“I feel offended that anyone would tell me who I can or can’t hang out with,” says Brendan (not his real name), one of 6,000 foreign language instructors employed by Nova Corp. in Japan.
According to the language school chain’s instructor contract, foreign employees are forbidden to “participate in any interaction with the clients of the employer outside the place of employment.” In theory, insist Nova instructors, they are under threat of the sack for so much as a chance encounter with any of the company’s 450,000 students.
“Instructors can be harassed and disciplined for socializing with people they don’t even know are Nova students,” says Robert Bisom, one of two plaintiffs who took a case against Nova to the Osaka Bar Association last year.
Earlier this year the lawyers’ group issued a ruling against Nova saying that it was wrong for the company to “unilaterally prohibit socialization of employees, which is essentially private and free behavior.” The lawyers’ group also pointed out that the rule was only applied to foreign staff — in effect, a form of racial discrimination.
Nova employees claim that the rule is hypocritical to boot since many of the foreign “trainers” likely to report teachers for “fraternization” are frequently guilty of the same offense.
“I do know of trainers that have gone to parties with the students, I have seen that for myself,” says one teacher in his 30s from north Osaka. Other teachers claim that the rule is doubly hypocritical because many of Nova’s foreign managers are married to ex-students themselves.
Although not legally binding, bar association rulings in Japan are usually very influential. When Nova attempted to force its teachers to take drug tests in the mid 1990s, the Osaka Bar Association issued a ruling saying that Nova’s actions were illegal. To date, no teacher has been drug tested by the company in Japan.
After this year’s ruling, Nova said in its defense that the 10-year-old clause in their contracts was introduced to “protect both the teachers and the students from trouble, as they do not know each other’s cultures and customs.” A Nova director, Yukitomo Ishimatsu, put it slightly more graphically: “We cannot allow kissing or improper conduct (in our schools).”
“Now that they are cornered, Nova is starting to drum up the fear of foreigners thing,” says Bisom. “It’s socially and politically irresponsible.” He says that, in any case, the rule is almost impossible to enforce and in fact broken at least as often as it’s kept.
According to Nova’s company profile, posted in English on their Web site, “Nova aims to create an age in which communication crosses geographical borders, and lines of nationality, race, culture, and language; an age in which people can communicate whenever, wherever, and with whomever they choose.”
However, when contacted last week and asked for the reason behind their nonsocialization policy, Nova replied by e-mail (in Japanese) that “since it is necessary to explain (the reasons for) the rule by reference to the cultural background of Japanese people, it will be extremely difficult to reply in a limited amount of time or written reply.”
Other big language schools say that they don’t particularly encourage or discourage socialization between staff and students. A spokesman for ECC said that “It’s not up to us how teachers behave outside class. That should depend on teacher’s own morals.”
Things aren’t made any easier for teachers and students by some language school advertising that subtly (or not so subtly) plays toward aspirations of international romance. One language school poster for a large chain (not Nova) shows a young women handcuffed to her smartly suited foreign instructor. Another features a cartoon-drawn female student straddling a rocket and staring deeply into the eyes of a handsome Caucasian-looking man.
“Practically speaking, it’s hard to stop teachers socializing with students,” says Mark McBennett, editor of English Language Teaching News. “A lot of students come for the social side of things rather than strictly just to learn English.”
Some believe Nova is caught in a Catch-22 situation: they can’t be seen to be condoning unprofessional behavior by their instructors, but they can’t afford to alienate those students who may have things other than the search for pure knowledge in mind when they come to learn English.
Others speculate that Nova is worried about teachers arranging to meet up with their students for private classes. In a highly competitive market, no language school can afford to lose students.
The teacher’s working environment, at least, makes life difficult for any would-be moonlighters.
“We teach in tiny cubicles that adjoin each other and are glass from the waist up,” says Brendan. “We always feel like we are being watched. This really adds to the stress of teaching.”
Other teachers talk about an atmosphere of “paranoia.” All the current Nova teachers contacted for this article requested that their full names not be used. One teacher, contacted by e-mail, asked for proof that we were really writing for The Japan Times and not undercover Nova management.
Rancorous relations between staff and managers is a problem in many of Japan’s language schools, says Shawn Thir, who used to teach at a large chain school, and runs an Internet bulletin board for language teachers.
“I think it’s because of the high staff turnover. There is never a chance to build any trust between anybody.”
Bisom points out that teachers are left highly dependent on their schools; the “eikaiwa” schools are normally responsible for their teachers’ visas, and often their apartments. Many teachers are young, frequently in their first or second jobs and in an unfamiliar country. Unsociable hours can make it difficult to meet new people.
“The only Japanese people they meet here in their first year, generally speaking, who can speak English, are their students.” And if teachers are unable to speak Japanese, they are likely to end up spending all their time with other language teachers.
“Teachers are kept cowed and obedient because they don’t know what to expect and are intimidated by the laws of a new country,” says one ex-teacher from Tokyo.
“It means that they don’t really have an experience of Japan,” says Bisom. “They have an experience of hanging out with foreigners.”
“What business is it of Nova’s what we do in our free time? We’re adults, let us make our own choices,” argues one Osaka teacher.