Sunday, January 16, 2005


Well, I'm back. I basically knocked on fate's door and yelled at it to let me in after those last two blog posts on work, and was rewarded with five days in the spin cycle of Japanese work.

Ever since getting back to the Tokyo area I've pretty much confined myself to this rickety little house, notched next to an old couple who groan, play their TV loud, and bang on the walls when we are too loud for them. The second floor trembles in these nasty January winds and stray cats rowl in the night for food and love.

Staying inside gave me plenty of time to write my Japanese resume, create this blog, read movie reviews and pick my nose. I live with two Japanese guys who let me stay for free and pay for my groceries if I help out occasionally with translation or editing for their tour guide business, which didn't give me much of an incentive to get my ass on the street and get some gainful employment. I do, however, have a page online at that broadcasts my English teaching skills to the world, which leads to the topic of today's post: eikaiwa.

Eikaiwa is literally "English Conversation" but has also come to refer to the innumerable schools that teach English in Japan. After konnichiwa (hello), arigato (thank you), bakana gaijin (stupid foreigner), and chin-chin (bits and bobs, as in the male kind), eikaiwa is probably the first word a fresh young foreigner from one of the colonial countries will become familiar with. There are multi-storied English cram schools in Tokyo and family run classrooms on the second floor of the neighborhood grocery. Japan is obsessed with the idea of speaking English, and the phrase "Eigo wo shaberenai to..." (If you don't speak English then... [bad shit will go down]) is incredibly common; it's even used as the name of an NHK English education program.

English schools are a massive business in Japan, and the largest national chain, Nova, has over 640 branches around the country, all located in prime real estate: smack in front of the train station. In fact, Nova's slogan is ekimae-ryugaku, "do foreign exchange at the station", and they pump their foreign teachers for all they're worth, parading those smiling white and brown faces that promise a whole world of sexy yet platonic conversation. In my few years here I've met my share of Nova teachers, and while some enjoy the work, for the most part they hate their jobs. While the pay is alright (about $2500 US a month) they are treated pretty coarsely: shuttled from school to school, not allowed to teach the same group of students more than two or three times, working late hours (finishing 10pm standard), and generally just not given any respect or leverage at their workplace. Circumstances change from school to school, but there is a pretty basic pattern of paying wet-behind-the-ears college graduates a moderate fixed salary but giving them absolutely no control over their jobs. Bound to a textbook they are shoved into room after room of blinking Japanese students who've had four different teachers in the last two months, they do a little song a little dance and little English speaking, and are rotated to a new batch of students. All things being equal, I think mainly hate Nova because of their omnipresent, badly drawn, annoying-as-shit mascot the pink Nova rabbit.

Anyway, as the biggest eikaiwa around, Nova sets the standard for English schools here, and, with a few exceptions, until now I had only heard complaints about eikaiwa work. So I was a bit leery when I got a call last Monday from a local eikaiwa that had found my profile on and was interested in hiring me.

Just a 15 minute train ride away, the school is located conveniently enough, and I started feeling relaxed the minute I walked in the door. The school is a small operation run by two nice old Japanese women who had taught pre-school and kindergarten for years before opening their own eikaiwa. They had plenty of experience with foreign teachers, and were not the least bit surprised that I spoke the language well enough to conduct our interview entirely in Japanese. It was a surprise to be treated not as some touchy creature from another planet but as a professional with experience in the same field. One of their teachers had suddenly been hospitalized, and they needed an immediate replacement with teaching experience. We came to an agreement and I got myself a job.

Because of the emergency, I was rushed into three full days of teaching with no preperation, minimal briefing, and a smorgasbord of English students. Although about half my students were adults, this school specializes in the growing field of pre-school English education. Kind of like nipping a sprout to grow two stalks, the idea is to catch kids in their language developmental stage and barrage them with enough English so that it becomes a first language along with Japanese. It's a good indicator of how insane this country is about the idea of English that this has grown phenomenally popular in the past few years; so much so that Nova has been pushing the pre-school "Nova Kids" as hard as their adult classes.

While I have a slew of stories about my lessons this week, writing about them would take a few more pages with neither of us wants to slog through, so I'll just say that this week I handled a four hour pre-school class of five by myself (we drew snowmen, read story books and learned how to ask how to go to the bathroom), taught adult students phrases like "laymans terms" and "summer blockbuster", and tricked a particularly shy five year old into speaking English through puppets. From next week I'll be on the less punishing schedule of one full day a week and occasional classes, but I've had a few really wonderful conversations with the two women who run the place and I think we'll get along just fine. They also hate the Nova rabbit.


Anonymous said...

Jamie: Great photo on your findateacher page. Also hate the rabbit. If all Japanese teenagers will be fluent in english in 15 years, what will happen to Japanese culture?

Jamie said...

The only people who seriously worry about Japanese culture dissapearing are TV pundits and members of the Chrysanthemum Club. The Chrysanthemum Club has no dues, no applications or clubhouse, and membership is open to anyone not born or raised in Japan who fetishizes traditional Japan to the point of absurdity and go so far as to explain away Japanese war atrocities with "cultural relativity" and other such horseshit.

English is a vital and vibrant part of the culture, and despite the massive amount of English education, it is essentially a joyless affair. Not to say teaching kids isn't fun, but for the most part they are sent there by the so called "Kyoiku Mama": "Education Mom's" who believe in English as a status symbol and chance for advancement, not a means of communication.

Besides, Japanese is already thoroughly steeped in English but is no less Japanese for the wear, things are shortened and twisted around to make more sense. Jimi Hendrix here is "Jimi Hen" (hen means strange).

The English "My" is used everyday in Japanese in specific possessive contexts, the most common being "Mai homu" (My home) and "Mai kaa" (My car), but because it is so much shorter and easier to say that the direct Japanese equivalent (watashi no...) it is often used (although mostly jokingly) on Japanese nouns as well like "Mai hashi" (my chopsticks).

While the native Japanese language dealt with the initial major influx of the Chinese language over a millenia ago, it is now going through it's second radical overhaul with English. Which, ironically, is itself a much more bastardized language than Japanese, being all cobbled together from French, native British dialects, Norse, Greek, Latin... No matter where it's words come from, language comes from the people using it, and despite the English influx, it still isn't any easier to explain to a Japanese person why we don't start and end every meal with the same set phrases. You can use English words, but the sentiment is purely Japanese.