Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More for Me

I usually do my best to avoid commenting on news topics, particularly those that are relevant only in Japan. One of the reasons I do this is that any given bit is talked to death about on other Japan blogs and I'm not certain that there is much I can add to what is being said. However, there's been a situation with Nova conversation school that has been going on for quite some time which I feel compelled to talk about though not necessarily in regards to the news itself. What I want to talk about is the reactions to this news that I'm reading and what it says about a lot of foreigners living in Japan.

For those who don't follow such things, Nova is a business which has ran a chain of conversation schools for quite some time. I believe they may have had as many as 900 schools at one point but business problems have been forcing them to close many of their less profitable branches. The Nova business model has always been to carry out daily operations based on future sales revenue. At any given time, they can't settle their debts with assets on hand and loss of their steady revenue stream over the last several months has been crippling them.

The loss of their revenue was due to a governmental order that they cease selling long-term lesson packages until after December of this year. This order was issued because Nova was using unethical and illegal practices to sell such services. That means they could no longer use high pressure sales tactics to get students to pony up large sums of money for more lessons than they would likely ever take. Without the constant influx of cash from future lesson-takers, the company has been delaying paydays for all staff, closing branches, and failing to pay rent on their schools and the apartments they provide for teachers.

Nova has been greatly hated (for both legitimate and imagined reasons) by the foreign population for quite some time and the reactions to the company's apparent circling of the drain has been, by and large, full of schadenfreude. There are people who just can't wait to see Nova die what they feel is a much-deserved death because they've formed a strong prejudice against the company based either on first-hand experience, oft-related tales of bad head teacher types and management, or apocryphal tales.

These sorts of reactions are rather understandable. Everyone wants to see a bad company stumble and die. While this type of response isn't pretty and it certainly isn't showing any compassion for the thousands of innocent employees both foreign and Japanese who will lose their livelihood should the company tank, it is a reasonable emotional reaction. The types of reactions that I'm seeing which are by far uglier and more disturbing though are from people who are hoping that there's something in this for them.

There's a part of the foreign community living in Japan which resents the fact that there are other foreigners living in Japan. This is something I haven't much encountered first-hand but an attitude oft-reflected in the responses to news of the Nova situation. There are a good many folks out there who want one thing from this situation and that's for all the Nova teachers to pack up and leave Japan. Their hope is that this will reduce the number of foreigners seeking jobs and thereby improve the perceived value of those of us remaining, possibly resulting in higher wages and cushier working conditions.

What I've discovered is that, to advance this agenda, people are peppering discussion boards with worst case scenarios and discouraging messages in the hopes of tipping the scales of the on-the-fence (possibly soon to be former) Nova employee. Tidbits about work visa cancellations for anyone sponsored by Nova, the rapidly-dying English language school market and how it will be outsourced to India, and horror stories of wages plummeting down to convenience store worker levels for teachers should the number of them continue to increase abound. There are also people who just come out and encourage people repeatedly to pack their bags and go home and to go now.

None of this information is well-intentioned. It's all about trying to shoo away the competition so there's "more for me". Most, if not all, of the information is speculation based on the worst possible assumptions and not on facts. For instance, wages for foreigners who get sponsored work visas can't drop below 250,000 yen a month for full-time (up to 40 hours a week) work. By law, we cannot receive sponsorship for less money than that. Given that that is the case, how is it that we're suddenly going to be making 1000 yen an hour? The immigration laws would have to change or the companies could only hire those who already have some other type of visa (spouse, working holiday). However, the pool of potential foreign employees is too small to rely only on those types of visa-holding workers. The notion that wages could drop horribly is absurd.

Chances are that, because of laws regarding benefits for full-time employees, teachers would not be asked to work more than 34 hours for 250,000 yen. If an employee works 35 hours or more, the company must offer health insurance funding and the chance to pay into pension funds. This is the reason why Nova manipulated their teacher's contracts so that they never worked more than 34 hours. They were passing under the bar legally and avoiding offering these benefits. That doesn't mean you can't work more than 34 hours a week but rather you will be paid for "overtime" if you go above that and your wages will go up above the base of 250,000 yen.

