Ex-pat English teachers stranded by collapse of Japan’s Nova schools

In a country teeming with cute cartoon characters, few are cuter or better known than the Nova bunny. The pink mascot stood in the doorways of language schools across Japan, promising a short educational encounter with an exotic foreigner. But now, thousands of teachers and students have found that the bunny bites, hard.

The collapse of Nova, Japan’s biggest employer of foreigners, has left 4,000 teachers ? including more than 900 from the UK ? stranded without work, money and, in some cases, a place to live. “There are people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Bob Tench, an official with Nova’s union. “It’s very distressing.”

The union is offering a lessons-for-food programme to former Nova students, 300,000 of whom have lost out on classes they have paid for. The British embassy in Tokyo has fielded dozens of calls from distressed ex-pats and several airlines are offering Nova teachers discounted tickets home.

“I came to pay off my college overdraft and credit card and now I’m living on pot noodles and cheap rice dishes,” said Alec Macfarlane, who joined Nova in the summer after graduating from Liverpool University. Like many teachers, he is officially homeless, has not been paid for months, and is depending on the charity of friends and family in the UK.

The unravelling of one of Japan’s most popular high-street companies has riveted nightly television viewers. The ubiquitous bunny fronted the nation’s largest private language chain, controlling nearly half the market for English-language teaching; two generations of Japanese had their first and sometimes only encounter with a foreigner in a Nova classroom. But while the company’s aggressive cost-cutting helped fuel Japan’s language-learning boom, its president, Nozomu Sahashi, was criticised for his stingy hiring policies and take-no-prisoners’ marketing.

Nova’s slide began earlier this year when the government ordered it to close temporarily for posting misleading advertisements, and banned it from selling long-term contracts. With students abandoning it and suing for refunds, it filed for bankruptcy last week, crippled by debts of 44bn yen (£185m).

Mr. Sahashi has fled the company’s offices and is nowhere to be found. In the meantime, Nova is promising that it will be back in business once it sorts out its financial problems. But furious ex-pat bloggers have already posted their verdict on their websites. “I’d like to boil that bunny in a pot,” wrote one.


Ex-NOVA boss questioned for breaking Labor Standards Law

Nozomu Sahashi, the founder of the failed NOVA Corp., has been questioned for breaking the Labor Standards Law by failing to pay his employees, government sources said.

Officials of the Osaka Labor Bureau of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry questioned Sahashi, 56, last Monday. They are considering whether to file a criminal complaint with law enforcers, accusing him of violating the Labor Standards Law.

During questioning, Sahashi admitted that the company failed to pay wages to employees. “We tried to raise the money to pay wages by all means, but we couldn’t,” he was quoted as telling bureau officials.

NOVA’s financial situation took a dive after the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry imposed a six-month ban from making long-term contracts with students in June for its unfair business practices.

It has not paid salaries for September and October to Japanese employees and wages for October to instructors. The unpaid wages amount to about 4 billion yen.


Foreign language instructors ‘will teach for food’ in Japan

Foreign language teachers who suddenly lost their jobs when Japan’s largest language school operator closed have been forced to rely on food handouts from their former students in exchange for private lessons, teachers and union officials said Thursday. Impromptu lessons are being offered in parks and restaurants because teachers can’t afford classrooms, or even apartments, they said.

“We know teachers who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” the president of the Nova Union of Staff and Teachers, Robert Tench, said at a press conference Thursday. “They are in desperate need.”

Some 4,500 foreign language teachers from all around the world lost their jobs with Japan’s largest language school operator, Nova Corp, on October 19.

In response to the sudden end to their livelihoods, the Nova Union of Staff and Teachers launched a “lessons for food” programme for the teachers who are on the verge of becoming homeless.

Natasha Steele, from Sydney, Australia, was fed by her student and came home with a bag full of pastries, enough to feed her for two weeks.

The 26-year-old teacher, who was recruited in Australia and arrived in Japan only 10 months ago, was recently evicted from company accommodation along with her two roommates.

One teacher from Canada lost her job and apartment nine days into her new life in Japan, while a Scottish teacher had to have her parents pay for a flight back home after only a month into her job.

The union also plans to launch a Nova relief fund where people can donate money to help the teachers thrown out of jobs and to request assistance from various embassies, including those of Australia, Britain, Canada, the United States and France.

Australia’s Qantas and British Airways have offered Nova teachers discounted return flights home. Many teachers have not been paid for two months and they cannot afford airline tickets, Tench said.

Last Friday their employer filed for bankruptcy. The scandal-tainted company was granted court protection under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law.

All schools in its network abruptly suspended operations a week ago, dumping thousands of teachers into Japan’s foreign language market.

Nova accumulated debts of about 43.9 billion yen (381.89 million dollars) when students cancelled lessons after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ordered the company to suspend some of its classes in June.

The ministry’s order came after it determined that the company had falsely advertised its services.

The scandal caused a rapid plunge in student enrollment. At its peak in 2005, Nova had 480,000 students learning English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Chinese at branches nationwide.

