Japan Times on Geos collapse – read Adamu’s UNCUT commentary

Richard Smart writing for the Japan Times has an article looking at the Geos meltdown in detail. I am quoted with my take on how Geos handled its demise and the outlook for eikaiwa employment.

Adam Richards, a 28-year-old translator and writer on Japan at the Web site and travelogue Mutant Frog, argues that the G.communication takeover has in some ways made the best of a bad situation.

“Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy,” he says. “That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.”
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Japan Economy News’ Worsley agrees that the eikaiwa schools need to change to survive.

“The industry itself will continue to shrink as does the population and number of younger people in Japan. In order to avoid disappearing, language school operators are going to have to embrace new technologies, diversify their products and services, and appeal to new market segments,” he says.

This, argues Richards of Mutant Frog, is likely to lead to worse conditions for newcomers to Japan.

“It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there,” he says.


In the interest of context, here is what I commented to Richard in response to his questions:

I obviously don’t know exactly what happened, but a multitude of factors have conspired against the eikaiwa industry – cutbacks in consumer spending, corporate belt-tightening, cuts to government subsidies, and tighter regulation are the big ones. It seems like Geos was unable to shrink down to size fast enough to adapt to the changing environment. Geos adopted a somewhat similar strategy to Nova – grow large and bring in lots of new students. Then, in April 2006 a Supreme Court decision led to a swift change in the regulatory environment – eikaiwa schools suddenly had to set up sensible refund policies (and in Nova’s case front a flood of refund requests), and this made the economics of a large chain less attractive. Geos apparently weathered the change relatively well, but once Nova failed so spectacularly it did serious damage to the reputation of eikaiwa as a service. This, combined with the economic downturn starting in 2007, probably did Geos in as their sources of cash dried up.

It really looks like the era of easy employment is over, though it seems like there are still opportunities out there. Berlitz and ECC seem to be hiring. Generally, I would recommend applying for JET or even teaching English in a different country, but if you have your heart set on working in Japan and don’t mind the salary levels, then why not?

There is a danger the Geos bankruptcy will continue the downward spiral that Nova set in motion. When there is a bankruptcy, you inevitably have students with contracts that are either broken or not satisfactorily fulfilled, and you have teachers who find themselves either out of a job and possibly unpaid or thrust into the arms of new management that may treat them differently. The general dissatisfaction gets reported in the media and spread by word of mouth, fueling the perception that eikaiwa is a scam or otherwise not worth the trouble. However, Geos seems to have done relatively well by students and teachers by finding a backer before announcing the bankruptcy. That said, Nova’s messy bankruptcy was such a nightmare Geos can’t help but look better by comparison.

Japanese people want to learn English as much as they ever did. All are required to study it in school but most never come within a mile of fluency. They spend their childhoods being fed the idea that speaking English is the key to success yet they never get there! So as long as the public education system keeps creating this demand, I think there will always be supplemental learning options like eikaiwa.

Filipino Freethinkers

Due to aggressive evangelism and indoctrination over the course  of three centuries of Spanish colonial rule (ending in 1898), the Philippines today is overwhelmingly Catholic. A  few percent, mainly in the far south, are Muslim, a very few communities still practice pre-colonial indigenous religion, and maybe 10% or so have converted to Protestant or evangelical Christian sects due to American influence over the course of America’s half-century of colonial rule (roughly 1898-1946). While the US-derived constitution does provide for separation of church and state, Catholicism is still so deeply entrenched that the technically required secularism of public education is said to be ignored, and (as I have mentioned before) public policy in areas like birth control are largely dictated by Vatican doctrine.

