JET alumni (from left) Monica Yuki, Steven Horowitz and Shree Kurlekar pose for a picture in New York. Image Credit: AP

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 Programme, or JET.

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.

Under the programme, young people from English-speaking countries 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 (Dh150,710), roundtrip airfare to Japan. More than 90 per cent 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 mobilised quickly, starting an online signature campaign.

"There has been a benefit from the programme that you can't measure," said New York native Anthony Bianchi.

Bianchi is not alone. Of the more than 52,000 people who have taken part, many are moving into leadership at firms, 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 Programme is, simply put, very smart foreign policy." he said.

James Gannon, executive director for the non-profit Japan Centre for International Exchange in New York, describes JET as the "best public diplomacy programme that any country has run" in decades.