The possibility that the Japanese immigration authorities would bother to cancel all existing holders of work visas from Nova should the company tank isn't quite as far-fetched as the idea that wages would fall to very low levels, but it's relatively unlikely. Despite the fact that Nova employs a lot of foreigners, it doesn't employ enough to create a social problem should they all suddenly become unemployed. The only reason the visas would be canceled would be as means of pushing out a ton of unemployed people because they'd commit anti-social acts as a result of their new (potentially impoverished) states. This is a minimal risk and is unlikely to happen unless there's some incident related to former Nova employees in the future. Japanese authorities are not known for behaving proactivly but reactively. Visas almost certainly won't be canceled if Nova tanks.

The notion that the Japanese people will suddenly opt for low-cost lessons with non-native speakers or do dirt cheap Internet lessons with people in India is probably the most plausible of all the implausible possibilities. However, if you know anything about the Japanese people, you know that they are not interested in English only for skill enhancement but also for the safe, paid politeness of contact with western people. Frankly put, they have reduced interest in learning English from people who weren't born in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. This was such an issue at my former company that teachers of Asian descent were sometimes asked not to use their last names but rather their western-sounding first and middle names so students wouldn't think they were getting someone of Asian ancestry. Also, I've had students try these super cheap internet services with teachers from Pakistan and India and they hated the experience. They couldn't understand the accents of the teachers and felt there was almost no chance their skill would improve from such "lessons". After all, the Japanese are not exactly known for embracing "cheap" over "status" in terms of anything they buy and contact with people from the five aforementioned countries is seen as holding more status than contact with other Asian folks.

While the main concern is that teachers who are left unemployed by Nova will flood the market and push working conditions into a worse place for everyone else, there are also some petty psychological issues in play. Some foreigners simply resent the presence of other foreigners in Japan period. They don't like seeing them on the streets when they're walking around and they become extremely competitive with them in regards to how well they've adapted to Japanese culture. Some foreigners feel smug and superior because they speak Japanese better or are under the illusion that they know the "real" Japan better than others. They'd just as soon all the foreigners who don't make an effort to adapt and turn into "Japanese" get out and leave more for them. There are people who are interested in preserving their "specialness" in Japan by being part of the tiniest, most exclusive minority. The presence of the rest of us is diluting how precious a commodity they appear to be to the Japanese.

All of these selfish and self-serving notions have been percolating in the minds of the most opportunistic and insecure foreigners in Japan for quite some time and only bubbling over on occasion. The Nova news has simply caused a flurry of communication in the forums visited by the expatriot communities that has put it more visibly out there for everyone to see and it's not a pretty sight at all.


Miko said...

Good, thought-provoking post.

Why do foreigners not like other foreigners? Well, I guess you've hit the nail on the head. They feel threatened. I'm surprised sometimes by the cold shoulder that I'm given by other gaijin (but also pleasantly surprised by the kind and friendly ones - I always think "s/he'll do well in Japan with that attitude!" and they usually do). Of course, I have my own issues with the micro-penised losers who come here because they cannot get laid/hired/whatever in their own lands, but I respect their right to be here and I do wish them the best - I know how hard it is to make a life here (I only hope that they stay far away from me and my friends). However, I also wish that foreigners in Japan would get over being "special." I've been "special" all my life, both in NZ and Japan, and NOT in a good way. I welcome any changes in a positive direction. Times are changing, Japan is changing, more foreigners are choosing to call this land home, and the other gaijin here will just have to get used to it. It's not all about them, after all.

I wonder what will happen to all those poor Nova teachers, though. They really have my sympathy.

Shari said...

Thanks, Miko. :-)

I have no evidence of this aside from screen name clues but I think most of the gaijin who resent other foreigners are male. If that is so, it could be some sort of territorial issue and could relate to the type of male we both have disdain for (the "zero to hero" type, as we've talked about before).

I think foreign women in Japan would prefer not to be seen as "special" because it always carries some discomfort and hassles with it (like being groped, gawked at or patronized). There tend to be far fewer negatives for foreign men in terms of being perceived as unique and more highly-valued.

