Category Archives: Education

My photo gallery of Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida-ryo, with article, on CNNGo


Dammit, I can smell the rooms in your pictures, Roy.

Said my friend Jon after looking at my piece just published at CNNGo.

Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.

When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.

The Geos bankruptcy – what’s next for eikaiwa?

(Updated to change student data)

Geos, one of Japan’s major “eikaiwa” English conversation chains, has entered the bankruptcy process (see Let’s Japan or any number of news reports for more details). Some reactions are declaring eikaiwa dead and encouraging teachers to look for employment outside Japan. It does seem like the old eikaiwa business model is not poised for a serious comeback barring a significant improvement in the Japanese economy. That said, eikaiwa as a concept and attractive learning option for Japanese people isn’t going away.

From the looks of it, some eikaiwa bankruptcies are all but inevitable. Revenue is down, and according to Nikkei “the number of language schools in operation last year remained mostly unchanged from 2008, but the number of new students enrolling in the schools plunged 35.7%.” That’s down 35% from post-NOVA levels!

Let’s see some of those numbers in graph form:

And some indicators of our own:

As overall revenues have fallen, sales of teaching materials have risen in importance, now accounting for around 10% of the language school business.

The industry overall now employs more part-time teachers than full-time, but now both categories of teacher are in decline. Not exactly a good sign for financial health or the job security of teachers.

Revenue per student has risen slightly as the average number of classes per student is down, which suggests to me a slightly lower value for the lessons.

Going forward

Paradoxically, this sort of downsizing is exactly what the industry needs, but when schools collapse so suddenly and spectacularly it scares people away and hurts business even more. Nevertheless, I would not be so intensely pessimistic as some of the commenters I have read. The initial success of these schools has created the “eikaiwa paradigm” that will live on, I think, even if all the big chain schools fall to the wayside. Just as small-time piano teachers can make good money anywhere in the world, any halfway decent teacher who can reliably provide value for his/her services can do OK. Maybe not “tens of thousands of western immigrants descend on Japan” kind of OK, but OK nonetheless. Japanese people still want to learn English and are willing to pay for it. They just can’t afford it as much anymore and don’t want to hand their money to crooks.

The problem is that these major players set up large-scale businesses that profited by essentially gouging customers – promising stellar results and pressuring them into long-term contracts only to give sub-standard lessons to people who may not have really been able to benefit from them in the first place. Now, a combination of factors – tighter laws, the bad economy, rise of the Internet as a study tool, people generally getting wise to the con – has come crashing down on Geos.What the numbers don’t show is that the major operators seem to be offering more or less the same product as before – if anything, they are diluting the product with less value and more part-time teachers – and customers just aren’t as interested anymore.

(The stats above can be had at the METI website (bilingual Excel file))

Underground Gamblers and Academic Grants

This week’s Metropolis has a feature on underground gambling. It’s an interesting read:

The gambling professional is, in general, not who you think he is. For a pro gambler, Rei looks pretty normal. He has an average build, wears average clothes and works a regular day job. He lives in a messy six-mat apartment. The paint on the walls is peeling off, and his stuff is strewn about the room. In the corner lie a couple of duffel bags thrown there the previous night. By all appearances, it’s a standard Japanese bachelor’s apartment.

Except that those bags contain enough ¥10,000 bills to wallpaper the entire room.

Later on in the article, there are short notes about gambling in Japan. Academics may be surprised to read this:

Doing research on Japan? There’s a good chance you’re being supported by the gambling industry. Every year The Nippon Foundation donates roughly ¥30 trillion to charitable and educational causes. It all comes from boat racing.

For the most part, this is true. The Nippon Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in Japan, receives over 3% of kyotei (motorboat racing) annual revenues.  According to the 2006 Government Whitepaper on Leisure, the total market for 2005 for kyotei was 978 billion yen. In the early 90s, it was about double this. More details can be found in David Plotz’s Pachinko Nation. (Incidentally, Plotz’s research was supported by a Nippon Foundation grant.)

Of course, this isn’t to criticize the foundation itself, which has supported good works around the globe. Apparently some academics in Japan do look down on their grants, however. Last year, a friend of mine was faced with the choice of either a Fulbright or a Nippon Foundation grant for her dissertation research. When she told an academic friend of hers about this, the friend closed the door and quietly told her that she risked a small amount of stigma were she to go with the latter.

