Guest post by barten
I came to Japan to teach English 6 years ago. I started in Sendai and thought I'd found my dream job. My first school was American Club, hallways bubbling with students, teachers' room full of banter and jokes. On a working holiday visa, I was started part-time for Y100,000 a month. I worked 12 to 6 and looked for evening classes elsewhere with no luck. They promised to make me full-time down the track, but they seemed to be hiring other people over me. Then the pay started drying up.
At first it was half now half later, then it was only half. I got so short of money at times that I walked to and from work. I lived in Izumi Chuo, 3 hours away on foot. Suddenly our bald president disappeared in a coup. Our new president, Ishihara, started by taking us all out drinking and getting us on side. It worked. They even made me full time. Then suddenly the bald guy came back in another coup. A group of us were asked by Ishihara to work for him in his other school, East 21. He even offered to pay our outstanding wages. So I went. Things were great at first, but then the same pay problems started. Shacho would show up once a week and hand over Y10,000 a time, as if that was any kind of big deal.
Ale, the kids teacher once asked him for her money and he leapt forward at her and grunted Eh!? in her face. That took the cake for me, picking on a woman, so I organized the union to get involved and demanded a meeting. Ishihara promised to pay us in full and on-time from now on, but it never happened. Then suddenly they sacked me, showing a pie-chart of expenses where my salary took up more than half the chart. "But you don't pay me!" I protested. "Get out of the apartment by midnight tonight or we'll come in and get you," was the reply. I rang the Australian consulate and they took me to the Labour Standards Office and translated. The Labour Standards Office told me Ishihara was Sendai's most dishonest businessman and had 100 court cases against him. "Why don't you stop him?" I asked."If he had a business certificate, we could take it away, but he's not a real company. So they contacted Ishihara and again he promised to pay.
But the agreed day came and went. I asked the consul to translate for me again, and he told me he couldn't really help anymore because of his business connections with Ishihara. Later I heard that Ale sued Ishihara for Y600,000 in unpaid wages. She won and Ishihara's property was seized, a few tables and computers. It was valued at Y100,000 which Ale got, and Ishihara showed up that same day with Y100,000, took his stuff back and went right back to ripping people off with his non-business. After court and lawyer fees, Ale returned to Indonesia with Y25,000.
I couldn't get a job anywhere in Sendai because Ishihara had sent letters to every school warning them not to hire me. Finally a school run by the old salesman at American Club gave me a go. Soon I made it to full time and I stayed there nearly three years. There was never any stress about pay at that school, but it was apartheid, foreigners in one room, Japanese in another. They only talked to us to give us orders. Once they said to me, "Bart, you're not genki enough around the school." I answered that it's because you treat us like filth, won't even sit in the same room as us, won't even acknowledge us outside the school. The boss said that he separates the workers into two rooms according to teachers and staff, that's all. So I pointed out that the Japanese teacher sits in the staff room.
He looked irritated and said it's just a lack of space. Anyway, throughout my time there, things gradually relaxed, but the severe, unfriendly atmosphere saw a very high turnover of teachers. When I quit, it was more over the lack of promotion possibilities than bad feelings. I still talk to my old boss sometimes, and when I went back to pay my respects at the school he greeted me like an old friend.
So I answered an ad in the paper for a new school in Sendai. It was part of a juku school and I'd be the only foreigner working there. That suited me cause I was sick of the wankers I ended up working with at my old school. One of them, a Canadian guy, came round to my place for a drink once. He took one look around and said "My TV's bigger than yours and my computer's bigger than yours, too." "OK, flop your dick out then," I said. What a prick. He began his classes with "Hajimasho", a verb I'm yet to track down.
I came to Tokyo for an interview, and while the contents weren't that impressive, the fact that they gave an interview aroused my curiosity. No other school had even bothered. I took the job and there was a training session for one week. The training session consisted of out of date methods that seemed to suit classes of 30 or so students. Sure enough the guy running it wasn't an eikaiwa teacher, and seemed out of his league. I spent most of the session fucking around up the back, but he didn't seem to mind. At the end of the week, we all went drinking. The bill came to Y4000 yen each. We were drinking beer for about 6 hours straight and this guy went mad. He actually stole an unfinished bowl of curry as revenge. My new boss.
