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Teachers tread water in eikaiwa limbo

by Craig Currie-Robson

Every year, thousands of young native English-speakers fly to Asia in search of an adventure, financed by working as English teachers. They come from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Britain, Canada and elsewhere.

But it can be risky leaping into another country on the promise of an “easy” job. In Japan’s competitive English teaching market, foreign language instructors are treading water. “Subcontractor” teachers at corporate giant Gaba fight in the courts to be recognized as employees. Berlitz instructors become embroiled in a four-year industrial dispute, complete with strikes and legal action. Known locally as eikaiwa, “conversation schools” across the country have slashed benefits and reduced wages, forcing teachers to work longer hours, split-shifts and multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

Armed with slick websites and flashy recruiting videos, big chains such as Aeon, Gaba and ECC send recruiters to Australasia, North America and Britain to attract fresh graduates. New hires come expecting to spend their weekends and vacations enjoying temples, shrines and exotic locales. Newcomers may also be lured by the prospect of utilizing that ESL (English as a second language) diploma or CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) they’ve worked hard for. Yet from the start, they’ll effectively be customer-service staff, delivering a standardized product. Recruiting campaigns take full advantage of the prospective teacher’s altruistic angels. They look for suckers.

Once the work starts, eikaiwa keeps teachers busy and close to broke. At considerably less than the average Japanese salary, big English schools pay new teachers just enough to get by in Japan and not much more. The videos do not mention that they’ll have barely 10 days off per year, and find themselves trudging into the language center on public holidays and at Christmas. Nor do eikaiwa schools warn that the cost of living and the expense of domestic travel in Japan will stretch a new teacher’s salary. Many can barely afford a trip home once a year, time permitting. If a teacher stays for a year or two, as most do, they can afford a ticket home and again, not much more. When industry leader Nova collapsed in 2007, thousands of broke foreign teachers were stranded in Japan. Qantas offered cut-price flights home for Australian nationals.

Moreover, teachers can be locked into apartment contracts that make leaving the company difficult or expensive. The work schedule keeps teachers too busy to get many private students and many contracts insist on exclusivity, making it problematic to get outside work through private teacher matchmaking agencies such as Atlas. While Japanese law allows teachers to work elsewhere, it is also perfectly legal for schools to draft contracts that forbid it, making it easy for them to fire teachers for breaking the rules, or at least pressure them into toeing the line.

Working in the “Big Eikaiwa” chains often limits a teacher’s career scope. In a traditional Japanese company, skills are not necessarily transferable, because Japanese firms view company loyalty in an almost feudal sense. A former Toyota manager is rarely welcome at Mitsubishi because whatever corporate conditioning he’s had, regardless of the similarities, is considered tainted by the competition’s way of doing things. The same applies to an experienced teacher moving to a competitor. It is possible, but major chains each have their own methodology. A teacher might as well be a divorcee, trying to land a date while they’re considered “damaged goods.”

In any case, moving from one big chain to another is usually just a step sideways, as pay and conditions do not vary greatly; moving to a smaller school often means lower pay or a part-time assignment. Perhaps the main benefit is that the international experience will look good on teachers’ resumes when they return to their home countries.

Experience in Big Eikaiwa also limits development when teachers do move out of the corporate environment. Often a teacher indoctrinated in corporate methodology finds it hard to adjust to a more parochial environment.

Says James, a head instructor at a regional school in Sapporo: “I’ve had good teachers, experienced teachers, come from the big schools. The first time they pick up a real textbook they don’t know where to begin because all they’ve ever known is their school’s routine. They need to be retrained, in a way. One guy asked me if it was OK to sit down during a lesson because his previous school had never allowed it. I understood then why they take pay cuts just to feel human again.”

For those looking to stay in Japan for the longer term, the glass ceiling is alive and well. Few foreigners climb to anything above middle management, and CEOs are rare. The most a foreign teacher can normally aspire to is head instructor at a branch or a cluster of branches. Their brief is usually limited to overseeing other foreigners.

Most branch managers are Japanese and have ultimate authority over head teachers. Subjective student evaluations, based on woolly customer-service goals rather than learning results, determine a teacher’s raises, bonuses and promotion prospects, if there are any at all: the Berlitz union action started after the parent company posted record profits while teachers’ pay had been frozen for 16 years. At Gaba, targets for advancement such as total lessons taught or the number of positive evaluations are often revised upward to make them harder to attain.