But of course, there are exceptions. While abortion is utterly banned (although naturally, still available in sub-par conditions to the desperate), condoms are sold openly in every convenience store and pharmacy, and the overpopulation crisis has led to a bill in congress to provide public funding to birth control, against the will of the Church and the staunchly Catholic current president Gloria Arroyo.  (Arroyo’s term is nearly over, and the fate of the bill under the next president, yet to be chosen, is uncertain.) Homosexuality is another interesting case. While the law of the land affords no particular rights to LGBT citizens, in comparison with the recent trend in many Western countries towards allowing same sex partnerships of one variety or another, or anti-discrimination laws, the Philippines also does not persecute gays and lesbians, as for example, most Muslim countries so, and as many US state would continue to do if so allowed by the federal government. The society at large, like most of Southeast Asia, is also generally exceptionally tolerant of minority sexualities when compared with the official doctrine of the dominant, highly conservative, religion.

But while being an out of the closet gay is generally acceptable here, coming out as an atheist is reportedly considered to be something deviant. If atheists are the most distrusted minority in America, surely their status is even lower in the Philippines. While my handful of Filipino friends here, who I know from studying in Japan, all fall on or near the atheist end of the spectrum, virtually every other person I have spoken to in the Philippines has been a vocal Christian, usually Catholic.

Which brings us, finally, to the title of this post. The day before yesterday I was getting a tour around the historical district of Intramuros from a government archaeologist  named Joseph, he mentioned to me that he and his family had converted from Catholicism to American style evangelical Christianity several years before, and that he now found the idolatry of Catholicism disturbingly heretical. “These days,” he told me, “the number of freethinkers is really on the rise.” This turn of phrase both surprised and intrigued me, as the term “freethinker” is one I had always associated with the modern atheism movement, but I still understood his usage. I must admit that to make a conscious choice regarding one’s belief and walk away from the religion of one’s parents, rather than to un-critically accept it, is in a sense as much an exercise of freedom of thought as to walk away from religion entirely, even if as an atheist myself I consider both the original and adopted religion equally irrational.

With that brief conversation in mind, I was particularly intrigued when, yesterday afternoon at around 4pm, when I was wandering around the University of the Philippines Dilliman Campus, in Metro Manila’s Quezon City, following a lunch appointment I had had in the area, I was handed the following flyer and pointed to the red brick-faced UP Film Center just down the block.

Naturally, I went.

The program consisted of much what one might expect. (Full list here.) For example, the Richard Dawkins video The Root of All Evil? (Embedded below.)

And ending with Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, which I have embedded part of below.

Both of those videos were ones that I already knew of, but had never seen, so I was happy to go in and watch them. And while  they were enjoyable enough, I had really been hoping to see something local, either the Philippines equivalent of a Richard Dawkins-esque attack on the pernicious influence of religious dogma on society or a documentary about the Filipino Freethinkers group itself. Unfortunately, there were no locally produced films, although they are trying to put together something themselves for the next time. But following the conclusion of the last film, Ryan Tani, president of the group, did take the lectern and microphone and give a summary of the FF’s history, purpose, and activities.

The founding members, a half-dozen friends of an atheistic/agnostic persuasion and frustrated with a lack of public space to discuss their feelings about religion, decided to organize an informal meetup group just over a year ago. After experimenting with different schedules, they settled on a bi-weekly meetup, which gets an average of 20-30 attendees, out of a total of perhaps 100 who come from time to time, and out of 800 members on their Facebook group, which also includes plenty of members who live too far away to make it to the Manila meetups.

A couple of months ago they decided to organize this film festival as a means to reach out to a wider audience. Interestingly, funding for the film festival, which seemed to borrow some of the tried-and-true hospitality tactics of campus evangelical organizations like  free snacks, was provided by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no apparent ties to the Philippines, who simply came across the fledgeling organization online and decided to help them out. He gave a brief comment towards the end of the program, but had to duck out before the post-event mingling and I was unable to chat with him to find out his story.

But I did spend a good while talking with those who stayed past the end of the films, which were mainly those who already knew each other from the meetups rather than new faces like myself, and ended up being invited along for dinner. (Amusingly, this was at the same restaurant I had eaten the night before with my local friends, a place called Trellis that we had been to on each of my three visits to Manila, and quite literally the only restaurant in the area the name of which I actually know.)

