Thursday, January 17, 2008

Update 3: The Job

Ah, yes, the Job update. Where to begin on this one?

Okay, the last time I wrote about the job situation there was a couple months ago, when there was this meeting which came out of nowhere and nobody had bothered to even tell us Nakatsu teachers about. And you might recall at the time the big question was whether to resign from Nova and sign up with the new sponsor company, or do nothing and be terminated from Nova when it collapses, thus being eligible for termination compensation. (Which we wouldn't have been able to collect because Nova had gone bankrupt, but it would be added to the back wages that, under Japanese law, we would have been able to collect from the government at some day in the future. Along with our two months of unpaid work).

There was a lot of confusion about which choice would be the best. The new company said they would be willing to pay 60% of our wages for us to just stand by and wait for the new schools to open, but none of their representatives were able to answer any questions about how long this would go on for, or how legally binding these promises were.

There was a lot of debate among various people about what to do, but I ended up resigning from Nova and signing up for the new company. Sometimes I figured you have to just take a chance, and I figured if I could get just one months pay out of them before they changed their minds and reversed policy, it would be about equal to what my severance pay would have been anyway.

As it turns out I didn't even get that. They didn't pay anyone for waiting around in the month of November as they said they would. I was furious when I first heard this. I had taken the precaution of photo-copying the "request for re-employment" form before I left the building, and this clearly stated we would be paid 60% of our wages for stand-by. The question was how legally binding was this document.

My anger subsided a little when I learned none of our resignations had been officially processed. They weren't legal resignations, but they represented an intent to resign. So, apparently, we are all still getting a severance pay (or 60% of it) when we collect our back wages from the government.

It was a reversal of policy, and a change on a promise, and more than slightly dishonest, but in the end I decided not to make a big deal out of it because it didn't appear like I had been tricked into sacrificing my severance pay after all. (The severance pay, along with the rest of our back wages, we were told we probably wouldn't see for another year. Apparently it takes that long for the government bureaucracy's wheels to turn.)

What to do in the meantime? As Nova represented the biggest English Conversation school in Japan (the McDonalds of language schools) suddenly everyone was looking for a new job at once. The market was flooded with over 2000 unemployed English teachers. Every job posting had hundreds of applicants.
The Japanese media ran stories about Nova teachers being kicked out of their homes, no money to buy food, and collapsing on the street. Fortunately I avoided this because of living with Shoko, but she showed me the newspaper and magazine articles. "Isn't life funny," she said. "We Japanese people usually think of Americans as rich and powerful, but now a whole bunch of them are jobless and out on the streets in Tokyo." Apparently this little appreciation of irony has been flowing through many Japanese circles lately, but in defense of us Americans (and British, Aussies, New Zealeanders, and Canadians) we were all brought into a foreign country by a Japanese company in good faith that we would get paid for the work we did.

In my case, because the whole reason I returned to Japan in the first place was to be with Shoko, I was not free to just pick up and move anywhere in Japan. I narrowed my job search to the Nakatsu area, and there are not a lot of other jobs around this area. (This being a small city).
There used to be a Geos School here, but they closed down their doors at about the same time as Nova did. (Although in Geos's case, they had planned on closing their Nakatsu branch for a while. Nova's shutting down was a lot more sudden).

There is one more school English school in the area. A private family run place that employees a few foreigners (and to whom I sent my infamous video introduction when applying for jobs last fall). I actually got a job offer from them, but ended up deciding to go out with Nova instead because Nova could employee me sooner. (Who knew at the time? Nova was such a big company we never dreamed it would be bankrupt within a year).
Since then, I had heard a number of things about this company from both former and current employees, not all of it positive, but beggars can't be choosers, so I e-mailed them to let them know I was in the area, unemployed, and wondering if that job offer was still available.

In the meantime, Shoko was pressuring me to think about my long term future. (Which I suppose is good for me, although I have to confess I'm not always appreciative of it at the time). Shoko pointed out to me that English language schools like Nova were a dead-end job, even if they didn't go bankrupt. The money wasn't all that good, there were no bonuses, and not much opportunity for advancement. The real money was setting up your own English teaching company. (Students pay through the nose for English lessons at Nova, but only a small portion of that actually goes to us instructors. The pay is okay for people coming to Japan for a one year adventure, but it's nothing you'd want to settle down and raise a family on.)

I was very reluctant to bite off starting my own company. Doing a few private lessons here and there is alright, but if there was one thing I didn't want it was all the responsibility and stress of running my own company. Especially since I'm still considering (realistically or not) going to graduate school some day.

It turned out one of my co-workers, married to a Japanese woman, was in the exact same position. His wife was really pressuring him to set up his own language school in the absence of Nova. He didn't want to do it. He also had in his mind the idea of returning to school at some point, but was unsure of what he wanted to do. It was like looking into a mirror. He was even the exact same age as I was.

