One of the most satisfying parts of being on the other side of the world has been unplugging from the 24-hour information machine that saturates every waking moment of daily existence in the U.S. It’s not that Japan is fundamentally any different from the U.S. in this respect, only that my personal circumstances have changed. There are probably just as many superfluous ones and zeroes pumped through the air of every public space here as in the States, maybe even more. Even in out-of-the-way Fukui, you still see huge building-sized plasma displays competing for attention at every major downtown intersection, and vast banks of television screens flicker like the square faces of ghosts at shoppers in the lobbies of grocery stores and supermarkets. But of course they’re all in Japanese. It’s just blinking lights and barking mouths to me. (Incidentally, don’t get me started on the Japanese pop music that liquifies the brain of anyone who steps into a shopping center or supermarket here. Sometimes it’s even playing from speakers along city streets. This is the stuff of nightmares, the sort of result you’d expect if you could somehow combine corn syrup, kittens, vanilla ice cream, rainbows, pop rocks, air raid sirens, Mariah Carey, David Hasselhoff and a dictionary of clichés – or are those last two redundant? Look, you went and got me started anyway, didn’t you?)
Also, I’m no media hating Kill-Your-Televisionist. I’ve worked in the news and entertainment media industry for almost ten years – this is a card-carrying, American-conditioned media consumer here. These days, though, my daily contact with the English-speaking world is limited to my laptop, a wireless broadband signal, and my iPod. It doesn’t make for the most up-to-date skinny on what’s happening back home with Britney, Brangelina, Hillary, Halo III and the cast of Lost, but somehow I’m confident the world is chugging along just fine without me.
This weekend, though, it was pretty much impossible for me to avoid hearing about the Big Local News Story, because it came to me not from a TV set or a celebrity gossip blog but from the people living it. Nova Japan, the biggest private English-teaching company in the country, collapsed on Friday and filed for bankruptcy, putting roughly 7,000 people here out of work, most of them young Americans.
I don’t know if the news made headlines in the U.S., what with Saw IV in theatres and all, but it was reported just about everywhere else in the world. Virtually every Westerner I’ve met in Japan so far makes a living teaching English here – either for Nova, which offered private English lessons at locations usually near train stations, or JET, the government-run program which pays native English speakers to teach it to kids in the Japanese public school system.
Rumors about problems with Nova had been flying here ever since I arrived. There were protests in Osaka last weekend, and some teachers hadn’t been paid in over a month. But on Friday we learned it was official: 924 Nova branches across the country are now closed, and somewhere between 4,000-5,000 English teachers are headed home to America, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand unless they can find new work here.
Despite the rumors, the announcement caught a lot of people by surprise, not least among them my two new roommates, a Canadian couple named Joel and Elaine who arrived here courtesy of Nova a week ago, which was apparently still hopeful it could stave off the wolves. Last Monday Joel and Elaine were in a Nova office in Kyoto for corporate training. But on Friday, they discovered from the local branch office that they now have no job and no income. They took the news surprisingly well, all things considered. They’re going to try to scrape together a salary with private lessons and stay as long as they can.
That evening, we met up with a group of the newly out-of-work Nova dispossessed who were all in the mood for alcohol-fueled catharsis. We descended upon one of their apartments with a warehouse’s worth of booze and snacks and made an evening of it. Most of them were young American, British and Australian kids, not long out of college. Some had been here for just a few months, hardly any longer than me. For them, this was to be their great adventure, a chance to drink deeply from life’s cup before heading back home to the real world – to careers and marriages and, eventually, kids of their own. To a person, they were young, beautiful, and confident, still possessed of the irrational belief in their own special significance in the universe that people of that age nearly always are. But in light of the day’s news, and the uncertainty of their own futures, that belief system began to crumble, as it inevitably must. I didn’t like watching it, but I watched anyway. Not because of schadenfreude or with the satisfaction of someone who went through the same necessary rite long ago, but with sadness that they had to know it at all. What waits for them back home? Britney, PerezHilton.com, America’s Next Top Model, the War in Iraq, a housing market recession, the sad torture porn of Saw IV. This was supposed to be their life’s great adventure. What they got instead was real life.