Japanese tend to view foreigners as temporary, transient workers, and that perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The big schools know they have an advantage because there has always been a steady stream of foreigners looking to fund their Japanese adventure. They know the teachers lack the resources to challenge them — the language skills, the legal and local knowledge, the contacts, and even the time on their visa, which is often tied to their employment at the school. More cynically, they know that the teacher married in Japan with a young family is unlikely to vote with his or her feet. They certainly don’t pay the teachers enough to afford a lawyer. They’d be crazy to.

Indeed, there is little advocacy for foreign workers in Japan. With foreigners making up such a minority — less than 2 percent of the population — and with an aging society, declining birthrate and associated economic difficulties on the horizon, the plight of a relative handful of foreign teachers is hardly a societal priority. Moreover the fees students often pay, along with memories of the bubble years, lead them to the erroneous conclusion that English teachers make good enough money as it is. They’re often shocked to learn eikaiwa instructors get such a small cut for their efforts — at Berlitz or Gaba, for example, about a quarter of the per-lesson fee. There is no broad awareness of the discrepancy between lesson fees and instructors’ salaries.

The law does help, as the courts are not wholly unsympathetic toward workers. However litigation is costly and time-consuming and again, foreign teachers are uniquely disadvantaged in both respects. In Japan there is the saying that “The nail that sticks up gets hammered in,” adding an element of shame to standing up for yourself. This hampers the prospects for industrial action in general in Japan, and for a society where uniformity and complacence are considered virtues, the idea that foreign workers should be entitled to “special” privileges is perhaps asking too much.

This leaves collective bargaining the only viable option. At schools such as ECC, where the company has embraced the unions and listened to their requests, this has been a ticket to better conditions and greater job security, not to mention productivity. At Gaba and Berlitz, where management has dug in its heels and faced industrial action over nonrenewal of union members’ contracts, it has led to greater tensions and ongoing court battles.

In the small schools where teachers have been unable to fight back by weight of numbers, their benefits and rights have been largely at the whim of the employer. Some are benevolent, others shady. Most fall somewhere in between, as struggling schools do the best they can and are always looking to cut costs. But in the big schools where large unions have been possible, collective bargaining and court rulings have helped keep the most egregious exploiters in line. It pays to unionize.

Amid profits and expansion, what makes Big Eikaiwa keep slamming teachers — and teaching standards — down year after year? Why are the star players in the game on the lowest rung?

The answer is surprisingly simple: Because the teachers put up with it, and because the schools have figured this out. As long as there are people willing to take a leap and see what Japan holds for them, there will be employers willing to exploit that desire.

Teachers who have greater career aspirations or who simply can’t take it anymore go home. Some are sent home in disgrace or disgust. The rest are survivors who manage to settle in. Whether it be down to love, family, cultural or travel interests, they simply suck it up and soldier on.

Craig Currie-Robson works at a local language center in Sapporo. During his years in Japan, he has also worked for large eikaiwa chains as well as international kindergartens and on assignments for corporate clients and tertiary institutions. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Send your comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • David Lee

    What a dreary rant. The same old whining. The English teaching field in Japan is huge. There are plenty of other options and opportunities outside of the Eikaiwa chains. Anyone who knows their craft, is qualified and has an ounce of initiative will become aware that a world exists outside of Berlitz, ECC etc. fairly quickly and will be able to take advantage of the broader industry.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Good points, and I agree. So why is it not happening? Simply because, ooops, am I blaming the victim?, Simply because the people who are likely to come to Japan and do the eikaiwa dance are those who are likely to be dependent and fall into a rut that they can’t get out of without a lot of time, effort, and talent. Besides, why try when you can just take a trip to Thailand and forget about it for a while?

      Probably everyone posting here has done it. Teaching eikaiwa used to be easier than working at McDonald’s. Don’t know if it still is, but I bet it is. As skills progress, the pay doesn’t. That is why it is called a dead end job. People need to move on or accept it at that stage. And we know how it goes: for “one reason or another” one gets comfortable and ignores the “dead end” part of it.

