Most Japanese people have an interest in the English language. They study it for a minimum of 6 years in middle and high school, so you would think that they would have a very high degree of fluency in the language. Unfortunately, this is not the case because it is studied in terms of grammar and syntax, which do not always lead to comprehension at a speed approaching that which is used in speaking.
English is viewed as a very chic, trendy language which has led to its use in all kinds of advertising in Japan. Its popularity has also created many of the strange "Japanese English" patterns so often targeted by foreign writers.
In order to increase their English abilities, many Japanese have turned to the commercial English conversation companies. Most of these places call themselves "schools", but in reality their structure and management bears little likeness to an institution of higher learning.
According to a recent article in the Asahi newspaper, at present (1998) there are more than 2,000 of these companies in Japan. They have been in the news of late, due to a number of them going bankrupt in the current depression and due to the high level of complaints received by consumer protection agencies in Japan regarding their practices.
Most of the companies operate by selling tickets for lessons in advance. Tickets are sold in large quantities with promises that the student can make appointments and take lessons at their convenience. While this may look like a nice arrangement at first, when the system is put into practice, it does not work.
The majority of Japanese people enrolled at these schools finish work at about the same time and want to sign up for lessons after work. Thus, the demand for lessons during certain time periods obviously becomes very high. In a one-on-one situation, this quickly would lead to disaster, because if you have 30 students focusing on one time slot, you would need 30 cubicles or partitioned spaces to teach them in. You would, however, be able to charge more because of the private lessons, if you could find a way to fit them in.
The other alternative would be to combine the students into small groups of 2 or 3 students to reduce the amount of space and "teaching" expense required. This method is used by the majority of companies in Japan.
A look at the situation from a business standpoint yields a situation where only a swindle could answer the problem of generating a profit. First of all, in order to get enough students to make a company viable, advertising expenses are required. Posters, circulars, T.V. and radio advertising, etc. all cost a lot of money in Japan. Secondly, you need foreign teachers with proper visas to do the job properly. Finally, you are faced with the support staff and expenses involved with running any kind of a company.
Thus, the question which immediately comes to mind when reading language companies advertising is: "If you have a company charging 1,300 JPY for a 40-minute lesson and you are paying a foreign teacher 2,000JPY an hour to teach a student, coupled with office expenses of about 57,000JPY per day, how can you make a profit?" The answer is that it is mathematically impossible to generate a profit under these conditions.
At this point, you are probably wondering how these schools can stay in existence. The answer lies in getting the students to quit and not refunding their prepaid tuition. There are several methods used to accomplish this. One is to combine students with extreme disparities in abilities (i.e. an almost fluent speaker with a raw beginner), so that one (or both) become frustrated and quit. Another method used is to offer almost nothing in terms of content aside from putting them in front of a foreign teacher. There might be a textbook, which the student has been forced to buy at an exorbitant price when entering the school, but damned if most of the teachers will use it. Schools seeking to cut expenses often use a young, good-looking "teacher" to entice the students to join, then switch them to a non-native speaker as soon as the contract is signed*. "Teachers" are switched at every lesson with the explanation that "it gives you a chance to be exposed to various accents and to progress faster". The truth of the matter is that the school wants to prevent the teacher from entering into private arrangements with the student before leaving his part-time job. Also, many schools hire teachers by the lesson or day, so chances are high that that same teacher won't be around the next week.
Non-native speakers of English are often used to reduce costs. Americans, British, Australians, and Canadians are expensive. Europeans from non-English speaking countries (i.e. countries where the national language is not English) are cheaper. Asians can be had for even cheaper rates and the fly-by-night schools make use of "teachers" from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Naturally, the student is unhappy when being on the end of the "bait-and-switch" tactic mentioned earlier, giving him or her more impetus to quit and leave the money behind.
Qualified teachers are the rarity, rather than the norm. The Japanese government requires a university degree to qualify for a work visa, in addition to a mountain of documents (including copies of tax returns) from the school that wishes to employ teachers legally. As such, most schools will employ one or two teachers with credentials sufficient to qualify for a work visa as a front, and hire the rest on an illegal basis.
Many foreign teachers are advised to get cultural visas in order to teach by misinformed friends. However, according to the Japanese Ministry of Justice, people on cultural visas are not allowed to work in Japan. The reality is quite different and hundreds of transient foreigners on holiday make money at the fly-by-night schools. How long this will continue remains to be seen though, because the Ministry of Justice is beginning to crack down on illegal aliens.
To sum, the situation is one in which you have companies running a service business which will fail if they provide services as promised and a bunch of Japanese people hoping to increase their fluency going to scam "schools". For the amount the poor people pay to "study" at these disreputable places, they could enjoy a trip to an English-speaking country anywhere and get a vacation to boot. It has been reported that the average amount unrefunded by the schools is 500,000 JPY (about $3,900.00 U.S.). Imagine what kind of vacation you could take with that much money!
* In Japan, contracts are actually stamped with a personal seal. Signatures are seldom used.
Copyright, A.E.L.S., Inc. (Billy Hammond), 1998.