The first sign that Olivia’s Gaba lesson would be anything but ordinary came when her student insisted during the warmup that he didn’t like wearing clothes.
The middle-aged gentleman had previously studied English with Olivia while wearing the shortest of shorts. On this winter day in February 2012, he wore track pants.
During the lesson, Olivia could hear the client’s hand brushing against his pants. But since he constantly scratched himself due to a skin condition, she thought little of it.
“He was sitting right up to the desk so I couldn’t see what was happening down there. A few minutes before the end of the lesson, he pushed himself back and I could see he had a visible erection, and I could see he was stroking it with one hand.” When their eyes met, she says, “He looked at me in a challenging way.”
Olivia believes that if she had been asked the day before it happened, she could have told you exactly how she would’ve handled the situation. But “in the moment, I kind of just froze,” she says. “Everything flew out of my head and I really didn’t know what to do. So I just kept teaching.”
The student then started using two hands.
When the lesson ended, Olivia had to get him to finally pack up his things and leave by telling him she had another student coming.
“I broke down after he was gone,” she says — crying enough during her next lesson that her female student never booked a class with Olivia again.
Olivia says her managers at Gaba, an English conversation school chain with 39 branches across Kanto, Kansai and Chubu, were not supportive. Unable to speak to her instructor support leader (ISL), who had gone home for the day, she emailed him and copied in her previous ISL and the area manager, a non-Japanese male. Unlike regular teachers at Gaba, whom the company considers contractors, ISLs are full-time Gaba employees who act as assistant managers. Most are non-Japanese former Gaba instructors.
However, rather than blocking the client from her schedule, management told her to be patient while they investigated. “It ended up making me feel like they were accusing me of lying,” says Olivia.
The area manager who dealt with Olivia’s case declined to respond to emailed questions, writing, “I am not able to provide any comment on the issue of sexual harassment.”
After a week spent interviewing other instructors, managers blocked the client from booking lessons with Olivia. However, he continued studying at the same learning center. Olivia says she saw him when he walked past her booth, in the lobby, at the train station and once on the street, when he nearly bumped into her.
Making matters worse, Olivia says her supervisor became openly hostile toward her.
“The ISL was really, really angry with me for complaining about it,” says Olivia, and from that point on, he avoided talking to her. Olivia has since left Gaba, citing the way the company handled the incident as one reason.
Current and former Gaba instructors describe a litany of inappropriate behavior by students and a reluctance on the part of managers to address the problem.
According to Emma, a current Gaba instructor, certain male clients are known for being “space invaders”: students who sit too close and stare into a female instructor’s eyes the entire lesson. Others avoid eye contact entirely to stare at the instructor’s breasts for 40 minutes, she says.
Some clients ask inappropriate questions about their teachers’ personal life and relationship status. Carly, a current Gaba instructor, has a student who always pays her compliments, such as, “You’re so beautiful, I bet you have so many boyfriends.”
Sophia, a current instructor, recounts how one student in his 40s, who has his lessons paid for by his company, constantly asks personal questions, such as, “Was your husband your first boyfriend?” He also makes compliments like, “Your skin looks very smooth today.”
Sophia’s attempts to teach the student the difference between appropriate and inappropriate topics for conversation between a student and teacher proved fruitless. Sophia adds that a female supervisor’s attempt to teach the student on her behalf backfired when he asked her out on a date.
According to Sophia, even after a Japanese staff member told the client to stop asking personal questions, little changed. He continues to act strangely toward female instructors, saying things such as, “I need you.”
Other students cross an entirely different line, making comments that define the word “creepy.” Carly recalls how one retired man tried to hug her when an earthquake struck during the first half of a double lesson. At the break before the second lesson, she asked him if he wanted a drink. Carly says he “leant over and looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I want to drink your breast milk.’ ”
The experience was “horrendous,” she says. “It makes you feel like an object.”
Instructors also discuss an infamous client who they say has taken 20,000 lessons in total, covering every Gaba learning studio in Kanto over the past eight years. When taught by a female instructor, he tries to make physical contact at every opportunity: high fives, handshakes that never end, requests to punch him, touching teachers’ legs, even hugs.
Carly says her manager told her not to worry, explaining the student’s behavior results from a neurodevelopmental disorder.
One day the student told Carly, “I want your blow job.” When she complained to a supervisor, Carly says the male ISL responded by saying, “I think you’re just too nice to the clients.”
Only after the student started sending her “crazy” Facebook messages did managers act.
“The sentences themselves were absolutely nonsensical,” says Carly. “Most of them, I couldn’t make out what he was trying to say. But the vocabulary was sexual and there was some violent vocabulary.”
Carly says she had to print the messages out and show them to her manager before the company blocked him from her schedule.
Sophia, who has taught the same student 70 or 80 times, says that most of the time she can control him, but asks, “Why do I have to take an aggressive attitude and be extremely careful about body language and think about restraining the client instead of teaching?”