If this is how some Japanese academics deal with researchers whose grant is merely peripheral to gambling, I wonder how they will treat someone whose research is on gambling…

The gold standard in wartime

I was just reading the 1938 edition of “Social Education in Taiwan,” published by the Japanese colonial government, when I came across this rather neat line in the middle of a section (page 76) on how the civilian population was being taught to aid the war effort (Second Sino-Japanese War) on the home front.

個人所有の金の価値が装飾用又は個人の虚栄心を満足させるが如き単に個人的価値を有するに過ぎないが一度国家の所有に移転すれば、国際収支決済の機能を発揮し、延いては国運発展上寄与する所極めて大なること。

This translates to:
The value of gold held by an individual merely possesses the value a piece of jewelry, or of causing vanity, but should that ownership be transfered to the state, then it will not serve a function in resolving the international balance of payments, but also serve as a grand contribution to the development of the fate of the nation.

It then goes on to recommend that citizens (or perhaps “subjects” is a better word)
think of their own personal finances and sell their gold to the government, as it will not only be highly profitable to sell at the current high market price, but that by exchanging the gold official currency, it can be invested in other ways such as bank deposits, where it will bring about a natural increase in wealth [i.e. through interest], which will be far more profitable than letting it going to waste  sitting at home. [Error in my original translation corrected thanks to Aki’s comment below.]

I don’t feel 100% confident about my translation of the latter part, so if anyone has a better translation for 「之を貨幣に換へ、貯金其の他の方法にて運用せば自然財産の増加を来すを以て徒に死蔵し置くに比し極めて有利になること」 than please let me know. Incidentally, this isn’t a section I plan to use in what I’m working on now, just that I thought it would be of interest to all of you.

Now, I wonder how the value of the original gold vs. the paper money held up over the course of the next several years.

The Tragedy of the Overseas Japanese

I’ve been in Dubai for almost two months now, and despite leaving Japan, everyday involves speaking, reading and writing Japanese in my personal and professional life. Since arriving I’ve probably met more than a hundred Japanese nationals here, such as company employees, government bureaucrats, waitresses and cooks at Japanese restaurants, and the wives and school-aged children that have accompanied many of them. That’s several percentage points of the whole Japanese population here—according to the local Japanese Consulate General, there are approximately 3,000 Japanese nationals living in Dubai.

The reaction to a Japanese-speaking non-Japanese person is overwhelmingly positive, and I have found it very easy to befriend Japanese nationals on that basis. I think one reason for this is the underwhelming penetration of English language proficiency in the Japanese community here, and the consequent loneliness and insular community that arises thereto.

It’s one thing when I meet Americans and Brits living in Japan who never exert even a cursory effort to learn the Japanese language. I’m disappointed by these types of people, but I understand that English is the lingua franca of the world, the lowest common denominator of language, that people can expect to use for communication in most cities of the world. I know people who have lived in Japan for years, knowing only English, and who have still been able to live a full life in Japan and enjoy all the major tourist locations such as Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and elsewhere.

Here in Dubai, I witness the same phenomenon—I meet Japanese people who have lived in Dubai for years and who can barely order food from a menu or instruct a cab driver. This is a city that follows the 21st century lingua franca—90% of the metropolitan population is foreign, and the common language between Lebanese, Indians, Brits, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Kenyans, South Africans, Pakistanis, Greeks, Afghanis, and every other type of person you can imagine is English.

It’s one thing if a 30 year-old Japanese housewife can’t learn basic English communication after a few year in Dubai. That’s disappointing but understandable. But I’m truly shocked when I meet kids of the ages of 7 or 10, who have lived in Dubai for a year or two, and who have the potential to truly learn English like a native, and yet who can barely muster a sentence in English.

The blame lies squarely with the community and the education. The kids live in a Japanese community, attend Japanese schools that follow an ordinary Japanese curriculum, and basically have to study English in their spare time if they want to learn. And the general lack of English ability by many here has created a highly insular community. The Japanese tend to live in or around the Hyatt Regency, which offers serviced apartments for individuals and families, a supermarket with a small Japanese corner, and a genuine Japanese restaurant. Many other people live in the nearby neighborhood, and most of the authentic Japanese restaurants are in that area. With most Japanese socially cut-off from the rest of Dubai’s expat community, the result is a gossip network akin to a small inaka community. I met a bureucrat working at JETRO who had heard of me from his neighbor before we met—which we forensically determined was derivative to at least the fourth degree, with the information genesis beginning in a meeting that happened merely days earlier.

