Eikaiwa, deal with sexual harassment of teachers before it’s too late

by Craig Currie-Robson

On March 26, 2007, a cluster of plainclothes police officers gathered around a drab apartment block in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. English teacher Lindsay Hawker had been absent from her job with the Nova conversation school chain for several days. Friends knew Hawker had been scheduled to meet a student, Tatsuya Ichihashi.

Ichihashi had been arrested before for assaulting a woman, making him a person of interest. He was not a large man, but he was wiry and fit. When the officers tried to apprehend him as he left his apartment, he slipped their grasp. He would go on the lam for 2½ years.

Inside the apartment were signs of a violent struggle: Hawker’s belongings and clothing were strewn about. On the balcony, in a bathtub filled with sand and compost, they found the 22-year-old Briton. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. Though Hawker’s killer had been a private student, not a Nova client, the incident underscores the dangers young women face teaching overseas, even in a country touted for its safety.

If there is one place teachers and students should feel safe, it is in the eikaiwa (English conversation school) classroom, yet harassment is not unheard of. One teacher recalls a married colleague who was slipping his phone number to underage girls. The head instructor raided the classroom and caught him red-handed. Female students come on to teachers, too. Samuel from the U.K. taught a divorcee who became friendlier as each lesson went by.

“I didn’t want to offend her, and being a part-timer, I needed the regular student.” he says. When she finally confessed her love for him, Samuel had to explain to her very gently that it wasn’t that sort of a relationship, “but the fear was always there that she could accuse me of something, so I had to tread carefully,” he says.

Nova’s notorious contract clause forbidding staff from socializing with students is still common in eikaiwa. There is some business sense in stopping teachers poaching students, after all. The rule also guards against would-be Lotharios sleeping around and damaging a company’s reputation. On the other hand, preventing genuine relationships because you might lose a customer seems petty and venal. It is also probably illegal.

In 2004, the Osaka Bar Association’s Human Rights Commission ruled in a case brought by the General Union (GU) that argued the Nova policy was discriminatory and therefore violated labor law. Six teachers had been dismissed in a crackdown on hanky-panky. One of the six — one of the two claimants in the case — was forced to resign for dating a Nova student he had originally met outside of work; the other claimant was engaged to a young woman who was a student at a different branch. The nonbinding ruling stated not only that Nova should rehire the teachers, but also that the anti-fraternization clause should be removed from the contract altogether. Nova stated it did not plan to follow the ruling, and the clause remains in teachers’ contracts to this day.

With genders reversed, amorous advances can be more intimidating. James McCrostie reported on these pages in June about the growing body of complaints. One Gaba teacher, Olivia, experienced not one but two incidents of students masturbating in the classroom. A Nova teacher reported similar behavior from a student in a Skype-style online lesson. Across the industry, instructors have been subjected to suggestive questions, inappropriate bodily contact and incessant haranguing for dates.

While eikaiwa is often quick to jump on offending teachers for even consensual relationships, harassment complaints from teachers have been handled with indifference and hostility. Seldom is firm action taken against the offender. In Japan, as the saying goes, “the customer is God.” At Gaba, teachers told The Japan Times, an offending student was simply moved from branch to branch whenever female instructors complained, until he had harassed pretty much all of them.

Stephanie, a teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange and Training) program, says she experienced similar stonewalling in public schools. Posted in rural Hyogo Prefecture, she was hazed by students at first.

“The boys would mutter ‘I love you’ in the corridor,” she says. “They were interested in me as a kind of exhibit.”

This is one of the ways Japanese adolescents “tame” the foreign threat: by pretending they are not intimidated by the confident foreign woman. However, the hazing took a nasty turn, she says, when one of the boys accosted and groped Stephanie in the common room.

The response from the Japanese staff was weak, she says. “The principal and other teachers only reassured me, but I didn’t want him loose in the school anymore.” Stephanie emailed her coordinator but, she says, “They never gave me a straight answer on whether the school would take action or JET would.” Both seemed less interested in dealing with the problem than sweeping it under the carpet.

In the absence of official support, women have developed a variety of strategies to cope with classroom harassment. At Gaba, teachers have been known to leave a secret code on the student records of problem clients, a warning to other female instructors of what to expect. They swap stories on how to tactfully deflect approaches in one-to-one lessons. It is telling that rather than address harassment openly, they have been forced underground, to deal with the problem as best they can without attracting retribution from the company.

