Japan’s innovation problem

…Japan really needs a dual approach to boosting long-term growth prospects: more babies and more immigration.

Thanks to a rapidly aging population, a low birthrate and no pro-growth immigration policies to speak of, Japan faces a skilled-labor shortage. Stimulating procreation is an awkward task for governments, and Japanese already live the longest on a world scale. A more immediate cure is attracting more workers from overseas.That’s easier said than done in uniquely homogeneous Japan. A reminder of the nation’s aversion to opening the floodgates came last week with the publication of a magazine on crimes committed by foreigners. FamilyMart, Japan’s third-largest convenience-store chain, pulled “Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu,” or “Secret Foreigner Crime Files,” from its shelves, citing the publication’s “inappropriate racial expressions.”

It’s significant, though, that some leading politicians such as Shintaro Ishihara, the [right wing] Tokyo governor, are speaking more about the need to attract international talent.

First, a couple of caveats. As a regional leader, Ishihara might not seem all that important. Yet when you manage Tokyo and appear on television as frequently as the charismatic 74-year- old, you have some serious sway over popular opinion.

Also, Ishihara is an unabashed nationalist known for xenophobic statements; he’s sometimes described as Japan’s answer to France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. Feminist groups also weren’t amused a few years back when Ishihara said women past childbearing age are “useless.”

That said, at least part of Ishihara’s immigration argument is worth exploring. “The country should take it upon itself to adopt an immigration policy,” Ishihara said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Feb. 6. “This is not a question of procuring a labor supply. We should be letting in more people who are intelligent.”

Ishihara’s comments came with a rant about lax Japanese immigration controls that allowed an increasing number of Chinese to enter Japan illegally. “This is leading to new forms of crime,” he said. Such comments only feed those who equate “foreign” with crime and disorder. In my opinion, this part of Ishihara’s immigration stance should be ignored.


Nambu neunzehn, Nova null

Twenty union members gathered in front of NOVA Ikebukuro school on Sunday to show support for striking teachers at the company. Strikers included a majority of the German department in Ikebukuro, effectively shutting down lessons for the afternoon.

NOVA’s ekimae location was a perfect spot to get our message out to the public, and hundreds of passers-by took leaflets, or stopped to read the signs held by picketers.

The union is demanding job security, and the reinstatement of members who were “non-renewed” after as many as 13 years with the company.

Nova projects net loss as rapid expansion backfires

Nova Corp said Friday it expects its group net balance to have fallen into the red in the business year through last March with a loss of 3 billion yen as a result of competition for student enrollment among its own schools. The major English conversation school operator had projected a 200 million yen profit for fiscal 2005. The projected net loss compares with the 204 million yen profit for fiscal 2004.

Nova rapidly increased the number of its schools by around 300 to 994 between October 2004 and March this year. The expansion has caused the company to employ inexperienced managers and suffer from competition among its own schools located close to each other.

Hard lessons in broken English

“A lot of people see the advertisements ? and think it will be like schoolroom teaching and lots of fun, but when you get here it is more like doing factory line work,” he says. “The whole teaching-English-in-Japan thing is a complete fraud and the experience can be quite bitter.”

But for anyone set on working in Japan, the Nova language school should be the last option, he says.


Thinking of teaching in Japan?

Most people, when they first arrive, work at a place like Nova, probably the biggest employer of native English teachers in the world. By dint of their overseas recruiting programme, NO-VAcation (as we called it when I worked there) is the first employer for many arriving in Japan. But even this has changed. Recently, after a long struggle with the local General Union, it was forced to provide its full-time teachers with health, pension and unemployment benefits.


Court rules English language school Nova billed student illegally

English language conversation school operator Nova Co. illegally billed a student when it refused to refund her the full price she had paid for classes she didn’t take, the Kyoto District Court ruled. Presiding Judge Mizuho Ebi ordered Nova to pay the student the 176,672 yen she had sought when suing the company.


Nationwide Probe of 750 Language Schools

The evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun carried a story by Ari Hirayama about a nationwide probe of 750 language schools suspected of not enrolling foreign teachers in shakai hoken (employee pension and health scheme), not only on the front page but as the top story. It even beat out Saddam Hussein’s indictment. Bob Tench, president of our Nova branch, was quoted before Berlitz’s personnel chief Masanori Iwai. Nova public relations department was quoted as saying they couldn’t get ahold of the person in charge of that issue.

New Nova hours pose health risk

Bob Tench, president of the Nova Teachers’ Union, argues that Nova’s attempts to “wriggle out of its obligations” under the insurance system, could leave teachers, particularly those with families, in an dangerous position should they become ill while working for the company and have to take time off work.

“Most teachers aren’t even aware of their health options here, and they’re unaware of the risks they’re taking by not enrolling in the system,” he says.

“Comparing teachers’ work time to that of their bosses is in clear breach of the law,” says Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the General Workers’ Union, Tokyo South.

“The law is clear,” he says, “that to be eligible for shakai hoken, your hours must be 75 percent of a full-time person doing the same job as you. The bosses in these schools are clearly not doing the same job.”


English schools face huge insurance probe

Bob Tench, president of the Nova Union, says that Nova’s failure to enroll its teachers while offering JMA insurance is irresponsible.

“This JMA insurance is only designed to ‘patch you up and ship you home,’ ” he says. “JMA is travel insurance and should not be used for everyday health care.

“The government and the teachers are being ripped off,” he says.


‘No sex please, you’re teachers’

According to the language school chain’s instructor contract, foreign employees are forbidden to “participate in any interaction with the clients of the employer outside the place of employment.” In theory, insist Nova instructors, they are under threat of the sack for so much as a chance encounter with any of the company’s 450,000 students.