How do you say . . . ’stranded in Japan’?

Westerners, including Oregonians, who taught English

Growing up in Oregon, Kristen Campbell-Schmitt folded intricate paper cranes, worked in a Japanese restaurant and took a high school trip to Japan. Her passion for the country extended through the University of Oregon and returned her to Tokyo, where she began teaching English in 2005.

Now Campbell-Schmitt, 26, finds herself stranded in Japan, caught with thousands of other Western workers in the implosion of the nation’s largest English-teaching firm. The company president has vanished, debt exceeds $380 million, and 400,000 students want refunds.

Campbell-Schmitt scrapes by on money sent from her parents in Portland, unable to leave for fear of forfeiting the $10,000 she’s owed. Dustin McDonald, a 23-year-old from the Portland area, eats cheap noodles while money dwindles, job hunting in a country whose language he cannot understand.

The collapse of Nova Corp., Japan’s largest private employer of foreign nationals, exposes a dark side of the nation’s English-language boom. A country eager to grow more international faces embarrassment as young Westerners become homeless on its streets. Young English teachers, white-collar migrant workers of the global era, find themselves lost in translation.

“People are stranded and angry,” says Campbell-Schmitt, one of an unknown number of Oregonians caught in the collapse. “There’s whole blogs now on the best trains to pickpocket on.”

Japan’s English craze ignited during the nation’s roaring 1980s, when a strong economy and a fashion for fluency drew Americans and other native speakers. The gaijin, or foreigners, made small fortunes chatting with salarymen and housewives.

The Nova Group, founded in 1981, went public in 1996 on a stock exchange now known as Jasdaq. By 2005, Nova had 977 schools and about 500,000 students nationwide.

The influx of foreign teachers in Japan depressed pay. Nova alone employed at least 4,000 teachers, hailing from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

Nova’s bright blue signs and animated pink-rabbit logo spread as its branches popped up around train stations faster than Starbucks outlets.

Two years ago, Campbell-Schmitt, a 2004 UO political-science graduate, grew suspicious when the 40-hour-a-week contract she had signed in San Francisco became a 34-hour deal in Japan. She believes Nova made the switch to avoid providing teachers with health insurance as a benefit, instead selling coverage to them.

Campbell-Schmitt enjoyed some aspects of her job, especially meeting Japanese and other expatriates. “And then you find out that it really is about half teaching and half kind of like a hostess club,” said Campbell-Schmitt, referring to bars in Japan where men pay for women’s attention.

“Half of these students aren’t here to learn English,” she says. “They’re just here to socialize with foreigners or to escape their wives or to try to pick us up, which is really pretty creepy.”

Teachers’ worst fears came true last March when the body of Lindsay Ann Hawker, a 22-year-old Nova teacher from Britain, was found in a sand-filled bathtub on the balcony of an apartment outside Tokyo. She had gone there to teach.

In April, a Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student who sought full refunds for unused lessons. Next, the Japanese government prohibited Nova from entering further long-term contracts with students. Amid the bad publicity, many students also canceled.

McDonald of Fairview heard rumors of Nova’s troubles in mid-August after arriving in Japan. An earlier teaching job in Taiwan had evaporated, he says, because of visa problems. But the Portland State University psychology graduate began teaching for Nova near Tokyo.

“They were cutting corners everywhere they could,” McDonald says. Nova often assigned three teachers to one apartment, he says, charging each full rent.

On Sept. 15, McDonald was paid for the portion of August that he’d worked. Many other Nova teachers, including Campbell-Schmitt, received nothing. “First they just told us it’d be late,” she says.

Pay for September never came. Last Friday, Nova filed for bankruptcy protection after firing its president, Nozomu Sahashi, who has disappeared from public view.

Many Nova teachers plan to hang on in Japan at least until Nov. 5, when interim managers face a deadline for finding investors to rescue the firm. But landlords are evicting teachers, many of whom have nowhere to go.

McDonald — who’s down to $300 and owed about $2,500 — eats two meals a day to save money. He applied for one job that had more than 1,000 applicants. Today, he received an eviction notice.

Campbell-Schmitt moved on Monday into a friend’s apartment. Some Japanese have tried to help, she says. Convenience-store clerks give out free peanuts, she says.

McDonald and Campbell-Schmitt, who don’t know each other, say the experience hasn’t soured them on all Japanese.

“They accept me to a certain degree,” Campbell-Schmitt says. “But when it really comes down to something like this, it’s like all of a sudden you’re alone again.”