The Japanese word for "English Conversation", this is actually the name of a major industry that is the bread-and-butter of many Japanese and Japan-residing foreigners alike. Eikawai as a concept has existed in Japan since at least the 1960s, but only became truly popular in the early 1990s when growing pressure for Japan to globalize led to relaxed visa regulations for would-be teachers, guidelines for foreigners working in Japanese schools, and a standardized minimum wage of 250,000 yen per month. (McNeill, 2004.) The resulting eikaiwa boom has led to the image of Japan as a great place for college grads to spend a year or three -- no experience required, good salary, unique yet disposable experience.
These schools can only be popular as long as many Japanese people firmly believe that they cannot speak English. This notion might seem a little odd, considering that most Japanese adults have 6 to 10 years of English study. Even odder is how Japan -- the second richest country in the world, renowned for its excellent education system -- placed fourth from last in Asia in 2000-2001 TOEFL test averages, behind impoverished countries such as North Korea and Pakistan. However, when one considers traditional Japanese teaching methods, where proficiency in academic topics is demonstrated by rote memorization, Japan's notoriously poor English performance becomes a little more believable.
English is treated as a science, with grammatical rules for formulas and a few thousand constants to memorize before it can be mastered. When English breaks its own rules and the constants suddenly become variables, you get actual, vernacular, pragmatic English -- eikaiwa.
Perceptions of eikaiwa in Japan
In his article, "Good English - Bad Communication", Floyd Williams sums up the problem with an anecdote familiar to most eikaiwa teachers:
I can remember trying to teach some Japanese students how to communicate using English when I was rudely interrupted (in Japanese) by one student. He said my spoken English wasn't grammatically correct.
This totally amazed me. You see, this guy could barely ask me in English what time it was. Yet, there he was trying to correct my English. He was obviously confused about how to communicate using English.
Japanese media of all types strongly support the image that Japanese, no matter how much they study, simply cannot speak English. Thane Camus mocked the inability of Japanese people to speak about themselves in simple English in his "Funniest English" segment of Sanma-san's Super Karakuri Terebi, earning top ratings and national fame soliciting mangled English such as "I baked my father."
When Japanese researcher and closet genius Koichi Tanaka unexpectedly won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, several "news" programs commented on how difficult it must have been for the poor fellow to have to give a speech in English. Obviously, a guy who could come up with a method of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution should have difficulty with high school English!!
Everyone wants to learn how to really talk -- even Shingo Katori has started an English corner on his Saturday night program, "Smastation". The name, fittingly, is "Berabera Flash". ("Berabera" means "spoken fluently, without pause" or "too quick to be comprehensible" and often describes how Japanese people perceive natural spoken English to sound.) Shingo himself even comments on how the "real English" is "too good" for Japanese people to really have a chance at understanding it. As long as these memes permeate the Japanese conciousness, there will be an unspoken excuse for English incompetence.
Eikaiwa schools thrive on this image. Advertisements for eikaiwa schools inevitably feature famous personalities and bizzarre semi-English phrases such as "Do you speak EC?" Some commercials, such as NOVA's Nova Usagi, feature no English at all, with bizzarrely accented Japanese instead. Another ad features a Japanese comedian badgering foreigners with inane questions such as "What time is it now?" and "Do you like sushi?" A sharp contrast can be seen from commercials for children's summer schools and after-school schools, which universally feature uniformed students with bright faces cracking books and raising hands as they happily cram their way to high school heaven.
The message for prospective eikaiwa students: This isn't your dad's English class, with a frumpy, suited, Japanese man lecturing in Japanese and speaking English only with katakana firmly pencilled in. Leave behind the pedantic grammar of old for effective phrases! Throw out "This is a pen." and "I am a boy." and embrace "Hey, I'm in NY!" and "Do you like sushi?" Our English does stuff, unlike your education.
How to bottle and sell conversation
"eikaiwa" has a rather positive ring in Japan, with images of a blue-eyed sensei, kind, yet strong enough to inspire a group of Japanese people to talk to each other in English and somehow enjoy it. However, Japan is perhaps the only country where "conversation teacher" could even be considered a profession. In truth, many eikaiwa "teachers" are just that -- conversers. People can get paid serious cash just to have a "real" conversation, with no particular pedagogical method.
The "Big Three" eikaiwa companies, NOVA, Geos, and ECC, have offices in every major Japanese city. They generally work on the same business model -- prospective customers either become members and take regular classes, or buy individual "lesson coupons" at higher rates. Lessons generally cost between 1000 to 4000 yen per person for a 45-minute lesson, depending on the number of students; materials generally cost extra. Class sizes range from private 1-on-1 lessons to 8-10 person groups. Course types include general conversation, travel English, business English, and TOEIC or TOEFL preparatory courses, with normally about 10 different "levels" per course.
There are many smaller, lower-priced companies, as well as agencies which perform matchmaking services for private instructors. NHK also broadcasts English (and many other language) courses on TV and radio, selling the textbooks at very reasonable prices... to a surprisingly small audience. I once tried to teach an eikaiwa class in a small city for free, but I eventually gave up because I simply couldn't convince people that they were going to learn anything without paying money.
The reputation of eikaiwa teaching has been tarnished by horror stories, including botched visas, dodgy contracts, unethical policies, missed pay, and sudden unwarranted dismissals. In fact, some eikaiwa schools forbid their teachers from fraternizing with students outside of class, for fear that they will hurt revenue by giving away the company's "product" for free. Other schools discourage their teachers from studying or learning Japanese, knowing full well that most students will resort to speaking in Japanese when they know that the teacher can understand it.
Grammar school English teachers are covering much of the same material with textbooks and curriculum that are oh-so-slowly being reformed with the goal of providing functional English knowledge, including listening and speaking skills. The ultimate goal is still, of course, High School Entrance Exams, but it is now becoming shameful for an English teacher to not speak English in an English class. Introduction of ALTs into public school classrooms further forces conversation-based education into the system.
When national pride is at stake, even Japan's monolithic government is capable of quick action, as it did when they discovered their internet standards to be years behind Korea's. It is theoretically possible that the education system could be reformed to force actual English proficiency upon unsuspecting citizens. In a matter of years, eikaiwa teachers could go the way of ISDN. Still, as long as the Japanese are happy to stereotype themselves, and accept a system which forces children to study without intention of learning, there will always be a market for eigo-speaking gaijin. Woot.
Williams, Floyd. 2001. "Good English - Bad Communication". The Japan Times. Available online at http://www.japantoday.com/gidx/comment70.html
McNeill, David. 2004. "McEnglish for the Masses". The Japan Times. Available online at http://www.japantimes.com/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?fl20040224zg.htm
Educational Testing Service. 2001. TOEFL Test Score Data Summary: Paper-Based TOEFL Total and Section Score Means - Nonnative English-Speaking Examinees Classified by Geographic Region and Native Country
Let's Japan: The Site Dedicated to Debunking Eikaiwa. http://www.letsjapan.org