‘All the schools are closed.’
That’s the text message I received on the morning of Oct. 26, 2007, from a fellow Nova teacher. I went to my school later that day to find the lights off, the doors locked and no one around. Like most of Nova Corp.’s hundreds of language centers, it was never to re-open. Japan’s largest conversation school chain filed for protection from creditors the same day. The company was declared legally bankrupt a month later.
In the period leading up to that fateful day, there had been plenty of signs that things weren’t right, says Briton Marc Davies, a former area manager. “The hardest part for me at first was dealing with a delayed paycheck. It was delayed by about four or five days in July. Then in August, because I was a senior supervisor, my pay was delayed again. The crunch really came in September when I was not paid at all. That was very scary. I was living off a credit card. I had no idea when and if I would get paid again.”
Tired of this uncertainty, a number of teachers jumped ship before the 26th, preferring to take their chances elsewhere.
“I finally left the job on Oct. 19 when it became obvious we were not going to receive any salary,” recalls Tim, a teacher of 14 years in the west Tokyo area. “Frankly, it was almost a relief to finally realize the true nature of the situation.”
Others went even earlier, including F.K., a senior teacher in Tokyo: “After September’s salary payment to assistant trainers was missed again after the second ‘tomorrow, I promise’ fax, I took all my holidays and called in sick on any day not covered by holidays until I was able to find a new job, and resigned.”
For classroom teachers, salaries were paid on time up to July, were delayed in August, then not paid at all in September, leading a lot of teachers to stop going in to work or to protest in other ways.
“Around the time pay was delayed and everyone was getting annoyed, we had to decide whether to come in to work each day,” says Rachael Brennan, who taught at Koga branch in Ibaraki. “We all still went to work every day just because our Japanese staff were coming and were so stressed having to deal with students complaining. Anyway, our protest was to wear casual clothes each day — not much of a protest, I know — and we displayed our e-mail addresses in the reception area so that students could contact us if they wanted to in case of Nova’s closure. Sure enough, I woke up on the Friday to a phone call from our Japanese manager telling us not to come in . . . indefinitely.”
A lot of Nova employees suddenly found themselves without jobs and short of money after two months with no salary. Some had only been in Japan a short time and hadn’t been paid at all. (Even just a few weeks before the bankruptcy, I had been training new arrivals.)
“I was one of the luckier ones,” says Tim, “with savings, time left on my working visa and an apartment in no way connected to Nova accommodation.”
However, not everyone was in a position to see out the hard times.
“Just before everything fell apart I met someone who I fell in love with, and I had another two years on my visa extension,” says Matthew Tyndale-Tozer, who had been working for Nova for three years. “I did think about looking for other work, but my circumstances at the time meant I couldn’t afford to find a place to live, so starting a new job and waiting four to six weeks before getting a paycheck was going to make it impossible to stay. If I had known that G.Communication (the Nagoya-based firm chosen by the trustees after the bankruptcy to take over the remnants of the Nova business) were planning to open my old branch I would have stayed, but in the end I had no choice.
“I returned to Australia. I was so short of cash by the time I left, I sold the furniture in my Nova apartment to get the train fare to the airport. Coming back has been a struggle, but not as bad as waiting to be evicted and living on ¥100 pasta. Thank God for the ¥100 shops.”
Cari Matras worked at Nova for only six months before the bankruptcy. “I had to leave Japan because I was possibly soon to be evicted, had nothing going for me job-wise except my ability to speak English — and unemployed English teachers weren’t exactly in short supply at the time — and I was running out of money. I couldn’t even afford to buy a plane ticket back to the U.S. My parents helped me out with some frequent flier miles.”
As well as being forced out of the country, it was an emotionally fraught time for Matras. “Experiencing the bankruptcy had a huge effect on my confidence, since I couldn’t help feeling it was my failure, even though it wasn’t remotely my fault. I just hated coming home from such a great adventure totally depleted, financially and emotionally.”
For many employees, however, the stress caused by the bankruptcy was tempered by a number of positive experiences. “The generosity of the students was amazing,” recalls Brennan. “I had two housewives — one in a wheelchair — offer to give me ¥50,000 as a gift just to help out. Of course, I didn’t accept. Other students offered to let me live with them if I was evicted. One student took me to Hakone for three days, all expenses paid, because I had never been there. I truly had the best time with Japanese people after the collapse.”
Such generosity was even more remarkable because unlike the teachers, who received 80 percent of their unpaid wages from the government, Nova’s students faced the prospect of losing all the money they had paid to the firm.
A year after the collapse, most former Nova teachers have moved on, and have a variety of feelings about Nova.
“I was fortunate enough to get a new job in a related field, and for a brand name that gets a lot more respect when I mention that I work for them,” says Davies, 35. “But the sad truth is that my former job was a lot more fulfilling.”
Tim also found a new job, but only after being rehired by G.Com and then let go after just a few weeks. “I found full-time teaching work at a language center in the business district, teaching business English and exam courses to adult students. The fact that I was not rehired by G.Com was a blessing in disguise, looking back, although two friends of mine who work at G.Com franchises have no complaints about the company or teaching conditions there. The bottom line is: I’m glad I’m out of the ‘eikaiwa’ (English conversation school) world, but it was a good experience.”
Having quit in September, F.K. found new employment with an English school in Saitama in early October. “It took around 4 months to get back to a normal financial situation, but from then on I’ve had no regrets about the end of Nova,” he says. “My girlfriend and I got married in September, and we’re planning on leaving Japan in March next year. Had we not been together at the time of Nova’s collapse I would have left Japan immediately.”
But what about those who had no choice but to pack up and go? They may have left Japan, but it seems Japan hasn’t left them.
“My partner, who is Japanese, is still in Japan and we’ll see each other again at Christmas,” says Tyndale-Tozer. “Next year they plan to apply for a working holiday visa so they can come to Australia. I hope I can save some money and then return to Japan.”
“I had actually already booked a flight home for Dec. 22,” explains Brennan, the former Ibaraki teacher. “I really, really just wanted to be able to leave Japan on my own terms, not earlier because of Nova. I pretty much had to squat in my apartment and hope I didn’t get evicted. I now live in Melbourne with my Japanese branch manager who is here on a working visa. I really just want to help her as much as she helped me.”
Matras worked as a snowboard instructor last winter, and says her Nova experience really helped. “I used the Nova method of input, then practice, then go it alone, along with healthy doses of the kind of encouragement necessary to get a shy Japanese person to try something new. I’m still in touch with my overseas friends through Facebook and e-mail, and hopefully I’ll see them again someday. I really liked my branch, my students, and our Japanese staff ladies, and I dreaded the end from the moment I saw it coming.”
Sasha Harry is a pseudonym. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org