The term “McEnglish” has been applied to the numerous English conversation school chains in Japan seemingly since their conception. And perhaps with good reason – the likes of GABA, ECC, Nova and AEON became household names by offering the “quick-casual” English experience. They provided a place for busy salarymen and other career professionals to quickly practice their English in a relaxed atmosphere, and in a location convenient to their daily commute.
But to maintain the casual and convenient selling point, English conversation schools ("eikaiwa" in Japanese) needed to provide a veritable legion of passably trained, mild-mannered native English speakers to lead the classes. And so began a mass exodus of Western college grads and working holiday visa-holders descending on Japan in the early 1980s when Nova and other popular schools opened their doors.
It’s no secret that the industry is now in bad shape. The writing was on the wall even before the highly-publicized 2007 collapse of Nova. Citing exploitative labor conditions, employees (specifically native teachers) at most of the larger "eikaiwa" corporations began organizing into unions, and the cloak-and-dagger corporate policies of some schools had been under scrutiny since their CEOs and owners allegedly lifted company funds and fled.
After Nova’s collapse, GEOS was next on the chopping block – closing its doors on April 21. Unlike Nova, many GEOS teachers, staff and shareholders had been expecting the bankruptcy announcement for some time.
The future of "eikaiwa" in general seems uncertain as schools see the bad-business ripple effect of the Nova collapse replayed with GEOS. Although demand for English conversation classes has been on the decline in recent years, ultimately it was unethical business practices that felled Nova and GEOS.
But that isn’t to say that the remaining heavy-hitters in the industry have their hands clean. Horror stories abound of teachers being strong-armed by their employers for all manner of reasons, and scare tactics seem to be par for the course rather than civilized negotiation when it comes to teacher complaints. Look no further than Berlitz opting to sue teachers involved in a strike, rather than negotiate with union representatives in 2008. The industry is in shambles, Japanese consumers and Western employees are dubious of school policies, and no one is waving any white flags when it comes to the corporate-level reform unions are demanding.
So, what is the future of the industry? Complete collapse is probably out of the question, as Japan’s aging population will soon necessitate a larger number of foreign laborers, which is likely to reignite Japan’s passion for English communication. On the other hand, it is obvious that things simply can’t continue as they are. Aside from the tidal wave of international bad press the industry is getting, many have speculated a variety of other reasons for the declining demand for "eikaiwa."
For one, the same problem that has plagued dozens of other industries is catching up to English conversation: the Internet. The same busy salarymen who once utilized the "eikaiwa" goliaths are now turning to the ultra-convenience of the Internet, where online classes and podcasts are obtainable for a fraction of the price of traditional classes. Granted, many schools have been offering web lessons for some time now, but these are often included as a perk for buying the classroom package, rather than as a separate option.
I, for one, don’t believe the Internet thing will hold for long. Learning a language isn’t a solitary experience like reading a magazine or studying for a test. Hundreds of hours of listening to Obama speeches on the Internet may help you learn the language, but it can never prepare you for the stresses of a real conversation with an English speaker. I predict that eventually, demand will swing back in favor of face-time with native speakers.
But, without a doubt, preferences are certainly changing. And, with new compulsory learning reforms taking hold in Japan this year, aimed at strengthening English learning in public schools, students who once turned to English conversation schools for extra grammar and vocabulary knowledge may no longer find the extra expense necessary. The schools have to embrace and emphasize what their name suggests: conversation.
As the world globalizes and Japan inevitably amends its immigration policy, the Japanese will not only need English again but will also need to learn the intricacies of social interaction with people from vastly different cultures. In the Western world, we hear all about the often complex social customs of the Japanese – always pass your business card with two hands, bow at the appropriate angle at the appropriate time, use honorific language when speaking to superiors – but I believe the notion that Western social customs can be just as complex and are often much more subtle, is lost on the Japanese.
This is the shift I see in the coming "eikaiwa" landscape -- a movement away from English education and toward cultural education. This may be in the form of simulated business meetings with English speakers, or perhaps casual English cafes that employ Westerners to have a simple, no-frills chat with visitors.
The "eikaiwa" machine will need to go back to the drawing board and heavily revise class structure -- if not do away with classes entirely -- to remain competitive. And, just as McDonald’s has begun offering healthier menu options and better employment packages, McEnglish needs to shape up and realize that the product they currently offer may be unhealthy and unacceptable for consumers and employees alike.© Japan Today