English teachers say sayonara to a not-so-super Nova

TEACHING English in Japan: a working holiday in a truly strange and different country (to those of us not Japanese); getting paid for talking your own language in a classroom; spare time and funds for culture in Kyoto, night-clubbing in Shinjuku, deep powder snow around Nagano. Or whatever.

It seems so cool and out-there — at least before Nova Corp went belly-up on October 26 — that it’s faintly surprising there hasn’t been a big travellers’ novel out of it, or a quirky movie.

The reality is more raw, though. An artist that The Australian spoke to, but who asked not to be identified, came to work while gathering material and studying Japanese techniques but left sick and angry, he says, because of his experiences as a Nova English instructor.

Sydneysider Natasha Steele arrived almost 10 months ago, planning on a year’s stay. One of 900-odd Australians aboard when Nova went down, she was a short-termer, but no dilettante.

“I was a bit discontented (in Australia), I wanted to do something different, more fulfilling, and before I came here I took the CELTAC (Cambridge English Language Teaching of Adults Certificate); that alone cost me $3000,” says the 26-year-old marine science and management graduate.

“I wanted to make a difference — if Japanese people wanted to learn English, then I wanted to help them the best I could to do that.”

Steele was broke after university and now she’s broke again. She’s making the best of her remaining stay here by campaigning for just treatment of about 4000 foreign instructors and 2000 Japanese staff stranded by the collapse. “I just don’t want to end up regretting my time here.”

Nor does Bob Tench, an Englishman who taught at a Nova school in Shinjuku and who now heads the National Union of General Workers’ Nova division. His life is here; he came in 1994 and recently married a local woman.

Tench claims that once he became active in the union, in response to worsening work conditions, Nova management retaliated with tougher teaching schedules and the annual threat of losing his job and visa: all the instructors are on one-year contracts.

Another Nova technique was to extract advance-paid tuition fees; amounts for the contracts valid over three years varied between Y600,000 and Y900,000 (about $5740 to $8570) according to a recent Ministry of Economy Trade Industry report.

More than 300,000 adult students and parents were caught short by the collapse.

Those people are now variously reported to be owed between Y40 and Y70 billion. The court-appointed administrators refused to comment. G.communications, a small operator, has undertaken to rehabilitate part of the business but won’t pick up the fees liability.

The instructors’ view of the proposal is summed up by a posting on the website LetsJapan.org. “Jobs or the same old shit?”

There are no verifiable figures available, but Kyodo news agency, quoting “sources”, claims that in the event of a full liquidation, the final deficiency could be Y98.5 billion.

The Japan Association for the Promotion of Foreign Language, claiming to represent most of the substantial language schools (but not Nova, which till recently constituted about half the total industry) advises members to charge no more than a year in advance. The Australian randomly checked three; they were charging advance fees for courses between 15 and 27 months. Nozomu Sahashi, the 56-year-old former president, founded Nova in 1981 with Anders Lundqvist, a Swede who became education director.

He proceeded to revolutionise commercial language business here.

As well as classrooms and face-to-face tuition, Nova offered remote teaching, flexible hours, aggressive price discounting and in recent years its branches mushroomed crazily.

It slogan was ekimae ryuugakku, “study overseas, in front of (every) train station”.

Earlier this year, there were 914 branches, though the number by October had plunged to 670.

Nova’s promotional spending was also phenomenal. The pink Nova-Usagi (Nova Bunny) became one of this brand-obsessed nation’s most recognisable commercial symbols. METI estimates 1.1 million people pay fees for English lessons annually, mostly, in effect, for remedial teaching.

Nova’s foreigners were not usually teachers per se, but graduates of many types on working holidays, paying off student loans, or in search of Japanese experiences. They were, relatively speaking, cheap labour and Nova cut corners to make them cheaper.

Though inevitably some decided to settle in Japan, most looked to stay a year or so. Short-stayers were generally less concerned than permanents like Tench about conditions such as statutory social insurance (which Nova was reluctant to pay, unless to an associated company that has also now gone under).

The standard pre-tax salary recently for foreign instructors was Y250,000 (about $2350 monthly), less Y66,000 for a rented, shared apartment (teachers could make their own arrangements but were encouraged to use housing organised by Nova).

Discipline of Japanese and foreign staff was strictly enforced and associations between teachers and students beyond the classroom were prohibited.