Some 420,000 students, as well as instructors, were only informed about the temporary suspension of the schools through the media or notices posted in classrooms.

The company had already been in labour disputes with its employees for several years.

As the industry leader, Nova had a profound influence in the industry, driving down prices for lessons, standards of services and employment conditions, according to said Louis Carlet of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, which represents Nova union.

Nova has said it aims to find a supporter for its rehabilitation within a month, but four Japanese firms have already showed reluctance to join with the troubled company, according to the Kyodo News Agency.

Meanwhile, Nova’s embattled president, Nozomu Sahashi, 56, has gone into hiding.

“Not paying wages is a crime under the Labour Law,” said Tench, who had been a teacher at Nova for 13 years.


Nova share trading shady near the end

Boss unloaded amid volume, price flux

Irregular transactions took place in the trading of shares in Nova Corp. in late August and early September ? well before the ailing foreign language school chain was put under court protection for rehabilitation last week, market sources said Thursday.

The large volume of transactions and wild price fluctuations observed during that period came in the absence of factors encouraging investors to sell or buy Nova shares, the sources said, some alleging unfair trading took place.

Nova’s share price on the Jasdaq Securities Exchange in Tokyo plunged to ¥29 from above ¥40 on Aug. 29, after falling gradually amid rumors of its deteriorating financial condition. The price later fluctuated wildly, peaking above ¥60.

On Aug. 29, the daily trading volume in Nova stock suddenly rose to 10 million shares after ranging from 100,000 shares to 1.7 million shares. On Sept. 7, the trading volume swelled to 60 million shares.

A market analyst who requested anonymity said that given the large volume of transactions, parties other than individual investors were apparently behind the wild price fluctuations.

The transactions may have been the result of insider trading by those with access to secret information related to Nova, said Shoichi Arisawa of Iwai Securities Co.

Nova said earlier this week that Nozomu Sahashi, who was dismissed as president of the firm on Oct. 25, sold a massive number of Nova shares in September and failed to fulfill a legal requirement for investors to report any major changes in shareholdings to authorities.

On the Jasdaq exchange Thursday, Nova ended ¥3 lower at ¥19 after hitting a record low of ¥11 Tuesday. The bourse will delist Nova on Nov. 27.

Nova has suspended operations since coming under court protection Friday.

The suspension has also affected schools to which Nova sent assistant language teachers. The Osaka city board of education said Thursday it has canceled a contract with Nova for assistant teachers for 335 elementary and junior high schools.


Union reveals plan for feeding unpaid starving NOVA teachers: ‘Lesson for food’

Union representatives of the scandal-plagued NOVA Corp.’ foreign employees met the foreign press in Tokyo on Thursday, to unveil their relief plans for their fellow instructors who struggle to survive while their wages remain unpaid.

The announcement at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo’s Chiyoda-ku came a week after NOVA, Japan’s largest English conversation school chain and the nation’s largest employer of foreigners, applied for court protection from its creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law.

Dubbed “Lesson for Food,” NOVA’s foreign instructors will give English lessons to students or former students in their homes, public areas or parks. It is yet to be decided specifically when and where they will give such “delivery” lessons, according to the union representatives.

They have also decided to establish a fund for accepting donations from around the world via the Internet and other media, representatives of the NOVA teachers’ branch of the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) Tokyo Nambu said during the press conference.

Furthermore, they will petition the embassies here of the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries to provide relief for their citizens at the government level.

When asked by foreign reporters why they wanted to stay in Japan, the representatives said, “We can’t even afford an airline ticket to return home. We love Japan, and we don’t want to leave with a bad memory.”


School’s closure in Japan exposes tough times for foreign teachers

Nova, the largest language school, declared bankruptcy last week.

Twenty years ago, native English speakers in Japan used to joke that they could make $100 an hour as an ESL teacher because they speak “a” language.

These days, teachers feel as if the joke is on them. Some 4,000 foreign teachers are without jobs and are owed $4,000 in back pay after Japan’s largest school chain, Nova Corp., closed its 900 schools last week, declared bankruptcy, and failed to pay refunds to its 400,000 students.

The collapse of Nova might not just be Japan’s largest consumer story this year. Foreign embassies, Qantas Airlines, and local unions and media are rallying behind students and teachers, who Sunday night set up a “Nova Relief Fund” to help hundreds evicted on short notice from apartments supplied by Nova. “We just need to think about the 1,300 Australians who are suddenly finding themselves out on the street there in Japan,” said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Nova’s demise is also illuminating Japan’s worsening reputation for its dealings with thousands of skilled Western workers who, despite speaking Japanese and raising Japanese children, are denied voting rights, tenure at universities, promotions, and contracts beyond one-year agreements with few benefits.

An Industry Ministry survey in 2002 listed 15,800 foreign teachers and about 1 million students at private language schools such as Nova. Thousands more teach privately via networking sites such as findateacher.com, and at most public schools, with 3,800 in Tokyo alone.

“We’re being treated like cheap migrant labor down in the southern United States,” says Paul Baca, a young Canadian. One of thousands of “perma-temps,” he has been going from job to job over the past decade. “About 99 percent of us have university degrees…. [W]e’re not treated like skilled workers in other countries.”