Though some supervisors and managers have been sympathetic, others have been dismissive or reluctant to act. Counselors at Gaba have insisted that teachers continue to teach clients who have harassed them because the lessons are booked and paid for. Too often, language schools’ default position is to protect the client at all costs, at least until the teachers and the union kick up a storm or, preferably, until the offended teacher resigns.

The industry seems to encourage sexuality. Advertising contains suggestive images, feeding perceptions that English is a gateway to foreign adventure and romance. ECC ran a poster with a Japanese woman gazing into the eyes of a youthful Western male, a crystal-blue sky in the backdrop and the caption, “What’s next?” A poster for Gaba shows a woman standing side by side with her foreign teacher, handcuffed to him at the wrist — suggesting an altogether different kind of fantasy.

Western media may also share some blame. Popular shows such as “Sex and the City” portray an image of promiscuous American women that stands in stark contrast to chaste Japanese heroines.

Says Olivia: “Women from certain countries or backgrounds are sometimes fetishized in Japan the same way Asian women can be in the West.”

When shed of social strictures on brazenly approaching local women, a student may feel he can live out his fantasies with an “easy” foreign one. At least, he may surmise, she won’t object to him playing a little grab-ass.

Perhaps society is lagging. Officers found that Hawker’s killer also had a yen for violent hentai comics, depicting scenes of rape, incest and bestiality. These comics also feed the fantasies Japan’s infamous subway gropers. The government has resisted calls from the U.N. to ban hentai comics, citing freedom of speech, and only this year made the possession of child pornography an offense.

In a GU survey of teachers across the industry, a staggering 57 percent of female respondents reported some form of harassment (the figure for men was 48 percent). When women complained, they were taken seriously in only 45 percent of cases, with the normal reaction being to ignore the complaint, delay action or make the teacher feel she was to blame herself. In only 15 percent of cases was any action taken and only 5 percent of offending students were removed from the complaining teacher’s schedule. Most teachers are afraid of the company or expect inaction. Only 45 percent of women and 38 percent of men spoke to management when they felt harassed.

With policies that still punish staff for consensual relationships, one has to wonder why Big Eikaiwa bends over backwards to protect the honor of a handful of perverts who harass the teachers. Are profits really more important than people?

Schools must take complaints seriously. They must implement proper procedures for investigation. Most importantly, employers must have the courage to take preventive measures, including refunding and dismissing proven offenders. We don’t need their money.

The drive to keep clients and cover up any scandals not only trumps the basic human dignity of the instructors; it might put them in physical danger as well. If eikaiwa schools do not take firm steps to protect teachers from gropers, stalkers and serial masturbators, it may only be a matter of time before another Lindsay Hawker is murdered — this time on their watch.

Teachers spoke on condition they could use pseudonyms, citing privacy concerns and fear of retribution from employers. 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. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Ron NJ

    Dealing with the problem would require admitting that a problem exists, which will never happen, thus the present situation will only continue. Sad but that’s just how it is.

    • rossdorn

      Why should there be a change?
      Is there a problem? There is never a problem in Japan, its only those foreigners, that cannot live up to the standards of japanese culture….

      • Toolonggone

        This is not a matter of standards of “japanese culture.” This is the basics of labor ethics. Eikiawa schools are blowing it all off.

    • Warren Lauzon

      In Japan (and to a similar extent in Korea), the main problem for officials is how to cover it up, not how to solve it in far too many cases.

  • Gordon Graham

    Let’s not ignore the predatory nature of many Eikaiwa teacher’s hawking their students (including high school girls) for sex…

    • R0ninX3ph

      Oh, the good old “Others are doing something wrong, so everything is okay” argument.

      Nothing in the article suggested that teachers preying on students was fine, the article is about sexual harassment of teachers by predatory students. If you stop sexual harassment of teachers, that doesn’t stop you from also being able to stop predatory teachers too.

      • Gordon Graham

        The solution is the same for both…cameras in the classroom. Where you got the OK from is beyond me.

