The eikaiwa industry is to native-speakerism (NSism) what the Trump campaign is to racism. It is the largest legitimate beachhead the ideology has made in mainstream culture, and the clearest venue to see the its power in convincing people to hand over money and other resources. Unfortunately, as I keep going on about, eikaiwa (for those not in the know, omnipresent commercial English schools in Japan usually featuring NSs) are barely touched on in academic research (exceptions: Appleby, Bailey, Kelsky, Kubota, Nagatomo). Part of this is because it can be hard to gain access to eikaiwa for research, and part of it is because the types who conduct SLA research tend to work in universities, where populations of undergraduates are already easily available. The drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight and all that.
Just as an introduction to the ideologies of education one can see in the eikaiwa world, I’ve biopsied a small slice of eikaiwa websites from one city in Japan and its surrounding area. Below I will name them and review the issues I uncover.
All the websites I looked at were from schools in Shizuoka city or its suburbs. They are:
- Small World, a small but openly commercial school specializing in adults;
- B-up, a small school with a heavy emphasis on fun;
- English Box, which plays up the Japanese side of the Japanese/NS dichotomy;
- Poppins, a small childrens’ school;
- Step Up, a school that emphasizes its original materials but not the NS status of its teachers;
- Beeline, another small school also featuring teacher dispatch;
- Oshaberi, a seemingly casual school staffed and owned by long-term residents and the largest school in this sample;
- GO English, a small school focusing on childrens’ 4 skills;
- Alliance, a small school without much available information;
- Reach Out, one of a few schools that seems to make no mention of the NS status of its teachers; and
- Offbeat, a café/school with a clearly casual approach
I haven’t asked any of these schools for permission to use them in research, since after all this is a blog, and all the information I’m using here is publicly available. I won’t be using screencaps of their websites though, you’ll have to click through them yourself to see what I’m talking about. The Shizuoka area also has 4 major chains, Berlitz, Aeon, Cocojuku and ECC, but I have elected not to study them for this post, choosing instead to focus on single-location schools or small chains. The average number of locations of the schools I looked at for this post was 1.45, and all but 3 (Reach Out, Oshaberi, and Poppins) had only one location. The reason for focusing on non-chains is just because smaller eikaiwa are likely to have more variation in the types of appeals that they make and the types of educational services that they offer. The websites of the chains tend to be very similar, except for vocally anti-NS Yamaha.
I should also add that websites are not always reliable sources for information about schools, even though they are often the only source available and certainly the easiest to access. My school’s website kept several out-of-date pages, slogans, and classes simply for lack of time or motivation to update. Some of the pages in this sample, most notably Alliance and Oshaberi, also seem to suffer from uneven updating, and sometimes offer conflicting information. Still, patterns emerge in the ways that schools present themselves to the web-surfing public that are useful for understanding the world of eikaiwa.
Below I have separated the major issues into categories: Teachers and Owners, NSism, and Leisure vs. Education.
Teachers and Owners
Smaller schools seem less likely to maintain the NS-only (and accompanying English-only) policies that are supposedly the defining trait of the industry. In fact, in this sample, only two schools (Step Up and Alliance) feature NS teachers exclusively, while two (Poppins and Offbeat) have only Japanese teachers. The NS status of teachers at single-location eikaiwa is quite likely to depend on the NS status of the owner, as he/she is often the only teacher as well, as was true in my case and seems to be true also of Step Up, Poppins, and Offbeat. The average number of teachers of schools that listed their current staff was 2.5 (although Oshaberi lists different staff on the Japanese and English versions of their site), fewer than the 3 at any given Aeon branch. The stereotype of the neophyte monolingual English speaker teaching eikaiwa seems not to hold true for many of the schools in this sample, staffed as they are by long-term residents and Japanese nationals. One may expect to find this pattern to hold nationwide, since about half of eikaiwa nationwide are not chains.
A corollary to the above is that English-only policies can be expected to be rarer in smaller eikaiwa, as teachers are either native Japanese speakers or English NSs with long periods of stay in Japan. None of the schools in this sample advertises an English-only classroom policy, making Japanese as an option or Japanese-heavy classes as Kubota found a possibility. I have long suspected that the English-only policies at chains (despite their elaborate justifications) were more a product of the demographics of their teachers than sound pedagogical thinking, and indeed none of the schools surveyed here makes an English-only policy part of their stated teaching method. Whether this is good classroom practice is a separate issue, but the greater predominance of this practice among schools whose teachers don’t speak Japanese anyway indicates that it is motivated by factors other than the pursuit of effective teaching.
