English Conversation (Eikaiwa) a con game? Engrish lessons from Yakuza 3

The critically acclaimed game, Yakuza 3 (龍が如く3) had a lot cut out of the American version. One of the more interesting scenarios scrubbed was the lead character, ex-yakuza boss, Kiryu’s experience learning English conversation (英会話/eikaiwa). It turns out to be a badger game/a set-up/a con and an attempt at extortion, that ends with Kiryu beating the crap out of the thugs running the so-called English Conversation school. I can imagine several reasons why it was cut from the US version, one of them being that the english subtitles are horrific, the other being that Kiryu kicks the stuffing out of the americans running the con game.

Yakuza student Kiryu tells the head of the Eikaiwa school, "Of course, I won't pay your fees. You guys are running a pyramid scheme."

I don’t imagine it would go over well with advocates of the JET program or English teachers in Japan either. The sequence basically portrays the English Conversation schools and their teachers as ruthless, manipulative predators. Most English conversation schools in Japan are legitimate and their underpaid (or overpaid) teachers decent people. But that’s not always the case.

While many of our readers probably know this, for the sake of some that don’t I’ll explain a little bit of the background to this sub-story. In Japan, English is a compulsory part of education but due to the emphasis on grammar and reading ability, many Japanese find that even after years of English they are unable to speak it or understand it when it’s spoken to them. This created the cottage industry of “English Conversation” or Eikaiwa as it’s known colloquially. These schools are supposed to teach the Japanese how to actually use spoken english in real-life interaction with non-Japanese.

What’s not well known is that a number of english conversation schools were and are still run by anti-social forces, some of them essentially being yakuza front companies. There are numerous ways these schools can be used as a semi-legal con-game. One is the use of attractive women/handsome guys who approach the Japanese mark and encourage them to believe that by joining the school that he/she will be able to date the person who solicits him. The other approach is to browbeat the student into paying a huge initial registration fee up front and then refusing to return the money if the student decides to quit. Others make the “victim” part of the game by embroiling them in a pyramid scheme, after they’ve paid a ridiculous amount of money for their “contract”, by offering them a percentage of the fees for anyone else they can get to enroll in the school.

The most famous incident of an eikaiwa chain being exposed for fraudulent practices was the disciplining of the megalithic Nova Group in 2007. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in June of 2007, suspended part of Nova’s business operations. After receiving numerous complaints, they concluded that Nova had deliberately deceived many of their students, and had committed multiple violations of the specified commercial transaction law, including providing false explanations to get students to register for lessons and coercing them to pay huge fees. They also illegally refused to refund fees to students unhappy with their services. Nova was allegedly connected to the Yamaguchi-gumi and in the past had used yakuza thugs to violently break-up attempts by the english teachers to unionize. The scandal resulted in Nova’s bankruptcy and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Many teachers were recruited while the company was clearly going under, and not paid, as were many of  those hired before the scandal.

On August 26, 2009, the former CEO was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He claims to have been using taking out funds to pay back refunds to disgruntled students and keep the company afloat but police sources suspect that a great deal of the missing money went to yakuza backers who wanted their cut before the company went belly-up. There’s more to the story than that and if you’re really curious you should check out 実録アングラマネー 日本経済を喰いちるヤクザたち(Underground Money–The Yakuza (Dark Powers) Eating Up Japan’s Economy) for more details. It also covers in depth NOVA’s attempts to stay in business through complicated financial dealings with a yakuza business associate and stock manipulator.

The english conversation school has been and will probably always be a good business for the yakuza. The same principles used to get men and women into hostess clubs/host clubs are applied to recruit students. Just like a hostess club there is the possibility of actually dating one of the teachers dangled out as bait to keep the customer coming back. Many companies portray their schools as place where Japanese men and women can have a chance to date an attractive foreigner. The foreign workers brought in are usually under stringent contracts that allow them to be easily replaced if they become problematic and bind them to their jobs. In some cases, their apartments and travel expenses are loaned to them in advance, essentially indenturing them to the company before they even began to work. Often the apartments provided are owned by the company as well.

I don’t expect realism from a video game but the cut sequence detailing Kiryu’s bad experiences with an English conversation school scam has elements of truth that make it interesting. Check it out for yourself, because if you have the US version of the game, you’ll never get to experience the joys of learning English conversation as a yakuza. I’m sure there are a number of former employees and students of NOVA who wish they could solve their problems with the company the way Kiryu did: by battering the the executives running the place with a wide-screen TV and any other blunt weapons laying around the office.

