English school ordered to close / Court warned Fortress Japan last year over coercive sales practices

The Consumer Affairs Agency and the Tokyo metropolitan government on Thursday ordered a Tokyo-based English-language conversation school chain operator to suspend operations due to its coercive method of selling its services to university students and others.

Fortress Japan talked customers into signing contracts for the purchase of English-learning programs, often telling students, “You’ll never be able to find work with your current English-language abilities.”

The authorities issued the order based on the Specified Commercial Transactions Law.

A consumer organization certified by the prime minister filed a lawsuit last year arguing that Fortress Japan’s way of soliciting customers was against the law. Last March, the plaintiff and the company reached the first settlement of its kind in the nation.

There are seven consumer organizations across the nation certified by the prime minister to file lawsuits against companies over aggressive sales schemes. The certifications were introduced to discourage dubious or illegal sales schemes before damages proliferate.

But the authorities said Fortress Japan continued to use unlawful sales practices after the settlement, leading to the stricter punishment by the agency.

According to Fortress Japan’s Web site and other sources, the company has operated English-language schools under various names, including Global Trinity, in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai and Fukuoka.

The Kansai Consumers Support Organization (KC’s), an Osaka-based nonprofit organization that filed a lawsuit against the company, and the agency said Fortress Japan solicited students who gathered at job interview meetings, telling the students that they could attend the schools’ lectures any time at their convenience without any limit on the number of classes.

The company had the students sign contracts for eight-to 10-month courses for 500,000 yen to 600,000 yen.

But the lectures were offered only on limited dates and some students complained they could attend lectures only about once a month.

Also, employees of Fortress Japan obstructed students attempting to walk away from sales pitches, trying to persuade them to buy lesson packages by saying such things as, “You won’t be able to perform sufficiently when you start working for a company.”

The agency and the metropolitan government judged that the way Fortress Japan solicited customers constituted false explanations and harassment, which are illegal.

They intend to publicly censure Zenken Career Center–which was renamed as Linguage Corp.–a Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo-based company that was entrusted to manage the English conversation schools.

KC’s filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court demanding Fortress Japan halt its unlawful soliciting practices. Last March, the company admitted that its way of soliciting was unlawful and reached a settlement in which the company promised to cancel contracts and refund customers.

But KC’s said the company continued to unlawfully solicit students for business after the settlement, with at least 71 confirmed unlawful acts committed up to November.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of consultations and complaints about similar vicious sales pushes on students during job searches.

In many of instances, students were told they would not be able to find jobs unless they had certain skills the salespeople were selling, making the students anxious.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, there were 948 inquiries from job-searching students about similar incidents over five years from April 2004.

In fiscal 2009, the center received 223 such complaints by the end of January.

Last April, a man in the Kansai region who was then a third-year university student was approached by a female employee of Fortress Japan in front of his university campus. She asked him to fill out a simple survey about English conversation and job-hunting activities.

He wrote his name and phone number on the sheet, and was frequently called about attending an introduction meeting.

He finally agreed to attend a meeting, but ended up being confined in a small room together with a male employee of the company for three hours and was cajoled into signing a contract for lessons.

When the student tried to refuse, the employee looked down at him and demanded he sign the contract, telling him, “You’ll never survive in the business world with such a carefree attitude.”