Japan’s “water trades” and how teaching English fits in.

I noticed that the New York Times, for a change, ran an interesting article about a Japanese social trend: hostessing.

The idea of hostessing is that the young women work in clubs to entertain paying customers (men)—where prostitution is not the purpose of the transaction. The idea is that the club is selling “female companionship”.

I think this is some kind of descendant of the gaisha profession.

The commenters to the article go on a bit about whether hostessing is a wise career choice, or a glamorous dead end. There are strong opinions.

I’m not sure it’s emphasized enough is that in these kind of services that straddle a shade a gray, part of the reason there aren’t as many Thai and Filipina hostesses is because the United States State Department spoke up about the possibility of international sex slavery. And this was in recent years, like 2004. Now the young Japanese women are moving into the turf.

A fad? Or a legitimate young persons’ occupation? I don’t know. I have a feeling work like this was always available, and the question is simply how well regulated it is by government. Or whether responsible parties look away when they shouldn’t.

There are feminists who argue this is blatant exploitation of young women in a weak economy. And others who argue from a perspective of consenting adults and individual liberty. Myself, it looks like it’s something that needs to be more closely regulated by government.

So how does English teaching in Japan fit in?

It’s an open secret that many of the English teaching jobs in Japan are following the “mizu sho bai” (water trade) formula. The purpose of the transaction is not to teach Engish, but to keep the customer “entertained” while someone behind the scenes is collecting a share of the money.

It is “eikaiwa mizu-shobai”.

Depending on the degree, this can range from the small Eikaiwa clubs that pop up and disappear, involving “free chat” for a price and the twice-monthly “International Party”. To the Eikaiwa factory like the bankrupt Nova, which simply sought to collect as much money out of potential English learners (by selling more lesson “tickets” than could possibly ever be redeemed), and then flying in hundreds of young “English teachers” at $25,000 a year to keep the paying customers entertained during 50 minute sessions.

At Nova, there wasn’t so much teaching of English in the formal sense, as trying to speak English in the presence of a foreigner. The money was for access to a native English speaker, not for the didactics.

So like I say, I call this, “Eikaiwa mizu shobai”. The English conversation Water Trade.

In the case of the hostesses, the men are paying for access to a young woman. One they apparently can’t attract through their own efforts. In the case of English “Schools”, maybe slightly different, but it is paying for access to a foreigner on a structured, social basis, without any clear didactic purpose.

The open secret about Japan is that the people running Japan want the U.S. military protection against their mortal enemies the Chinese. They want the trade relations that in normal times keep the factories of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan humming. But they don’t want us.

So things are made particularly difficult for Americans to make their way in Japan.

I am an accountant, and a lawyer by education. So maybe I don’t know everything about English teaching. But the pattern is clear that when the government basically leaves English teaching as unregulated as it does the “hostess” trade, it means to signal that the occupation is marginal and you enter it at your own risk.

Maybe after the August 30 election, things will change. But as it has been, Eikaiwa teaching in Japan is more like hostessing than it is like actual teaching.