“Your questions were hard,” mails Darian Wilson, chief executive officer of FAQ, the day after we meet. “But I appreciate them as they caused me to rethink the meaning behind this project.”
He is talking about Gaigo.TV’s ¥100 English School, which launched in Japan on Jan. 24. Gaigo is as in “foreign language,” but maybe also “Guy, go!” because this is a program series that aims to teach English online or by DVD to Japanese men aged between 18-58.
“Or more,” replies Wilson blushing. “To be honest I plucked 58 out of the air.”
He blushes a lot, which is rather sweet and a direct contrast to his colleague, Ichiro Shiraki, managing director of JM Planning, who is Mr. Cool, but friendly all the same.
Tokyo-boy Shiraki’s background is in IT, Internet marketing and database marketing analysis. He spent eight years in the U.S., where the dot-com company he worked for crashed in the late 1990s. Eventually, he returned home with a TOEFL score of 670 as proof that despite setbacks he had not wasted a minute.
Wilson, who is from Seattle, Wash., spent six years in the military before traveling with his Japanese wife to show her the Americas. They moved to Tokyo in 1994.
“Initially, I was working for a CD media marketing company here, and one of our projects was a digital calendar, with a different photo every month. Ichiro contacted me about it, we moved on from there.”
As a kid, Wilson wanted to be an entertainer, a writer or a movie producer. Forty years later, he finds himself doing all these things, and is pretty happy about it. “Gaigo.TV’s not a full-time project for either of us. Rather we see it as a chance to help people with their English.”
Such altruism is commendable. But what about the product, which shows English being taught by attractive young women in various stages of undress?
“English teaching is boring,” Wilson says, “Not all, but a lot. Japanese spend seven years learning the language as an academic exercise and most will say they left school hating English. Also a lot of the eikawa chains here are motivated purely by profit. Which is why we ask, why can’t learning English be fun?”
A keen observer of trends in education and entertainment, he decided to bring the two together in a highly original — if controversial — way.
Wilson began his enterprise by founding FAQ in California in order to produce Gaigo.TV in Hollywood. Then with the assistance of a good grammar book, he wrote out 80 stories, around each of which he built a simple five-step teaching program.
The first step introduces in Japanese the grammar point to be covered. A teacher (Wilson calls her “a hostess”) reads an easy five-sentence story, and then asks three questions as a further listening challenge, followed by a listen and repeat exercise. The final step offers “a short ‘Enjoy Time’ video to help you relax and remember your English forever!”
Enjoy time? What does the hostess do at this point? Whip off her clothes?
Says Wilson firmly: “No. She dances, has fun. Gaigo.TV provides no actual nudity at all. . . . There’s nothing here that you can’t see in department store advertising, catalogs or on the beach.”
He defines Gaigo-TV as “edu-tainment” — a blending of teaching and fun. Recent research, he insists, has found a powerful way to improve language memory: Enjoy yourself. “It’s a completely new fun and exciting way to learn English with beautiful, sexy native English speakers brought to you on video direct from Hollywood.”
Cheap is also an adjective that comes to mind. Five online lessons cost ¥500; you simply subscribe and pay by credit card. Or you can buy 10 lessons on a ¥1,000 DVD (there are eight 40-minute DVDs currently available) created on KDDI’s site: www.DVD-Burn.jp.
Wilson targets men because they have fewer options for learning English.
“The eikawa business is mostly geared towards housewives and young women. Having said that, we’ve been surprised by the response of younger women to the series. They like it, saying what they learn helps their bed talk with foreign boyfriends.”
Prepared for the accusation that the project is sleazy — soft porn dressed up as education, or education undressed as soft porn — Wilson has done his homework.
Pornography, he says, is generally defined as the more direct, blunt or excessive depiction of sexual acts, with little or no artistic value, intended for mere entertainment. “But I think Gaigo.TV does have some artistic value, in that it asks viewers to perhaps redefine their definition and perception of education.”
Asked about the women hired as hostesses, Wilson points out that they are all professional models and actresses who freely signed contracts. “They were never required to do anything that made them feel uncomfortable.”
Neither Wilson nor Shiraki feels there is anything wrong in using entertainment to pull people into language learning. Sure, they agree, edu-tainment blurs the line, but only as much as faction in literature blends fact and fiction, and press, infotainment and advertorials are becoming less and less easy to separate.
This is the way of the world, they say. Neither right nor wrong. As to whether they are contributing to the way the world is going by jumping on the bandwagon, that is also a matter of opinion.
With a small child and a 4-month-old baby, Wilson is all too aware of what technology and the effect of such blurrings — a general all-pervasive dumbing down — is having on children: attention deficit disorders, reduced reading skills, etc. But he chooses to regard himself primarily as an ideas man faced with the expense of having to put two kids through school in the heart of Tokyo.
“Gaigo.TV is not university or anything,” he defends. “Nor is it for everyone. It’s just an alternative way to learn English.”
“We have nibbles from Korea — which is where Ichiro comes in as FAQ’s merchandiser in Asia. Our goals here are to find distribution partners, and build a brand around the Gaigo.TV concept. If the format proves successful, I see no reason why we could not use it to teach a range of other languages.”
It’s not a wholly original idea. Back in 1992, Fuji TV had girls in bikinis dancing and doing aerobics while offering up English phrases. (The mind boggles.) Nor does FAQ go as far as a Canadian TV link that offers nudes reading the news. (Not yet anyway.)
As Shiraki says, “Gaigo.TV will be controversial. But it’s an approach that was always going to be tried by someone. It just happens to be us.”