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

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.