While no male instructors proved willing to discuss their experiences of sexual harassment, six Gaba instructors this reporter spoke to all knew of male colleagues who had been sexually harassed in similar ways by female students.
Japan’s 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law was revised in 1999 to include definitions of sexual harassment. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s “Measures Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” pamphlet, the law defines two types of workplace sexual harassment.
One is “environmental sexual harassment,” where there is a serious adverse effect on a worker’s ability to perform their duties as a result of sexual harassment in the workplace. Examples include sexual jokes, persistent invitations to meals, unnecessary physical contact or being forced into a sexual relationship.
The second is “quid pro quo sexual harassment,” in which a worker’s response to harassment results in retaliation. For example, a worker is demoted after refusing to date a boss.
Instructors complain that Gaba’s reaction to sexual harassment varies widely and depends on the individual managers working at the learning studio where it occurs. While some ISLs are sympathetic and quick to act, others dismiss or ignore instructor complaints.
According to Olivia, “It makes a huge difference who your ISL is.” After a second student masturbated in one of her lessons, an email sent to her ISL and copied to her union got the client immediately blocked from her schedule.
After complaining about the student who kept asking personal questions, Sophia says that her female manager responded, “It’s still a lesson and you get paid for it.” Sophia calls it “ridiculous I have to get harassed for ¥1,500.”
At some Gaba learning studios, female instructors have developed their own secret code on the students’ files to warn each other of problem students.
Instructors complain that Gaba managers often place the burden of proof on instructors and pressure them to teach the students again so they can listen outside for proof of inappropriate behavior.
In the case of the “breast milk” client, Carly says that during the break, when she told the Japanese counselor what had just happened, they told her: “That’s shocking; you should tell the manager. But you also need to go back and teach the second lesson.” She says the counselor explained, “You haven’t got a choice basically because he’s booked you.”
Carly ended up teaching the second lesson.
“I wish I hadn’t,” she says, “but at the time I was still quite a new instructor. Obviously if it happened now I would kick them out.”
According to Carly, her ISL went to the Japanese manager, who spoke with the client. Even though the student admitted to the manager that he asked to drink the teacher’s breast milk, he claimed to be joking and said he thought it was OK to make such comments because all foreigners are so friendly.
Carly says that even after the confession, Japanese managers asked her to teach the client again so they could listen to the lesson and try to overhear something else inappropriate.
Carly believes she was lucky the ISL successfully fought the Japanese managers to block the student from her schedule, since she didn’t feel comfortable teaching the student again. The student remains a Gaba client, she says.
Gaba managers pressured another teacher, Emma, into teaching a client again after he asked her out on a date, she says. During only her second lesson with a longtime Gaba client, Emma asked the man in his late 40s about his Christmas plans.
“I should spend it with family, but I’d rather take you out on a date”, he replied. Emma says he then told her that he would take a Christmas Eve lesson with her so they could go out for dinner afterwards.
Emma says she told the student it wasn’t appropriate and lied that she was married.
Emma reported the problem to a Japanese counselor, who took the problem seriously. However, while that counselor was off sick with the flu, the client booked another lesson with her. Emma approached the main Japanese counselor, who Emma says didn’t care.
Emma says he asked her, “Are you comfortable teaching him?”
Emma replied: “No, absolutely not. I don’t want to teach him again.”
But the counselor refused to cancel the lesson and tried to reassure Emma, telling her: “He’s done it before, it’s not your fault; he just needs someone to harass.”
According to Emma, the student had harassed three other instructors.
Emma says the student began their third lesson together by asking her if he could record it. Emma agreed because it was a common request but says the student then explained, “I want to listen to your beautiful voice.”
During the lesson Emma says the student demanded proof that she was in fact married. Emma refused and reminded him it wasn’t appropriate to ask a teacher personal questions. Emma says the student then suffered a sudden drop in language ability, complaining that her English was too difficult to understand.
After the client booked a fourth lesson, Emma says her boss told her to teach it while he listened outside. If she felt uncomfortable during the lesson, she could leave. Emma warned her boss she simply wouldn’t show up to work.
Because another teacher had overheard the client’s inappropriate comments in the third lesson, Emma succeeded in getting the student blocked from her schedule. However, the student continues to take lessons at her learning studio.
Emma says it makes her uncomfortable when he takes a lesson in the booth next to her and that she worries about getting stuck with him on the elevator. “It’s annoying and it’s just ridiculous, and it shows the company really doesn’t care about its teachers,” Emma says.
Sophia believes the instructors’ employment status as independent contractors rather than employees is one reason why managers prove reluctant to address the sexual harassment issue. She says that because Gaba doesn’t classify the instructors as employees, it avoids taking responsibility whenever possible.
Sophia also believes that Gaba managers want to avoid confronting clients. Emma agrees, saying that managers “just care about the maximum bookings possible — that’s it.”
Gaba is not the only conversation school with problem students.
“Whether or not companies want to acknowledge the problem, sexual harassment by students occurs regularly,” says Ava, who worked for Nova’s Multimedia Center and currently teaches at a high school.
