Friday, October 26, 2007

Nova's bankrupt

Well, it was to be expected. Nova Corp's going to shut down for a month while they try to find a sponsor to get them out of hock. Unfortunately, that means that the teachers, like my roommate, won't get paid for the work they did in September, nor for the work they've done so far in October. Their pay was delayed from the 15th to last Thursday, but it still didn't come through.

To hear Mike tell it, it's been rampant lawlessness there. Teachers just decide they don't feel like being there and leave, many of them have taken emergency leave and said, "until I get paid, I'm not coming back."

It all started a while ago when Nova got busted for deceptive advertising and strong-arm sales tactics. That got them a 6-month moratorium on signing new students. Their business model was always based on expansion, and their corporate structure was always too top-heavy, which meant they couldn't consolidate their gains in the marketplace. In addition, as part of their court settlement, they had to increase hiring of new teachers. Unfortunately, by the time they got it ramped up, it was September and they were in severe financial trouble. So now they had all sorts of financial problems. Like I said earlier, some teachers had been evicted from their company-run apartments, the Japanese staff was last paid in August, and now they're going to shut down all schools for a month.

The really sad part is that if the teachers pulled together, went to work and did their best, the students would probably stay happy and resign with the company, giving them new revenue. The problem with this is that Nova has never given its employees any reason to feel any loyalty towards it. They were notoriously micro-managing, they'd take any opportunity to take advantage of the teachers and the people who got promoted were the ones who could either kiss ass or stab others in the back best. The ideal area manager would be one who could do both. This sort of corporate environment never made me feel any sort of loyalty to them whatsoever.

While maybe they could've pulled out of it reduced in size but intact, like the clusterf*ck in Iraq, you can't really expect the fools who got themselves in the current situation to extricate themselves with any semblance of competency.

So Nova lied to and coerced students, and exploited foreign teachers who have little to no idea of how to operate in this culture. I guess you reap what you sow.

One interesting side effect I've discussed with a few people is what will happen to the general job market for English teachers here. Right now, there are 5000 people suddenly dumped into a small job market sector looking for work. Many of the ones who don't have ties to Japan and live in Nova housing will probably wind up leaving. The motivated ones are the guys who've been here 10 or 15 years, have families and a mortgage to pay. Right now it's nigh impossible to find a job. But many people are betting that after a few months, when people who are trying to stay despite not having a home or much in the way of resources start giving up and heading home, the job market will swing to the other direction. One niche Nova served very well was as a gateway for foreigners to come to Japan. Many of them would do like me: work for your first year (if that) with Nova to finish your contract, then look for other employment. Many jobs here require you to currently live in the country and have a valid work visa. Without this gateway, if no other major company steps in, there could be a severe shortage of teachers. This might not be all that bad, because the recent glut has led to a general stagnation of wages, which really sucks for most of us.

Keep your eyes on this story, it's only going to get more interesting. There are some unconfirmed rumors I want to see about, then I'll write more.

Culture Festival

Last Saturday was the Culture festival at the junior high schools. In addition, for one of the schools, this year is its 60th anniversary, so it was especially important. If I haven't mentioned it before, for the Japanese, junior high school has the same kind of emotional attachment that high school does for Americans - it's the end of your geographic-based schooling, where you've been with the same people for nine years. They even have reunions. My girlfriend went to her 15th this summer.

Culture day kicked off with a ceremony to commemorate the school. And as with any special occasion in Japan, there were speeches. Lots of speeches. Lots of very long speeches. Since I couldn't understand 80% of it anyway, I found myself dozing off. I started to feel bad, but then realized the gym teacher next to me was dozing as well, with a nice stream of saliva mucking up his shirt as well. So I went back to sleep. To make up for all the boringness, they'd hired a taiko group to come play. So I was jolted out of my nice dream by a shout and lots of banging on drums. The group was pretty awesome, really.