On the one hand, from a selfish perspective, this is great for me and has created all sorts of opportuities. But it’s also tragic that the Japanese, despite being very well educated and comfortably middle class for several generations, are so culturally isolated in a city where people gather from across the world.

Japanese exchange students skipping over US

According to the Asahi Shimbun, OECD data shows Japanese university students are increasingly skipping over the US in favor other other destinations. The US captured a whopping 75% of the “market share” for Japanese students in 1997 with 47,000 America-bound that year. However, by 2007 that number had fallen under 50% with around 37,000 students. China has been on the rise as a destination – 19,000 students in 2005 (up 100% from 10 years ago). The total number of students was around 80,000 in 2005, up 30% from 1995. US diplomats in the country are concerned and have noticed a drop-of in attendance at their annual study abroad fairs in Tokyo.

Reasons for the shift include:

  • The erosion of America’s image as a vibrant, exciting country. (Note: My mistake. See comments) Students see America as a highly competitive place to study and may choose Canada or Australia instead for the more laid-back image. The article claims that some even choose Scandinavia, thinking that learning English among non-natives will be easier because they speak slower.

  • A growing interest in the broader world among Japanese students (and more universities forming exchange relationships with a more diverse set of schools)

  • A university source claims more students are asking whether Japanese-language service is available in the host university, though that’s almost never the case.

The tone of the article is that kids these days are more “inwardly oriented” and less willing to challenge themselves. However, more and more Japanese students are studying abroad. I find it much more plausible that Japanese kids are simply more interested in Asia and the wider world, partly because those countries are a lot more developed and accessible now than they were even a decade ago.

The article does not get into another major hurdle for Japanese students who want to study in the US - the draconian visa process and the image that the US has become harder to get into. Since 9/11 the US has made the visa process progressively more restrictive and annoying. As a result, even though the number of foreign students to the US from all countries rose from 475,169 in 2000 to 595,874 in 2007, the US saw its market share fall from 25% to 19.7% in the same period.

More detailed data in English on all countries can be found at the OECD website.

The JLPT goes otaku

I finally got around to taking Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (日本語能力試験) last weekend. Roy, Adamu and Curzon all took it while they were in diapers, but I never saw much need to do so myself. It’s hardly a good benchmark of ability; one can pass Level 1 with poor Japanese skills, or fail it with good Japanese skills, depending solely on how one’s skills match the material covered on the test. Level 1 essentially tests for the following:

  1. Basic conversational and reading comprehension ability

  2. Correct pronunciation of words written in kanji

  3. Ability to distinguish between similar kanji

  4. Ability to distinguish between grammatical forms that nobody uses

  5. Ability to understand science fiction anime

Point 5 is apparently a new addition to the December 2009 examination, and showed up in the last question on the listening section, helpfully uploaded to YouTube so I can prove to everyone that it is real. (Hat tip to these guys, and to Roy for tipping me off through Facebook.)

Another question on the listening test was based on a role-playing video game similar to Final Fantasy; the recording played an explanation of the various steps required to beat the game (with an accompanying 8-bit-style map in the test booklet), and the test taker was asked to give the correct order of places to visit. It’s nice to know that Level 1 has some practical uses.

Profile of the (surprisingly lucrative) university co-op business in Japan

When I did a year-long exchange at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, one of the more interesting entities on campus was the co-op that ran cafeterias and a general merchandise store. Prices were reasonable, the food was excellent, and service was comparatively decent. The store even had an entertaining message board where students could ask the staff questions on any random topic, similar to the Japanese blog “Shiraishi of the Campus Co-op.” Like me, many foreign students probably leave Japan with fond memories of their university cafeteria and the friendly middle-aged ladies who served them.

I thought I knew all I needed to know about the co-op system, but the always informative Shukan Toyo Keizai’s profile of the university co-op system taught me a thing or two.

Here are some key facts:

  • University co-ops are non-profit institutions operated and funded by student members. Around 30% of Japan’s 762 four-year universities (around 230 228 to be exact) have a co-op on campus, which will likely run at least one cafeteria, merchandise shop, and bookstore each. 40% of all university students (1.3 million) are members. At universities that have co-ops, membership is around 95%. Students pay between Y10,000-30,000 to join when they enter university, which is returned without interest once they graduate or drop out.