Yakuza 3/The Missing English Textbook Solicitor Adventure (英会話の勧誘編)

UPDATE: Kotaku, The Gamer’s Guide posted an excellent follow-up to this article, The Japanese Mob Wants You To Learn English, which brings up some valid reasons why the English Conversation adventure might have been cut from the US release of Yakuza 3. Brian Ashcraft explains it in detail, while adding some more information about NOVA’s CEO, the infamous Saruhashi. The comments section of the Kotaku piece are also highly interesting. I would hope that this article doesn’t scare people away from the JET program, which has been a useful gateway to Japan for many and offers some excellent experience. If you force yourself to study Japanese while doing the JET program, it can be very rewarding and I know a number of journalists and scholars of Japan who started as a JET and then stuck around to deepen their knowledge of Japan. Also, please see some of the emails that have been sent in by readers–they are illuminating as well. If I get permission to post them, I will.

KOTAKU, THE GAMER'S GUIDE does an excellent follow-up to this piece adding some useful information and insight. Check it out.
Ex-yakuza boss Kiryu politely asks for a refund for his english conversation lessons. He gets it.

17 thoughts on “English Conversation (Eikaiwa) a con game? Engrish lessons from Yakuza 3”

  1. First rule I learned almost immediately after getting off the plane was NEVER NOVA… and that was in 2000. I felt bad for the teachers that got caught up in their little game.

    I need to get a Japanese operating system so i can start playing the real thing. . .

    Thanks for letting us know what we’re missing.

    1. SDB-sama,
      Thanks for writing in. The Japanese original is definitely worth playing for a little more insight into Japan and the yakuza as well. Not to mention, excellent Japanese practice. You can claim you’re not goofing off; you’re studying 日本語!

  2. I’m just curious if it portrays the eikaiwa as being mainly owned, operated and managed by gaijin conmen (don’t tell debito), or is the responsibility for the con that of the Japanese owners? (as it is in reality) Do the Japanese eikaiwa Presidents get the shit kicked out of them? 😉

    Anyway, good article as always.

    Some notes from my experience (7 wasted years in major eikaiwa, 1 of those with NOVA, my first year. Most learn to get out ASAP after seeing first-hand how NOVA operated) the job losses through NOVA were in the thousands though, not merely “hundreds”.

    I don’t think there are ever any cases of major eikaiwa where a gaijin would be handling cash and contracts with students, that’s all done by the Japanese staff. Maybe in some of the small independent outfits it happens.

    Eikaiwa do not use the gaijin teachers as recruiters/live bait for possible dating. Such things may be implied by Japanese staff (and definitely implied by the advertising), and some Japanese staff have been known to go recruiting in bars and such, but gaijin going out on the streets and trying to lure in students? Doesn’t happen, AFAIK.

    NOVA was definitely a criminal operation. The biggest scam of all was promising students a lesson whenever they wanted, and then not being able to provide because there weren’t enough teachers and lessons to cater to all, and then denying refunds because “You can take lessons anytime.” even though you can’t.
    Like a conman selling 104 one-week shares per year for a single time-share condo at a ski resort.

    1. In this game, the Japanese woman approaches the mark and the foreign woman is just part of the scheme. The school is clearly run by the Japanese woman and the gaijin are simply here hired thugs. It would have been more realistic if there were Japanese thugs being the heavies. The Japanese woman is always handling the cash in the sequence. You can watch it on-line, there’s a link on blog.

      NOVA was definitely a criminal operation. The biggest scam of all was promising students a lesson whenever they wanted, and then not being able to provide because there weren’t enough teachers and lessons to cater to all, and then denying refunds because “You can take lessons anytime.” even though you can’t.
      Like a conman selling 104 one-week shares per year for a single time-share condo at a ski resort.

      Brilliantly summarized. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the 実録アングラマネ recommendation! I’d never heard about any of this mob-nova stuff before. I just got a book about 現在のネット犯罪, but after I finish that, I’ll try to test my Japanese with 実録アングラマネ!

    p.s. do you know any trustworthy Japanese books that talk about 創価学会 and their associations with yakuza / the Koreas? The books I’ve found either seem to only deal with Souka Gakkai’s forays into mainstream politics, or they seem kind of dubious in the way that crazy ex-Scientologist people who write “tell-all” books seem dubious.

    Anyway, thanks for another rad post!

  4. That’s pretty interesting. I’d recently become interested in the Yakuza video games (which indirectly led to me buying Tokyo Vice) and I’d read about them having to remove a quiz game and some hostess thing for the American version of Yakuza 3. I’ve never heard about this portion of the game though.