It is unsurprising that they chose the University of the Philippines Dilliman campus as their venue, as the flagship campus of the elite public university has a reputation for left wing – even Marxist – faculty and students. It is also unsurprising that the members of Filipino Freethinkers are themselves almost universally graduates or current students of elite schools like UP, Ateno de Manila or De La Salle.

Also unsurprisingly, it was a pretty geeky crowd, with a high representation of people in the software industry, sciences, psychology, and plenty of fandom for scifi novels, video games, comic books, tabletop role playing games, anime and manga, etc. Basically, the same kind of people I hang out with at home, with the same kinds of interests, and table discussion that sounds barely at all different from my friends back in New Jersey/New York, except for the Filipino accents, and sometimes – but surprisingly rare – interjection of Tagalog into the heavily English language conversation.

And about the same average level of religious engagement, except that while I estimate that at least half (maybe far more) of my atheistic/agnostic friends at home come from families of an already religiously apathetic bent, the Filipino Freethinkers almost all come from extremely Catholic, or at least Evangelical, families, who were strongly opposed to their decision to leave the Church. This social pressure makes clear why they decided that a specifically atheist themed social organization was needed. I suppose if I had grown up in the Bible Belt I might have longed for such a group in high school or college, but coming from Montclair, NJ it wasn’t exactly an issue, and spending several years in Japan – perhaps the most religiously disinterested nation on the planet – has put me increasingly out of touch with the reality of living in an overwhelmingly religious society.

The last several years have seen the birth of a new movement of pr0-atheism writing and activism around the world, which has even started to bubble up in the strictly Catholic Philippines. Pro-atheism films like those here are rarely, if ever, screened here (The Invention of Lying was also mentioned, as a major Hollywood film that simply wasn’t distributed in the country due to its anti-religious content), and this may very well have been the first public screening of most of this material.

The Filipino Freethinkers are trying to establish more local chapters of their informal group, and some current UP students who are formally establishing a campus chapter, as a registered campus organization, were in attendance. I won’t deny the great art and culture that religion has inspired throughout history, and I do very much enjoy learning about religion in its complexity, and do very much enjoy certain ritual aspects of religion, but as time passes I lean increasingly towards the stance that not only are the most fundamentalist religious – the Al-Qaedas and abortion doctor murders – dangerous to society, but that genuine, deeply felt religious belief is always the enemy of rationality and a danger to a stable world. It heartens me to see secularists starting to come out of the closet in this deeply religious country, and I wish them luck in persuading others of like mind to do the same.

I would also like to end by briefly making a statement along the lines of what was being proclaimed at the meeting. Opposition to religion does not mean opposition to morality, only a recognition that morality is derived from our nature as an evolved social animal, rather than from a supernatural source. Opposition to religion also does not mean opposition to the religious. Freedom of thought and belief is sacrosanct, and nothing is more important than the development of a society in which all shades of belief and non-belief are permitted.

The Filipino Freethinkers website is located at filipinofreethinkers.org , and they do most of their organizing through the Facebook group.

Time for some travel

Once again, I have made a promise to post all of my backlog of travel photos and narratives before embarking on my next journey, which yet again lies unrealized. Tomorrow – or technically today as I write this at 3.30am – I depart for a primarily research-justified trip to Manila, Philippines and Taiwan. I will be in Manila from the 23rd to the 28th of February, then fly to Taipei on the 1st of March, and back to Manila on the 14th, from whence I return to Japan on the 21st. Following that, I am taking an entirely non-research trip to Seoul from March 24-31.

Taiwan will be mainly in Taipei, but with a few days going down to the south, Kaohsiung, maybe Tainan, maybe Taichung area. Philippines will be almost totally Manila, and Korea will be basically just Seoul.

People in any of those places, feel free to get in touch and see if we can meet up!

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.

History on the march – Lindsay Hawker’s alleged murderer arrested

The police have finally arrested Tatsuya Ichihashi for the grisly murder of Nova teacher Lindsay Ann Hawker. You can find the details from any number of sources. I am very glad the police followed through and finally brought him to justice after initially letting him get away. He was on the run for around two and a half years.

