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.