      For what it is worth, this column could have been written in any year since 1991. Not a thing has changed, but teachers who were getting 5000-7000 yen per hour then are getting, what, 2000 yen per hour now? Some frogs jumped out before the water started boiling, some frogs are just getting croaked.

  • Jack

    An interesting article which covers a lot of ground that foreign teachers often face that are mostly negative. Finally, after going through all of that, I decided to cut the cord and go after teaching on my own and opened my own small eikaiwa. I suppose many of us do that if they have enough socked away for a start up. Still it’s been hard with ups and downs getting enough students.

    • David Wright

      As they say Jack, if you can’t change the company, change the company. With the expected “norm” in Japan being stable employment, benefits, including pension (actually it is stipulated by law) it is a mystery why the eikaiwa industry thinks it is okay to deny workers this. Creating a sub-class of worker akin to burakumin will continue to alienate, demotivate and cause motivated staff to migrate to their own businesses.

      • shakti

        It is not the eikaiwa industry alone that exploit teachers. Torai (Try), one of the largest tutors dispatch service company is just an example. Most Japanese colleges and universities highly depend on “irregular” lecturers working at extremely low pay. Please don’t think Japanese societies alienate only foreign teachers.

      • happyjapan

        You are right Shakti, but foreigners are the canaries in the coal mine. The exploitation endured by foreigners has been slowly affecting Japanese workers across the board. This is one of the ironies about not stretching rights to Non native workers: Sooner or later, unscrupulous employers supported by their politician buddies, realise that they can
        exploit their own. So discrimination ultimately is bad for society (apart from keeping English levels abysmal)

    • bartonim

      That’s probably where I am headed, John. I am currently employed by about 4 outfits, one being ECC. I mention ECC because it is pretty good generally. The care and professionalism ECC displays is pretty impressive. Still, I am leaning toward my own. Without an MA, I find the pickings slim for private junior/senior high schools. That would be great by me, as I’ve also just begun ALT (which, in my case, was strictly a matter of me handling the lesson and ensuring the students enjoyed themselves; I am always willing to work with the teachers, but they leave me alone, and things go well). However, not only have the private schools demanded MAs or other qualifications beyond a four-year degree, they don’t pay much better than working at an eikaiwa. There are exceptions, but they insist you leave after 3 successive contracts so they aren’t bound to provide the benefits. What I already get on my own can exceed by the hour what many of these places offer. But, with a family and a general love of Japan, I am likely here to stay!

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    This is basically why I would never work for an Eikaiwa. Compared to the JET Programme the pay and benefits are laughable.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      And that is saying something. You said a mouthful.

  • keratomileusis

    ” customer-service staff, delivering a standardized product” and “woolly customer-service goals rather than learning results” I was elated to hear my boss finally admit this.

    “They look for suckers” Maybe, maybe not. All the new teachers that have joined our school seem to know what’s going on, and that it’s just a job.

    “There is no broad awareness of the discrepancy between lesson fees and instructors’ salaries” So, how do you make “customers” (not students) aware of this? This truth tends to lead to unrealistic expectations, and that they don’t have to do anything (like study) to achieve their language goals.

    Lastly, “mastery” is a concept that continues to elude the eikaiwa industry. We don’t test our “customers” since it is against the “language center’s” (not school’s) self promoting interest.

  • Peter

    There are a lot of opportunities outside of Eikaiwa, and that kind of teaching is usually a means to an end. Thanks to this terrible industry, I got a visa to come to Japan, an apartment, the opportunity to learn Japanese while living in Japan, make connections and find a job in my major, as well as, put some additional money in my pocket when my “real” job here paid even less. Unfortunately JET only hires a fraction of the people that want to come over. I see our author focusing only on negatives when this industry gave me an easy and manageable start to living in Japan.

  • So I guess being a teacher in Japan is not the job for you.

    There are no guarantees in this world. As a foreigner in Japan this is the price you pay for coasting on your worthless bachelors degree. If you want a better future, step it up. The culture is not going to change for you. You adapt and find a way, or get out of the way. The window of opportunity is small and it closes more and more every day. You can make it through, but you have to be ambitious, stand up for yourself and spend most of your free time pushing to your future.

    Focus. Making it or not is the world’s way of sorting things out. Do you have it in you, or not? The kind of guys who get married while still in these garbage jobs have given their answer already, whether they recognize it or not. How about you?