We would keep each other's spirits up by exchanging our various worries and frustrations. One day we decided since we were both married/engaged to Japanese girls we should go on a double date. Us guys in all honesty did not even think of this as a business meeting, but we should have known better. Once the girls got together and realized each one was interesting in pressuring her husband/fiance into setting up his own English school, they gabbed away in Japanese the whole night, while me and the other guy made small talk while nervously monitoring the other conversation and trying to make sure we weren't being committed into anything.

After that over the next few weeks the girls were e-mailing back and forth between each other plans for setting up the new school. At Shoko's request, I retracted my request for employment from the family owned English school in Nakatsu. ("You can't work for the competition and expect to help start up your own school at the same time," she said.)
I was still slightly ambivalent about the whole thing, but the fact that I was going into it with another guy helps to shoulder the responsibility, and also gives it a sense of comradely. There was talk of getting our other remaining former co-workers involved as well.

Then one night Shoko had a long phone conversation with the other girl. They were on the phone, so I couldn't hear what she was saying, but I could tell it wasn't going well. After the phone call was over, Shoko came and said to me, "It's no good. That other couple wasn't planning on opening this school with us as equals. They wanted to open the school as sole owners and just use you as an employee."

"Oh," I said.

"Did you know about this?" Shoko asked accusingly.

"I didn't know anything," I said. "You girls were doing all the talking. Me and the other guy never even brought it up."

"It's no good," Shoko said. "We can't go into business with them. You're going to have to open up your own school."

I felt the walls closing in on me. "But I don't want to open my own school," I pleaded.

"It's no good otherwise," Shoko said. "I really wanted to go into business with the other couple just as much as you did. But there's no sense in working for them as just an employee. You'll be no better off than you were before. In fact you'll be worse off because at least at a large company you'd have job security. At a small company you'll never know what would happen from month to month. You'd be taking all of the same risk as them and getting none of the benefit. If you're going to take a risk, you might as well open your own place."

At the time I said yes just to avoid a long argument. But in my mind I was trying to find a way out of this. I'll talk to the other guy man to man and we'll sort this all out, I thought. The girls couldn't agree, but us men will think differently. I'll explain everything to him, and he'll agree that it's silly for us both to open up two competing companies in the same small town.

...Only I didn't. I intended to bring it up casually, but the right moment never came. Now that we weren't working at the same company, we didn't see each other every day and our meetings were more and more infrequent. And when we did meet, I wasn't sure how to phrase it so it didn't sound like an ultimatum. "Cut me in 50% or I'll go and open up my own school right down the street from yours."

Instead Shoko continued to make draw up plans for my own language school, while I continued to think about my future.
On a question of profitability, there was no question that it was more advantageous to go into business for myself. At Nova, for example, students pay about $70 dollars for a private lesson. The teacher (me) sees about $14 of that. The rest goes into maintenance of the company.

I would have been more than content to travel around house to house as a private English teachers (I know a few people who make their living that way) but Shoko pointed out that in addition to the difficulty of accumulating students without a neutral meeting place, it would be impossible to do group lessons (which is where the money really is in the English teaching business).

The question I needed to ask myself before I invested a lot of time and money into setting up my own English school is whether I was passionate about teaching English, or if I was one of those people who just teach English as an excuse to make easy money while living abroad. It was a hard question to answer. On days when classes are going well, I feel like I have the best job in the world. On other days not so much. I was an education major at Calvin, but I was never passionate about any of my educational theory classes. In fact they bored me to tears. As for ESL, I enjoy the human interaction side of teaching but I have no interest in theories of language acquisition or language teaching. Again it bores me to tears. I'm a terrible procrastinator preparing lessons. (In fact one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching at Nova was because we didn't have to prepare any lessons in advance).

I was more interested in history. And so I've always had it in the back of my mind to pursue an advanced degree in history. But I am well aware of the practical problems of this, and the fact that 4 years of graduate school does not guarantee you a job at the end of it. In fact the world of "teaching English in Asia" is filled with grad school drop outs, so I've heard all the horror stories.

Moreover the area of history I'm interested in (19th Century Europe, French Revolution, 1848 Revolutions, Paris Commune) is hardly very practical. The field is already crowded and as an American I'd have an inherent disadvantegous against European scholars. Not to mention I don't speak a single European language, and I'd need to learn at least a couple of them to pursue this field. Plus I've been out of school for about 7 years, so I'm a bit rusty. Plus I would need to move back to America, which would make it difficult to move back with Shoko. (Her limited English would make it hard for her to find employment, so I'd have to support her).

The more you add it all up, the more it really does just seem like some sort of crack pipe dream.

