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.”

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.

The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan

I will be traveling over the next few weeks to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece and France on a mega-honeymoon with the newly-rechristened Mrs. Jones. Special thanks go out to Roy, the Adamus, Curzon, Younghusband, Peter and his wife, Aceface, Ben, the Gaijin Biker gang, and the many other members of our brilliant cast of characters friends who came to the wedding.

We am getting on a plane to Europe as this goes to press, and I will hopefully be back before long with some good travelogue fodder from this multi-modal, multi-destination itinerary. With that, some topical rambling on the marriage process follows: Continue reading The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan

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.)

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

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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!

New blog in Japanese

I love MFT for what it is–a vehicle for international people interested in Japan to bounce ideas, rants and anecdotes off each other. That said, MFT has its limitations. In particular, not many Japanese people are involved here, which is understandable given that (a) we blog in rather colloquial English much of the time, and (b) many of our topics are simply not that interesting to locals.

Yet we cover many topics that could use more attention and counter-voices from Japanese people, and have even carried a couple of Japanese-language posts in the past for that purpose. I also personally want to improve my Japanese writing skills, which don’t get as much exercise as they should.

So I decided to start a completely separate personal blog, in Japanese and as Japanese-blog-like as I can stomach. (I will use my real name and avoid emoji, in case you’re worried.) This new blog is not really intended as a “Japanese version” of MFT, though material may be cross-posted or cross-referenced from time to time. It is basically a separate project with separate purposes in mind.

Here’s the link, and here’s a direct link to the first post, about how I “fell into Japan.”

Subway planning Japan surge

Great news, people. Subway will open 80 new Japanese locations in 2010 (sub req’d). Most new stores will be in highway service areas and shopping centers where other fast food restaurants have shut their doors. That means you could start seeing Subways where the now-defunct Wendy’s used to be.

That will bring the number of Subways in Japan to around 270. Say what you will about their quality, Subway is the one of the only easy places to get a real deli sandwich in Tokyo. Mrs. Adamu and I love it.

I will be watching developments on this front very closely as I am considering moving out of Ayase at some point in the next year or so. Being near a Subway will be a major plus.

One interesting fact about Subway Japan – about 90% of their locations are franchisee-owned. So that older gentleman watching over the teenage part-timers making your sandwich? He probably has a very direct stake in making sure you’re satisfied. The same goes for most of the 957 Baskin Robbins stores.

The only rule of commuting that matters – just blend in

Reuters has a list of Japanese commuters’ common pet peeves:

1. Noisy conversation, horsing around

2. Music from headphones

3. The way passengers sit

4. Cellphone ringtones and talking on phones

5. Manners when getting on and off trains

6. Applying make-up

7. Littering

8. Sitting on the floor of the train

9. Riding the train drunk

10. Riding a crowded train with a child stroller

Most Mutant Frog readers will probably not find anything new on the list. Even the train companies are aware of them – most are covered in Tokyo Metro’s awesome “Please do it at Home” poster series (above, and read the Sandra Japandra blog if you want to laugh your ass off). Some seem more reasonable than others – can a mother really avoid bringing her kid on the train?

Pet peeves about daily life are simply a part of the human condition – American motorists all get pissed off at people who don’t use their blinkers, and on and on. However, in Japan these complaints seem to take on an extra sense of urgency because commuting on a packed train (often for more than an hour each way) is often so intimate and potentially dangerous. The pressure on your chest as that last person piles on. The feeling of being shoved as people stampede out at a major transfer station. The anxiety women must feel that the hand behind them could start getting too familiar.

With trains as crowded as Tokyo’s, everyone has an interest in maintaining some semblance of order and control. That’s maybe the one thing that keeps people in a tightly packed train from suffering a breakdown (and allows people to concentrate on a newspaper or Nintendo DS).

To deal with this, I think the people of Tokyo (and possibly all Japanese cities) have come up with one unwritten, overarching meta-rule that unites them all – do not stand out. People who stand out violate this order and thus subject themselves to the furtive glance of doom, that momentary registering of disapproval.

Even those who violate a few of the pet peeves themselves will feel annoyed at others who do the same. That’s because this rule is enforced by a million individual pet peeves manifesting themselves passive-aggressively. For example, I sometimes eat chocolate on the train but hate it when someone eats a sandwich or something I can smell. In my head, I feel like my eating is cleaner and therefore less rude.

This might be a stretch, but as a foreigner I feel like I automatically violate the rule just by being different. Once people see a white man they can never be sure if I’ll follow all the rules. Hence, just about every time I enter a reasonably packed train car I am greeted with half a dozen glances. I don’t necessarily think it’s racist–for most people it’s based on experience and it’s no more hostile than the automatic glances that would be directed toward other potential scofflaws – construction workers, thuggishly dressed kids, gyaru, etc etc.

Day in and day out, I share the train with the people who glare at me, and I start to glare back. I get territorial about my comfort zone – the handrail in front of the bench seats gives you enough room to read – and resent anyone who would violate it. I start to understand why people go out of their way to avoid talking to strangers. And I definitely get why people don’t bother giving up their seats to old people and pregnant ladies. Those people are breaking the rule!

This is why I think alleviating the insanely crowded train situation is vital to improving the national mood. I ridiculed Roger Cohen for talking about the gloomy attitude in Japan, but on that point he was right. People look like hateful, unhappy zombies during their commutes. The train companies are doing their best, but I feel like the media and politicians avoid really focusing on it because it’s one of those tough, intractable problems with no good solution. Better to let the plebes focus on how awful it is that some celebrities use drugs. But why not try some bolder solutions, like a second, identical Yamanote line, or double-decker train cars?

As a man with a short commute, I should be the last to complain about this. But I can’t help but thinking about it. It’s a national obsession, and in almost three years of living here it’s become mine as well.

Adamu and Garrett sound off on Japanese politics in 2009

Here I am with Garrett of Trans Pacific Radio at the Pink Cow in Shibuya the on Tuesday. We had a discussion about some of the biggest stories of 2009. Watch here!

Topics covered:

– The Noriko Sakai scandal and the arrest of Tatsuya Ichihashi: Sakai received more media coverage than the election. The two cases illustrate how police can hold a suspect for weeks and try and press for a confession.

– The new DPJ government: Adamu is a little on the fence about the government’s new way of doing things but supports them on balance. A point that I didn’t quite get to articulate as well as I wanted: once the DPJ eliminates some of the institutions, they will have to fundamentally re-organize the personnel policies of the bureaucracy so there won’t be so many senior bureaucrats who feel entitled to post-retirement jobs. Such reforms could even prove a model to creating a less rigid private sector labor system as well.

[Edited to move video after the jump, as it autoplays on some computers.]

Continue reading Adamu and Garrett sound off on Japanese politics in 2009

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.