“They were advertising us as the attraction and then forbidding us to mix socially,” says a former instructor. “I accept that some foreigners’ behaviour left plenty to be desired, but when we’d go out for a meal or a drink, mostly it was the students asking to join us.”

Unionism also was discouraged by Nova management — though not overtly, because that’s against the law — and teachers who did join up say they were singled out for tougher schedules and sometimes sent to more distant branches.

High turnover was sustained by a big, continuous recruitment effort: Nova had offices for that purpose in Australia, the US, Canada and Britain and New Zealand. In Australia, the Brisbane office’s efforts were supplemented by a Melbourne-based company, Australia Asia Centre for Education Exchange (AACE), which says it advised its fresh recruits to postpone or cancel departures once Nova began delaying instructors’ pay. AACE ended the relationship on October 1.

But Nova offices continued signing and sending people to the end. “The most shocking thing to me was they were still recruiting in Canada in the last weeks when they knew they couldn’t pay them,” said a Canadian official.

But the worm was in the apple well before then and the real problem was students, rather than teachers becoming leery of Nova.

For years, complaints had been mounting, mainly from people wanting to discontinue lessons but finding refunds extremely difficult to obtain. “English lessons are the kind of things people change their mind about, especially if they’ve bought three years’ worth,” says a financier who has studied the operation.

Nova Bunny notwithstanding, the brand was getting grubby and Nova’s market share fell from 51 to 47 per cent in 2005 and to 45 per cent last year — all amid the huge branch expansion.

As complaints mounted, shinpan credit companies — used by about 20 per cent of students to raise their up-front fees — started refusing to fund Nova contracts. In April the Supreme Court ruled Nova refund restrictions illegal and in June METI punished the company for lying in some promotions by closing off some courses to new students for six months.

Sahashi had run the business side of Nova almost manically single-handed, while Lundqvist managed the education operations, and suddenly Nova was being hit by blow after blow. Customers were peeling away and not being replaced so that by September, on one informed estimate, Nova was getting in Y1 for every Y4 walking out the door.

Reports documenting the company’s rise during the 1980s and 1990s had depicted the Nova crowd as youthfully innovative in their approach. A more forthcoming Sahashi then said he started the business because foreign backpackers were always sleeping on his floor. In the early days “the school was in a constant buzz and gave off a massive amount of energy”.

The picture gradually darkened, however. Sahashi’s private life and intra-office relationships were reported to have been hectic and the Nova image now fixed in the public mind is the ex-president’s office-cum-playhouse in Osaka.

More than 300 square metres, it was draped in scarlet velvet and scattered with stuffed Nova Bunnies. There was a traditional Japanese tea-room and the less-traditional double bed.

A week after the wrecked group went into administration, news crews were led tut-tutting through these quarters and that led all the commercial TV news that night.

Sahashi was annoyed that the administrators would use the executive floor to misrepresent “him using the company to benefit himself”. At least that’s what his lawyers said. Sahashi has refused to reveal himself since July, communicating with increasingly desperate staff by faxes, promising wages that arrived late and then not at all.

His lawyers asserted the former president’s chambers served as “as a model home office to demonstrate the advantages of such a space”. But Sahashi had a similar facility in Tokyo. It was “like a weird guy’s idea of a love hotel” said a recent visitor.

Lundqvist and his co-directors brought the farrago to an end, apparently losing faith in Sahashi’s claims he could raise Y4 billion — and then, soon, Y6 billion — to keep the show rolling. In his absence on October 25, they voted Sahashi out and next morning filed for administration.

The possibility of Lundqvist emerging in charge of a restructured Nova didn’t fill the teachers with joy. “He has been intimately involved in the way Nova has been run from the beginning,” says Tench. “He didn’t have perhaps the same trappings as president Sahashi — the Playboy Penthouse — but he knew everything that was going on so, so if the company acted improperly, he was part and parcel of that.”

Another former long-term teacher and unionist, Tristan Sime, says foreigners who rose under Lundqvist from teaching to supervisory positions were “cult-like” in their devotion to the company’s methods.

Lundqvist’s response? “I am sorry but I can’t talk to you now and I don’t have any comments for you, anyway. I will never be able to talk to you. Goodbye.”

A charming and forthright man, obviously, but could you trust him with your job?