Walking tapes rock the black ship

October 25, 1996

When Tokushima University in Southern Japan proposed an international exchange centre for foreign students, local people's first thought was for the safety of their vegetables.

Members of the surrounding community were convinced these gaijin students would be unable to resist stealing the local produce, and they demanded the university erect a perimeter fence and security lighting around the area.

It took a series of explanatory meetings for the university to convince them that the new exchange centre was not a re-settlement scheme for refugees.

At those meetings, it might be thought a small miracle had the word "internationalisation" never passed the lips of the embattled university officials. Though its meaning is inscrutable to most and simply pronouncing it is a tongue-twisting challenge for many Japanese people, internationalisation has become the buzzword. The country is pouring billions of yen into undergraduate and graduate exchange schemes in an effort to break local misconceptions about the outside world, open up new diplomatic and economic opportunities, and upgrade the standard of spoken English.

Short-term exchange programmes have been introduced by the Association of International Education, Japan. The association provides scholarships, round-trip airfares and settling-in allowances for up to one year at Japanese universities. It also sponsors Japanese students wishing to study abroad, and subsidises private institutions which reduce or waive tuition fees for privately-financed international students.

But the scale of even this operation is dwarfed by the showcase scheme, the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this month. Through it graduates from overseas spend a year in Japanese schools or local government offices acting as classroom language teaching assistants or international relations coordinators. They receive a generous remuneration package worth around 3.6 million yen (Pounds 20,000) per annum.

When the scheme was set up, it had just 848 participants from four countries. Numbers have swelled to 5,030 graduates from 18 countries, who were placed in 1,800 host institutions this year.

The programme is run by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, working with the ministries of foreign affairs, education and home affairs. It is regarded as the country's third "black ship" - an agent for breaking isolationism and resistance to change.

But JET leaders are now calling for a review as weaknesses begin to emerge. Participants placed in schools complain that they are being asked to act as "walking tape recorders" standing up in front of class repeating words and phrases so that pupils can copy the native pronunciation.

Since hardly any of them hold a teaching qualification, they are required to work together with a Japanese teacher in the classroom.

This system has given rise to a new approach to languages teaching in Japan, known as "team teaching".

Team teaching guru Minoru Wada, foreign languages professor at Meiji University, told a JET symposium in Tokyo that many teachers were not interested in the programme. He also claimed that up to a third of JET participants went home disliking Japan. Officials are awaiting the results of a survey on the programme's impact on teaching standards. The findings may shape a reform of Japanese initial teacher training.

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