This is a minute detail, but Ichihashi’s arrest means that from now on there will be no more wanted posters with Ichihashi’s face. Ever since I arrived in Japan around two years ago his face has been plastered just about everywhere. In fact, the murder occurred just a month before I touched down. Now I’ll miss not seeing him at every police box. It’s not that I was fond of him – I will just instinctively feel a sense of loss. Today he was there, and at some point in the next few days he’ll be gone from everywhere but the TV. And all this time, he didn’t even look like that anymore because of the plastic surgery!

It’s the same with the Tokyo Olympics 2016 signs. From the time I arrived here (as far as I can remember) until just a couple months ago they were all over the place – but now that the games were awarded to Rio they are gone, too.

Curzon visits Yamba Dam

Last week, I took a day trip out to see the Yamba Dam, a planned 130 meter high dam that would flood a small rural village snuggled in a valley in western Gunma. The primary motivation for the plan is to stop flash floods that rage through the Tonegawa River and cause havoc in Gunma, Saitama and Tokyo once a decade or so, and also to control and manage the water supply for the Kanto region and to generate power. If constructed it would only be Japan’s 25th largest dam and 10th largest reservoire, but it has turned into one of the more costly projects because of the massive peripheral infrastructure built to appease fierce local opposition.

The project has long been controversial and has dominated the headlines since the DPJ took power last month and announced the project would be cancelled—despite the fact that the project has burned through more than 70% of its US$4 billion budget.

As a student in the Robert D. Kaplan school of national policy, I wanted to see this project with my own eyes, and see the entire surrounding landscape, not suddenly arriving by train or car. So I took my bicycle by shinkansen out to Karuizawa in Nagano, from where I traveled north over the ride of Mt. Asama, then down into the valleys of Gunma and east into the valley, for a total day trip of more than 100 kilometers. This post summarizes my trip.

Traveling to the Dam
It’s easiest to feel the scale of the project by traveling from the west of the dam, down the river valley north of Mt. Asama in Nagano. As you approach the project, there are suddenly new bridges, most complete or near complete, covering imaginary areas of water. There is also the classic concrete lining of a natural water source that can be seen all over Japan. There are also brand new buildings sitting on the side of what will be a new lake.

Yamba Dam2

Traveling towards the dam brings the existing road “deeper” into the future lake, which brings us to the representative structure of the project, the No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge. The bridge is unique for its hollow structure and that they are building simultaneously out from the supporting stems. This bridge will permit road and rail to cross the lake and connect the two halves of the community. At present, there was also a JR line running through the town, which was also to be relocated up the mountain.

Yamba Dam1

You may notice that construction on the bridge is proceeding. The reasons for that soon became clear.

“Yamba Kan” (やんば館)
At the foot of the No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge sits a two-story facility called the “Yamba Kan,” built in 1999 by the Ministry of Land and Infrastructure to explain the dam’s purpose and its construction to locals and other interested visitors. Like a typical Japanese shiryoukan, it is a small but carefully organized and boasts an impressive set of topographical maps, audio-visual media, photographs, and information regarding the history and construction of the dam. There are also guides on hand to answer questions about the project.

Interest has exploded since the DPJ took power and have announced the cancellation of the dam. According to the informational (and pro-dam) website damnet.org, the number of visitors to the “Yamba Kan” hit a record in September, receiving three times as many visitors as in August. When I arrived on a weekday afternoon, the 40 car parking lot was full, and included a chartered tour bus.

The guides were busy answering visitor questions. I patiently waited my turn to ask questions and finally got to ask: “The government has said they will stop construction on the dam but the bridge is still being constructed, why is that?” I asked in the most neutral of tones, but the guide answered on the assumption that I was an anti-dam fanatic—she responded, “They have to finish it! There is no other option! Otherwise are community will be split in two! There are already people living in homes on both sides of the mountain!”

