Japan Today



Back to the 'eikaiwa' drawing board

By Mike Oakland

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.

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Thank you for this post. I especially like your comment about the intricacies of Western social customs, because it's so true.

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A very well written and insightful article that I think really nails the important issues.

I do, however, disagree that e-learning will not grow. It doesn't require specialist software to have a face-to-face speaking lesson with a native speaker, one could simply use skype, and there are specialist software packages used in the corporate environment that allow simulated classrooms which busy salarymen could attend while in the office.

There will still be a large percentage of housewives and retirees who are not comfortable with an internet classroom and prefer the human element of attending a physical class, but I remain unconvinced that eikaiwas will recover to the extent that you predict.

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Good article! How about writing an article on eikaiwa for children?

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Excellent article. It goes without saying that the state of English teaching in Japan has been in a sorry state for many years. I attribute this, among many other reasons, to Japan's eikaimwa schools preference for low-cost, not necessarily experienced, 'tourist teachers.' Most language schools just need a foreign face at the front of a classroom to promote an image, and let's be honest, any language school can fish one out of the vast ESL pool at any time. Most eikaiwa only have an eye on profit to stay in business, so what does it matter to any school with regard to the quality of foreign teacher? Most tourist teachers start on the JET Programme which, aside from being the biggest farce of all time, offers an easy route into Japan for grads who have no clue about what to do with their lives after graduation. Most, including myself at the time, treated the JET Programme as the 'graduation holiday.' After spending almost 13 years in Japanese-style schools (inc. a Japanese university) I spent the entire year sitting at an empty desk because my host institution didn't know what to do with me. In spite of my education and experience I decided to train to become a professionally qualified language and business teacher. Today, I am not a low-cost, inexperienced, 'tourist teacher.' But that makes individuals like myself still not required in Japan. The exodus to Japan the article speaks of during the 80s has reversed today with many trained professionals preferring to move out and sell their knowledge and skills to other countries who give a dam about the quality of education for their students. China, for example (where I work now,) is filling-up with experienced and qualified ESL teachers. There is no way I could the job I do now in Japan. And why would I? The Chinese are not short-sighted and recognise what professional teachers have to contribute to the organisation. We give lectures and seminars, or design entire courses in English/business communication and culture. We train students and professionals alike in ways that improve their lives, and in a country like China, it gives one a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Chinese education has its faults, but colleges, universities, and business training centres are years ahead of Japan.

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from article

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 don't agree. It's a great idea to offer teaching online such that the teacher doesn't even have to be in Japan, and the student doesn't have to stand out. Standing out is such a big thing it's hard to explain if you haven't experienced how far this is taken in Japan. The savings are amazing for Internet and it will be the teacher who is fed up with eikaiwa companies who is Internet savvy who will break the mold. This also benefits real teachers I should point out. The tourist teacher can't be succinct or plan a curriculum. Using the Internet as a tool to enhance real teachers plus at a low cost is ideal.

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also if classes are online lessons then a real qualified teacher can teach with more quality and improve on each lesson for the greater benefit of the student. The Internet can then sell to multiple students at once, surpassing a class size while offering the quality of a one to one.

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to conclude then, the cheapskates take the Internet courses, and for those who are willing to pay a higher price then take live courses. Teachers make more money regardless of how the student is involved. It's actually what both the students and the teachers want.

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I dont think its so much the japanese not being able to get a good system in for teaching english (and the culture, which can differ alot depending on the country) so much as the japanese still having problems with the whole "forgein" thing.

Why do the japanese use to hands when passing sometyhing like a credit card?

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Lets face it, folks, the writing is on the wall with regard to English teaching in Japan. Given the fact that according to polls, over 65% of Japanese "want nothing to do with foreigners" and over 80% of Tokyo landlords actively discriminate against foreigners, plus the demise of these Eikaiwa schools, added to the slow but sure shutting of the gates in universities to foreign teachers, and the discrimnination against foreign teachers with regard to the demeaning contract system they operate, it is not easy to figure out the direction this country is heading. "We Japanese dont need to speak English" is a sentence I am hearing with increasing frequency these days. Yes, it appears that the Japanese are retreating into the bad old days of isolationism. Their mindset has never really changed, even though Perry & Co forced them to open up their borders all those years ago.

