The multi-billion yen business of the English conversation school – the ‘eikaiwa’ – is there for those who want to actually speak English but can’t because of the tedium that was dished up to them in their high school years.
From the vantage point of Australia where second language learning is depressingly uncommon, the idea that a major sub-sector of the service economy is foreign language conversation schools is, frankly, rather inspiring.
Survey research reveals that foreign language as a “hobby” is by far the most popular reason given by adults for learning a foreign language, coming way ahead of work, travel and getting qualifications.
One English teaching web site amusingly dubbed this phenomenon EFNA, or English For No Apparent Reason.
My own interpretation of the EFNA phenomenon is that English study is seen as a form of self-improvement that offers a possibility of transcending the ‘system’ in which Japanese find themselves. There is the tantalising promise of an escape from the pressure of Japanese working life through work for a foreign company, perhaps even travel abroad.
Also, especially for young women, there is the promise of escape from the expectations of families and traditional gender roles via expanding one’s personal horizons and one’s relationship options with foreigners.
The desire of at least four million Japanese to learn English and pay big money for conversation classes saw the rise and fall of several giant eikaiwa firms. They had a substantial marketing presence on the subways and billboards of Japanese cities. The larger ones became household names and publicly traded companies on the Tokyo stock exchange. They were also famous for their shonky practices and poor treatment of staff and students alike
The eikaiwa business has been particularly hard hit by the stagnant economic conditions and decline in real wages in Japan in recent years. Since 2007 the big ones suffered from bankruptcies, scandals and corporate collapses to rival the American financial sector.
October 2007 saw the collapse of the biggest eikaiwa, the McDonald’s of English conversation schools, a company called Nova. The fact that Nova employed some 4,500 young Australian, Canadian, American and British teachers who were suddenly left destitute, without their Nova-supplied accommodation and with unpaid wages, meant the ripple effect was felt globally.
In April 2010 Nova’s chief competitor, GEOS, filed for bankruptcy in a similarly messy way, with staff wages left unpaid and student contracts unmet.
Comparing the continuing poor TOEIC scores of Japanese students with the impressive improvements of neighbouring South Korea, it would seem that reform of English teaching in the Japanese school system is an urgent national challenge.