    • blondein_tokyo

      Yes, of course. But it’s not being ignored, shown by the fact the article mentions this problem as well. And before you protest that only a few examples were given, I counter that since this article is primarily about students harassing teachers it’s not the purpose of the article to go into depth on that topic. I do think it would be beneficial to make that the subject of another article, written in Japanese, in a newspaper or magazine whose readership is Japanese, as that would the best target audience for that subject.

      That said, I met a few predatory eikaiwa sensei in my time teaching eikaiwa, and it always infuriated me that they often got away with it. I knew one guy, for example, who asked out each of the women in his business class and then pitted them against each other to create jealousy so that he could continue dating all three of them. I reported him to the management (he bragged about this to me, thinking I would be impressed? Idiot.), but nothing was done that I know of. When I finally quit that company, he was still teaching.

      Now that I think of it, the lack of professional standards in the eikaiwa industry, including lack of teaching skills as well as unprofessional behavior, would make an EXCELLENT article.

      • Gordon Graham

        Hopefully, Mr.Currie Robson reads your comment.

      • An analysis of both sides should be run in a Japanese newspaper, since here it’s largely preaching to the choir.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Indeed. That’s what makes these pieces and much of what appears in the Japan Times so utterly absurd. Even where there is a legitimate issue, expecting anything written in English in a venue that few if any influential Japanese read to have an impact is like expecting something written in Japanese in an obscure, small circulation paper published in the US or the UK to have any impact on US or UK policy. Ain’t going to happen. Writing in the Japan Times is simply venting or group masturbation. Foreign nationals who write in Japanese in widely read Japanese language publications have on occasion had an impact. Unknown gaijin blowing off in the Japan Times in English may make you a hero among other equally unknown gaijin, but it’s not going to shape policy any more than Japanese blowing off in Japanese in the US or the UK would shape policy.

      • Grumpy Haniwa Figurine

        That doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. I think the Japan Times is doing a huge service in bringing up this issue. Plenty of gaijins sincerely enjoy helping Japanese people with English-related goals, and plenty of Japanese people sincerely appreciate and value the patient gaijins who do so. It is an unfortunate reality that some teachers and students with sinister, exploitative motivations degrade the above. Well, as a gaijin who left Canada due to a child sex abuse coverup and a condescending unresponsive media, despite suicides, bankrupting lawsuits and damaged lives, I certainly think that the more people talk about abuse issues the better – in any language.

      • Mark Makino

        It would be a good article, but very difficult to research. Also when speaking of the Eikaiwa industry remember that the industry is not solely chains, and smaller schools (who don’t recruit overseas, can’t shift lesson schedules and are often owned by their only teacher) don’t deserve to be painted with the same brush as GABA.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I’m not sure sure you can say that. Plenty of those small schools break the law, too. And since they are smaller and have such limited cash flow, even if you sue you aren’t likely going to collect the judgment.

        At it’s core, eikaiwa is rotten though and though, as evidenced by a total lack of professional standards and no oversight. I’d advise anyone who was thinking about teaching in Japan not to rely on the school for their visa, to learn about Japanese labor law, join the general union, and to make sure you always have enough savings so that you can quit at a moment’s notice if necessary.

      • Mark Makino

        Again, research on the topic would be helpful but it’s the schools with unethical practices that would the least likely to participate in research. I don’t disagree that eikaiwa are unregulated and are of uneven quality but what English learning venue in Japan is superior? Public school teachers are almost universally untrained in SLA (ALTs included) and even if they were their priorities are not SLA per se anyway. The job conditions are superior but not the pedagogy.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    “Perhaps society is lagging. Officers found that Hawker’s killer also had a yen for violent hentai comics, depicting scenes of rape, incest and bestiality. These comics also feed the fantasies Japan’s infamous subway gropers.” Evidence for this assertion, if you will please. And, I would note that groping is a major problem in India to say nothing of violent and sometimes fatal rape, but India does not have hentai comics.

    • Warren Lauzon

      It is easy to blame comics rather than find out the real cause.

      • Earl Kinmonth

        Indeed. And, if you cannot blame comics, blame computer games.

  • Gordon Graham

    As I’ve already said in response to the exact same article published only a couple of months ago, the solution is simple…put cameras in the classroom. That would dissuade both teachers and students from inappropriate behaviour.