Ryan Hills quit his $18-an-hour insurance job in Indiana to fly to Tokyo in June in hopes of earning ¥260,000 (about $2,300) a month at Nova. “My flight landed, and the next day I heard about Nova on the news,” says Mr. Hills. “I wanted to study Japanese language and culture but I’ve been too busy battling landlords and management at work.”

He and his roommates from England and New Zealand were evicted after Nova didn’t pay rent already deducted from their salaries. With only ¥9,000 left, he’s hoping to receive an emergency loan offered by the US Embassy. “Ramen noodles are not that filling after a few days. The last job I applied for had 900 applicants. But I don’t want to leave Japan. I cut off everything at home, for nothing.”

Arriving a month ago after graduating from the University of Idaho, Derek Archer calls himself “one of the poor saps who got here when all this was happening. The trainers said, ‘Don’t worry.’ But then our area manager said, ‘You have six days to get out of your apartment.’ I was totally lost.”

His student, an elderly woman, offered to put him up for two months. “I’m [fortunate]…. Others are scraping for food money.”

TV news sob stories of impoverished blond-haired, blue-eyed refugees was not the intention of Japan’s kokusaika, or internationalization. During the bubble economy of the late 1980s, thousands of Westerners earned $3,000 a month to chat with Japanese at national schools such as ECC, Geos, and Nova. But wages have stagnated or declined. Some schools have closed.

Teachers say Nova grew too big, with nearly half the market. “This is a crisis created by a company operating in very improper ways,” says Bob Tench, who taught with Nova for 13 years.

Nova teachers joined the National Union of General Workers in the 1990s. Union representative Catherine Campbell says firms abuse the yearly-contract system. “Teaching in Japan … [is] a really hard situation if you are serious about a long-term job.”

Ms. Campbell says Japan’s Industry Ministry didn’t monitor Nova early on, and then overreacted by banning long-term deals with students. “After that, Nova just started bleeding customers.”

About 2,000 Japanese staff have not been paid since July, while many students are threatening legal action to get refunds. But Osaka District Court on Friday granted Nova court protection amid reports that Nova owes ¥43.9 billion. The Jasdaq Securities Exchange suspended trading in Nova stock.

Calls to Nova’s offices went unanswered.

Mr. Tench says teachers should be treated as professionals rather than tourists who speak a language. Some teachers say they fear a new trend of schools hiring cheaper college grads from the Philippines.

Still, many teachers vow to stay on. Sam Gordon, who came to Japan five years ago, says he became attached to his students. “I don`t want to go back to America, I have no job there. Now foreign teachers have a bad image in Japan. I feel bad for the students, too. They didn’t even get to say goodbye to their teachers.”


Foreigners march for worker rights

Workers from all parts of the globe battled wind and rain Sunday to give speeches, performances and then trudge through the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo, calling for job security and equality for all.

“This march is about raising people’s awareness about the job situation in Japan, especially for foreigners,” said an American woman dressed as the pink rabbit mascot for Nova, the nation’s biggest chain of English-language schools. “It keeps getting worse and worse, with job contracts and other common problems.

“We want contracts that are more beneficial for employees, not just for companies,” she said, asking to keep her name confidential.

About 300 mainly foreign supporters attended the “March In March,” which was organized by the National Union of General Workers Nambu Foreign Workers Caucus, Kanagawa City Union, Zentoitsu Workers’ Union and Tokyo Occupational Safety and Wealth Center.

“Three main areas are involved in our work,” said Peruvian Augusto Tamanaha, from Kanagawa City Union. “The first is dismissal. It’s too easy for foreigners to get fired for no or poor reasons. Second is salary issues. And third relates to accidents.

“For example, in an accident in the workplace, why do Japanese have one kind of treatment and migrant workers have another?” he asked. “We are fighting to (make employers) obey the law — the Labor (Standard) Law — as migrant people.”

“The most important thing is job security,” said Briton Bob Tench, general secretary of the National Union of General Workers [Tokyo Nambu] Nambu Foreign Workers Caucus. “The vast majority of language teachers are on fixed contracts, which in no way gives job security, because when the year ends there’s the threat that your contract may not be renewed.”

Social insurance and pensions are also equally serious issues, he said. “A lot of foreign workers are not enrolled in ‘shakai hosho’ (social security), which is against the law. It puts people at a great risk of hardship if they suffer from an illness or an accident.”


March In March 2006

400 foreigners in a simultaneous demonstration seeking job security and an end to discrimination.


The Asahi Shimbun reported on the web Sunday evening and in their morning print edition. In fact, many of the Asahi’s “400 foreigners” were Japanese, who joined foreigners in what is the beginning of a civil rights movement in Japan. The Japan Times also ran an AP photo on Monday, captioned:

Demonstrators demand job security and equal job opportunities for foreigners during a march Sunday in Tokyo in which some 300 foreigners and Japanese union members took part.

Thanks to all Nambu members and participants in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka who joined the 2006 March in March. You have made all the difference. See all of you again on March 4, 2007.