Ava says her worst such experience was when a teenage boy fondled himself during a Nova Internet lesson. After turning off her camera, she called the tech staff, who told the young man to stop and then tried to convince Ava to continue with the lesson, laughing at her request that they contact the boy’s mother. Ava says that she heard from several coworkers that he had masturbated during their lessons as well.
However, Gaba’s “man-to-man” system may provide more opportunity for bad behavior. According to Olivia, the one-on-one lesson format “gives (students) more of an opportunity to take advantage.”
Sophia says the layout of Gaba learning booths also plays a role. At Gaba, the teacher and student sit beside each other, sharing a quarter of a round table. In narrow booths, teacher and student sit so close to each other that their legs sometimes touch. In other language schools in Japan, such as Berlitz, instructors and students sit across the table from each other.
Gaba instructors also claim they received no training on how to handle sexual harassment. One Gaba teacher said that during her five-day training at Berlitz, about an hour was devoted to sexual harassment.
Financial pressures also force many Gaba instructors to endure lessons with clients they’d rather not teach. Instructors are only paid for lessons taught. The minimum salary needed to maintain the visa sponsored by Gaba is ¥240,000 a month. For instructors earning ¥1,500 per lesson, this requires teaching about 40 lessons a week.
Emma says this can be difficult unless instructors work seven days a week. For instructors depending on Gaba sponsored visas, refusing to teach a harassing client is a luxury they may not be able to afford.
Gaba’s system also places a lot of power in the hands of clients, who can choose the instructors they want to study with. Clients can also wield negative evaluations like a weapon. Carly says that out of 6,000 Gaba lessons taught, she received only two negative evaluations, both from students she refused to go on a date with. Carly says the negative evaluations will stay on her record — too many and she risks a pay cut or not having her six-month contract renewed.
According to Chika Shinohara, an associate professor at Momoyama Gakuin University’s Department of Sociology, “The Equal Employment Opportunity Law requires the employer to prevent sexual harassment.” The law also makes clear that it covers not only regular workers but also nonregular workers including part-time, contract and dispatch employees.
Union leaders complain that Gaba management resists their demands to address the issue. According to Adrian Ringin, chair of the General Union’s Gaba branch and one of two Gaba branch sexual harassment officers, after Olivia recounted her experience with the masturbating student to company officials during collective bargaining, Gaba’s lead negotiator refused to say whether he believed harassment had even occurred.
According to Ringin, the ISLs should be able to help but they “can be hamstrung by the system in which financial targets can outweigh everything else,” adding, “the General Union decided to appoint sexual harassment officers because unfortunately sexual harassment is an issue where employers tend not to support their staff.”
The union’s sexual harassment officers’ jobs include listening to members’ accounts of harassment, offering advice and acting as a go-between in negotiations with the company about the issue.
The union claims credit for pressuring Gaba into enacting recent changes that make it easier for instructors to block clients who behave inappropriately from their schedules, and the introduction of a standardized form for staff to report harassment from clients. However, the union claims that Gaba failed to adequately inform instructors of either change.
“The General Union would like the company to be honest and open to all instructors, both current instructors and all new hires, so that no one else will again go through what many instructors have experienced — harassment from clients, and the confusion, fear and uncertainty about what to do,” Ringin says.
Gaba declined, as a matter of company policy, to comment on specific incidents but denied it ignored the problem. In response to emailed questions, a spokesperson with Gaba’s Instructor Services Division responded that “Gaba does have policies in place to protect all of our stakeholders — instructors, staff and clients — from all forms of harassment, sexual or otherwise. As all stakeholders are critical to the success of the company, it is clearly in our interest to establish appropriate systems and support.”
Shinohara says people unlucky enough to experience sexual harassment in the form of stalking or assault should report the incident to the police. Workers experiencing other forms of sexual harassment should first bring up the problem with their company’s consultation office.
“If (the company doesn’t) seem to be helping at all they should confer with their prefectural Equal Employment Office,” she advises.
Each Prefectural Labor Bureau has an Equal Employment Office which can assist in resolving disputes. Simple assistance in the form of advice or recommendations can be provided by directors of Prefectural Labor Bureaus after they hear statements by the employee and employer.
Workers can also apply to take the more time-consuming process of formal conciliation, which is carried out by a panel of lawyers, academics and other experts.
Rather than battling bureaucracy, some Gaba teachers simply call in sick when a known harasser appears in their schedule. One instructor admitted to sometimes calling in sick and forfeiting her day’s pay because on some days she “couldn’t bear to teach the tit-starer.”
Carly understands that decision.
“Sometimes it’s a teaching job, but sometimes you feel like you’re just kind of an object for them to stare at,” she says. “It gets to the point where I dread going into work every day.”
The names of teachers quoted in this article are pseudonyms for instructors in the Kanto area who experienced sexual harassment but didn’t want themselves or their learning centers identified. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org