Mount Fuji

McEnglish for the masses
English teaching in Japan has mushroomed
over the past decade, but at what price?


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Feb. 24, 2004, is
  reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

American sociologist George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization to describe how a method of production that originated in fast food restaurants is sweeping through every aspect of society.

Ritzer wondered why a system supposed to make life easier is slowly imprisoning us in an "iron cage" of rationality.

Efficiency and control reduce prices and increase access, but at a cost: McWages, bland products, and a rigid, controlled environment that drains all creativity from human activity.

If the eminent professor could see the state of English-language schools in Japan today he'd surely smile smugly and say, "I told you so."

While cheaper and more plentiful than ever, much of the English taught here is about as nutritious as a bag of salty fries, say those involved.

Lessons have morphed into sleek, bite-sized delivery systems staffed by teachers who are being transformed into the pedagogic equivalent of burger flippers.

Not surprisingly, the teachers are heading for the door in droves.

"The largest eikaiwa school has a staff turnover of 70 percent a year," says Dennis Tesolat, vice-chair of the General Union, which represents hundreds of teachers in Japan.

"They have guys whose job is it to go to the airports just to pick up new teachers. And that's because the teachers have a grueling schedule of eight lessons a day, with a 10-minute break between each. It's worse than a factory."

Old-timers who stumbled into teaching in the 1960s and 70s will tell you they found an easygoing world of often amateur-run schools catering to large classes of earnest students.

"When I began teaching in the mid-1970s, I had 20 students but pay was 3,000 yen an hour and we worked just 20 hours a week," says Ken Noda, who teaches at a top eikaiwa chain in Tokyo.

"We worked half the average working week for the same wages. But this changed dramatically in the early 1990s."

With growing pressure on Japan to "globalize" and expand language-teaching, the government relaxed visa regulations and introduced guidelines for schools, setting pay at a minimum of 250,000 yen a month.

The initiative, and the general expansion of services in the 1990s, had dramatic results: The number of people entering Japan officially as "foreign humanities specialists" (including language teachers of all shades) mushroomed from about 15,000 in 1988 to over 44,000 in 2002, while the guidelines set a de-facto standard wage.

"When the government says minimum wage this of course means maximum," laughs Noda. "So pay came down, although the most striking change was the rise in working hours."

With labor expenses dropping as a percentage of total operating costs, the schools could bring what was once a luxury — small classes — to the masses.

The standard three-on-one ratio of students and teacher swept the country as the industry expanded and consolidated, and mass advertising re-branded what was once a fairly serious, bookish pursuit into a cheap and trendy pastime.

The eikaiwa industry today bears as much resemblance to its 1970s version as a sports utility vehicle to a Model-T Ford.

Of course, there are still prestige schools catering to niche markets, some still offering high wages (over 300,000 yen a month) and good working conditions, but the size and reach of the chain-schools tends to set the standard, say industry experts.

"The best way of describing the business over the last decade is that it has matured and consolidated," says Mark McBennett, Editor of English Language Teaching News.

The Big 5 of Nova [Ed. Filed for bankruptcy on October 26, 2007] , Geos [Ed. Filed for bankruptcy on April 21, 2010], AEON, ECC and Shane are now very efficient recruiting machines. "But very few students who attend the schools have a realistic idea of what it takes to actually master a language."

Like the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant, eikaiwa schools can now be found next to the station in most neighborhoods, bringing a convenient but low-nutrition product, often delivered by stressed, overworked staff.

"It's really tough," says teacher Bob Tench.

"As soon as you finish a class you've got 10 minutes to do the paperwork and pull the file for the next student out of the drawer.

"And in my opinion the quality of teaching suffers as a result," he says.

Teachers' responsibilities can sometimes extend beyond the classroom.

One manager at an English school for children in Tochigi Prefecture keeps her staff busy in between classes by having them clean the leaves on potted plants in the school reception area, congratulating them on how "green" the foliage looks when they've finished.

Others at the school are made to clean the soles of slippers left by the entrance for students' use.

At the other side of the classroom table, the students sense something is amiss.

"The teachers change a lot so you never get used to them," says Sugako Fujita, who attends a chain eikaiwa school in Kanagawa.

"I'm often put in classes with students of different levels just because we can make the same time. You can tell it's difficult for the teachers too."

The spread of McContracts means no effort is spared to make eikaiwa jobs as insecure as possible. Most firms employ teachers on 12-month renewable contracts, an arrangement that strays into a legal gray area after three years, when they are obliged to consider making staff permanent.

"The company knows it could get stuck with you for life," says McBennett. "So some are giving contracts for 364 days a year to avoid this."

In some of the bigger schools the working week has doubled to almost 40 hours, while others keep hours to below 30 to avoid having to pay public insurance, says Tesolat, who claims things are set to get worse as others, including public schools, copy the fast-food model.

"This is not even the beginning. We're starting to see the 250,000 yen threshold disappear. There are places now where you are getting 200,000 yen or 180,000 yen."

Public schools that used to hire directly are now hiring through dispatch companies. The people hired directly used to have paid holidays, insurance and other benefits, but now they're working 3 days a week.

"In one case in Hirakata City, the school pays 23,000 yen per day per teacher to a dispatch company, but the teacher gets just 10,000 yen."

Are universities safe from McDonaldization?

Not likely. Student numbers are falling, budgets are being slashed, and the Diet passed a law last summer converting all the nation's state-run universities into independent corporations, effectively making the 120,000 public servants who staff them into private employees.

More short-term contracts and dispatch hiring are sure to follow; and the writing is already on the wall.

"The last really good offer I had was six years ago, when I was offered a full-time tenured position," says Steve Ross, who teaches part-time at a number of top Tokyo universities. "It's not something you can plan your life around."

Where is all this heading? A large school points to one possible direction.

Operating a one-to-one teaching system, the school specializes in hiring non-native speakers, all on part-time contracts, from the Philippines, India and other low-wage economies.

Would you like fries with that English lesson?

Editor's note: David McNeill completed his PhD on the Japanese information society at Napier University, Edinburgh in 1998. He went on to teach at universities in Ireland, England and China before taking up his current position with Sophia University in Tokyo. I'd like to thank to Dr. McNeill for his kind permission to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.