One school from this sample, English Box, make great claims on the benefits of learning from Japanese rather than NS teachers. This is part of a phenomenon I will explore in the next section.
NSism, like racism, can be seen two different ways. In its most common definition, it is a system of oppression by a powerful racial/linguistic group over another group. In a more academic sense, it is a belief that one’s beliefs, characteristics, and abilities flow in a general and predictable way from one’s race/NS status. The second definition is a prerequisite for the first, but of course many people (Lord of the Rings fans, for instance) still see the second as uncontroversial and inoffensive. The second definition of NSism is seen in eikaiwa more often than the first, and often works to define NSs as less competent teachers, but natural conversation partners because of their NS status. Because the raison d’etre of the industry is English conversation, this often results in a superior position for NSs. However, it also leaves a large niche for Japanese teachers, who in this dichotomy are the only ones capable of explaining grammar, empathizing with students, and understanding Japanese education. It is in this spirit that English Box describes its “Fukushima English training method” as:
ネイティブに真似できない日本人による日本人の為のメソッド “A method by Japanese, for Japanese, which NSs cannot imitate”
In the pages surveyed, NS teachers are cast as purveyors of “fun” education and are characterized as friendly models of correct pronunciation, generally not as professional or knowledgeable educators. For example:
明るい外国人講師と素敵な時間をお過ごしください。”Spend lovely time with cheerful foreigner teachers” (Beeline)
同時に、外国人講師による正しい発音・リズムをしっかり身に付けましょう。”At the same time, [kids] can learn acquire foreigner teachers’ correct pronunciation and rhythm.” (Beeline)
とにかく、日本人に必要なのは英語を流暢に話す外国人の方とたくさん接する事が一番だと私は考えます。”Above all, what is most necessary for Japanese is to spend time in contact with foreigners who speak fluent English.” (GO English)
ネィティブ外国人講師と会話をする機会を持つことで、スピーキング能力は必ず身に付きます。”By having the opportunity to converse with native foreign teachers, speaking ability will naturally be acquired.” (Oshaberi)
(I am translating 身につくmi ni tsuku and 身につけるmi ni tsukeru as “acquire”, although the Japanese term does not have the technical ring that “acquire” does in English. The more common Japanese translation of “acquire” in Krashen’s sense is 取得する shutoku suru, which I have not found in the text of any of these websites.)
Japanese teachers are occasionally described in similar terms. However, particularly when being compared to NS teachers, the more common terms are 丁寧 teinei “polite/careful/gracious/courteous” (a very loaded term), しっかりと shikkari to “reliable/reliably”, and プロ puro “professional”. The Yamaha site excerpted above includes all 3 of these terms. Japanese teachers in eikaiwa are generally described as competent professionals who are endowed by their ethnicity with empathy and understanding of their fellow Japanese, particularly for beginning students and students seeking a class style more compatible with the explicitly presented, skill-based theory of learning seen in public schools.
少し不安があるという方には日本人講師から基本を丁寧に学ぶこともできます。”For people who feel uneasy, Japanese teachers can teach courteously starting from the basics” (Beeline)
‥日本の様々な風土や文化をしっかりと理解した上で、‥真のバイリンガル養成を行います。”…with a rigorous understanding of the various climates and cultures of Japan, … we nurture true bilinguals” (English Box)
宣伝とは違い担任が日本人講師。質問に答えられない初心者外国人講師。 “Unlike the ads, the teacher was Japanese. [Or] A beginner foreigner teacher who can’t answer your questions. (Alliance, under “differences with large schools“)
Q:まだ初心者なのですが、先生は外国人の先生ですか？”I’m still a beginner. Will my teacher be a foreigner?”
A: 中～上級者の方には外国人講師のレッスンを組み込む場合もあります。しかし初心者～中級の方の場合、レベルに合わせてご本人と相談してレッスンを 組みますので、いきなり外国人講師ということはありません。基本的には日本人講師がメインでレッスンを行いますので、ご安心ください。”Intermediate to advanced learners are sometimes added to foreigner teachers’ classes. However, for beginner to intermediate students, we consult the students before sorting them into classes, so you won’t suddenly be faced with a foreigner. Basically, mainly Japanese teachers conduct our lessons, so please don’t worry.” (English Box)
(I have elected to translate 外国人講師 gaikokujin koushi more or less literally as “foreigner teacher”, maintaining the original’s structure as a compound noun. The term is often used interchangeably with ネイティブ講師 neitibu koushi (native teacher) or just ネイティブ neitibu “native”, hinting at another essentializing ideology, that of the world outside Japan comprising uniformily native English speakers.)
