More details on the new “zairyu cards”

Debito has gotten hold of the actual proposal to overhaul Japan’s alien registration system (as blogged in this space last week). If you read Japanese, go straight to his post and read the primary sources.

Some of the details which are now clear:

  • Initial registration will still be done at city hall — “to the Minister of Justice by way of the mayor.” Address changes will also be made to the local government where the holder resides, but other updates will go directly to Immigration (or to whichever Justice Ministry office is designated for that purpose).
  • Separate re-entry permits will no longer be required for short trips out of Japan, so long as the foreigner has their zairyu card when they return. (Re-entry permits may stick around for use on longer trips out of Japan.)
  • Eligibility to work will now clearly show up on the face of the card as either “free to work,” “restricted to activities within status of residence” or “may not work without separate permit.”
  • My card will no longer say “attorney.” Dammit.

Why is Berlitz thriving?

My recent post about the eikaiwa industry by the numbers has made the rounds of a couple ESL job forums, and it seems to have a few people worried. My intention wasn’t to scare people off of English teaching entirely – the demand for learning English is high in this country, and while there is something of an oversupply of teachers amid slumping sales, Japan possesses some serious advantages, such as high living standards and the rule of law, that make it a better choice than some other destinations. So if some of them are still reading this blog, I just want to remind them that English teaching isn’t dead in Japan. The issue is just that the business is headed for a rough patch, not that every teacher will have to put up with crappy wages and dismal work conditions, though that may be true for many.

The private-sector eikaiwa industry appears to be hurting badly, ever since various events in 2006 led to the ignominious business suspension, flailing attempt to save through shady financing deals, and eventual collapse of former industry giant NOVA (so carefully documented by the Japan Economy News blog) shattered the image of a once booming industry and, with the disappearance of the well-known NOVA rabbit mascot, symbolized the sudden end of long-running profit machine and source of easy employment for thousands of young Westerners interested in life in a new country.  The rest of the “big four” schools also faced serious difficulty, most notably LADO which is no longer with us.

Today I want to pass on some things I learned after learning about the worsening management-worker relations at Berlitz Japan:

Benesse – happily cleaning up after NOVA?

Benesse, a long-time provider of education services, chiefly juku, jumped feet first into Japan’s English conversation market when it acquired veteran language teaching company Berlitz International in 2001. The company caught my eye when some of its unionized teachers in Japan were sued on grounds that they striked illegally. Without commenting on the merits of the dispute itself, I would like to react to one passage of the Japan Times  article (while I am generally pro-union, I simply don’t know enough about the case to have any opinion one way or the other. Feel free to discuss in the comments though!):

The financial health of Benesse Corp., Berlitz Japan’s parent company, also influenced the timing of the strike. In their annual report for the financial year ending March 31, 2008, Benesse recorded their highest-ever earnings. Operating income grew 11.4 percent and Berlitz International Inc. achieved its best result since being bought by Benesse. Operating income for Benesse’s language company division rose 36 percent from the year before to ¥6.35 billion, in part due to higher revenues and profits at Berlitz International, which benefited from “an increase in the number of lessons taken worldwide, particularly in Japan and Germany,” according to the report.

Curious about exactly how Berlitz is boosting its “number of lessons,” I decided to take a closer look at their latest annual report for FY2007 (PDF) in the hope that they would explain exactly how they could enjoy such growth as the industry as a whole is caught in a horrific vortex. It is also interesting to see Berlitz on the rise, considering that it had long lost market share to the other big chains. I came up a little disappointed, as annual reports are not the place to broadcast your super-secret business strategy to the world. But one passage did at least seem to hint that they were up to something:

[As for the business environment of] our language business area, while there are concerns over the  global economic slowdown, the demand for language learning remains robust.  However, in Japan the collapse of a major language school has led to increased selectivity of language schools among customers. (Page 11)

Considering that they are giving record numbers of lessons in Japan, one can assume that while they won’t come out and say it, this explicit mention of a flight to quality means they must be enjoying some benefit from former NOVA students in need of tutelage.  Plus, they have maintained one of the world’s strongest language teaching brands, and they don’t seem to have had the same customer service problems as NOVA, whose six-month business suspension for unfair refund policies spelled doom for the company.

Other wisdom from Benesse

In addition, it is interesting to note that the management decided to explicitly state an intention to use between 20 and 30 billion yen for acquisitions over the medium to long term, including in the language business (Page 18). Could they be looking to scoop up some underperforming rival to pick up more market share?

In the business risk section of the report, they remind investors that while they are prepared for the conventional consensus on Japan’s shrinking population (their main business is juku, so fewer kids = bad), their business will be screwed if the population ages even faster than expected.

They are also worried that the government’s measures to combat declining educational standards as measured by the international PISA tests.  The measures as listed by Benesse (to be implemented between 2009 and 2013) fall under the banner of “life skills” and include more classroom time throughout the curriculum, mandatory English instruction at elementary schools, as well as “training to develop skills in using knowledge and not merely acquiring basic knowledge.” They worry that this “increased diversification of demand” could negatively impact their business if it progresses at a more sudden pace than expected. In other words, juku have traditionally filled the gap left by the deficiencies in classroom instruction, so if the schools actually get their act together then Benesse (and to a lesser extent Berlitz) could be in trouble.

Upgraded campaign posters

OK, I did the first one here over the weekend. (As a riff on this real poster.)