Her explanation and the Yamba Kan maps made the overview of the project more clear. Before the dam could be built, the government had to relocate all 355 households whose homes would be submerged by the lake created by the dam. After decades of fierce opposition, it was only when the central government conceded on a costly compromise to relocate the villagers up the mountain up the mountain from their homes did they finally agree. This is more expensive than it sounds, and calls for massive earthworks and bridges. It would have been easiest to move the people up or down the valley to join their neighbors.

Yet the project is even more expensive than just moving people up the valley mountains. The mountains are too steep to be flattened to accomodate the whole community on one side of the steep valley, so construction has taken place on two sides of the lake, with massive bridges being constructed to connect the two sides of the lake. The government is of course footing the bill to construct the new houses, schools, roads, bridges, and other facilities for the relocated community.

Most of this construction is completed, as evidenced by the almost finished No. 2 Yamba Dam bridge. But once all this is done, I started to ask myself,

What happens now?
Frankly, no matter how hard Transportation Minister Maehara and the DPJ hold out on refusing to construct the dam, I can’t possibly see how the project cannot be finished. At best the DPJ can delay the plan a year or two. Here’s why:

  • All the preliminary infrastructure is complete. Learning more at the Yamba Kan, my understanding of recent news stories where the DPJ said that they would continue to invest in “lifestyle” construction became clear. The DPJ will only halt construction on the dam itself, which was scheduled to commence shortly, but will continue construction that affects the lives of the locals. In other words, the bridge will be finished, as will the rest of the construction, but the dam for which all the construction was invested will not be built. What this means is that billions will be spent relocating a community for no reason whatsoever.
  • It could cost votes in important prefectures. The DPJ probably isn’t too worried that the conservative, LDP-allied governors of Nagano, Gunma, Chiba and Tokyo are opposed to halting the project. But the governors of Saitama and Tochigi are independents close to the DPJ. The DPJ caucus of legislators in the Saitama prefectural assembly is vocally opposed to the cancellation. The six affected prefectures together comprise more than 25% of Japan’s total population, and the DPJ has strong voter support in Tokyo, Chiba, and Saitama. The only people firmly opposed to the plan appear to be environmental interest groups. Who knows, it could cost the DPJ votes and they may decide to proceed because of it.
  • A future LDP administration may turn things around. Even if the Hatoyama administration does refuse to proceed with the plan, the LDP could always pick up where the DPJ left off.

Hiking in Hannou-shi, Saitama

Hannou-shi in Saitama Prefecture is located along the Seibu Ikebukuro line outside Tokyo. Closer to outlying Chichibu than urban Tokyo, the town’s look and feel are like a scene out of the recent Oscar-winning film Departures (which I highly recommend!). Mrs. Adamu and I decided to hike there after finding the town randomly on a web search. It was an extremely convenient trip – after an hour and a half train ride it was just a 10 minute walk to reach the trail. We followed this route on the Hiking Map website.

Anyway, here is what we saw!


This is a monument to local deaths from industrial accidents. Not sure why they died or when.


Going up Tenranzan mountain we came across these oddly shaped Buddhas. The fifth Tokugawa shogun apparently called a monk from a temple near this mountain to heal him with chanting, and it worked. The statues are somehow related to this.
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Fishing on the tetrapods

On Tuesday, I took a long bike trip from my home in Ayase to Kasai Rinkai Park in Edogawa-ku. While I recover (going long distances on a mamachari can be tiring), I will post some photo highlights (you can see the whole album here).

First up we have this guy fishing on the tetrapods. Not sure what he is trying to catch, but maybe these tetrapods in the middle of the river give him a strategic position away from other fishermen.

This photo was taken from the Kasaibashi bridge.

10 years on: Coming to Japan

This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first journey to Japan, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student going to school and generally getting in trouble in Osaka.

Since then, I have flown a hundred thousand miles, earned three diplomas, and have seen my Japanese high school closed down and stupidly renamed while my American high school gets shuttered due to the swine flu.

I still have many memories of that first year, and for the next eleven months, will be sharing some of those memories here on the blog. (Those of you who don’t care can simply avoid the jump, and Adamu will still regale you with tales of the Adachi-ku ballot). Continue reading