Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

“You’re just being too nice”: Sexual Harassment in the Eikaiwa Industry

I remember my first day and evening as an English conversation (eikaiwa) teacher at AEON, way back in the summer of 2000. There was a welcome party for me (and a farewell party for the departing teacher) at the school. People drank a lot, I tried to remember everyone’s names, and I was excited to begin my first post-college, grown-up job.

Toward the end of the evening, a particularly drunk student started announcing that he was going to drive me back to my hotel. I just smiled at him, not wanting to be rude–the main thing I remembered about my crash course in Japanese etiquette was not to be too direct with people. As the party wound down he began repeatedly grabbing my shoulder and telling me we needed to leave. I gently shook him off every time. Finally, he grabbed my suitcase and beckoned me toward the elevator. Thankfully, the other teachers and managers had my back–they not-so-ceremoniously took my suitcase back from him, shoved him into the elevator alone, and shut the door.

That incident came rushing back to me as I read this lengthy piece in the Japan Times on sexual harassment of teachers by students at Gaba, one of Japan’s large, national English conversation chains. When I think about sexual harassment in Japan (or anywhere, really), I tend to imagine superiors harassing inferiors, or equals harassing equals. I don’t really think about clients harassing service providers–if a client’s being especially difficult, just don’t do business with them, right?

Of course it’s not that simple–small businesses often can’t afford to say no to a client, even a revolting one. I’ve had more than a few private language students that I didn’t care for, but I needed the cash, so as long as their behavior wasn’t utterly heinous I usually kept teaching them. And in the English conversation industry, young, inexperienced teachers are often forced to continue teaching students who have harassed them because a) students equal money, and the schools don’t want to lose a single one, b) Japanese corporate culture, despite advances and changes in laws, still has an “oh, he’s just being friendly” attitude toward sexual harassment, and c) a lot of schools see their teachers as disposable and don’t care much about their safety or comfort.

The examples from the article are disgusting. One teacher had a student masturbate during their one-on-one lesson, and management got angry when she complained. Another teacher was told that she was just “being too nice to the clients.” Other teachers complained of students who used any excuse to initiate physical contact. One male student told a female teacher, “I want to drink your breast milk.” Again and again, when teachers complained to their management the staff were either indifferent or hostile, and the teachers were often made to continue teaching the offending students.

Thankfully, my three years at AEON were nothing like this, mostly because I was blessed with very supportive management. With AEON, as with many conversation schools, teachers live and die by their management. Good managers mean a good working environment, and bad or even mediocre ones can turn the workplace into a nightmare. AEON also tends to shuffle its managers and assistant managers frequently, meaning that if you’re at a school for more than a year you’re likely to get a bad egg at some point.

Three out of my four AEON managers were great, and one was mediocre, though thankfully not bad enough to do any real damage. Amazingly, they took complaints about creepy students seriously. One incident involved a man who was harassing a Japanese teacher AND other students in a weekly class–management not-so-delicately told him that he’d need to transfer to another school and he eventually left (this was probably because the students also complained, not just the teacher). As much as possible, offending students were assigned to classes taught by male teachers (this option often isn’t available when there are few or no male teachers in a school). When one of my co-workers was repeatedly harassed (not by students, just by men on the street) while walking home from work, management moved quickly to find her a new apartment in a different neighborhood, put her up in a hotel until the move was finalized, and gave her taxi vouchers so that she wouldn’t have to walk alone (she later found out that they’d paid for the taxi vouchers out of their own pockets).

Even at my school, though, management was reluctant to confront problematic students directly. More than a few made comments about my appearance, asked me out for drinks, or repeatedly asked if I had a boyfriend. Thankfully they seemed to get the hint when I gave curt replies and changed the subject. One gave me an expensive fur bag out of the blue–not what I would call harassment, but it felt weird. (I was luckier than a female student at a neighboring school, who was given a gift by a student at a party and opened it [in front of the students and staff] to find a pair of sexy underwear.)