Curzon posted it here (currently on page 2 at time of posting) to this Japanese funny pics board, where it sits between some racist anti-Korean pics (NOT posted by Curzon) and uhh this.

Next, Ben’s friend BigJohn passed along this variation on the idea.aso-keikiAnd finally, regular poster Jade OC tried his own variant on the cake theme, which I think came out very well. This cake is no lie.

f_keiki1m_ec239b5Come on people. Aso’s approval rating is working on a new record low and the LDP is on the slow train to dumpsville. The least you can do is help out with a new campaign poster. Send it in at an attachment or post a link and it’ll be added to the collection.

Mrs. Adamu now blogging!

I am overjoyed to announce that after years of watching from the sidelines, Mrs. Adamu will now be sharing her thoughts with the world at her new Japanese-language blog, The Bibouroku. She decided to start writing as a way to record her experiences along with profiles and reviews of interesting people in the news, movies, music, and so on. So far she’s got posts on the film Slumdog Millionaire and singer M.I.A., who recently made a spectacle of herself by performing at the Grammys just days before she gave birth to her first child.
While I have to admit a bias here, trust me when I say Mrs. Adamu (writing under the mysterious pen name “Shoko”) offers a unique perspective on these issues thanks to her background studying in the States, traveling through India, and working with the underprivileged in Thailand.

Followers of Mutant Frog will know that Mrs. Adamu is my co-adventurer here in Tokyo. What you might not know is that much of my posting activity would be impossible without her kindness, patience, and support. I hope you’ll all join me in wishing her the best in this new initiative!

PS: You can subscribe to updates at the blog’s RSS feed.

Takeshima towel

Takeshima towel

Seeing Adam’s reference to the highly disputed pieces of worthless, barren rock known as Takeshima/Dokdo in his post just now reminded me of this, which I had been meaning to post. A Korean classmate of mine at Kyoto University picked up this wet hand tissue from what she described as a very normal restaurant in Korea. It reads:

Republic Of Korea        wet tissue

Dokdo      is our land.

To translate into Japanese, which as usual maps closely to the original Korean better than English:

大~韓民国   御絞り

獨島 は我が土

Dokdo is of course the Korean name for Takeshima, which in European languages used to be called the Liancourt Islets, and is now called whichever of the two stupid names will make your conversation partner happy.

Observations from jogging at the Imperial Palace

Today Mrs. Adamu and I went jogging around the Imperial Palace moat, an activity that is apparently all the rage these days. Mrs. Adamu is training for a half marathon, but I do one slow lap myself just to burn some calories. It is easy to see why the palace area has become a popular place to exercise – it is an unimpeded, smoothly paved path, the view is gorgeous, and it’s easily accessible from Otemachi or other surrounding stations. The downside, of course, is that the jogging traffic has begun to resemble a busy freeway, forcing slowpokes like me to constantly watch my back so as to not get in the way of the more serious athletes. Normal tourists visiting the grounds are also quite visibly inconvenienced by bespandexed Tokyoites rushing by.

But all in all it’s a great experience. Today was particularly eventful:

  • Happy Takeshima Day! The holiday set up by the Shimane Prefectural government in 2005 to remind their fellow citizens that the disputed rocks belong to Japan, not Korea. This is apparently a big deal to right wing groups (see Roy’s earlier post on this), so to commemorate, one decided to use its megaphones outside the Social Democratic Party headquarters to loudly berate them with accusations of treason for close ties to North Korea. BTW, these guys might think their country has a valid claim to the Takeshima rocks, but stamp expert/blogger Yosuke Naito shows us some fairly convincing Korean stamps that say otherwise.
  • Workers were emptying the shuttered Palace Hotel of furniture and other items. The hotel was set up in 1961, just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,  on  the site of what was once part of the Imperial Household Ministry and then a GHQ-run hotel “for the exclusive use of buying agents from abroad.” While it must have looked quite modern in 1961, more than 40 years later the design resembles a Holiday Inn and noticeably clashes with the more refined palace across the street. The current building will be torn down, with a renewed Palace Hotel will set to open on the site in 2012. We started jogging the imperial grounds in mid-January, just weeks before the Palace Hotel shut down. We thankfully at least got to take a peek at the lobby before it was relegated to the history books. The inside looked much grander than the exterior, with obsequious front desk staff, expensive-looking lounges, and old-school carpeting and wood-panel walls. By far the neatest item in the lobby, however, was a wood-carved clock, shaped like a world map with digital displays showing the time in major cities. It was considered cutting-edge at the time it was unveiled at the time of the hotel’s opening. The thing just oozes 1960s modernity – I could picture this on the wall of an enormous workroom full of office ladies working on typewriters (click for full size. Thanks Yomiuri!):
    Amazingly, no one knows who designed or manufactured the clock despite its iconic status, but one thing is for certain – it will live on. Though originally set to be destroyed after the hotel closed, at the last minute a German patent office decided to take it (for no charge except shipping costs) out of the management’s nostalgia for frequent stays at the hotel during business trips to Tokyo.

The horrors of local government

For a while I was taking comfort in the notion that if I ever lost my job, I could naturalize and become a local politician like Anthony Bianchi or Jon Heese. At least it would be a more interesting experience than the salaryman grind, right?

Well, watching this clip of city council petitioners in Santa Cruz, California has really made me question that idea.