On the other hand, I began to think of trying to put my 6 years of living in Japan to some sort of use, and wondering about pursuing Japanese degree. This has always been something I've been resistant to do, because my passion has been European history. I can identify with the ancient Romans, and I liked studying them because I knew my own culture came from Rome. Likewise I could identify with the Revolutionary 19th Century Europe, and I knew how much of the modern Western world was shaped by the doctrines which emerged during that time.
By contrast Japanese history, the code of the Samurai and the ethic of loyalty, subserviance, group think, ritual suicide, et cetera, have always seemed strange and foreign to me.

But there are certainly areas of Japanese history and culture that interest me. The Japanese student movement, for example. Or the labor movement around the turn of the century. And there is a poverty of English sources on both of these which might make them interesting fields to go into.

There are graduate programs that study Japanese history in English, but I can't imagine being competitive in this field without having first mastered Japanese. (If indeed it is possible to master Japanese).

But, I reasoned with myself, if I enrolled in a Japanese language school, I would have nothing to lose. Learning Japanese would be a huge benefit in itself and could open many other doors.

One has to be somewhat careful on this point of course. Learning Japanese is the great fools gold of all English teachers in Japan. As a friend once said to me, "Most people come to Japan teaching English, and try really hard to learn Japanese so they can get out of the English teaching ghetto and get translating jobs. And the successful ones discover that the translaters ghetto isn't any better off". Indeed I myself stopped studying Japanese a couple years ago when I thought I saw the light. But at the very least I figure becoming fluent in Japanese would do me no harm. It would allow me greater access to Japanese culture, media and movies, and make daily interaction with Japanese friends easier. Not to mention communication with my Japanese fiancee.

So, I began to talk to Shoko about enrolling in a Japanese language school. "Fine," she said. "But if you're going to do that you need to start your own company. How else will you create the flexible hours you need in order to go to school?"
And so we were back to square one on the company.

"You know I was thinking," I said. "If I'm not going to pursue a career in English teaching, I'm not sure continuing on is going to be a lot of benefit for me. Teaching in the English conversation schools doesn't help my Japanese any, and because of all the pidgeon English I have to use to get my students to understand me, it actually makes my English worse. I was thinking once we got married I could get a spousal residency visa for Japan, and then I could work any type of job. For instance working at a fast food restaurant or a conveniance store would really help my Japanese."

"You want to work at a fast food restaurant? We're going to get married and you want me to introduce you to all my relatives as my fiance who works in a fast food restaurant?" Shoko didn't speak to me for two days after that.

Meanwhile back at Nova...
After the first broken promise by the new sponsor company, we were all phoned up about employment in December, and given two options.
Option A: start working in December.
Option B: Wait until January 10th to start work when more branches re-open. Receive about $1500 in return for being willing to wait for the branch openings next month.

I and Nova teachers all over Japan were doing calculations to figure out which option was to our advantage. I would have gone with Option A if I could have been sure it would mean work in Nakatsu. As previously stated, I didn't want to get shipped all over Japan because my reason for being here in the first place was Shoko. Because no one knew when the Nakatsu branch would open up, I took option B. (Option B also had the advantage of being money in hand. We got the money immediately. Option A people had to work through December, and would then get their pay check in January).

At any rate, I was confident that a job was awaiting me in January. Why else would they pay me and $1500 to wait around unless they really wanted to keep me on staff. It made sense. They planned to open lots of branches, they couldn't do it all at once, and so in order to keep their employees from leaving or getting other jobs they give us some money to tide us over and keep us loyal. After all, as many people observed, it was probably cheaper for them to give us a little money now than to spend thousands on overseas recruitment later.

...How naive I was. Another friend gave me an alternative explanation. "This is what I think. And it's not just me, I've been talking to a lot of people who are knowledgeble about business and they all seem to have the same opinion.
One of the conditions made when the new company bought out Nova was they had to re-employ all the employees. And they agreed to that condition because they didn't think many people would want to come back. Instead they were overwhelmed by how many people came back asking for their jobs back.
So they've given people the option of taking this money in December, and they've made it quite clear to everyone that there's absolutely no strings attatched for this money. For all the people who were left stranded in Japan, it's just enough money for them to wrap up their affairs and buy a plane ticket home. And they're quite happy to see you go. Other people I know used this money to go to Tokyo and look for other jobs. And they were quite happy for that as well. And they're not even starting regular work until after the Christmas holidays, because they know people will be going home, and some of them are probably going to think twice about going back."

Back in Nakatsu
My one year visa is coming up for expiration in January. In order to be able to launch my own company, Shoko and I decided to fast forward our marriage a little bit so I would be eligible for a spousal visa. We weren't going to have the ceremony until this summer, but we thought we'd submit the paperwork at town hall.

