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Barely managing

The dream of working in an international environment can become a nightmare for Japanese women

by Tony Mcnicol

In a country with few real careers for women, a job in an energetic internationally-oriented service industry would surely be a dream come true for many.

Unfortunately, when that industry is Japan’s language-learning industry, many school managers soon find that their dream job isn’t quite what they imagined.

Sean, a 27-year-old English teacher, says that his unease about how his co-workers were being treated began even before he got on the plane to Japan.

“I remember that during the pre-departure training (the company) gave us some ‘What you should do if. . .’ scenarios. One of them was: ‘What should you do if your manager suddenly starts crying?’ “

Sean spent 3 years in Japan working for a major language school chain in the Kansai area.

“(The question) seemed bizarre at the time, especially when we were told the correct answer was ‘Don’t do anything. This happens all the time.’ But after seeing the managers running around on the verge of a nervous breakdown half the time, I could see where that question was coming from.”

Five years ago, GEOS, one of Japan’s largest language school chains, was taken to court by 14 of its managers over unpaid overtime. At the time of the case, the main plaintiff said that she was working a 72-hour week under constant unmanageable pressure to increase sales at her school.

According to Katsuji Yamahara, the chair of a Kansai-based General Union, which represents many workers in the language-learning industry, little has changed.

Even though the managers won their suit, costing GEOS 300,000,000 yen in unpaid overtime, the media mostly ignored the case, says Yamahara.

And managers at GEOS and other major language school chains are still working impossibly long hours — even for Japan.

One ex-GEOS manager from Tokyo says that by meeting her sales targets, she earned around 240 yen,000-250,000 a month. Yet, less capable managers, or those at smaller schools, would bring home much smaller pay packets.

Satisfying the financial demands of head office often meant long hours.

“When I had to stay the night at the school, I slept on a long chair in the lobby. I sometimes used a sleeping bag which a teacher had left when he returned home, or I just put on my jacket.”

She says that managers were forced to penny pinching in often desperate attempts to meet their targets.

“I had to bring my own blankets especially in winter. I couldn’t leave the heater on because it would affect the electricity fee. That means the manager would have to earn more money to cover this.”

Another ex-GEOS manager of three years says that the average manager lasts around 6 months. “The pressure is incredible, perhaps that’s why people quit . . . pressure to find students and make money.”

She also alleges that during three months she spent working as a manager trainer at GEOS head office, around a third of managers who quit gave little or no notice at all. She believes that that was often to avoid being pressured by head office staff into staying.

Other staff and teachers report that managers who have worked at one school for months are routinely moved to another with notice of just a few days; in some cases, presumably, to cover for other managers who have left without warning.

GEOS declined to comment on the 1999 court case, amounts of overtime pay, or on how long managers stay with the company on average.

However, a spokeswoman for the company did say that GEOS, and the language learning industry as a whole, provides women with a rare opportunities to begin business careers.

She points out that 80-90 percent of GEOS’s school managers and head office staff are women.

“Almost all GEOS’s management staff are female. Some big companies have lots of female staff, but few female managers.

“In GEOS’s case all the (Japanese) female staff have management responsibility.”

GEOS also say that the wide ranging responsibilities of the job are good preparation for a further career within or outside the company.

“Being a manager isn’t just working as a receptionist and greeting the customers, it’s really the total management of the school. It seems like, if you can be a manager, you can do any kind of work.”

But how many options do young women in Japan seeking a career really have?

The U.N.’s 2003 Human Development Report ranks Japan number 44 among the world’s nations according to its “gender empowerment measure” (GEM).

The report looks at the number of female politicians, managers, professionals and the amount women earn compared to men.

Japan has dropped 6 places since 1999. Kenji Tominaga of the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality bureau says that Japan has made little progress in gender equality in the workplace compared to other developed nations.

Less than 10 percent of managers in Japanese companies are women, according the U.N. report, and women earn less than half as much as men.

Most women are stuck in low paying part time work.

“One thing is that it’s difficult for women to keep working,” says Tominaga. “Also, once they have children, there is no support to allow them to return to work. Even when women find work, they are expected to quit when they get married.”

Yet, every year more young women return to Japan after travel or study abroad. The chance to use a little English, or even forge a business career, draws many towards the teaching industry.

The colossal advertising budgets of the main language school chains may help too. There’s an almost inexhaustible supply of enthusiastic young women for the language school chains to tap, says Katsuji Yamahara of the General Union.

And without pressure from the media or the courts, there is little incentive for the companies to treat their staff any better than they do now.

“It doesn’t matter how many managers quit, there will always be more.”