Afterwards, the booths and things opened up. The students had created a variety of activities and so on to entertain the family members and locals. A really cool one was called somen. I'd seen the ichinensei (first-years) building the setup earlier in the week, but didn't really understand what they were getting at. They'd taken lengths of thick bamboo and cut it in half lengthwise. These lengths were connected and made into a kind of ramp. A hose at the higher end spat out water and ran all the way down, winding up in a kiddie pool at the far end. People would buy tickets and sit alongside the ramp, with a pair of chopsticks and a bowl of tsuyu, a kind of weak soy sauce. The high end was obscured by a cloth, so you couldn't see the students behind there dropping noodles into the stream. They'd come down at a pretty good clip, and you had to be quick to stop the noodles and pick them up without letting too many continue down the chute. I was lucky, the two students next to me weren't very handy at snatching the somen, so I got a bit more than my fair share when half of a clump would slip out of their grasp. For 20 cents a go, you can't really argue with that.

Another group of ichinensei were running a small cafe, with a talent show scheduled. There was a demonstration of balloon animals, spinning pie tops on sticks, and my favorite, juggling. I'd brought my juggling balls along and jumped out to perform with the kids. Besides dropping the ball a couple times, it went pretty well, we got lots of applause.

The ninensei (second-years) had a haunted house going, which I was disappointed to have missed, and a reflexology room run by the tennis team (go figure). I got a nice little foot massage by a really embarrassed student. The poor lady next to me got one of the troublemakers, who decided to really dig his knuckles in. Everytime she'd gasp or yelp, he'd just glance at the diagram sheet and say something like, "That means you drink too much," or "That means you have to poo."

The sannensei (you probably know this one, by now) put on a couple plays and did some talent shows with dancing or drumming. You could tell which groups were the ones where the girls had chosen the music and the moves by the pained look on the boys' faces and their lackluster dance moves.

For some reason, the teachers at this school don't do much socializing, but fortunately, the teachers at the other junior high school invited me to their post-event drinking party, where it was fun to hang out with the old guys and drink beer.

The downside was that Sunday was my only day off that weekend, which I spent with Sayaka doing some shopping for a Halloween costume. More on that later.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Look, ma! I'm popular!

Not much new to report here, just going through the same routine every day. Saturday was a rare weekend day Sayaka had off, so we bicycled to Enoshima island and took a walk around. It's getting cooler and windier, but still warm enough for a bike ride on the beach.

In other news, I've been writing for the website Futurismic since mid-September, and while it's been tough finding time to post something every day, I've more or less managed to do it. The reinvigorated blog there seems to have prompted PC Magazine to include us in their list of the top 100 blogs. We're right up there (in alphabetic order, of course) with Gizmodo and one of my favorites, Ars Technica. Color me happy.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Interesting Soviet trivia

Did you know that the latrine in the Kremlin was kept secret because someone might find out and attack the Soviet leaders when they were 'vulnerable?'

(so says Nikita Kruschev's son Sergei in a radio interview with the BBC)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The bigger they are...

The easiest way to get to Japan and find a job is to go through an eikaiwa, or English conversation school. When I came, Ana and I got hired on with Nova, the largest of the eikaiwa, with roughly half of the private English-teaching market under its control. And while the books they used were quite outdated, and their managerial practices were absolute crap, the books and lessons got better. But because I couldn't learn or use Japanese there, I decided to leave and work in public schools.

Well, today I got clued in to this article in The Sydney Morning Herald about Nova's impending collapse. I'd known about their problems for a while, my roommate Mike works at the Nova here in Hiratsuka, and they were worried about not getting paid last month. Turns out the head teachers had their pay delayed for about a week, and the Japanese staff still haven't been paid. Now everyone's concerned if they'll be paid for September's work next week. And then there are the stories about people being evicted from their company-owned apartments for failure to pay rent (failure on Nova's part, they still deduct the rent from employees' paychecks). One story goes that a few new teachers arrived, only to be told by Nova a week later they had to move. Then after getting to the new apartment, they were evicted and Nova gave them a sheet with realtor info and told them to do it themselves. If you've ever heard my complaints about getting an apartment, you know it ain't easy

The article mentions the Fujisawa school being closed for not paying rent. That school is the largest in our area and I still know many teachers working there and at other branches. If Fujisawa went down, the others aren't far behind. Mike's looking for a job, but with so many teachers doing the same, finding one isn't going to be easy.