In order to be married in Japan I needed a certificate from the American embassy that said I was eligible to be married (ie I was of legal age and not already married to anyone else back home). This entire thing is just another meaningless beauracratic hoop to jump through, because the entire paper is just based purely on my say so. I filled out the papers, I got on the train all the way to Fukuoka (an hour and a half each way), I went to the American consulate and presented my papers. The guy looked at me and signed it without saying a word. And I paid about $50 for that privalege.

Once I got back from Fukuoka, Shoko had changed her mind. "I don't want to rush the marriage just for the sake of the visa. And besides, I've been thinking about it and I know you don't want to start your own business. And this is the kind of thing you really need to be dedicated to if you're going to do. So it's probably best if you just went back to Nova or tried to get employed with another company."

Meanwhile my former co-workers were proceeding with plans to open up their own school. I still hadn't had the talk with him, but I hadn't told him I was out either so I assumed all options were still on the table and we'd talk about dividing up the shares in the company when the right moment arrived. I was slightly concerned because he and the other guys were making a lot of plans and scouting out locations without me, and I thought that the less involved I was in the preperation, the less right I would have to ask for an equal share in the profits. I however assumed my absence was an honest oversight. These guys all lived on the same block. I lived down in another part of town with Shoko. They were probably over at eachother's apartments all the time and these kind of plans were just developing naturally.

I was talking to one former co-worker, and he was describing that they had called a meeting at which they had decided what the salary and working conditions would be like. "What?" I said. "How come I never get invited to these meetings?"

He gave a snarky laugh. "Because you told us you didn't want to work with us."

"I never said anything."

"Well you're fiancee did then."

And then it all became clear. I assumed all my options were still on the table, and it was just an oversight I was never involved in the planning. When I got back to the house I asked Shoko what exactly she had said on the phone.
"I never said you weren't going to work with them, but she probably inferred it from what I was saying," Shoko said. "We Japanese people can be like that."

"Why would you do that?" I said. "We need to keep all our options open right now."

"Look we've discussed this," Shoko said. "You can't go to work for them there's no sense in it. You might as well just go to work for yourself if you want to strike out away from an established company."

"I just wish I could make some of these decisions in my own life," I said. "Without everyone knowing I wasn't part of this company but me."

"Yes," Shoko said, "I wanted you to make your own decisions. I wanted you to take the initiative in setting up a company. But when you didn't do that I and the other wife had to take things over."
With this verbal lashing putting me in my place, I shut up.

Back at Nova again...
How right my friend ended up being about that money being intended not as a retainer for employment, but as a buyout. On Christmas day, when presumebly many people were out of Japan and thinking about not coming back, the new company sent out hundreds of e-mails laying off people. (As always, Let's Japan covered this mass lay-off event). This probably violates the company's agreement to rehire all those seeking employment, but whether anyone will be able to take them to task on it remains to be seen.

...Fortunately I was not among them. And as much as I'd like to say it was due to my great work ethic, the fact that everyone in our city got re-hired means it was obviously due to locational issues. They decided to re-open our little school out in the boondocks here in Nakatsu, and we all got our jobs back. I didn't even know everyone else got laid off till I heard about it at the Christmas party in Fukuoka.

As of January 10th, our branch re-opened. Out of the 4 of us who weathered out these past couple months in Nakatsu, 2 of us (me and one other guy) have returned to Nova. 2 other guys ended up setting up their own language school (with one presumably being the employee of the other).

For the time being, I have my old job back. But we'll see how long this lasts. The internet is full of rumors once again. Apparently many of these branches are being opened on a trial basis. I could well be laid off at some point.

Right now my primary concern is renewing my visa, which expires in a couple weeks. I've been told repeatedly that they're just waiting for the paper work to come through. I guess I have no choice but to trust they'll come through on that, although it's hard to trust these days. (I can't imagine it would be in there best interests to let me go now though. I'm one of only 2 teachers who came back to our branch).

I applied for a Japanese language school in Beppu. Shoko did all the work on the phone actually. We technically missed the application deadline, but after a bit of pleading by Shoko they agreed to take me on anyway.

I'll start classes in April. I'm hoping to re-arrange my schedule with Nova so I can work evenings and take classes during the day time. I'm not sure if that will be a problem or not, but I'm not even going to ask about it until I get this visa sorted out.

The other two guys were worried when they heard Nova was going to re-open, and temporarily suspended plans with opening up their own school. They decided to take a chance and go for it anyway. Hopefully there's enough students in Nakatsu to support both schools.

Despite all that's happened, I would like to see them succeed. And if they can offer me a more flexible schedule, I'm even considering working for them (and I've told them as much. We're all trying to stay on good terms with each other despite the split here).

Now I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens in the coming weeks.

Link of the Day
"Iraq Summer" Group Working to Help Elect Democrats

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