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."