For years Japan has welcomed English teachers such as Kristen Moon with open arms to fill its many language schools but when industry giant Nova collapsed they found themselves on their own.
Critics say the fiasco has exposed the lack of an adequate safety net for foreign workers in Japan, even as the world’s second-largest economy gradually opens its doors to overcome a shrinking workforce and an ageing population.
Moon arrived in Japan little more than six months before the nation’s largest foreign language school filed for bankruptcy protection last month, leaving thousands of foreign teachers without jobs or pay.
Concerned for her welfare, Moon’s students asked her to keep teaching them outside of the school and took her out for dinner and karaoke.
Their generosity almost made up for the problems, she said, while sipping a coffee at a cafe in Ichikawa, on the eastern outskirts of Tokyo.
“I feel my cultural contribution to Japanese society through the teaching of English is valued by individuals, but the government has exploited this need and led to companies earning huge profits,” she said.
Moon, a 23-year-old American, is one of about 4,500 foreign teachers left jobless after the collapse of the language school.
About 2,000 Japanese workers were also left without jobs while an estimated 400,000 students were affected.
Teachers’ hackles were raised further when local media showed the former Nova president’s plush executive suite at the company’s headquarters in Osaka complete with a dining room, bathroom with sauna and Japanese-style tea room.
The teachers, most of whom paid for their flights to Japan themselves and who find themselves without work or health insurance are now desperately trying to find new employment.
Some cannot afford a plane ticket home while others are offering individual lessons.
Despite the hardships, there is some hope for the teachers.
Nova’s lawyers said Tuesday that Japanese firm G.communication, which runs English classes in northern Japan, would start taking over the running of 30 Nova schools and try to manage up to 200, less than one-third of the total.
But, exhausted by anger and disappointment, some teachers are already packing their bags, giving up hope of getting the salaries they are owed.
“Because the company was telling us absolutely nothing, any new information was from the media, or from the union or gossiping amongst ourselves,” said Julie Pidgeon, 26, who plans to go home. “I was just sick of the limbo.”
Michelle Newton-Greene, 31, is also calling it quits.
“I’ve got to take some dignity home with me and start again,” she said.
Nova’s blue-and-yellow signs, which famously advertised an experience akin to “a study trip abroad”, are still dotted around Tokyo, but none of the hundreds of schools are open for lessons.
Teaching English was once a high-paying job in the country, drawing thousands of people from countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, including many young people looking to spend a few years abroad.
As the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s and the yen became weaker, Nova began a more agressive teacher recruitment programme overseas, particularly through universities.
Moon said Japan’s laws need to be changed to make the country more welcoming to foreign workers.
She and her Australian colleagues feel that the collapse of Nova exposed lack of legal and social protection for foreign workers in Japan.
“Not just Nova staff but any foreign worker, whether they are Latin American construction workers or the women who make bento (lunch) boxes… they’ve all been exploited by their company,” Moon said.
“Often because there is a communication barrier and they cannot speak fluent Japanese, when something goes wrong, they are just fired. They don’t know the Japanese laws or the language and they are easily replaced.”
Japan has a tight immigration policy, restricting access to those with Japanese ancestors and skilled workers.
But with the population rapidly ageing and the birthrate dwindling, Japanese companies face a shortage of unskilled workers, which critics say has contributed to the exploitation of illegal foreign workers.
Goro Ono, a professor at Saitama University, said Japan has also been overly generous in granting work visas to Western English speakers and should have established better protection for teachers.
“If Nova had such a high risk of laying off foreigners, the government should have prepared for it with employment insurance,” he said.
“The question is, does Japan really want to host so many immigrants and have them as part of society?” he asked, adding that the answer was “no.”
Ono said teaching English in Japan was a type of immigrant labour. But Moon and her colleagues do not see themselves as the same as other immigrants.
“We can easily go back to our country whenever we choose,” said Moon, while Pidgeon added: “We are privileged. We are here by choice.”