1. Moving beyond "McEnglish"
“I think that kind of stereotype or something about eikaiwa in some ways makes it difficult to say, to put your hand up with vigour, ‘Yes, I did the eikaiwa thing.’”
(Eikaiwa teacher interviewed in Hooper, 2017)
Eikaiwa: What is it?
Although at times a tricky category to pin down, eikaiwa schools are, put simply, private businesses outside of formal education that provide English conversation classes and examination preparation for tests such as TOEFL or TOEIC. The Japanese commercial ELT sector is very large and is comprised of both smaller schools owned by one person (who might also be the only teacher working in that particular school) and large chain schools, such as Aeon, Nova, and Gaba. This sector also includes the cottage eikaiwa industry, which is private eikaiwa teaching conducted by foreigners at their homes or other places, such as coffee shops or students’ homes, that are convenient for them and their students to meet at (Nagatomo, 2013).
As previously stated, a common denominator for all eikaiwa schools, both small and large chain schools, is their existence “outside formal educational institutions” (Kubota, 2011a, p. 248). This private eikaiwa sector is extremely important as Japan is “one of the largest commercial markets for English language instruction in the world” (Galloway, 2014, p. 8).
“McEnglish”: Eikaiwa as stigmatised and forgotten
Unsurprisingly, the considerable scale of the private ELT market in Japan has meant that the quality of eikaiwa lessons can vary greatly. Some schools, in particular those run by large chain companies, have gradually acquired a reputation as purveyors of dubious quality classes - the educational equivalent of junk food (Currie-Robson, 2015; McNeill, 2004; Oakland, 2010).
According to Merriam-Webster (n.d.), a “McJob” is “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.” This term has existed since the 1980s (CNN, 2003) and since that time, several pejorative “Mc” derivatives have been coined categorising low quality newspapers as “McPapers” (Pritchard, 1987), martial arts schools as “McDojos” (Martial Reviews, n.d.), and housing as “McMansions” (McMansion Hell, n.d.). An article from the UK paper, The Guardian (Ford, 2004), discussed how English teaching in Europe had now attained the status of “McJob” due to worsening working conditions and negative stereotyping surrounding the industry. One teacher based in Greece summed up the stigma attached to the ELT profession and its “McTeachers”:
Graduates can take a four-week course then bum around Europe for a year, pretending to teach. They don't take the job very seriously so consequently no one takes them very seriously, and we all get tarred with the same brush. (Ford, 2004)
The term “McEnglish” relates specifically to eikaiwa and was probably coined in a Japan Times article (McNeill, 2004) at arguably the height of the eikaiwa boom before the high-profile bankruptcy of major eikaiwa chains such as Nova and Geos in the late 2000s. Citing gruelling schedules, high staff turnover, and low wages, the author claimed that eikaiwa schools were picture-perfect representations of “McDonaldization.” McDonaldization was a concept termed and analysed by the sociologist George Ritzer (2000), where he described how the highly standardised and controlled management of various institutions in society had come to resemble the way fast food restaurants are run. Throughout McNeill’s “McEnglish” article, he strongly criticised eikaiwa schools, comparing them to fast-food restaurants, turning out lessons that are “about as nutritious as a bag of salty fries.” The fast food metaphor is unfortunately one that has stuck, with expat online message boards categorising eikaiwa teachers as “Eikaiwa Mcmonkeys (sic)” (iza_kaiser (Reddit), 2015) and books like English to Go (Currie-Robson, 2015) sermonising on the lack of professionalism and quality inherent in the “McEnglish” (McNeill, 2004; Oakland, 2010) of eikaiwa. This grand narrative of eikaiwa as fast food English has, to date, been largely unchallenged in Japan and, as can be seen in the quotation at the start of this chapter, may lead teachers who have previously worked in the industry to conceal their eikaiwa “McHistory.”
This leads us to why we have also chosen to describe eikaiwa in this section’s heading as “forgotten.” Due to the vast scale of the industry and the notoriety of chain schools like Nova in the public eye due to issues such as unpaid wages and unfulfilled student contracts (Japan Today, 2007; Stubbings, 2007), we realise that to some, the idea of eikaiwa being “forgotten” seems confusing or simply false. To clarify, what we are arguing is that within ELT in Japan, the value of eikaiwa as a legitimate educational context has been largely ignored. As a result, its role as an important source of learning for teachers and students has been forgotten.
In its official categorisation also, the eikaiwa industry has also been separated from formal language education. Private English schools are recognised as businesses and as such are under the overall administration of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), whereas mainstream schools fall under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). This business/education categorisation has contributed to a pejorative and unsound distinction made between “real” schools and eikaiwa, with the latter believed by many to be purely profit-focused at the expense of educational quality and standards (Aspinall, 2012; Nuske, 2014; Seargeant, 2009; Sapunaru Tamas, & Tamas, 2012). Even though Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in public schools generally have similar qualifications and experience to eikaiwa instructors, Makino (2015) has argued that eikaiwa is “seen as crasser because it is private enterprise” (p. 3). In addition, while critique of questionable business and educational practices in eikaiwa does have some value in highlighting improper business practices and exploitation within the industry, examples of good being done in these schools never make headlines or enter the public consciousness. This may have had the side effect of reinforcing eikaiwa’s role as the “whipping boy” of Japanese ELT – an enduring epithet among expat teachers because of its role as a handy lightning rod for ills that arguably permeate the entire field.
It can also be said that, while eikaiwa is firmly accepted by the public as a place to study English, its position within the professional ELT community in Japan seems marginal at best. Whereas research on language learning, teacher identity, and interactions between learners or between learners and teachers in formal, traditional educational institutions (such as research on university teacher identity by Nagatomo, (2012); numerous publications on EFL pedagogy) as well as in cram schools (Dierkes, 2010; Entrich, 2018) is extensive, such research continues to be rare in the eikaiwa industry. There has been only a handful of studies with a focus on eikaiwa learners (Bailey, 2007; Hashimoto, 2013a, 2013b; Hooper, 2019b; Kubota, 2011a) and even a smaller number of studies that investigated eikaiwa teachers’ identity and work conditions in eikaiwa schools (Appleby, 2013, 2014a; Galloway, 2014; Hooper, 2019a; Nagatomo, 2013). Although the eikaiwa industry is omnipresent and vast, not enough is known about it (Duff & Uchida, 1997; Nagatomo, 2013, 2016). Additional nuanced, theoretically sound, empirical research on the multifaceted, rich context of the eikaiwa sector is needed.
In addition to a marked lack of academic studies on eikaiwa schools (Lowe, 2015; Nagatomo, 2016), there is a substantial gap in terms of the scale of the industry and the extremely limited presence of eikaiwa teachers in professional teaching organisations such as the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). Despite the number of eikaiwa instructors (both foreign and Japanese) in Japan standing at 10,301 in 2017 (METI, 2019), at the 2018 JALT International Conference, only eight out of over 650 presentations discussed the conversation/language school context and at the 2018 PanSIG Conference, out of 215 presentations, only three addressed the eikaiwa context. Although JALT is certainly not deliberately discouraging eikaiwa teachers from presenting, emic insights from eikaiwa schools are still not being heard. English Teachers in Japan (ETJ), another professional teaching organisation that offers low-cost conferences more accessible to teachers outside of tertiary education, does hold annual conferences that provide eikaiwa teachers more opportunities to present on pedagogy or research. However, despite the valuable work that this...