World Family Club says it’s OK to be different


Meet Mark Segerlund, happiness personified. With a house in Tokyo, a retreat on Chiba’s Boso Peninsula that offers unparalleled sunsets over the Pacific, a dog that he dotes on and a job he adores with near equal passion, he says he is home, and this is not hard to believe.

Mark is vice president of membership services for World Family Club, World Family KK. One thing, he points out: World Family Club (WF Club) has nothing to do with Disney. Since the office we are sitting in seems well Disneyfied, clarification is required — and Mark is the man to do the job.

It transpires that some years ago, someone had the bright idea of obtaining a license from Disney in order to produce educational systems for teaching English to Japanese children. Parents buy Disney’s World of English (DWE), a system published by World Family KK, which consists of books and CDs and videos — a complete interactive package.

“Coincidentally we just had our first DWE graduation ceremony,” Mark explains, showing photos of 120 students in caps and gowns. “Someone working at the event who knew nothing about us was astonished at the level of fluency and asked where we had found so many returnees. No, it was explained, none of these children have ever lived abroad. All their English was learned here. Says it all, I think.”

Preparations are under way already for next year’s graduation ceremony in March, also at Tokyo’s Ambassador Hotel.

At World Family Club, Mark’s job is to provide backup to the product on sale. “We put English into action, both to show the kids the fun and ease of communicating in another language, and to help parents who have already purchased DWE make the most of their English language experience with us. If DWE is the input, WF Club is the output. We ourselves have no connection with Disney. We can’t use Mickey or Minnie, so have our own range of characters and create our own shows.”

Thousands of children all around the country are familiar with Violet, Elvis, Coco, Hip-Hop and Zap, to name but a few of hero Zippy’s friends. And this merry bunch travels the archipelago offering any number of shows and activities, from puppet shows to spring and summer camps — and “English Carnival,” WF Club’s musical dance show, which showcases a new theme every year.

“Basically the range of our activities can be listed under one of four headings: educational, entertaining, interactive and encouraging. It’s a huge program, running nonstop.”

Let’s start with phone services. WF Club’s hotline helps parents get the best out of DWE. Fun Phone English is an interactive phone service offering everyday expressions and lessons from DWE. Telephone English is a toll-free service that provides a live phone lesson with WF Club teachers.

“We’re always looking for new telephone teachers — a special kind of people who like to talk and sing with kids — who can spare a three-hour block of time on a regular basis. The number of calls received has risen from 95,295 in the year 2000 to over 400,000 last year.”

Apart from shows currently out on the road (“Play Along,” “The ABC Box,” “Fun with Zap” and “Dancelong Show”), there are regular and seasonal events. Family College, for example, offers helpful hints on using DWE and info on WC Family, while at the same time kids can enjoy using English with WF teachers. Christmas is always a busy time. Children’s Summit takes kids to visit schools in California. USA Adventures help children explore America’s most beautiful natural locations, like Yosemite National Park.

“We send members Christmas gifts. And every child receives a birthday card from WF Club. Yes, we’re very well organized,” Mark notes with a huge smile. “My mother always said, Do your best.” His personal motto.

Mark first left Ohio (the Good Morning State) for Denmark when he was 17. ” I wanted to be Swedish, but Sweden was full, so I went to next door instead,” he jokes.

He came here on an Education Ministry scholarship, because “there was not much to do in the States,” and is still here. “Twenty-four years, half my life.”

Mark’s mother died a few months ago, and his father is making a dramatic step: He is coming to live with his son in Japan at age 83. A violin maker into Carl Jung and Krishna Murti and a hippie way before his time, Segerlund senior describes this move as his last great adventure in life.

“He’s learning Japanese from me over the phone. Believing seaweed will cure him of various ailments, he can already say ‘Wakame sarada daisuki desu’ (‘I love seaweed salad’).”

Weekdays he’s mostly in a suit. Weekends he’s usually onstage in “English Carnival.” “I may be getting older, but I never feel old in front of 800-900 kids.”

If DWE is about teaching English, WF Club’s main concern is to spread joy. “We did 1,500 shows last year from Hokkaido to Okinawa. This year, more; we have the best team and crew ever.”

But there is something even more important. “We use English in a meaningful way, to demonstrate compassion and tolerance; we show that it’s OK for a guy to have long hair, punk clothes, wear short pants and jump rope.” Mark says he can hear audiences — parents and children — sobbing when they get the message that they can be different.

“Mothers come up to me afterwards and say: ‘Thank you. Japan doesn’t teach this in the schools.’ “