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.
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.
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.