, JET ALTs literally got a seat at the table with President Clinton during his administration as reported in Importing Diversity.
One also sees in the ALT system the split between the outsource company ALTs and the JET program ALTs. They do the same job, but the outsourced ALTs are paid less. They are both financed with subsidies from the national government, yet they are not given the same support network as the JET program employees. While outsource company ALTs face problems such as illegal contracts, improperly insured company cars and lack of proper health care, their support people employed in the system, the CIRs in the prefectural boards of education and international associations, are not trained in issues dealing with migrant workers rights, and so they are ineffective. They can help you find a flower arranging class, but they are inept when it comes to your employer breaking into your apartment since they do not know tenant rights or just basic human rights. For the CIRs to be responsible for intercultural support yet not be trained with the basics of providing social services is one of the most cynically superficial aspects of the system.
It is common for JET ALTs not to understand that they are indeed migrant workers since the local boards of education do their best to pamper them and give them a narrow and favorable impression of Japan. When Debito Arudou gave a presentation at a 2002 JET conference about the Otaru Onsen racism case, many could not understand the blatant systemic racism that he was fighting. It would be equally frustrating in trying to convince many educated Americans that one way to decrease atrocities in the world would be for the American government to stop funding the campaigns against the Kurds in Turkey. People would not know what you are talking about. Sometimes an ?educated? audience is the last one that will understand since all countries groom elites who are to enter administrative positions yet are deliberately given a narrow education with blinders fully mounted.
Reading Nye?s Soft Power makes it is obvious that the ALT system is on the radar screen in Washington and an exemplary part of its soft power agenda. Systemic problems should be noticed. But perhaps more embarrassing to the US State Department officials would be how the ALT system is indeed an example of the problems of American values. Does the State Department care if up to 1500 ALTs are not enrolled in the health and pension plan or are working on contracts that the Ministry of Education calls illegal? Is subverting the rule of law an example of success to the State Department? It ultimately not their responsibility but they are using the system as an example of a success of soft power.There are plenty of problems when one introduces corporations to a public system. They are legally persons but as law professor Joel Bakan writes, they act like psychopaths, who are meant to turn a profit for shareholders and externalize all else, even human rights, as simply an impediment that must be managed to increase those profits. One of those problems is an image problem of trampling human rights.
From the smallest ALT outsourcing companies to the largest, they have refused to enroll employees in the national health and pension plan, to sit down to collective bargaining or to follow the minimum standards of Japanese Labor Standards Law. How can one expect them to deal with more serious workplace problems such as assault, sexual harassment and racism if they even deny these obvious problems? When it comes down to the nitty gritty, the reality of Japan is still the same and the ALT system has not even changed the image of Japan. The Japan Inc. brand does not represent an upright society but rather a crooked scofflaw society that corporate capitalism of both the US and Japan seemingly foster.
Deny human rights? Just do it! After all, it is just the rights of the unwashed masses we are talking about, the migrant workers. Not if you are in the union. Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union Tozen ALTs has fought for worker rights against several ALT outsourcing companies and won: This is the soft power of the civil society movement.