In some websites, NSs and Japanese teachers are described as being given different official duties, in echo of national chain Aeon. Beeline gives its Japanese teachers “writing and grammar” courses, Eiken courses, and something called 英語学習コース eigogakushuu koosu “English learning course” (here giving clear voice to the eigo/eikaiwa dichotomy) with an emphasis on reviewing and preparing for public English education. Private students have the option of choosing Japanese or NS teachers, and the NS statuses of the teachers responsible for each class are given in the descriptions for every class on their website. Division of duties by NS status is seen at other schools as well: Small World charges 2000 yen less for lessons with its Japanese teacher, and Step Up describes its Japanese staff as providing undefined “support” in lessons. English Box, as already mentioned, flips the NS-dominant model of NSism by giving Japanese teachers pride of place as the qualified practitioners of its house method.
NSs are also portrayed as the gateway into the international world or a means to realize one’s status as an international person.
保護者様と一緒に学び楽しむことが出来るようネイティブ外国人講師が小さなインターナショナルワールドを広げています。”Native foreigner teachers spread open a small international world in order for parents and children to learn and have fun.” (Oshaberi)
英語で意見交換の出来る国際人を目指します！”Aim for [being] an international person who can exchange opinions in English!” (B-up)
母国語でない英語でコミュニケーションできるようになるには、外国人講師とのレッスンで異文化を体験しながら磨くことが必要です。”In order to come to be able to communucate in English, which is not your native language, it is necessary to hone [your skills] by experiencing a different culture in a foreigner teacher’s lesson.” (Alliance)
インストラクターとの楽しい交流・経験を通じて異文化を体験してください。”Please experience foreign culture by having fun exchanges and experiences with instructors.” (Small World, “instructor” written phonetically in katakana)
そして、プレッシャーを感じることなく英語環境で過ごせる”国際人”を育てることを目指します。”And then, [we] aim for raising ‘international people’ who can spend time in English-speaking environments without feeling pressure.” (B-up)
その為に､日本社会や文化・歴史、風俗・習慣について、英語で情報発信するトレーニングを行い「日本をアピールできる国際親善大使」を目指していきます。”For that [building Japanese identity of interest to foreigners], we train students to transmit information about Japanese society’s history, customs, and traditions; and aim at [raising] ‘international goodwill ambassadors who can appeal Japan [to the world]’.” (English Box)
Pictures on the websites follow predictable patterns of “the more caucasians the merrier” when using stock photos (Alliance greets you with a smiling but strangely bisected caucasian male), and in the case of B-up features a drawing of its Canadian teacher with a stereotypical triangular nose. English Box, an exception in many ways, has an almost pornographic fixation on Japanese iconography in the presentation of its by-Japanese-for-Japanese “Samurai English” course. Pictures that are not of the classrooms or students at most of the websites reviewed tend to be bright and non-threatening, ambiguously “international” images that would be equally at home on a travel agency’s website. The tendency of eikaiwa to market themselves as “light” education has been used against them; Nagatomo’s latest book features an episode recounted by a research participant in which her school was specifically targeted in the advertising of a local juku (cram school) for its presumed unseriousness and non-didactic approach.
The division of duties between NS/NNS teachers and verbal or visual appeals to internationalist dreams are all par for the course in NSism in Japan, even at the university level. What is striking about eikaiwa low on the food chain as some of these schools are is how closely some schools like the above toe the line on NSism, while some other schools seem fine with ignoring it. A few schools, with either NS or Japanese teachers, make no mention of the supposed benefits of having a teacher of that background. Step Up, for example, describes its teacher/owner as Canadian, but makes no claims or associations based on that, nor does Small World with its “foreigner or Japanese” teachers leading each class, despite differences in price. Oshaberi describes its NS and Japanese teachers in similar ways without drawing attention to NS status. Alliance is the one school to promote Japanese fluency among its “foreigner teachers” (here rendered 外人講師 gaijinkoushi, a less PC term) as a selling point. Poppins, Reach Out, and Offbeat feature Japanese teachers but make no mention of the stereotyped advantages of Japanese teachers teaching Japanese students.
