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Times get tough for teachers

The rock star teaching days are well and truly over

by Trevor Clarke

English teaching in Japan is not what it used to be. Conditions are changing; the work is harder to come by, wages are falling, and staff are increasingly taking their employers to court.

It wasn’t always like this; for many that arrived in the bubble era, Japan was heaven.

Phoenix Associates vice president Peter Owans is one industry figure still around from the glory days and remembers the so-called “rock star” teachers well.

“In the train someone would just walk up to them, a dentist say, and ask ‘do you want to teach me English,’ and pay them 10,000 yen an hour,” Owans says.

“When they say rock stars making big money it wasn’t really the schools paying them big money. It was the privates, you know, people they met on the street. Or the companies would hire them directly . . . and that is where the money was.”

But certain stereotypes prevailed. “If the rock star was blond, blue eyes, and regardless of whether they spoke English very well, then basically they got hired,” says Owans. “From a black person’s point of view I would say it was depressing. English teaching wasn’t really for us because it wasn’t your intelligence or how much English you could speak.”

If you did fit the bill however, you were likely to be paid in star proportions, especially the girls, as many also held hostess jobs.

“The female instructors benefited more than the others,” according to Owans. “Teaching in the day time, night time in Ginza. They could make 100,000 yen a night.”

So have the teachers and clients lost out over the years? For the corporate instruction sector, Owans doesn’t think so.

“I think the teaching conditions have improved a lot over the years. Simply because after the bubble, especially for us in corporate instruction, it wasn’t a benefit anymore it was a need,” he explains. “That means you have to have the right trainers and need to retain them.”

Simul Academy’s David Yenches is another veteran of the corporate instruction sector who experienced the boom years and agrees with Peter. “In the 1980s, I don’t remember many teachers hurting for lack of work,” says Yenches.

“I think in many cases today, client expectations and the quality of service are both higher than in the 1980s.

“From the end of the bubble days through the first half of the 1990s, a lot of business dried up and schools started to go under,” he explains.

“Some teachers left Japan, and some decided to stay but do distance master’s degrees to get into universities or to upgrade their qualifications, which more and more schools became choosier about.”

Popular online information portal GaijinPot.com’s Percy Humphrey agrees.

“We have noticed more employers are now looking for teachers with past experience or teaching qualifications, such as TESOL or TEFL certificates, instead of just native English speakers,” says Humphrey.

“Although there are hundreds of teaching jobs that do not require extensive experience or qualifications currently on GaijinPot, when compared to when we first started, the number of positions requesting it have grown astoundingly.”

Not such good news for the numerous unqualified teachers that used to come to Japan.

But is it any better for career teachers who have the qualifications?

For those in the larger eikaiwa and ALT sector, where most teachers work, it doesn’t seem so. Comparing the average wages of the eikaiwa and ALT sectors to past years and also the corporate sector paints a grim picture.

In corporate instruction teachers can earn on average around 4,000 yen an hour — a good wage but it hasn’t increased in many years. But in some eikaiwa the wages have fallen from an average of about 2,500-3,000 yen per hour during the bubble years to as low as under 2,000 yen per hour (some report 1,400 yen for 40 minutes).

The contrast is striking: higher qualifications are needed, but lower wages given.

Brett Fennessy is one long-term Japan-based English teacher who has ample experience with the industry changes.

After working for one company and being paid well for 20 years Brett is now working for one of the ubiquitous eikaiwa at a lower wage. He believes that form has won out over content.

“It is well known . . . that ‘genki’ is prized far above competence or knowledge,” he says.

Fennessy is not alone with this opinion. Talk to many long-term teachers and it seems large and small eikaiwa alike are making things tougher.

There are increasing instances of teachers taking their employers to court. The recent case of Kara Harris who after having disputes with her manager over several issues sued Nova for wrongful dismissal and won a little under 7 million yen is indicative of the extent to which many teachers are willing to now fight. But why is this happening now? Peter Owans explains that in the bubble era employment benefits and compliance with labor laws basically didn’t exist.

“There was no protection at all, you could just hire and fire how you pleased basically,” he says. “I guess people did not complain because you could fire me today and I could walk next door and start another job.”

Things are not so easy now.

And, unlike the bubble era days there are now more and more foreign English teachers looking to make Japan their home who are seeking greater job security and benefits. It is to this increase of long-termers that some attribute a rise in union activity and awareness of conditions in the industry.

NUGW Tokyo Nambu deputy general secretary Louis Carlet believes that because Japan is now more familiar to Westerners it has become a more attractive place to settle. “Many people now actually come here, specifically just to find good work. Which I think is very different from the bubble economy when people came because it was interesting,” says Carlet.

“The honeymoon is over and now it’s down to reality for both sides.” Carlet says there are currently two main trouble areas.

The first is the alleged attempts by many English-teaching companies at skirting their responsibilities for enrolling their full-time teachers in the NHI scheme. The union claims the companies are acting illegally and teachers’ job security will suffer.

They allege many companies are revising teachers’ job descriptions to categorize them as nonfull-time workers, which would mean they do not have to enroll them in the NHI and pay the contributions. Thus the teachers miss out on the benefits of insurance and the security of a full-time contract.

The second issue, that of the increase in the amount of Assistant Language Teachers, is one that according to Carlet has caused the industry conditions to go way down.

Since the government announced its push to increase the nation’s English language ability, schools around the country have been employing ALTs, mostly through dispatching companies, in a highly competitive environment.

“It’s (the ALT industry) getting bigger and bigger, but as it gets bigger there is a race to the bottom in wages,” says Carlet.

“In the bidding process the schools are desperate to decrease their bid and so of course they squeeze wages and take away all benefits and increase work hours.”

So the teachers, and eventually the students, are the ones that suffer. “More teachers take it because there is nothing else available. The reality is they are terrible jobs, with no job security.”

Not exactly the rock ‘n’ roll material of former years.