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Bigger not necessarily better for eikaiwa

As an eikaiwa owner and operator in Osaka, it was refreshing to read Mr. Richard Smart’s views in his article “Small schools offer hope amid eikaiwa slump” (Zeit Gist, Nov. 2).

For over a year now, I and a dedicated group of eikaiwa owner/operators have been trying hard to reverse the perception that the eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry in Japan is in its death throes before becoming extinct. Our collective view is that “eikaiwa” (actually meaning “English conversation”) has always been the reserve of the smaller owner-operated institutions rather than the realm of the big school chains, and that this sector is doing fine considering the overall economic situation.

The smaller schools are generally the ones that bring innovation and new themes to the industry here in Japan. English language with music, cooking, theater, sports and games are all areas in which the small eikaiwas do well but which the big operators can never do with as much success. The simple answer to why they can’t was illustrated well in Mr. Smart’s article: The big operators are too focused on their financial bottom line to care about the students themselves and provide something new in the classroom.

One common theme arises after communicating with hundreds of eikaiwa owner/operators around Japan: We all bring something to the local community that can never be replicated by the big operators. Small eikaiwas are innovative, flexible and caring with their students, and become an integral part of their local community in their own right. The owner/operators’ children attend the local schools, they participate in local festivals, they shop at the local stores and they eat out in local restaurants. In simple terms, they are active members of the local community and therefore gain the trust and respect of the community they live in.

Japan has had economic difficulties for some time, and this situation does not look like it will be changing significantly in the foreseeable future. Families, in particular parents, are having to make difficult decisions on their monthly budget and sadly, in many cases, English language study is the first item to be cut. But families are also discovering that the smaller local eikaiwa is flexible, with reasonable fees, often paid monthly, and as such is affordable.

Interestingly, and most importantly, many Japanese have come to understand that the quality of tuition is not compromised by attending the smaller local eikaiwa. Many are awakening to the fact that in most cases the tuition at the smaller school is superior to the larger chain schools. This is because the owner/operator of a small eikaiwa, often a foreigner who has decided to make Japan home, has bothered to gain university qualifications in the area of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) to further their chance of success in the industry. This varies greatly from the big chain schools, which will employ a foreigner simply because they can speak English and has a visa valid for at least six months.

Previous assertions that the eikaiwa industry is dead in Japan are just not true, and once again I thank Mr. Smart for an enlightening article. Ask any small owner/operator and most will say their business has not been overly affected by the big closures, and in some cases the smaller eikaiwa has benefited from the closure of the big school in their local area.

But one thing we would all agree on is that it is still hard to break the common perception throughout Japan that bigger must be better, particularly if you have a famous actor, singer or sportsperson appearing in all the advertising.

PETER CARTER
Network Administrator
Japan’s Independent Network of English Schools Osaka

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