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who cares - its all fraud anyway....

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The system of English education in the school level should be reformed and spreading use of English in every sphere of life can only make the Japanese successful in speaking English. Look at the countries of Indian sub-content,Philippines is there any eikawa type of system there? But they are unquestionably better speaker of English than the Japanese people.

Japan has virtually no use of English in daily life only if the company is foreign-owned multinational. The written documents for local usage also should be in English as well as Japanese but I doubt not a single brave Japanese will try to read it.

In fact, learning English is a hobby not a serious thing to the Japanese people that was started from the bubble era when people had abundant amount of money. But now the situation has changed with shrunken pockets unwilling to waste money for a less effective and non-mandatory education.

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As some here have stated. The low quality of the teachers brought down the system. many went to Japan to party and were suprise they they were not treated with respect.

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fondofj writes

can only make the Japanese successful in speaking English

they've had more than 50 years and still fail because there is ultimately no respect given to their own language (hence engrish) or to a foreign one. Having self respect is the precursor to gaining it in another language. Some do fine, most do not, or care.

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Ironically the Japan I know is chalk full of engineers who are very creative and if they could only be accessed internationally would be quite a force of innovation and development. Learning English was supposed to open that up, but now it becomes more often that people learn Japanese instead. This does make for a limited purpose however and does not bode well for improvements in race relations

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Only work for an eikaiwa long enough to poach enough students that will sustain you through private lessons.

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It is very simple. If you learn English you can live anywhere, work anywhere, travel anywhere, make friends with people from every country, and do business everywhere.

If you don't want to learn English or make a half ass effort....good luck to you.

People with brains recognize this fact and succeed very easily.

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Eikaiwa's are terrible to work for, they only produce trash.

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My husband was pretty average intelligence at school. However, he busted a gut to learn English - the official story is he recognised how important it would be to his future. (The true story is he discovered a preference for blondes on a trip to Australia!) His friends all took the P out of him.

Fast forward nearly 20 years later - those same friends still dont speak English (I have learned Japanese to communicate with them) and they are pretty much stuck in dead-end jobs in Japanese SMEs grinding the wheel for another 20-odd years until retirement.

My husband has always worked for foreign companies, travels the world, and has seen his salary sky-rocket in the last 10 years compared to his friends. He works in a very "traditional" Japanese industry where virtually no-one speaks English. The foreign companies trying to break into this market can`t get enough of him.

The point is - languages open up opportunities for someone way beyond their own personal sphere. The problem is - most Japanese are so conditioned to believe this place is the centre of the universe they can`t see a need or reason to study English.

Unfortunately as globalisation continues Japan`s tendency towards isolationism and lack of a decent English language education system, coupled with the rigid hierarchical culture that seems incapable of change and is still harping back to the "good old days" is going to mean that it becomes less and less competitive in the new world. Certain, intellectual Japanese friends of mine are starting to realise this for themselves and ask me how they can possibly get out of here. A girl waits years for marriage proposals and suddenly they all come at once ;) !!!

My feeling for the moment from a purely personal perspective is that, if Japanese dont feel English is necessary, bring it on. Less competition for the rest of us, and we can always get out in the future. But more fool them. It certainly wont affect the current generation of soon-to-be retirees, but it will certainly affect our children. Mine speak 3 languages. I`m not worried. They should be.

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My experience in the Eikaiwa system was a stark one. I couldn't believe the general ilk of 'teachers' coming through the door. They were poorly selected and recruited candidates, with poor skills and an even poorer work ethic. I felt genuinely sorry for the students sitting through classes with a negligent teacher who was mostly interested in talking about themselves, or their home country like some kind of maladjusted evangelist. The Japanese staff were under intense pressure from their superiors to meet sales targets and do anything to avoid giving refunds to customers clearly dismayed with the 'service' they were receiving. The middle management was ineffective and patronizing. It was a flimsy house of cards built on greed,exploitation and hegemony and it was very easy to see where it was going to end up because the basic tenements of business were not being looked after.