  • All such co-ops are organized under the umbrella of the National Federation of University Co-operative Associations in Japan, formed in 1958. While the first university co-op was formed in Kyoto’s Doshisha University in 1898, they didn’t really start to take off until after World War II, as universities set up co-ops to help ensure steady food supplies as Japan’s economy got back on its feet, similar to neighborhood co-ops (they are regulated by the same law). The federation’s website notes that co-ops offer a wide range of goods and services, among them “food, clothing, housing, books, stationery and PCs…arranging and subcontracting for tourism, Student Mutual Benefit [a type of insurance plan], language training programs, courses for applicants for public employee and computer training programs.”

  • Co-ops are a serious business – in 2008 the federation counted revenue of Y207.5 billion. Considering there are only co-ops on 230 228 campuses, it’s nothing short of amazing their revenue compares with convenience store chain am/pm (Y195.5 billion in FY08, 1,129 stores) and Tokyu department stores (232.3 billion in FY08, scattered stores in major cities). The article explains the universities benefit from a captive customer base of students on campus and virtually no other on-campus competitors (though that has changed slightly following some deregulation in 2004).

  • About a quarter of all sales are recorded in March and April ahead of the start of the academic year. However, in those two months the co-ops typically sell around 60,000 PCs. Sales in 2008 break down as follows: 15% from cafeterias, 19.9% from bookstores, and 65.1% from merchandise stores (in the merchandise category, 18.6% comes from hardware & software vs. 11.5% from food).

  • Gross margin (revenue minus cost of goods sold as a percent of total revenue) is roughly 20% overall and 50-55% in the cafeteria segment. That basically means that for every 100 yen in sales, 20 yen is profit before labor/administration, financing, and tax costs.

  • One benefit of being a student association is the university charges virtually no rent. This allows them to keep cafeteria prices low and charge the same for electronics as big-box retailers. The co-ops also have considerable bargaining power as procurement is all done through the national federation. That’s how the cafeterias can charge an average of Y380 per meal.

  • Another advantage of the co-ops is service. One student interviewed from the article bought a PC at the co-op because he liked getting advice from a fellow student.

  • One disadvantage of having your business limited to college campuses is the limited number of business days. Vacations slash the total number of business days to around 250-300, and students only show up for class on about 150-170 days a year.

  • In 2004, Japan’s national universities were stripped of their status as arms of the government and reorganized as corporate entities. This meant they gained a freer hand to get creative in running their campuses, and one such initiative has been to open convenience stores on campus in direct competition with the co-ops. Already, 40 co-ops are reported to be competing with on-campus kombini.

  • Co-ops have responded to this competition with initiatives of their own, for example opening chain stores inside cafeteria areas and selling pre-paid meal plans to students (something typical at US universities).

  • The population of 18-year-olds in Japan (an indicator of the size of the co-ops’ target demographic) expected to hold steady at 12 million in 2009 but then fall steadily into the foreseeable future. With this declining customer base, the author speculates there will be closer cooperation with universities and co-ops in the future. Already there are examples of a co-op collaborating with Yamanashi University to offer Yamanashi wine on campus.

Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Back in March, while I was traveling, Adam wrote a post about Union Extasy, a two-man union of former workers at Kyoto University who decided to protest the limited term contract system after it forced them out of their staff jobs. While their most visible form of protest was the construction of a tent squat underneath the landmark camphor tree in front of the famous Kyoto University clock tower (a location which is the basis for the university’s logo and the preferred location for graduation photos and the like), they also engaged in the more traditional labor complaint route of filing a formal grievance, conducting formal union/management negotiations (団交), and eventually filing a lawsuit alleging the illegality of the mandatory limited-term contract system.

While the Union Extasy squat was inspired by the “temp worker village” set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya park during the 2008-2009 new years season, unlike that particular stunt it never actually ended. Although they had originally expected it to only last for a couple of weeks before shaming university management into doing something, when they realized that things were going to take a long, long time to resolve, instead of taking down the tent they instead expanded it, adding a public area with seating that was labeled the “Kubi Kubi Cafe.”Kubi is the Japanese word for the head or neck, and has also become a synonym for “firing” or “sacking”, as beheading is the Japanese metaphor of choice for such a practice.

