Interac, JET, and the economics of placing a native English speaker in a Japanese public school.

A long title for a post that might not be so long as it should.

Picking up off yesterday’s entry about Interac in Osaka, I got to thinking again about how messy “Japan” (the Japanese who run things) have made and kept the entire NET (native English teacher) staffing process in the country.

Like so much of what is screwed up in Japan, it looks like the mess is entirely arbitrary, when in fact the better case can be made that it’s simply the way the Education Ministry brahmins wanted it.

Normal teachers in Japan–the native Japanese—are hired as employees and treated as civil servants. If Japan wanted, they could equally do this for NETs who they hire. The problem is—as is quite common here—what the people want and what they’re willing to agree to are two different things.

So what they have is two main “feeders” sending NETs into the public school system:

they have an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) Dispatch system


they have the JET (Japan Exchange Teachers) Program, the one that Senator Renho has been reviewing in the Jigyou Shiwake process.

It’s not entirely clear which system was the first, but it’s generally accepted that the JET Program is older and has more of a pedigree, and that the ALT dispatching system grew around it as a way to cut costs.

With the JETs, the recruiting is almost entirely overseas, through a process that, also, isn’t transparent, and even though an actual job may be involved, the JETs are considered members of an exchange program. The Japanese central government subsidizes the funding and assures that the JETs are enrolled in all the proper social insurances. Because JET is an exchange program, the program can and does discriminate by age–as I mentioned in a comment yesterday.

The ALT dispatch system, then, is similar to everything you see in America, where someone gets an idea to make money in a private business by simulating something that the government is providing. It’s this idea of an outsourced government service.

So what has happened with dispatch companies is that they negotiate with school boards to provide NETs (remember, native English teachers) to the schools under a contract. Does this make the NET an employee of the school? No. In fact, as the union has been pointing out regularly, usually the arrangement is made into something amorphous where, if there is ever an issue, the employer can start raising one theory after another as to why something that is, really isn’t. Basically, the NET goes into the school for as long as the school cares to have them, and hopefully they get a paycheck from the dispatch company who sent them there.

So what makes the JET-Jigyou Shiwake matter interesting, is that Renho has been asking what value the government gets from the infrastructure and subsidies going into JET. And even more so, the sister programs of CLAIR and SEA, who are “exchange” government relations interns and sports advisors. If you have followed this story, you see that even asking about JET has thrown the power people and other influential U.S.-Japan notables into a tizzy. Additionally, it’s gotten the JETs themselves upset, because what might have been a five year “exchange” with Japan could conceivably (but highly unlikely) end up as [just] one more year.

The one thing the JET has going for it as a program, though, is that it’s fully costed. The JETs have pension and health insurance coverage—which Japan promised in its totalization treaties with most of the Anglosphere, the English-speaking countries from where most all the JETs come.

The ALT Dispatch systems are a race-to-the-bottom, free-for-all.

Remember, the Dispatch company gets into the school district under a bidding system. And JET is not part of the bidding–they basically set the ceiling for what a typical school district will pay. So the other companies go in and bid less than what a JET costs, AND must also bid less than their competitors.

This is what’s critical. Because if one ALT Dispatch company bids 2.5 million yen and another 2.4 million, guess who loses? The commodity, as it were, is an unidentified foreigner, a person whose native language is English. That’s it.

So clearly, in such a system, the Dispatch agency’s cut for their part of finding the candidate has to be built into the bid. And so, likely, the NETs pension and social insurance contribution, and unemployment insurance coverage, even, will be cut out of the compensation package. In effect, the ALT Dispatch company’s profit margin is the social insurance premiums that the Japanese government looks the other way when it dodges them.

I sound like a broken record, but why the U.S. Embassy has not been all over “Japan” about this is beyond me. A Japanese in America is not cut out of social security, or out of a company’s group medical plan. Yet here, it goes on everyday. Ahhh! Some other day for that.

(Maybe though, what can the U.S. do? If we insist on our totalization treaty, and the Aussies don’t, guess whose expats get the ALT jobs?)

I don’t know the quality of the ALTs compared to the JETs. But in the final analysis, a group that is accepting 3.6 million yen plus benefits is probably accepting a better talent pool than one trying to push employees to the 2.0 million yen mark, like the ALTs. ($42,800 vs. $23,800 approximately.) What’s worse, the people pushed into low money are probably delivering less of a product, and more likely to have a negative view of Japan when they make their way back home.

If JET, as an exchange, is meant to boost the impressions of Japan among foreigners, for certain the weed of an ALT Dispatch system that grew up around it is sending a conflicting signal.

At one ALT company I interviewed with in May, here is the kind of things they worry about: “you can’t show up drunk to class, and you have to cover any tattoos you have”. Oh really? These are the general concerns you have about the talent pool you’re interviewing?

Although, as you see with the JETs who have passed through Japan over the last 25 or more years, they have had their share of real winners, too.

So you see, the whole system is left in chaos. There is a cadillac program where the teachers are considered exchange workers (and where Japan openly discriminates as a result), and another system–probably meant for the lesser school districts—where they worry about whether you drink on your own time and are into tattoo art. And where they don’t worry if you are covered for pension and comprehensive health insurance, because that saves them a couple nickels at the end of the day.

It’s hard to believe that anyone with authority in the Education Ministry here would be unaware that this dichotomy is present. It’s beyond belief, in fact. So it must be that “Japan” has chosen this system, and the only question is why?