More in keeping with the standards of the industry are schools like English Box that proclaim the superiority of their chosen type of teacher, NS or not, in the least subtle terms possible. The extent to which some schools make Nihonjinron-like claims in support of their Japanese staff shows clearly that NSism is more properly described as an ideology of difference than of superiority. As in modern racism, its adherents simply claim to be allocating jobs to groups innately more suited to those roles (again, the Aeon site linked above provides a pretty concise summation). In many cases this results in preferential treatment for NSs, but in societies with widely-believed myths of their own internal homogeneity and separateness from others, discourses like those surrounding the empathetic, competent, and responsible NNS teacher vs. the unqualified, unserious, and authentically and permanently foreign NS teacher can appear. This is likely to result in insider-exclusive or traditionally prestigious positions being reserved for NNS teachers.
Often, as some of the examples above hint at, the spotlighting of NS teachers is correlated with an emphasis on non-didactic methods aspects of English learning. Eikaiwa schools are often seen as a type of edutainment, which is the topic of the next section.
Leisure vs. Education
Schools tend to play up the enjoyable aspects of language learning, in some cases as an advantage in learning and sometimes as a pursuit in itself. The hobby-like status of eikaiwa particularly among adults has been written about before, and one sees evidence of it among these websites as well, e.g. at Small World’s description of its adult classes, which compares English to other aesthetic pursuits:
ペンやノートを使って覚えるものだけでなく、スポーツや音楽のように、体験的に実践してこそ身に付くものです。「習う・覚える」だけでなく、「使う・表現する」を重視して、さまざまな角度からあなたのコミュニケーション能力を伸ばしていきます。”Rather than using a pen and notebook to learn, experientially implementing [your English] like sports or music will lead to acquisition. Not simply, “learn/memorize”, we emphasize “use/express”, and extend your communication abilities from a variety of angles.
However, because the demographics of eikaiwa students have changed in recent years to include more children or sometimes exclusively children (4 of the 11 schools give minimum starting ages of under 4 years old), fun is more frequently portrayed as a means to realizing children’s language learning potential. This is usually seen in choices of verbs such as 楽しむ tanoshimu (“enjoy/have fun”) as opposed to “learn”, as well as the adjective 楽しい tanoshii (“enjoyable/fun”, as an adverb 楽しく tanoshiku). Small World’s “concept” page, for example, begins simply: “Education（教育）＋Entertainment （楽しみ)”. Other examples of the entertainment ethos can be seen below.
テキストの他、様々なカードゲーム、歌で楽しくレッスン。”Aside from the textbook, [there are] various card games and songs to [have a] lesson enjoyably.” (Step Up)
身体を動かし、ゲームを使って楽しく過ごします。”[Students] spend time enjoyably, moving their bodies and using games.” (Oshaberi, preschoolers’ class)
ＯＥＫのレッスンでは、外国人・異文化そして英語が存在することを子供達に理解してもらい楽しみながら学んでいます。”In OEK [Oshaberi Eikaiwa Kyoushitsu] lessons, children have fun learning as they experience that foreigners, foreign cultures and English exist.” (Oshaberi)
「楽しい」は大事 ” ‘Fun’ is important”
楽しい！と思う気持ちには、パワーがあります。 “The feeling of thinking, ‘This is fun!’ has power.”
自然にやる気を引き出します。”It draws out motivation naturally.” (B-up)
As for classroom practices themselves, many schools claim to practice a unique teaching method, like the “Fukushima English training method” at English Box. Among these are named house methods like “Corey’s Step Up Eikaiwa Original Curriculum” (Step Up), the “Spiral Approach” (B-up) as well as:
英会話を楽しく、しっかり身に付けられる独自のシステムを展開しております。”We deploy a unique system whereby students can acquire English reliably and enjoyably.” (Small World)
5 of the 11 school websites surveyed make some claim of the uniqueness of their method. Others, including GO English and Reach Out, advertise a 4-skills approach. If this pattern holds nationwide, there will seem to be an implausible number of unique ELT methods being practiced in Japan. More likely, these claims of uniqueness spring from the necessity of branding in order to stand out in the marketplace; B-up’s “Spiral Approach” seems to be simply a catchier name for spaced repetition. Notably, no school makes reference to current ELT buzzwords such as “student-centered”, “task-based”, “English as a lingua franca” or “materials-light”, although cognates of “communicative” are common. Of the schools surveyed, only one (Oshaberi) appears to offer a library for students to engage in something like extensive reading. Approaches vary along the communicative-didactic spectrum and in how much emphasis they place on explicit knowledge, but there seems to be little that would challenge already-held notions of how languages ought to be taught.