The university was naturally displeased with the ongoing protest, particularly in such a prominent and symbolic location, and filed a lawsuit in May or so (the date escapes me at the moment) against Union Extasy, ordering them to vacate the premises. Why exactly they had or chose to actually file a lawsuit escapes me since I would have assumed that they could just ask the police to remove trespassers without any special legal maneuvering, but I presume there is some legal reason that they took such a course of action. Aside from the existence of the lawsuit itself, there were two things that struck me as rather odd about it. First, that the lawsuit was not filed against the two men (Ogawa and Inoue) but against the Union Extasy organization itself. The second odd point, and this one if very odd, is that they were not seeking an order for the union to vacate the campus completely, but only a specified zone including the area immediately in front of the clock tower. The university was actually so cautious about acting without a court order that they did not even disconnect the power cable siphoning electricity from the clock tower building (which kept the lights and vintage iMac running at night, network connectivity naturally courtesy of the campus Wifi). Inoue let me flip through a folder of documents that had been filed in the case, and sure enough there was a map of the campus with a rectangle drawn around the very specific area. Amusingly, among the supporting evidence was a land assayer’s appraisal of the land value of the entire campus, as if the market value of the national university’s grounds-which I expect is legally impossible to sell in any event-was somehow relevant to the matter at hand.

After receiving a court order to vacate the area, they complied with it-by moving about 10 meters over to another patch of lawn, just far enough away from the camphor tree and clock tower so as to allow an unobstructed view of the landmarks.

I have spent little time speaking with the involved parties since before I went home for the summer and had not been following the progress of their protests or court case, except of course to notice that the protest squat had never ended, but I just got word that the initial verdict of their lawsuit is due out tomorrow, presumably with a party to follow. I will be there tomorrow afternoon after lunch to see how things turn out and will report on it after, but in preparation, here is a gallery of photos I’ve taken at the Kubikubi Cafe.

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What language to learn?

Joint posted at ComingAnarchy—weigh in with comments there.

I’m going to repost as an independent post something I first wrote as a comment four years ago regarding languages, and what languages to learn. I was reminded of this topic because of my co-author Younghusband’s post on preparing your child for the ComingAnarchy, as I wrote my first comment based on what languages I wanted my kids to study.

With regards to prioritizing language education, I consider five languages to be in the “first tier.” To rank them in general order of importance:

  1. English (North America, Britain, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, most international cities: The international language, hands down.
  2. Spanish (Spain, Latin America, large US cities): A language used broadly in the Western Hemisphere and increasingly in the United States.
  3. Chinese (China, Singapore, elsewhere): Not yet used much outside China, but a language spoken by a billion people with real potential to become an international language in the 21st century.
  4. French (France, much of Africa, Quebec, Iran): It’s international prestige is shrinking, but it remains popular in many former French colonies, and a vital language if you are working with any business that has any connection to France, due to the preference of the French to speak their own language.
  5. Russian (Russia, former USSR, former satellites): The Russian language will shrink in importance as former satellites move to other, more international languages—Mongolia being one example. But for now, it remains the language of intercultural communication in places such as Kazakhstan and more useful than Turkish, which may well replace it in the coming decades.
    These languages have intercontinental importance. All but Russian will stay in the top tier for the rest of our lifetime.

The second tier covers languages that have broad Second tier:

  1. Arabic (Middle East, North Africa): Arabic is the only language that is a language of the United Nations that is not in my first tier because it’s relatively provincial. Despite its geographic reach from Morocco to Iraq, it is not used outside that region, and is almost irrelevant in business except in the provincial Arab sense. You can get away speaking French or English in much of the Arabic world.
  2. Portugese (Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Numibia, Macau, East Timor, other nations in Africa): Portugese is a major language because of Brazil—otherwise it would be ranked in a nebulous 4th tier together with Dutch.
  3. Japanese (Japan; other metropolitan areas of Asia): Japanese is, believe it or not, widely used in cosmopolitan, connected cities in Asia, and I’ve used it to speak with people in Thailand, Singapore, Korea, and China. In my own personal experience, I have spoken more Japanese than English in the shopping malls and tourist areas of Seoul. Add to that fact that Japan is the world’s number 2 economy and the Japanese have poor English language skills.

Then we have languages in the Third Tier that are used broadly in certain cross-border regions

  1. Turkish (Turkey, adaptable to Central Asian languages)
  2. Farsi (Iran, Tajikistan, Los Angeles)
  3. Punjabi or Hindi (Much of South Asia)

But all of this is opinion. Does anyone else want to weigh in with additional comments?