(image from autodafe0728)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

DisneySea trip

Sayaka convinced me to go to Tokyo DisneySea last weekend, so we trekked out to Chiba (the prefecture on the other side of Tokyo from where I live) early Saturday morning. My idea of a weekend isn't necessarily getting up at 6am to get on a train for an hour and a half, especially when it's drizzling. See, the thing about Japan is that the people get so little time off that they'll be damned if a little rain or even a typhoon is going to stop them from going to Disneyland. Or DisneySea, as the case may be.

DisneySea is meant to be a little more adult than Disneyland. There aren't characters with big heads running about, and you can get booze there (although I found out they don't like you walking around the park with a bottle of beer - gotta keep it in the restaurant). The moment we got inside, Sayaka was running around to collect our FastPass tickets. You can go to a special ticket booth and get a ticket that lets you bypass much of the line for a ride, cutting down the waiting time from a couple hours to twenty minutes or so. Everyone gets this option, but once you get one ticket, you can't get another for 90 min or 2 hours, and you can't get one for the same ride until you use the one you currently have. The ticket you get has a time range on it, so you can't go right then. Talk about introducing an element of strategy to a theme park. Sayaka had her map out, figuring out how to maximize our time in the park, cutting down the time needed to get to each area. I think she missed her calling, although the makeup counter may require some organization, she should be doing consulting or something.

We managed to hit quite a few rides, the somewhat new Tower of Terror, a twisty roller coaster with a loop (and I didn't get any debilitating headaches - yay!), as well as a couple of funny cart rides, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and some Indiana Jones ride (or Indy-Jone-zu, as he's known here). In addition, we saw a couple music shows, which were surprisingly good. The first was a jungle-themed show called "Rhythm of the Jungle" or something like that, with people dressed as various animals dancing around on stage. It was really funny to see the few foreign dancers, as they really stood out. There were a couple guys onstage who were taller and more muscular than anyone else. Guess that's why they got the jungle voodoo doctor roles and not the flying water fairy part.

The one that impressed Sayaka and myself the most was called "Big Band Beats." It featured a 'big band' that was really just about 10 guys, but big enough, who played the swing music that was popular from the 20s to the 40s. There were quite a lot of foreigners in this one, and all of the talking as well as the music was done in English, which made me wonder what the Japanese thought of it. Sayaka didn't seem to care what they said, she just enjoyed the music. Unfortunately, the downside to this show was them having Disney characters come out and sing and dance, which really put a damper on things. Oh well.

A cool little aspect that I appreciated at the park was that most of the signs and billboards in the 'American Waterfront'-themed area were in English, and they were done with quite a bit of humor and wit. I also stuffed myself with food, the reuben sandwich I had was particularly good. It took a while to explain to Sayaka the difference between corned beef in the US and in Japan. The stuff in DisneySea was somewhere in between. It's nothing like what Mom makes.

So after our Saturday giving money to the Mouse, we went back to Tokyo and ended up staying in a love hotel in the Shibuya district. We'd had trouble getting a hotel in Tokyo - the one I wanted to go to that my friend Sam stayed at was booked for a weddding - and the closest one we could find was in Chiba city. So we paid the same price and stayed in a nice love hotel in downtown Tokyo. Sunday was rainy, which killed a lot of our interest in doing things, but we found a notice for an India-Japan friendship festival in Yoyogi park, so, rain or no, we headed out there for some Indian grub. And it was tasty. There were a bunch of booths set up, so I got some spices to make curry and pilafs, as well as a can of hemp beer I'm curious to try out. Strangely enough, there were some environmental booths set up. One was some type of composter that would take kitchen scraps and used bacteria to biodegrade them to basically nothing. I used some churning arms to aerate the soil and break up big pieces. They say it costs only about $2/month in electricity to run. Another small booth held a prototype for breaking down plastics into a type of kerosene for heaters and such (but not vehicles) at only a 20% cost. It's cool to see things like that around, but rather strange at an Indian festival.

After a long, exhausting weekend, I expected to go home and sleep, but Monday was Tracey's birthday, so I headed out for yakiniku with some people. So all this week I've been playing catch-up trying to get enough sleep not to fall over in class. Fortunately, I get today (Friday) off, although tomorrow is sports day at one of the elementary schools, so I'll be headed there to cheer the kids on. I heard them practicing a marching band routine, and those little kids can play rather well - for 10 year olds.