“Japanese people who study English aren’t typical Japanese,” Katy observed pointedly several weeks before she escaped the routines of teaching for a new life back in America. “I think everybody who comes to eikaiwas is a little different.”
Different—chigau, a Japanese concept hopelessly intertwined with the concept “wrong” in a world where deviation from accepted norms is rewarded with confused stares, uncomfortable laughter, flustered excuses, and awkward stigma. In Japan, marketing things that are unique won’t bring in any customers. That’s why NOVA, desperate to soak up Japan’s expendable income, pushed their advertising budgets to extravagant levels to make learning English fashionable and convince consumers that dropping by a NOVA school was just as trendy as driving a nice car or carrying the latest handbag. But NOVA is bankrupt now, eikaiwa income is dropping across the board, and learning English is going out of style. That begs the all-important question: who’s still going to eikaiwas?
At my eikaiwa, a typical student is a solidly middle-class adult anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-eight years old. Most of them are unmarried and live with their parents (a style of habitation that holds no stigma in Japan, and is advocated by many as a means of saving money), and many are unhappy with their white-collar jobs. Some of them speak of a loss of direction in their lives, of past confusion about their goals, or of all-consuming loneliness. They come to eikaiwas because they dream of teaching English to kids, because they want to travel to exciting new places, because they want to meet people, and because they want to have interesting conversations with others their own age. Some have lived abroad and seen things that most Japanese will never see, and find escape from the demands of their culture by speaking English. Other students find release through foreign movies, musicals, or friends. A few want to make a life change but aren’t sure how. At least one wants a foreign boyfriend.
I see in the eikaiwa students an excited passion that I don’t see among the stone-faced people walking on the street (although in Japan, you’re not likely to see any emotion on the street). They talk about all the things in the world they’d like to do but are held back from by jobs, obligations, traditions, and societal pressures; and in their eyes shines a light that separates them from the masses. They want something more, something different (something chigau?). Something is missing, and it frustrates them because they can’t define it. I can talk about with them the same things I talk about with friends back home who want to become great writers, actors, painters, musicians, sound editors, film directors, sculptors, biologists, illustrators, photographers, historians, senators, art teachers and psychoanalysts; the plight of enthusiastic twentysomethings who aren’t going to settle for a life of stagnation but who aren’t yet where they want to be. Their situation is not unlike my own, and we can relate because the world of black-suited salarymen sees us all as different.
This is what fuels the eikaiwa where I work, a small-city branch of a gigantic corporation desperate to stay afloat in a world of post-NOVA and Geos belt-tightening. There are of course other kinds of students across Japan whose money the eikaiwas have sought to capture: smiling kids, examination-cramming high-schoolers, curious college-students, bored housewives and international businessmen; but these students are merely transitory. Someday, when all the different twenty- and thirtysomethings are still exchanging ideas and looking to meet new people, the rest of the lot will have dropped eikaiwa the same way they dropped last year’s handbag.