Screeners question if benefits outweigh the costs

Concerns are growing over the future of a public program to dispatch foreign teachers to Japanese public schools as a key administrative reform panel has urged the government-linked body that runs the program to drastically cut its overall budget.

But government officials in charge of the operating body told The Japan Times recently the recommendation is unlikely to lead to direct budget cuts for the 23-year-old Japan Exchange and Teaching program, in which the central and local governments dispatch assistant language teachers to public high schools nationwide with public money.

“We don’t regard the results of ‘jigyo shiwake’ (budget screening) as a clear and immediate request to cut the budget of the JET program,” said Takashi Endo of the international division of the internal affairs ministry’s Local Administration Bureau.

Jigyo shiwake is the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration’s project to cut down on wasteful spending by the government and government-backed special organizations.

Municipalities will determine the number of teachers to be dispatched under the JET program, Endo added.

In a summary by a working group of the budget-cutting panel in May, one member recommended the JET program, run by the government-backed Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), be fundamentally reformed.

Other group members’ comments ranged from one calling for the program to be reassessed, along with how its costs should be covered, and by what source, to one member saying the JET program is unnecessary and another calling its significance unclear.

The panel may not have final say, but its comments are expected to strongly influence the final decision by top officials of the internal affairs ministry on funding requests for the next fiscal year.

CLAIR’s ¥3.6 billion budget to promote international exchange programs is shared by the 47 prefectures and 19 major cities, including ¥858 million for the JET program, in the current fiscal year.

The jigyo shiwake mainly targets wasteful spending by the central government. But the panel leveled criticism at CLAIR and the JET program, noting local governments receive vast grants and many former senior central government officials have landed lucrative positions at CLAIR after retirement in the practice known as “amakudari.”

However critical, the panel didn’t recommend a specific funding cut for the JET program.

Instead, the panel’s focus appeared to be on non-JET-related operations of CLAIR, including its seven overseas offices and wages paid to amakudari ex-bureaucrats.

In their summary, many panel members said CLAIR’s seven overseas offices are unneeded and should be closed.

An official of the Cabinet Revitalization Unit, which runs the jigyo shiwake budget-cutting project, said it will leave funding for the JET program and CLAIR in the hands of the internal affairs ministry.

For this fiscal year, there are 4,436 JET program participants, of whom 2,537 are Americans, 481 are Canadians and 390 are British. Of the total, 4,063 are assistant language teachers (ALTs). Participants peaked at 6,273 in 2002 and have since been decreasing.

CLAIR will start asking municipalities in November how many ALTs they will need for the next fiscal year, and submit a budget draft to the internal affairs ministry in February as per its usual practice, CLAIR spokesman Sadami Mie said.

The ministry will also query municipalities about their ALT needs but won’t be involved in coming up with the CLAIR budget until the group submits its draft in February, Endo of the ministry said.

While acknowledging that CLAIR’s operations, including its foreign offices, need to be reassessed, he stressed the importance of the JET program.

The CLAIR foreign offices engage in activities to promote the internationalization of municipalities, not recruiting JET teachers from the U.S. and Britain. Japanese embassies do that job.

“We should review what needs to be reviewed (about CLAIR). But we want to keep the JET program,” he said.

Lower House member Manabu Terada, who headed the budget-cutting working group scrutinizing the CLAIR budget, told The Japan Times that the ministry is not fit to oversee the JET program, hinting the Foreign Ministry may be more suitable because the program helps nurture foreigners’ understanding of Japan and promotes international exchanges.

When it was established 23 years ago, JET’s mission was the promotion of municipalities’ international exchanges, and the internal affairs ministry became the supervising body because it oversees municipalities.

But Terada said some municipalities don’t need the program because they can hire ALTs from staffing companies.

“The way CLAIR is operated needs to be overhauled,” Terada said, adding he doesn’t think the JET program is unnecessary.

For another ministry to start up a program similar to JET, the process would be time-consuming and entail lengthy cross-ministry discussions, he said.

Kanagawa Prefecture arranges for agencies to deploy assistant language teachers instead of relying solely on the JET program, which would require it to pay a net ¥3.6 million annual salary to an ALT.

A JET assistant language teacher works full time at a public high school, allowing interaction with kids in school events outside of class hours.

Local governments can save money by tapping ALT-staffing agencies, having ALTs work shorter hours and paying them by the hour. But deep cultural and human exchanges can’t be expected via such arrangements, experts say.

“We wouldn’t say the JET program is unnecessary, but we need to consider costs as well,” Kanagawa prefectural official Mayumi Kawaguchi said. “We want CLAIR to be more efficient.”

Kanagawa, which has 143 public high schools, now hires 10 ALTs via JET, down from the peak of 46 from 2002 to 2004, prefectural official Kyoko Sakurada said. The prefecture began hiring ALTs through an agency in 2006.