A number of years ago the government of Japan established a wonderful program which has benefited young people throughout Japan as well as young people around the world. It’s called the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program or JET Program. It takes university graduates, preferably native speakers of English, to Japan for three different types of positions, Assistant Language Teachers, Sports Education Advisors and Coordinators for International Relations. 

The Assistant Language Teachers or ALTs and the Sports Education Advisors or SEAs are assigned to schools ranging from kindergarten through high school to assist the Japanese foreign language teachers of English assisting with proper grammar, sentence structure and pronunciation as well as an introduction to American culture. Those assigned as Coordinators of International Relations or CIRs are assigned to local governments, usually at city hall, or with boards of education. 

To date, participants from 55 different countries have gone to Japan to participate in the program. After finishing their time with the JET program they are considered alumni of the program and to date there are more than 57,000 alumni making it the world’s largest exchange teaching program. In addition to teaching young people English, the program aims to increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations from which JET participants come. 

While native English speakers are preferred, people from non-English speaking countries who pass the TOFEL, an exam showing proficiency in English, are accepted. With thousands applying, only about twenty percent can be accepted, therefore the competition is very stiff. During the 35 years of Stillwater’s sister cities relationship with Kameoka there has always been JET employees in Kameoka and two of those have been from Oklahoma, one from Tulsa and one from Edmond. 

The person from Tulsa was a fellow named Barry Keith and he was an ALT working in the Junior High Schools in Kameoka around 1990 and the person from Edmond was a girl named Lisa Rogers who worked as a CIR at Kameoka City Hall around 2000. Both were outstanding young people and represented Oklahoma well. But, beyond representing their home country well they were expected to show a significant interest in Japanese culture and customs and to make friends beyond those they worked with and this they did amazingly well. 

Both still live in Japan and have a Japanese spouse and will probably continue to live in Japan most of their lives. I knew Barry better because he was in Kameoka during the time I was there with the OSU-K program and he actually worked for a while as a translator for OSU-K. He was like a sponge soaking up every aspect of Japanese live – the culture, customs, the food and the language both spoken and written. My wife Kayo worked in the library during our time at OSU-K and Barry often went to the library to eat his bento box lunch and to read the newspaper, the Kyoto Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. 

I remember Kayo saying several times “He’s more Japanese than I am.” Barry completed a MS and PhD at Kyoto University, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, doing it all in Japanese. There have been a number of very good JETs, as they’re called collectively, in Kameoka through the years but Barry set the overall bar really high.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.

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