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Sad news. Even sadder is the realization that salaries for eikaiwa teachers is slightly lower than when I quit it in 1996.

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kirakira has a point. And it's those people who are choosing to study English now. Sure, some hobbyists quit due to the recession, but it's because of the recession that many are studying English. They're "investing" their money for the future. So no, the Eikaiwa industry is not dead, but it's becoming increasingly difficult for "teachers" to get a job. Companies are really selective and the ones working there are staying there for 3, 5, even more years.

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Eikawa spend most of their money on advertising and rent. I was surprised to see that a school in downtown Nagoya was spending over 2 million yen a month on rent.

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I worked in the Eikaiwa business before. And before I went to any interviews, I went to the bars and listened to the Eikaiwa employees. I chose my school based on which had the least amount of complaints. Nova, Geos, ECC, and Berlitz, all had the biggest complaints and the biggest complainers. And apparently, the employees with the worst work ethic. they just wanted to party, and complained if work got in the way.

My school wasn't famous, but it shared something in common with universities (since the owner was a former University teacher). The people in charge had a graduated program based on test scores. If you couldn't pass the tests, you couldn't move up, and you had your own proof to show for it. The people who worked hard went up, and succeeded. I was there for the cultural aspects, letting people know what wasn't in the textbook.

As the writer implies, that is the way of the future, and I agree. Let the Novas and Geos' of Japan disappear. Hopefully, the Japanese are getting wise enough to chose schools where they can improve in rather than go to the eikaiwa cabarets where they pay to have a seat with a bored foreigner.

Hopefully, what will come next will have some continuity, and training for employees as well as some way to back up the claims of how they can help people improve. And hopefully those Japanese who want to improve their lives through English will be able to.

But I won't hold my breath because lets face it. The eikaiwas exist for people too lazy to study on their own, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

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A lot of insight in the comments. Seems like the industry has taken many through some tough times - natives and foreigners alike. The truth is it's not just the biggies out there that exploit and undercut the teachers, but most of the smaller companies count on their staff being naive, low paid, and not asking questions. Once you start asking about health coverage, pension, etc... many workers become "problems" to the schools that are trying to turn a profit in an already saturated market. Especially if you like the job, want to stay in this country, and/or have a family here your experience can work against you.

Let's face it, unless you go it alone their is little to no upward mobility in this - dare say - profession. Yet, if you go it alone you will surely see that it's not all cupcakes and roses.

God luck to those of you in it, and those of you en route outta here.

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Eikaiwa's do not offer long-term work prospects or any advantages for people with real teaching qualifications. They are what they are, and I think the teachers are basically expected to come over as fresh new graduates, party for a year, realise the system's rubbish the go home.

I don't know if people really want the "teachers" to stay?

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This is really nonsense blaming the quality of the teachers. We all know what the issue is. I worked at Nova for 2 months, before quitting. Even at Nova which was the equivalent of a sweatshop for teachers, the students that wanted to learn could. The fact that they were paying hard earned money also meant that they took the classes seriously.

I think any teacher that is motivated enough will do. Who cares if they like to drink and party on their time off. That's their business. The trick is to get those who want to learn connected with those who want to teach, whatever their motivation.

Someone at some point will get this formula right and make a fortune. We will see an Apple or a Google come along and just soak up all those students and their cash. It could be one of us reading or writing on this forum.

It's a goldmine waiting to be mined.

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Eikaiwa is done. It has been for years now. Of COURSE it makes sense from an international perspective to learn English! But, simply stated, most Japanese people DO NOT CARE. Most have never been outside Japan, do not care to go outside Japan, and have little interest in what transpires outside Japan with the exception of things like foreign foods, fashion, or entertainment. Most "students" take up English because it is fashionable to do so. Most have no interest in pursuing any real competency at it.