I got on with teaching at my new school, wondering periodically why the company had chosen such a crap-arse area to open a school in and why they didn't advertise for students. It didn't bother me too much as long as I got paid. It seemed like a big enough company to wait for students to come. Once they sent me out on the street to hand out pamphlets. I asked the manager to join me but he said I'm not allowed to leave the school. He asked one of the juku teachers, a deformed man with a terminal case of shyness to help. This guy shows up in old jeans and a t-shirt, compared with my suit. When I said to the manager, don't you think he should look decent for this, he said, "It's part time work." So we show up at the station, me and this gnarled-looking gnome, and start to hand out fliers.
Everyone who sees me walks a huge arc around me, which is where the second man should come into play. But no, he's hiding behind me. I ask him to stand at least level with me so we look like a team, but every time I pull him out from behind me he starts working his way back, shuffling little steps thinking I won't notice. Net result over two hours of leafleting? Bart: 3 fliers dispersed. Gnome: 5 fliers dispersed. No students came.
One day the company number two shows up at the school. I overhear him talking to the manager and he's saying "Of course, we'd really like you to continue with the company in a different location." The company closed the school within 3 months of it opening. My apartment, a new 2DK within 15 minutes walk or 30 minutes crawl of Kokubuncho was suddenly not a given. My easy schedule of 2 to 3 classes a day was in doubt. Worse still, no-one else in Sendai would hire me because of Ishihara's letters. And pride kept me from going back to my old school.
The guy who trained me used to call once a week. The next time a call came in he said in a cheery voice, "So, how many students have you got since last time?"
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" I answered. He didn't even know they were closing the school! Like the Y4000 izakaya bill, this knocked him for six. After that, he urged me to sue the company, and started ringing me up on my mobile phone at night, drunk as a skunk and incoherent. He got really annoying. Another Japanese guy came up from Head Office and took me out for a drink. Suddenly, I was offered a job in Head Office, and the truth about the curry-stealing manager came out. He was all over the place, refusing to hire teachers, coming in to work drunk, claiming so much overtime a month that he doubled his salary. Yamashita said to me, "I need you to come in and fix things up." So I moved to Tokyo.
The curry-stealer was indeed a mess. He'd show up at work at 4 p.m. reeking of vodka and sit at his desk blubbering away to himself. He prided himself on making documents on the computer. His forte was the arrangement of things on the page. His girlfriend, so he told me, was a graphic designer, so he had an eye for these things. "My girlfriend's a bitch, but it hasn't rubbed off on me," I answered. He had an ingenious way of achieving these results. As he made a document, he'd have a ruler handy, and from time to time, he'd place the ruler on the computer screen and measure the distances between two objects. If he wanted a word centered on the page, instead of using the 'centering' function, he'd push the space bar until the work looked to be in the middle. Then he'd measure with the ruler on the screen, never mind that the screen is convex. Then he'd change the font sizes on the spaces until it matched exactly. Only then would he print a sheet off and begin the 'fine-tuning', measuring, adjusting, printing, measuring again, adjusting, printing. It was like watching a beetle on its back waiting to die by kicking its legs in the air for a while. If things didn't go right on the computer he'd often slap the machine and scream out "FUCK!" across the room. My first day in the office, he handed me a pile of papers and said, "Photocopy these."
"No," I said and he left me alone after that.
We managed to get rid of this guy after a few months and then began a period of building. Recently a fellow worker said to me, "Yamashita this and Yamashita that. What's so damn good about Yamashita?"
I answered him, "Whether you're Japanese or foreign, rich or poor, a manager or a teacher, a franchise owner or a student, he treats you the same."
That shut him up. Yamashita was my leader and became a great friend. We worked our arses off in the early days. I remember teaching full days of classes in Sapporo, getting up at 5, catching the plane up and getting home after midnight. I remember coming back from business trips and calling Yamashita from the station at 10 p.m. He'd still be in the office so we'd do a bit more work and have a drink. From 12 schools we grew to about 60. We went from no training or curriculum to an organized training session and curriculum for kids classes. We went from not being able to find teachers and delaying school openings, to never delaying an opening at all. It was hard work and of course there were hiccups, but we did a pretty good job considering. Then it all started going wrong.