You really hit the nail on the head when you said "it's not all about them". There's far too much of that attitude.

Miko said...

The gender point is an excellent one, I've never thought of it that way before! Now that I think of it, I'm usually filled with admiration for the foreign women I encounter here, regardless of their circumstances (whether homemaker or career woman or whatever) because I understand exactly the odds that they are battling against in this land, expecially sexual discrimination.

Whereas, when it comes to foreign men, I usually feel nothing but either contempt or indifference. I can't help it. Don't get me wrong, there are some genuinely nice guys out there, and I meet them all the time, but even so they have no idea of how hard it is to deal with life in Japan when you are not one of the exalted male, gaijin (white) status. Most of them are getting a free gender/race pass in Japan that opens the door to enormous social advantages here, and I guess it's understandable that they don't wish to see any change in the status quo.

Hell, I wouldn't either if I were them! I suppose I can't talk.

Helen said...

I agreed with your post. Like everyone else, I joked about "NoVa"cation workers, but I didn't really know any. For the first few years I was here, there wasn't a Nova in this area.

The Eikaiwa business has a bad reputation...but as a person who was an Eikaiwa teacher, it's not always deserved. I certainly didn't come over here to do a bad job or to treat it as a "Mickey Mouse" job. I like to think that I balanced my former company's quest for profit with good lessons and good teaching. I learned a lot from this job, and always took it seriously.

I did know some teachers that used their job as an excuse to party, but they usually didn't last very long.

I really feel for the Nova teachers. I can imagine how I'd have felt if I'd had the same thing happen to me. If it had been in my first couple of years in Japan, I'm not sure what I would have done. I didn't have a family that could bail me out, so things would have been rough.

ターナー said...

I'm just as bad as them on occasion, except I tend to extol the virtues of Japan rather than letting people discover it themselves - some of the places I consider worth seeing, the things I think worth doing. A little arrogant.

Shari said...

Miko: We have very similar perceptions on the male/female front. Two great minds can't think alike and be wrong. ;-)

Helen: I think that your attitude toward the job matters much more than the job itself. My former boss and I used to always talk about how we did our best to be professional no matter what the circumstances because that's the sort of people we are. The employees can transcend the company they work in and be much better than required. There are party monkeys everywhere in Japan and I guess that's part of life. I think the problem for a lot of Nova employees is that it's assumed they all suck which isn't really fair.

This is a pretty sexist thing for me to say and if someone wants to call me one, they'd be right, but I think more women work seriously than men. This has always been my experience with coworkers in Japan but there have been some very notable exceptions (my former boss being one of them, my husband, my brother-in-law). I think women aren't here for the same reasons as men for the most part, particularly the part which is predatory, and that has a serious impact on how you spend your time and what you value.

Turner: First of all, I'm sorry I left you out of the link listing. I hadn't heard from you in awhile (not that that was a problem, but I was happy to hear from you again) and I hadn't mined as far back as I wanted to yet for commenter link listings. You're in the list now!

I don't think it's arrogant to tell people the good things you enjoy or encourage them to experience. It's only arrogant if you insist that your choices have greater value than someone else's. If it's just your opinion and an attempt to help people narrow down the many options for enriching their experiences in Japan, more power to you in offering your advice!

Many thanks to all for the excellent comments!

Heng said...

Personally, I'm more annoyed at the foreigners who make no effort to adapt to the culture and instead trying to force their way on Japan, who're always saying things like "this is how we do things back in lalaland".

I've had more contact with Chinese and Koreans than I have with any caucasians so that probably influenced my bias. Though the handful of Americans I know act just like that.

Shari said...

Heng: Hi there. :-)

One of the purposes of my blog is to try to help people understand the psychological issues in Japan and therefore widen their understanding and reactions rather than assert that their way is the "right" way. And, unfortunately, you are right when you say that people (and sadly, Americans in particular) will talk about how things are back home and expect it to be the same here.

