Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Random Memories #32

Note: This is somewhat of a continuation of my two previous posts (here and here), though it is not necessary to have read them to follow this.

It has often been said that people get the government they deserve. I believe this is true. I also believe that, in the 80's in Japan, language schools got the types of teachers they deserved based on how they hired them and how they were treated. If a company concerned itself with the possible quality of instruction, experience, and personality of each teacher, it was going to get a better employee than one that cared only about how your paperwork could be processed at immigration, your age, and your physical appearance. Nova ICI, one of the biggest conversation schools in Japan for quite a long period of time, cared only about the latter in 1989, and the types of teachers it tended to attract reflected those priorities.

In terms of how Nova dealt with instructors, the superficial aspects looked pretty good. They promised steady hours and steady pay. A new teacher was to work 35 hours for 250,000 yen ($1,953 in 1989) up until their probation ended (3 months) and then their salary would increase to 290,000 yen ($2265 in 1989). That sounds all well and good, but after I started working at Nova, the rumors of how things really worked started to fly. 

One of the things that tended to happen at Nova was that they would permit some people who did not have a qualifying Bachelor's degree (which you must have to get a proper working visa) to work on their tourist visas when they got desperate for bums in seats. This explains to some extent the economics of the probationary pay. A tourist visa lasted 3 months so anyone who was doing a temporary gig would get the reduced pay and then walk away before the higher rate could kick in. 

If they wanted to take their chances, they would hop a boat to Korea or fly outside of Japan for a spell then come back for a fresh tourist visa and spend another three months. This worked for some, and not so well for most as the immigration folks at the airport could smell someone who was coming back to work on a shiny new tourist visa. Well, they couldn't so much smell it as work out that anyone who remained up until the cusp of their visa expiring and then left for a brief time was likely coming back to work illegally.

At any rate, the most pernicious rumor at Nova regarding teachers was that they would cheat you if you gave proper notice. That is if you said you were going in a month, they'd withhold and keep 2 weeks salary and not pay you what you were due. I don't know if this was true, but it was widely believed and teachers were constantly bugging out without notice based on this belief. If you bugged out at just the right moment, the most you could be cheated out of was a few days of pay. If you did the right thing, you would lose a great deal more.

In my school, we had two British folks who were working on tourist visas. One bugged out without notice when his three months were up. I remember the manager coming up to me and asking me if he was ever coming back and feeling uncomfortable admitting that I knew he was not. The other teacher had a craftier way of getting around the lack of a Bachelor's degree. She had worked at a professional printer back home in England and she flew back to make her own false document. For her, this worked, but I know other folks who tried this and failed. I guess the mail order ones didn't work as well as one that you custom-made with your own two hands. This fake served my former coworker well as she continued to work at various jobs in Japan on that fake diploma.

Nova was aware of and actually condoned the acquisition of such fake documentation at that time. My guess is that the current version of that company, which is ran by different management and likely has had its shady practices completely cleaned up, does not in any way support this. How do I know that they supported this in the distant past? There was a very popular Australian teacher who lacked a degree. He was very popular with the lower level students because he was a gas bag who could talk his way through the entire lesson without placing much in the way of demands on the students. He taught there for 6 months on a working holiday visa, a visa which allows people from certain countries to legally work in Japan, and it was coming to an end. Nova management wanted him to stay, so they encouraged him to go procure the false diploma to allow him to be sponsored. They even pointed him toward Hong Kong, which apparently was a good place to get a fake degree back in those days.

You might think that Nova's sloppy hiring practices and skirting the law in order to hire teachers is no big deal. So what if they don't ask about your teaching skills, experience or techniques? So what if they encourage people to buy diplomas to get around a requirement to have a Bachelor's degree? If you believe as many people do that foreigners who work in English conversation schools are little more than monkeys who are there to amuse bored housewives, school kids, and indifferent businessmen who are forced to study English, then none of that matters. A monkey with a diploma is little different than the chimp without one. They can all dance for the natives, right? Well... no.

I'm not going to try and convince you of the idea that a person who completes a college degree is somehow a different type of employee than one who does not. You're either going to buy that (most likely if you have a degree) or not (most likely if you don't). I can tell you that I spotted the liars who never finished a university degree long before they confessed or got caught. There is a difference, and it's not even about how intelligent they are, but that's not what I'm leading up to. What I'm leading up to is the fact that Nova's attitude toward teachers resulted in worse than monkeys with fake credentials.

This is a story I have told before, in a blog a long time ago and far away, but it belongs in this post so I'll tell it again. One day my British coworkers (the one who printed her own degree) and I were walking down the street in Ikebukuro. We reached a light and as we waited, a tall foreign man who seemed to be in his 30's or 40's approached us and stood with us. He started talking to us about how the Japanese hated foreigners and felt we were beneath them. He said they were like Nazis and had contempt for all of us. I knew from the look in his eye and the way he spoke that he was mentally ill. I'd worked and lived with people with an array of serious mental disorders, including schizophrenia, for two years and I know what that disease looks and sounds like. My friend was taken aback and simply responded to his rant by saying, "well, it's their country." The light changed and we walked on our merry way.