    I haven’t tried it out personally yet, but apparently the Playstation 3 doesn’t region lock its games, so a Japanese import of Yakuza 3 should work properly on an American or European system without any modding necessary.

  5. That’s pretty interesting. I’d recently become interested in the Yakuza video games (which indirectly led to me buying Tokyo Vice) and I’d read about them having to remove a quiz game and some hostess thing for the American version of Yakuza 3. I’ve never heard about this portion of the game though.

    I haven’t tried it out personally yet, but apparently the Playstation 3 doesn’t region lock its games, so a Japanese import of Yakuza 3 should work properly on an American or European system without any modding necessary.

  6. I’m curious about this statement:
    “Nova was allegedly connected to the Yamaguchi-gumi and in the past had used yakuza thugs to violently break-up attempts by the english teachers to unionize.”

    I’ve never heard about any violent attempts to break the Nova union. Could you direct me to any sources for the statement?

    1. I heard about it from a reporter at the long defunct TOKYO JOURNAL and from a police detective who retired in 2002. There are hints about it the book アングラマネー by 有森隆。And I heard about it as well from a former Yamaguchi-gumi member. It was very early in the company history. I wish I had more details. The Yamaguchi-gumi associate links are clearly written up in the book mentioned above.

  7. Thanks for those sources. It’s interesting to hear that the Nova union faced challenges greater than the general apathy of most people working for the company.

  8. I worked at the big Nova where the Nova Union President , TB, was based at that time.

    He was constantly fucked with and harassed by management. In their defense, he was a trouble maker. He did things his way and refused to take the stairs to class, which often ended up with students waiting a few minutes for him to arrive after the bell.
    There was a lot of apathy among the transient work force which made it very hard to organize. Also, it was 3000 a month to be a member, and fear of being bullied by the Japanese management if they found out.

    He also was on strike most of the time. When he did show up the staff would open up his schedule and after it filled out he would go on strike again. Kind of funny but it often caused his co workers , not the management to pick up the slack.

    He sued them a while back but it was about the same time Nova went under so I never heard any follow up.

    I remember that one day a bunch of tough, yakuza looking guys were in the lobby… It was about Nova not paying the rent on the big building they said they ” owned”…..

    The J staff was pretty scared and also bullied by the top management to sell useless, outdated multimedia crap. Some of them were so scared and brainwashed that they even bought lessons themselves to meet their sales quotas.

    I know tons of stories… They’ll be in my book someday!

  9. One of my students lost 80,000 yen when NOVA died. Fucking amazing!

    Paying that much up front as well as getting screwed outta it with apparently little recourse. I don’t know what she did about trying to get a recoup

  10. Only losing 8-man? Your friend should consider herself lucky.

    One of the first alarm bells in my stint at NOVA was my first New Year’s cleaning.
    Going through the old lesson tickets to throw out the “expired” ones, the asst. manager noted that a customer had basically abandoned 500 tickets, which amounted to just about 100-man (1 million yen!) being chucked in the bin.
    Will you make any effort to track her down and at least tell her? No.
    Can she get the money back? No.
    That was the thickest wad of unused tickets at my branch. There were plenty of others who had “merely” lost 100,000 or 250,000 yen.

    Not much later, I figured out the scam. Not only did the schools not have enough teachers and lessons to meet their ticket obligations, the tickets also had an expiration date, many frustrated students found it impossible to use their tickets within the valid period, and just quietly gave up their futile calls to try to schedule lessons. A perfect exploitation of the “shigata ga nai” mindset.

    The last straw for me was that they were selling tickets to people with serious mental/social issues/borderline mental retardation who had no chance in hell of learning English, let alone make it through a 45 minute lesson without shitting themselves or freaking out or something. Both immoral business and just insanely impractical for a “school”. And then sticking us teachers with them (there was no unit on handling special needs students in the 2-day NOVA training regimen) , and ruining any chance of “learning” for the normal students. And as these students brought a teachers’ lounge and customers to borderline revolt against management, the unfortunate unstable student would be involuntarily transferred to another school, in hopes they would also just give up and let their tickets expire. Everyone got screwed except Saruhashi.

    As for me, it was the smell. No, the stench of that student. Concentrated by those tiny cubicles. You couldn’t get your nose more than 1 meter away.
    I revolted, “If you make me teach ____ one more time, I’m quitting on the spot.” I handed in my contract-break resignation notice anyway and got out before I could witness the next New Year’s cleaning.

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