Eikaiwa sets up its teachers for failure. Too many work to establish themselves in a system they forget is temporary AT BEST. Honestly, what are they hoping for when they leave Japan? To teach ENGLISH back in the US, England, Australia, or NZ? Let me know how that works out for you!

Japanese people who are SERIOUS about learning English will leave the country to do so. How many here know Japanese people who speak strong English that have NOT ever lived abroad? I dont know any. Those with conversational level or greater, have all lived abroad.

Honestly, let this Eikaiwa thing die a deserved death already. IMO there is a stronger business case for pet rocks, hula hoops, and mood rings.

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I think the way for Eikaiwa to move is in the direction of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). The conversation aspect of the industry is on it's knees - people simply don't have the cash to indulge in it. But there are a lot of people who want to get a high TOEIC or IELTS score, want to improve their business manner, want to improve their telephone technique, want to learn how to make good CV's to take on their year abroad.

There are facets of English teaching that are needed, and will continually be needed. It's up to Eikaiwas to alter their business plans/target audience to reap the benefits.

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There is no such English word called 'Eikaiwa'. It has no substance at all. The biggest mistake people make is that they go to schools as if learning English is end itself. McEnglish is a pretty good word to frame this misconception.

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Not everybody NEEDS English. There are plentt of successful non-English speakers in the world. There are also lots of English speaking losers. I work with many dead-end job sararimen who speak great English.

Those who want to learn it should make an effort to do so. By the way, there are other languages besides English that could make better sense to learn. I've recruited for Chinese speaking Japanese and barely found any. English speakers are a dime a dozen.

Eikaiwa is good for the newbie gaijin to get a visa etc. To each his own but I would rather work for the sanitation department than teach eikaiwa.

The industry is currently a lost cause. Just saying eikaiwa sensei makes some Japanese laugh because its a joke. The joke is that they once respected the sensei in the eikaiwa but now they know.

There are plenty of ways to learn a language in Japan if you have ambition. Paying some rip-off school where the teachers are treated like pawns, will result in a let down.

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When it comes to the eikaiwa business in Japan, I have mixed feelings. After having worked as a teacher myself for more than 5 years, I have come to the conclusion that people who want to learn English will do so no matter what. No English school, no good teachers? Doesn't matter, they will find a way to learn if they're hungry enough for the knowledge. Those who attend school, but don't have the motivation, perseverance or just don't care? You could probably send them to the best school money could buy and they would never improve.

Although I got my start in Japan through eikaiwa, I feel that the current state it's in is kind of pitiful. Let's hope it makes a comeback in a good way.

As for students who are thinking about joining a school, I say put your money back in your pocket, meet some foreigner friends on mixi or facebook and go hang out with them every now and then. Study your butt off at home and then practice with your new friends. Or take that money and go live abroad where there are no other Japanese students.

If someone is truly willing to learn, they'll be able to do so spending close to nothing. In short, the language industry shouldn't be such a big business. Buyer beware.

Just my two cents.

Cheerz mates.

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All those Eikaiwa teachers must be laughing all the way to the bank now. Back in the bubble era the exchange rate was 250Yen to 1 Pound. And until Oct. 2008: 220Yen to a quid. Yesterday it was 129Yen to 1 Pound. If you work hard and are frugal, you could pay off your uni debts and return back to the UK with enough for a very healthy deposit on a house in a number of years.

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You guys that are saying that the Japanese do not need to know english missed one important point. The Chinese are all mastering English. They realise in a global world that English is essential. The Japanese will fall behind if they cut themselves off from the outside world. At some point they will need to join the global community or perish.

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Having been raised multi-lingual as do all my country-men. Only the people that will be actively engaged in global business trade will need to know english or any other foreign language.

The rest of the people will soon forget the additional languages they learned.

In all the countries I worked, lived and visited it was only a small group that actually spoke english or any language other than their native one/s.

Head out of the big cities and the tourist areas and the foreign language ability will dwindle, this is true for anywhere on the globe.

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