Two weeks later, I came into work at Nova and this man was there gathering up student files. They had hired him as a teacher. I was shocked, to say the least, and I felt that, given his opinions of the Japanese as he professed on the street, it would be bad to put him in a classroom with students. I went to the manager and told her that I strongly suspected that he was mentally ill and I told her the types of things he had told my coworker and me. She nodded and said, "mmm," and thanked me and did absolutely nothing. This was a good example of the type of thinking I came to expect in Japan. That is, they would worry about crossing that rickety old bridge only after it had collapsed and killed anyone walking across it. It didn't matter if an engineer guaranteed that it was going to go and go soon, they'd simply ignore it until it could no longer be ignored. 

Within the coming weeks, this man's mental illness started to manifest. He didn't bath and started to stink. During the lessons, he told students that his dead father was in the cubicle with him and was speaking to him during the class. He became increasingly erratic and sometimes shouted at students in the class. The students, being passive and not wanting to embarrass anyone, tolerated this for a little while, but even they couldn't bear it for long. The Japanese are patient people, but no one can stand being in a tiny little room with a smelly, mentally ill person for long and "gaman" (endure), particularly when they are paying for the indignity of it all. After about a month, Nova finally sacked this man who should never have been hired in the first place.

The reason this guy got hired was that Nova didn't care about who he was or what he was going to do in a class. They looked at his visa and determined they could legally get his ass into a seat. The potential damage of their hiring practices went beyond simply putting unqualified monkeys into seats or even losing business. Given his delusions about the Japanese hating on foreigners and judging them, it's hard to know what he could have been capable of. As it was, he was capable of verbally abusing the students and making them very upset by sharing his hallucinations in the class. It could have been very much worse and the attitude at Nova toward hiring foreigners was entirely to blame.


  1. You'd think the new management would learn, wouldn't you?

    But looking at the quality of their CURRENT full time contracts, they are still expecting to deal with the lower end of the market.

    The current contracts are set up in such a way that they absolve Nova of any responsibility.

    There are no concessions given to teachers, pay is docked at a draconian rate for lateness, there are clauses they hope you sign allowing them to relocate you at a school anywhere in Japan from 2 weeks to several months (this gives bonus pay, making up what little you now get to a market average).

    There are also clauses restricting teaching staff from contacting students outside of lesson time either in person, by telephone or other means.

    Heaven help you if you accidentally see a student in the post office...!

    Obviously, not the kind of contract that is aimed at the professional pedagogue, but rather the working-holiday Gaijin slumming it for a few months.

    1. I didn't know what the current management was up to, but I do know that, after I quit Nova, things got much worse. Among other things, they instituted an elaborate system of financial penalties if you called in sick or were late. I don't recall exactly, but they'd knock off an hour for marginal lateness (even if it was due to train issues) and several hours for various amounts of lateness. They also required a doctor's note if you were sick so, if you woke up with a sore throat or cold, you'd have to schlep to a doctor to verify that you were, indeed, marginally ill in such a fashion that made talking all day painful and difficult, but did not actually require medical attention.

      I had also heard that they created an elaborate system to help them avoid paying the health insurance. That was similar to what you told me about hours worked being different from hours they claimed you worked (and paid you for). There was a cut-off point (28 hours?) at which employers are required to pay, so they deducted all of the time between classes (including obligatory preparation time) and other on-site hours such that the total fell just under what would legally mandate them to pay the insurance. Since the classes were 40 minutes and there were 10 minutes between each class to do paperwork and collect files, they could deduct nearly 2 hours from an 8-hour day (12 classes with 10 minutes before each for prep/wrapping up) and claim you were only working 30 hours when you were actually working 40. Those 10 minutes aren't optional and require you to do actual work. I think they further reduced the working day so that people were seen to work 28 hours instead of whatever they actually worked.

      So, it seems that the methods they were using shortly after I left remain in place. I'm guessing they're no longer employing people on tourist visas, but that is just a guess.

      Nova isn't the only company that is guilty of this, but others are a bit less mercenary in stripping your free time and not paying for it. Most others set up a contract which states you work up to whatever salary allows them to sponsor your visa, (around 25 hours) but then optionally allow teachers to work more hours for more pay at a given rate. That way, they aren't legally employing you for the hours, but they are allowing you "overtime" so you can make a higher wage overall without incurring the obligatory health insurance fees. My husband worked at a place that did this, and I felt it was actually fine since he was working only as much (or as little) as he personally chose. Also, the job didn't ask you to stay on site if you weren't working and weren't getting paid. They were on the up and up entirely (no required prep either). They just weren't paternalistic in their benefits, but that was fine with him. I later worked part-time at the same place, and I'd definitely work there again as I liked everything about the atmosphere and approach as well as how they were so straightforward with us.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. "He started talking to us about how the Japanese hated foreigners and felt we were beneath them. He said they were like Nazis and had contempt for all of us."