The image of the eikaiwa industry is dominated by the discursive and pedagogical practices of nationwide chains. These chains play up the benefits of being taught communication by NSs and grammar by Japanese, and starting as young as possible. They also appeal to NSs’ roles as permanent foreigners in Japanese society to draw out students’ internationalist aspirations while casting their students as immutably Japanese, in need of special methods and teachers because of their cultural, geographic, and ethnic separateness from the rest of the world. What has been enlightening to me about perusing the websites of non-chains is how closely some of them follow that lead (particularly in terms of NSism and branding) and how little others do. Most notable in the latter regard is Offbeat, which with its hippy-like Japanese owner and lackadaisical presentation appears to be from a world where no one has heard of Nihonjinron or NSism. As an ex-eikaiwa owner myself, I regard the existence of unconventional schools like this as heartening, and a sign that eikaiwa need not be synonymous with the practices of the likes of NOVA and GABA.
Much like the humble hamburger, which is held up frequently as a metaphor for eikaiwa, what is deemed to represent the hamburger nationally and internationally is not necessarily its most common form and certainly not the only choice available for consumers – there is a lot of variation between aged beef on a hand-rolled bun, vegan soy burgers with seasonal toppings, and a mass-produced frozen patty with a perfunctory splat of ketchup on it. A person who says he/she teaches eikaiwa or attends eikaiwa still hasn’t said much about what type of teaching or learning that person is engaged in, and letting one’s assumptions be dictated by the loudest members of the industry is a mistake as much as it is to assume that when someone says they like hamburgers they only visit McDonald’s. NSism and casual leisure are important parts of the industry, but one must look at them as precedents with varying degrees of influence rather than essential features of all eikaiwa. A nuanced view of this gigantic industry is necessary to avoid unhelpful caricaturing of its activities and participants.
Suggested further reading on eikaiwa
Appleby, R. 2013. Desire in Translation: White Masculinity and TESOL. TESOL Quarterly 47/1, pp. 122-47.
Bailey, K. 2006. Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24/1 pp. 105-30.
Bailey, K. 2007. Akogare, Ideology, and ‘Charisma Man’ Mythology: Reflections on ethnographic research in English language schools in Japan. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 14/5, pp. 585-608.
Hashimoto, K. 2013. The Construction of the ‘Native Speaker’ in Japan’s Educational Policies for TEFL. In: Houghton, S.A. and Rivers, D. J. eds. Native- Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kelsky, K. 2001. Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Kubota, R. 2009. Rethinking the superiority of the native speaker: Toward a relational understanding of power. In: Doerr, N. M. ed. The Native Speaker Concept. Ethnographic Investigations of Native Speaker Effects. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 233-47.
Kubota, R. 2011. Learning a foreign language as leisure and consumption: enjoyment, desire, and the business of eikaiwa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 14/4, pp. 473-88.
Kubota, R. and McKay, S. 2009. Globalization and Language Learning in Rural Japan: The Role of English in the Local Linguistic Ecology. TESOL Quarterly 43/4, pp. 593-609.
Matsuura, H., Chiba, R., and Hilderbrandt, P. 2001. Beliefs about Learning and Teaching Communicative English in Japan. JALT Journal 23/1, pp. 67-82.
Nagatomo, D. H. 2013. The advantages and disadvantages faced by housewife English teachers in the cottage industry Eikaiwa business. The Language Teacher 37/1, pp. 3-7.
Sakui, K. 2004. Wearing two pairs of shoes: Language teaching in Japan. ELT Journal 58/2, pp. 155-63.
Seargeant, P. 2005. “More English than England itself”: the simulation of authenticity in foreign language practice in Japan. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 15/3, pp. 327-45.
Seargeant, P. 2009. The Idea of English in Japan. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.
Tsuneyoshi, R. 2013. Communicative English in Japan and ‘Native Speakers of English’. In: Houghton, S.A. and Rivers, D. J. eds. Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.