In 2007, a Japanese company failed, leaving thousands jobless and hundreds of thousands of customers fleeced. The investigations, the scandals, and the bankruptcy were front page news for months.
And those are the bullet points of my first real job.
The company was called Nova, and it was a chain of English conversation schools. English lessons are a national pastime in Japan, and schools like Nova hire foreigners like me to conduct them. I had just graduated from KWC in 2005 with an English degree, and I wanted to put that to use. Plus, I had a pulse, so Nova hired me.
I moved to Japan in September 2006 to teach for the company. The students were regular Japanese people of all ages who had purchased the lessons in gigantic ticket bundles. The larger bundles cost thousands of dollars up front, and they would keep a student in lessons for years.
This meant that opening a new branch was a goldmine. In an underserved town, customers would flood a glitzy new school and drop enormous sums of money on ticket packages. Nova would use this money to open another shiny new branch, and they’d use that money for another, and so on. It was referred to in the media as the “bicycle business model.” Nova could maintain balance only if it constantly propelled itself forward.
When I arrived in 2006, Nova had pedaled itself to more than 900 branches, with an eye toward opening its 1,000th. The Japan Times reported a workforce of 7,000 — 5,000 of us foreigners — and The Asahi Shimbun newspaper placed the student total over 400,000.
Then in February 2007, the investigators showed up.
In focusing on the new branches, Nova had been understaffing the old ones. Without enough teachers to go around, students couldn’t use the tickets they’d paid for before they expired. Nova also made it difficult to get a refund. Illegally difficult, it turned out.
In June, the government slapped several restrictions on Nova to reign in its business practices. This was a national scandal for the well-known company. New students dried up, and old students wanted out. Nova had to stop pedaling the bicycle, and it fell over.
In mid-September 2007, Nova stopped paying me. Faxes were sent to all branches on payday telling us our salaries would be a few days late. Those days passed, and all we received were more faxes, always telling us that the money would be coming soon. After the fifth or sixth delay, I stopped going to work.
Nova declared bankruptcy in October 2007.
That one-month period of functioning ruin between September and October was the most interesting part. Nova was a zombie. The company had no money, the teachers and staff received no money, yet everyone just kept showing up, thinking it impossible that the whole thing had really just failed like that.
Each individual reached his or her breaking point eventually, though. And this created a very strange tension.
Here’s how it played out, an untold number of times across the country. A foreign teacher would get fed up with the lack of payment and stop going to work, just like I did.
This put pressure on the Japanese staff (also unpaid, but more devoted) to find a replacement from the ever-shrinking teacher pool. Paid-for lessons were inevitably canceled, which made the students angry. They’d take it out on the staff, who’d resent the teachers for it, who’d get angry at anyone getting angry at them.
Students, staff, and teachers, all in this powder keg, all yelling at one another. And absolutely none of them were at fault. It’s a shame, too, because there was a perfectly good target all of us could have focused on.
As is often the case with a huge administrative failure, there was an absolute imbecile at the very top. His name was Nozomu Sahashi, Nova’s founder and CEO.
It was his profits-over-people strategy that led to the downfall. He was the one who chased 1,000 branches off a cliff. And as the investigations later proved, he’s the one who embezzled millions from Nova and eventually went to prison for it.
But strangely, in September and October of 2007, his name came up way less than whoever had gotten in your face that day about work. There were literally hundreds of thousands of us, madder at each other than at the one guy who created our situation.
And that’s how my first real job ended up, 13 months after I started. Nova has been bought, sold, downsized, and restructured a few times since then, so the name still exists, but the company I worked for is long gone.
One thing I learned, I guess, is not to direct my anger at people who are just as powerless as me. If they have no authority, what do I expect them to do? When we’re sniping at each other, aren’t we venting an energy that should be laser focused on a person with the capacity to improve things? Or who at least deserves the heat?
At the very least, Nova had a well-chosen name. You know, “nova,” as in a star whose surface explodes, shooting fiery debris in all directions.
Imagine the power, though, of channeling that nova debris away from your fellow spectators, and sending it where it could actually do something for you.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.