    "[N]o one can stand being in a tiny little room with a smelly, mentally ill person for long".

    These are both equally prejudicial and irrational ways of thinking. Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean that they are smelly or incapable of teaching an English class or incapable of working. Similarly, just because someone in Japan hates foreigners doesn't meant that everyone does. Heck, my Psychologist had OCD.

    Recent studies have proven that people with Schizophrenia who are able to work are far more likely to recover than people who don't.

    Sure, the guy in your blog didn't sound like the most competent rephrase things:

    "No one can stand being in a tiny little room with a smelly person ranting about their dead father's corpse" makes more logical sense, no?

    My friend's Mum has Schizophrenia, but the condition doesn't affect her all the time. She tutors people in Australia and does a good job of it. When I visit my friend, I don't feel uncomfortable to be in the same room as her.

    1. "Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean that they are smelly or incapable of teaching an English class or incapable of working."

      You may want to read my post again, Culture Machine, as you appear to have missed some salient points. First of all, we were in the same office/room as him. We could smell him. I did not say all schizophrenics were smelly and irrational, but this man was smelly. He also had conversations with his dead father and yelled at students who are, essentially, customers. I'm pretty sure both of these things make him irrational. Most rational people aren't conversing with the dead while doing their job.

      First of all, I have copious experience with mentally ill people and schizophrenics in particular. I know when someone is in the midst of a psychotic break and off their medication as it was my job to know such things and I was very good at it. You may not accept that fact, and that is certainly your right, but I think you're splitting hairs here. The man was mentally ill. He did stink, which is often something that occurs with schizophrenics when they are entering a disorganized state and at risk of losing touch with reality. I worked in a residential facility with people who had such problems and we could tell by their self care habits (refusal to shower), the look in their eyes, and the way they talked that they were on a down-slide and, if their medications weren't adjusted, they were likely to head back to the hospital that they were in before we gave them a room in the halfway house.

      I *never* said all schizophrenics were like this man, which is what you appear to be saying I said. I only said that it was clear that this individual was mentally ill and that his future behavior bore that out. They had no business hiring him with his attitude toward the Japanese even if he wasn't ill. After all, would you want a skinhead to teach in a high school that largely had an African American population? Do you honestly feel it was appropriate for someone who stood on street corners talking about the Japanese without clear hatred and contempt to be placed in a position to provide a service to them? The fact that he was mentally ill explained this irrational behavior (as most rational people don't stand on street corners striking up conversations like that) and the fact that he later did as he did validated my concern that he was, indeed, a very sick individual. I felt he needed help, not to be sitting in a room with students.

      There is no prejudice here against the mentally ill save what you are imagining. You're putting generalizations in my mouth which did not come out of it. Please read what I actually said again and you'll see that everything I said was specific to this person.

  3. Again, "[N]o one can stand being in a tiny little room with a smelly, mentally ill person for long".

    The point that I'm trying to make is in relation to this quote.

    I did not say that I think the teacher (who claimed to hate Japanese people) should be working in the classroom or that you could not identify that he was experiencing a Psychotic episode from your work in the past. Actually, I agree - he wasn't fit to be teaching in the classroom in that condition.

    But, I disagree with the premise, in relation to the quote above.

    It's like saying that someone who has Diabetes Type 2 is undesirable as a classroom teacher just because this one individual fainted inside a classroom and the students found it uncomfortable. Fainting is a symptom of Diabetes Type 2. It doesn't mean that everyone with Diabetes Type 2 will faint or that their condition can't be managed so that they don't faint again.

    Similarly, the degree of smelliness, traits of mental illness, and good teaching abilities are all separate qualities that vary from individual to individual.

  4. "I *never* said all schizophrenics were like this man"

    Point taken, though. You don't think that all Schizophrenics are like that man, clearly. Otherwise, you wouldn't have explained otherwise.

    "There is no prejudice here against the mentally ill save what you are imagining. You're putting generalizations in my mouth which did not come out of it."

    I disagree with this, though. The part that I quoted is pretty stigmatic. Not everyone has the depth of experience as you do to know that what you said doesn't apply to everyone who is Schizophrenic or mentally ill.

    Although, awareness of mental illness is increasing globally - there's still a lot of stigma out there. For example, a while ago I read an article in the Japan Times. A mother had killed her mentally ill son. In the article, it said that the son would bang on the walls and call out and that's why she killed him. It did not state that the son was violent to her or abusive. He could have had Tourettes, Autism or Obessive Compulsive Disorder. I was shocked to find that the vast majority of people who commented felt sorry for the mother for having a mentally ill son ~ as though it was his fault for her killing him.

    So, I think that, yeah, there's still a lot of people out there that are unaware that someone with a mental illness is not necessarily violent or dangerous...or incompetent in the workplace.

    PM Abe has plans to introduce a system that encourages more people to hire mentally ill people in Japan in order to reduce the discrimination that occurs when someone is able to work but faces stigma in the job application process.


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