That being said, just because things are a certain way in Japan, it doesn't mean you have to blindly accept them, particularly those situations where you are being taken advantage of. The important thing (in my opinion) is not to be ethnocentric and make hasty judgments or to try and cram your way of doing things down everyone else's throats.The important thing to do is to communicate in a fashion which is appropriate for Japan. Mainly, this means being tactfully indirect, but also sometimes to jump through some of the same hoops as the Japanese are required to do - painful as that can be for us Americans ;-).

Thanks for your interesting comment.

ターナー said...

Not a problem; I've been traveling a lot lately, so haven't had time to review the blogosphere.

It just seems to be my first reaction when I see tourists milling about; I can tell that they've obviously got a plan in mind but can't help giving them alternatives. If I hear back from a couple who were headed to Beppu, we shall see...

Kanagawa G said...

Sorry I'm late in joining the discussion, but this topic is too interesting to miss.

Yes, by and large foreigners in Japan don't like other foreigners. I think it has to do with them wanting to "be the one who discovers Japan" or feel that nobody can understand the unique aspects of Japanese culture like they do.

Fine. I'm more than happy to let them feel that way.

I have also noticed that there is a pecking order to forigners in Japan. If you do happen to meet another foreigner, inevitably the question turns to "How long have you been here?" in order to establish some sort of rank by experience. After that comes the "what type of job do you do?" and "are you married?" questions.

Personally, I find these to be the manifestations of feeling of inadequacy.

Shari said...

Kanagawa g: It's interesting that you mention being asked how long one has been here. I have always disliked being asked that and I never really thought about why.

That being said, time spent here does mean more experience so it's not like it's completely irrelevant but it's not like time is all it takes. I have always talked about how our perspectives are limited and no one has the market cornered on understanding Japan, let alone anything else in this world. After all, even the Japanese don't know everything about their culture or society so how on earth can we? ;-)

Thinking you are an authority on anything seems to be a pandemic delusion these days though. I'm not sure if it's an off-shoot of internet access and feeling you can know everything about anything by googling or wiki-hunting enough or if it's an arrogance that's always been there.

Honestly, if I ever think I know everything about Japan, someone should offer me a reality pill. That's not the type of person I want to be. I'd never want my self-esteem tied up in something like that.

Many thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

NOVA filed for bankruptcy yesterday--did you hear about it?

Shari said...

Yes, I did. This means they've got 11 days to do what they can to put their fingers in the dike, but it's clearly quite hopeless.

On the one hand, I think that the eikaiwa industry might be better off without them. On the other, I think thousands of people who lost jobs won't be better off, at least not in the short term.

Emsk said...

I always find it interesting that what you find interesting is the reactions a situation throws up rather than the situation per se. Luckily I don't work for Nova, though I've met plenty of disgruntled Nova teachers. Neither have I met any of the saddoes who think hey, but what about us, though I believe you 100% when you say they've been airing their pettiness on sites.

For my part, I've been advising people to apply to my company, not even considering that it might damage my position. All I can think of is how I would feel if I were a Nova teacher, and I very nearly did apply to them. It shocks me that few people are prepared to put themselves in another's shoes.

Sadly though, I've heard it from one of my trainers that my company is not recruiting estranged Nova teachers, so I can only imagine what hell some of them are going through.

As for me, I've signed up with my company for another six months, and the only thought I've had of it 'benefitting' me is that we might be swamped by new customers - so not a benefit at all actually, rather more work for us! When my contract is finished, however, I intend to return to Kansai for a few months and work elsewhere, but I'm confident that I will find decently remunerated work and won't be worrying about all those damned 'foreigners' who are 'taking all our jobs'.

Reading your post made me think one thing though, Shari. In the UK it's long been unacceptable to bemoan foreign workers taking jobs from British people, and rightly so; especially considering that there are jobs that British people have refused to do for nigh-on half a century anyway. I'm sure that this kind of racism is as frowned on in the other four 'authentic' English-speaking countries that you mention in this post. This attitude of gaijins wanting to keep the best jobs and looking down on others who don't speak Japanese as well or who don't know all of Japan's best-kept secrets could well be exercising displaced racist attitudes which they'd never get away with back home. Sad gits!