  • La_Dolce

    I think what he meant was, 10 *paid vacation days* per year. That’s what I got at NOVA, and those 10 were expected to be used for sick days, days when the school is closed, and days we need to take off for one reason or another. It’s not quite enough, and anyway you’d only get the “base salary,” without the paltry benefits from classes (a whole 200 yen per two person lesson! Wow!).

  • shakti

    Seems to be a very important point. Japan’s eikaiwa schools do not seem to try to make a difference. Students may come and go, but most of them are no different. I wonder how many Japanese students of Eikaiwa schools come to be able to speak some English after a year? If learning English conversation skills is not so important in Japan, foreign English teachers’ payment will be naturally very low, possibly forever.

    • happyjapan

      I think eikaiwa chains are a waste of time and money. There might be something to say for small local schools run by good teachers.Japan needs to employ foreigners at companies and state schools and colleges, give them reasonable terms, benefits and job security, allow them time to spend time with their families by giving them weekends ands holidays off and not work them to the point of collapse for a pittance .
      In general, Japanese society has to become more tolerant of foreigners and needs to loosen up.If they do this, more foreigners will come to Japan and settle here, and Japanese will be able to chat in English and other languages with their friends and neighbours! This will be supported by properly-taught English in schools and colleges. I know this all seems radical, but most industrial countries do this as a matter of course.

  • Guest

    I didn’t mean a ‘mere’ Masters degree makes you a shoe-in for a tenured Professorship. My point was that many of the people complaining about not being treated fairly as ‘teachers’ don’t have ANY qualifications at all. So I think you’re actually seconding my opinion.

  • Gordon Graham

    Actually, I still cling to my native citizenship with pride(perhaps too much pride…or perhaps I’m racist…I’m not being facetious here, I’m being honest). However, growing up in sport I do appreciate the concept of team and that within a team one must know their role, rookies must defer to veterans and earn the respect and trust of their teammates through hard work perseverance and contribution. Outsiders are always only afforded auxiliary roles on any team. If you truly want to become a full-fledged member of the team then I suggest you forego your native citizenship and become a naturalised Japanese citizen. If you want a full-fledged commitment perhaps you should make a full-fledged commitment. If not then to the Japanese your jeering is only white noise coming from the sideline.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    People get a lot out of working eikaiwa. All in all, the system is not bad. It is just not made for people to build a life on. It is made for young people to broaden their horizons a little and move on.

    Management, students, workers… NOBODY… would be happy with an eikaiwa industry staffed entirely by 40 and 50 somethings slurping instant coffee and hanging around the water cooler talking about benefits.

    I will use a cliche because the eikaiwa business is a cliche: it is what it is. And all concerned seem to be more or less satisfied with what it is. The industry is amazingly robust despite all of its flaws and broken promises.

  • slow_moon

    Oh, absolutely. In my case, social outing meant McD’s with the other ALTs in my area or things like that. Not exactly networking opportunities.

  • Alistair

    The Yen got much weaker in 2013. If this trend continues, I wonder if fewer people will come to teach in Japan in future. Two years ago, a teacher’s savings could be converted into a reasonable amount of dollars or pounds on returning home. No longer.

  • Nevin Thompson

    Fundamentally, “teaching English” at a language is not a career. It is meant to be a short-term, entry-level position, and that’s it – there are other things to worry about, such as guest workers being paid little to nothing at all to be dispatched to farms and factories.

    On the flip side, I know a number of people who have worked hard to create and run their own language schools. Teaching English conversation is not a dead end in Japan, but teaching English conversation at any of the major “schools” certainly is.

    It’s not a real job.

  • Nancy Kolde

    I was on the JET Program for 3 years in Fukuoka-ken and had a great time. I have nothing bad to say about any experience I had there. I used to hear all kinds of stories from my friends who worked at NOVA, and I was like, “what are you complaining about.” At least they’re paying you, and honoring your contract. The year I spent in Korea teaching in “Hagwon” (the Korean equivalent to a Japanese Eikaiwa) schools was pure hell. Koreans are the most dishonestpeople I’ve ever had to deal with. They never paid me on time. It was always late and half of what I was contracted for.

    So as long as Eikaiwa teachers are getting paid what they are promised in their contracts, they really need to think about what kind of contract they signed before they complain.