My good experience at an eikaiwa school seems to be in the minority, though. The English conversation industry has a shady reputation in Japan, to the point that when people complain about any aspect of the working conditions, the response is usually, “You knew what you were getting into, don’t whine” (I saw more than a few comments like this at the end of the Japan Times article). Eikaiwa is seen as something that young, fresh-out-of-university newbies do for a year or two before moving on, and if the working conditions suck, at least they’re temporary. This also works in the company’s favor when it comes to handling sexual harassment issues–they know that their employee pool is transient, so they’re not too concerned about collective resistance or protest.

There’s another, even creepier factor at play here. Plenty of English conversation schools exploit the idea of the one-on-one lesson and the exotic foreigner, essentially selling the idea that you can pay a few thousand yen for an hour of an attractive person’s company. Gaba, the company profiled in the Japan Times article, famously ran a series of print ads in the early 2000s featuring Japanese women and white male teachers with tag lines like “Since it’s just the two of you, you’ll do a lot of talking.” More than a few sexual predators seem to have learned that English conversation schools are great places to harass women with impunity.

It’s a well-known fact that plenty of English conversation students have no interest in actually learning English–they’re lonely and they’re paying for company. Some are also looking to meet potential partners in class. Some women are looking to spend time with foreign men (my school’s teaching staff was heavily female, and when potential female students found out there were no male teachers available, they sometimes abruptly lost interest in signing up for classes). Some men are looking to spend time with foreign women (without harassing them). And some serial predators are clearly taking advantage of schools’ reluctance to turn anyone away and are seeking out teachers to harass.

(I should add here that, while the majority of what I myself have witnessed and the stories that I’ve heard from friends involved male students harassing female teachers, the reverse also happens. I had one male co-worker at AEON who asked to no longer teach an older female student because she had repeatedly asked him to become her “kept man.” I heard another story of a female student who wanted to set up a marriage of convenience with a gay male teacher because her parents were pressuring her to marry, and she grew hostile when he wasn’t receptive to the idea.)

There’s a perfect storm at play here. English conversation teachers are often young, inexperienced, short on cash, and reluctant to make waves in an unfamiliar culture and working environment. When you’re new to Japan, it’s often hard to distinguish between cultural differences and flat-out bad behavior. (When the drunk guy kept pawing me at that party I was 23 and very polite. Now I’m 37 and I would tell him to back the fuck off–though as the JT article indicates, even firm rebukes don’t always make a difference.) Additionally, Japanese corporate culture does not take sexual harassment seriously and places a very high burden of proof on the teacher. At places like Gaba, student evaluations are also a huge factor in teacher salary and contract renewal–a teacher interviewed for the Japan Times piece said that out of thousands of lessons, her only two negative evaluations came from students that she had refused to go on a date with. Enough negative evals and you can lose your job or take a pay cut. Finally, the predators in question are often smooth, experienced operators who will move from school to school and teacher to teacher, sometimes using the “Oh, you must have misunderstood me, my English isn’t so good” excuse when a teacher complains. (Fuck this. They know exactly what they’re saying.)

So what’s to be done? I think the Japan Times piece and others like it are a great start, because this sort of harassment thrives on silence. Several commenters pointed out that schools like Gaba that offer one-on-one lessons should record all lessons on video. Schools obviously need to devote a lot more time and energy to actually developing clear, concrete policies on how to deal with predatory students. Most importantly, though, I’d say that young people coming to Japan for the first time and starting a job at an eikaiwa school need to be as informed as possible about the working conditions–in particular, what they might just have to tolerate (low pay, long hours) and what they should never put up with (verbal and physical harassment by students or co-workers). The eikaiwa industry probably won’t be an oasis of great working conditions and egalitarian values any time soon, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to make the workplace safe for teachers.

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2 comments on ““You’re just being too nice”: Sexual Harassment in the Eikaiwa Industry

  1. Anonymous
    December 22, 2015

    Hi Lindsay,
    Thank you for your thoughts on Sexual Harassment in the Eikaiwa Industry. I am currently in Japan working at AEON and I came across your blog while researching on this topic for one of my lessons.
    Your insight into this topic was very helpful!

  2. LindsayNelson
    December 22, 2015

    Hello there–glad it was helpful! And I hope you haven’t experienced anything similar…

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This entry was posted on June 19, 2014 by in Japan and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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