TOKYO—Every year for the past two decades, legions of young Americans have descended upon Japan to teach English. This government-sponsored charm offensive was launched to counter anti-Japan sentiment in the United States and has since grown into one of the country's most successful displays of soft power.
But faced with stagnant growth and a massive public debt, lawmakers are aggressively looking for ways to rein in spending. One of their targets is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET.
Versions of the JET program can be found in other countries. French Embassies around the world help to recruit young people to teach their languages in France for a year. The U.S. Fulbright program, run by the State Department, works in both directions: American graduates are sent abroad to study and teach, and foreigners are brought to the U.S. to do the same.
But JET's origins and historical context make it unique. Having long pursued policies of isolation -- with short bursts of imperialism -- Japan was looking for a new way to engage with the world in 1987, at the height of its economic rise.
The country's newfound wealth was viewed as a threat in the U.S., where anti-Japanese sentiment ran high. At the same time, Tokyo wanted to match its economic power with political clout. JET emerged as one high-profile solution to ease trade friction, teach foreigners about Japan and open the country to the world.
Under the program, young people from English-speaking countries -- mostly Americans -- work in schools and communities to teach their language and foster cultural exchange. They receive an after-tax salary of about 3.6 million yen ($41,400), roundtrip airfare to Japan and help with living arrangements. More than 90 percent of this year's incoming class of 4,334 will work as assistant language teachers.
Word about possible cuts began filtering through JET alumni networks several weeks ago, and members of the New York group mobilized quickly, starting an online signature campaign. Former JET -- as the alums are known -- Steven Horowitz, now living in Brooklyn, is devoting his website jetwit.com to rally support. Another alumnus in Florida launched a Facebook page.
Their message to Tokyo is that Japan's return on investment in the program is priceless. Japan, they say, cannot afford to lose this key link to the world, especially as its global relevance wanes in the shadow of China. And the program, they argue, not only teaches the world about Japan but also teaches Japan about the world.
"There has been a benefit from the program that you can't measure," said New York native Anthony Bianchi. "People used to freak out when they'd see a foreigner. Just the fact that that doesn't happen anymore is a big benefit."
Bianchi's experience shows the power of the program to create cultural ties. After working as a teacher for two years in Aichi prefecture in central Japan, he landed a job with the mayor in Inuyama City, an old castle town in the area. He eventually adopted Japanese citizenship and ran for city council. Now in his second term, the 51-year-old is working to convince Diet members that JET is worth saving.
Bianchi is not alone. Of the more than 52,000 people who have taken part, many are moving into leadership at companies, government offices and non-profits that make decisions affecting Japan, said David McConnell, an anthropology professor at The College of Wooster in Ohio and author of a book about JET.
"The JET Program is, simply put, very smart foreign policy," he said.
James Gannon, executive director for the nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange in New York, describes JET as a pillar of the U.S.-Japan relationship and the "best public diplomacy program that any country has run" in recent decades.
But many taxpayers are asking if the program is worth the price -- and criticism of JET has become part of a larger political showdown about how much government Japan can afford.
The organization that oversees JET, the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, has drawn the ire of lawmakers as a destination where senior bureaucrats retire to plush jobs. The practice, known as "amakudari," or "descent from heaven," is viewed as a source of corruption and waste.
Motoyuki Odachi, head of a budget review panel that examined JET, said taxpayers are getting ripped off.
"There's a problem with the organization itself," said Odachi, an upper house member from central Japan. "This program has continued in order to maintain 'amakudari.'"
JET's administrators tried to defend themselves at a public hearing in late May and submitted planned reforms, including a 15 percent slimmer budget this fiscal year. The council has allocated about $10 million for the program, which includes airfare, orientation costs and counseling services. Teachers' salaries are paid by the towns and cities that hire them. Several government ministries cover other JET-related costs, such as overseas recruitment.
Odachi expects his panel's recommendations will be adopted as formal policy later this year.
"Whether that means zero (money) or half, we don't know yet," he said. "But our opinion has been issued, so (JET) will probably shrink."
Kumiko Torikai, dean of Rikkyo University's Graduate School of Intercultural Communication and the author of several books on English education in Japan, says JET has outgrown its usefulness and needs an overhaul.
"Bringing thousands of JETs to Japan is not a good investment for the country's taxpayers in this day and age of an already globalized world," Torikai said.