Sayonara To The King's English

In the elegant Queen's Room of an imposing manor, Rie Iwasawa, the owner of a flour mill, and Yoshiko Hirota and Tamami Ikeda, both office workers, study the art of tea. The Japanese tea ceremony is a national ritual, but none of the women wear kimonos. Dressed in a pale peach sweater and pearls, Rebecca Watts, a classic Briton with carefully clipped speech, graciously explains the mysteries of tea--British-style.

It's a long and winding road up to the estate and its complex of buildings, constructed in architectural styles of England's bygone days. Every beam and board was meticulously designed and built in England to recreate a British manor house in Fukushima Prefecture, 112 miles from Tokyo. Even the butler is the genuine article. He served some of Britain's first families, but with butlerian discretion, he declines to name any.

The Sano Foundation, which runs Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages, opened British Hills last year, one of the more extravagant measures taken by English-language schools to cope with declining enrollment. Other schools now teach subjects ranging from "Internet English" to caring for the elderly (table).

Once, Japanese students thronged to such schools to improve job prospects. Today, Kanda Institute, a two-year vocational school, has just 2,000 students, half its enrollment of a few years ago. Other schools have suffered even greater drops. Part of the problem is a decline in the number of young Japanese. There were more than 2 million 18-year-olds in 1991. By 1995, the number had dropped to about 1.75 million. So universities are lowering admissions criteria, attracting students who otherwise would have gone to vocational schools. University tuition is about $13,500, only $1,500 more than at a vocational school, and employers prefer four-year degrees.

SYDNEY BOUND. But there's more to the changing scene than demographics. Japan's recession has hit hard at what was an astoundingly lucrative industry back when "internationalization" was the buzzword. Then, Anglo foreigners would only have to walk down the street and Japanese would run after them, offering huge sums for English lessons. Jeffrey Tarlofsky, a teacher at Chuo University, was offered a job while waiting for a train. In the 1980s, a native English speaker could earn $100 per hour.

The recession changed that. Many Japanese now say learning English was not necessary. Poorly qualified English teachers, some of whom appear to have been chosen primarily because they were blond and blue-eyed, turned off Japanese students.

So language schools are hurting. The so-called conversation schools, many of them badly managed, went under first. Even Sony Language Laboratory, backed by one of Japan's premier companies, went out of business Apr. 1, after 34 years.

All these failures are putting teachers out of work. For the last two years, Kanda has offered its teachers buyouts amounting to as much as eight months' salary. Liese Lovell, a teacher from New Zealand, is taking a buyout and going to Australia. "We used to think we had jobs for life," she says. She plans to open a shop in Sydney.

Some teachers married Japanese and had children. Others haven't salted away enough to relocate. Teaching English in Japan isn't much of a resume enhancer. And the job market in, say, Britain isn't very appealing. Foreigners who stay in Japan for five years or more often find home isn't home anymore.

Carola Kanaya came from Chicago to join Tokyo Foreign Language College (TFLC) seven years ago. "I built my life around that school," she says. "This is more my home than America now." Roger Jones, a Welshman, joined TFLC in 1990. His $53,300 salary has helped support his 6-year-old daughter back in England. But TFLC expects its incoming freshman class this year to be a mere 150, down from over 2,000 a few years ago. Last month, Jones, Kanaya, and six other teachers, including the leaders of the school's union for foreign teachers, were summarily dismissed.

NO VISAS. The teachers say the school is trying to break their union, even if that means destroying the school. TFLC has stopped advertising and recruitment. The union offered to take 13% pay cuts to save jobs, but management responded with layoffs. Teachers say the school is pleading poverty even as it spends millions to establish a new school, Tokyo International Welfare College, to teach elder care. "They're not allowed to deliberately run their own business into the ground," says Jones, the union vice-president. "In Japan there's a feeling of social responsibility to employees." TFLC officials decline to comment.

Jones is lucky he's in a strong union. Last year, in an agreement hammered out in Tokyo District Court, the union gained compensation for dismissed teachers. In nonunion schools, employers get away with shady or illegal practices, using newly arrived teachers on short-term contracts without sponsoring them for work visas, for example. "The law is very fair, but there's no power of enforcement," Jones says.

Like teachers, schools must face up to the changes, and solutions can be expensive. British Hills took 15 years and $60 million to build. "We didn't plan to spend so much," admits Kanda spokesman Shin Itoh. "But we can't attract students unless we offer something special." The facility costs more than $10,000 a day to operate and is losing money. But as Sano Foundation Chairman Ryuji Sano says, "An oak lasts 400 years"--meaning he's willing to wait for profits. Meanwhile, English teachers who took a gamble on Japan will have to find their money elsewhere.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.