    • blondein_tokyo

      I agree. A clear sexual harassment policy, plus cameras, would be the perfect solution. But those things won’t happen unless they are forced. A lot of eikaiwa are small, with little or no oversight by either management or a professional governing body. They also have a very limited budget – most of these places don’t even have a computer or a TV, let alone expensive electronic equipment like security cameras. I highly doubt many, if any, would be willing to pony up the cash of their own volition. They also don’t give a damn about the teachers, as is shown by their reaction to the cases in the story, as well as in a myriad of other ways including lack of employment security and no budget for training or teaching supplies. They won’t make changes until they are sued and get a lot of bad publicity which causes them to lose students (and thus revenue).

      All of which are reasons not to be in eikaiwa at all…but I digress. :)

      • Gordon Graham

        At the very least the teachers and or students should be at liberty to video-tape the lessons themselves…

    • J.P. Bunny

      Cameras in the classrooms would be a good way to keep instructors on their toes, but I doubt it would have any effect on student behavior. Having worked for eikaiwas (both large and small) and the so called dispatch companies, it is clear that money comes first, employees are disposable. My guess would be that any “incident” caused by the student would be glossed over. Cameras belonging to the company can malfunction, tapes can be lost, or accidentally erased. Instructors that insist on justice can be fired for whatever reason, real or invented. Money talks, employees can walk.

    • KietaZou

      From your comments here, you really don’t have a clue, but your knee jerks magnetically toward some authoritarian “solution.” Could you tell us what you actually do for employment? I’m just an instructor, and male.

      • Gordon Graham

        I coach ice hockey

  • Hanten

    It’s great that this problem is being written about in the Japan Times. One other aspect of it in eikaiwas not covered in the article is sexual harassment between staff.

    I’ve seen multiple cases of male foreign teachers harassing female teachers and the school or agency not doing anything in some cases or simply telling the men to stop it in others. Some of the women suffered ill health because of the stress of it. Some of the women left their jobs to escape it.

    What’s the difference between Japan and where these harassers are from? There are no company handbooks in Japan on what sexual harassment is only statements like “don’t annoy your colleagues”. Most Western countries have multiple avenues for filing complaints and a broad definition of what sexual harassment is while Japan has only the Labour Office. It says there has to be “physical evidence of sexual jokes or invitations” for them to do anything about it other than just talk to people. I’ve never heard of the LO acting in any way in any cases involving foreign staff. Neither had any of the harassers I spoke to. So these guys know they can get away it and some of them freely admit it.

  • Mezianne

    I worked for an eikawa mentioned above for a year and didn’t have any problems. I don’t think what’s written above is incorrect, but it doesn’t go into the more positive sides of the job either. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s not like I went into work everyday feeling like I was being sexualised.

    It’s important to recognise that it’s not just in this area that Japanese officials react slowly to; it’s a cultural thing. It’s not like in the West where we sometimes act without thinking. Before they can act they have to look into the matter and investigate. I definitely think they could do more in the interim but I think it’s a bit unfair to blame them for not kicking the student out immediately. The matter has to be looked into more carefully.

    I had a great relationship with my coworkers. Japanese and foreigners. Having a respectable relationship will mean you won’t get accused of crying wolf.

  • Enricopallazzo

    Eikaiwa. Such great idea for meeting sexy orientals. I’ve had over 30 if anybody cares.

  • Carmen Sterba

    It’s good that harassment is taken more seriously in South Korea.

  • Carmen Sterba

    From the end of the 80’s to 2004, I taught at two women’s
    colleges and one women’s university, but never heard of any of harassment of foreign teachers
    towards Japanese, or Japanese towards foreign teachers. However, I have heard of stories of Japanese male university professors harassing female students at other universities. I would imagine that the problems at the ekaiwa schools are much more widespread than when I first began teaching in Japan.

  • kayumochi

    Male Japanese high school teachers and university instructors hit on students far more often than anything that goes on in the world of Eikaiwa. These Japanese teachers seldom lose their jobs. Is anyone suggesting cameras be placed in these classrooms?

  • Someone mentioned video taping in the classroom. There were a couple people I know who worked under JET and they absolutely discourage recording of their students of any kind. I can assume for privacy and other reasons.
    I’m not sure if this applies to private schools.

    In regards to the article, I find it interesting that in places like the U.S. the polar opposite is happening…