Ah, the 英会話 (Eikaiwa = English Conversation School). Their bright neon signs decorate buildings from the major centers of Shinjyuku and Ikebukuro to the smallest countryside town. The ubiquitous English language school has served as the entry point into Japan for foreigners innumerable. Sometimes loved, sometimes detested by those in their employ, the Eikaiwa must be commended for opening Japan to foreigners and helping the Japanese to integrate more with the world. The English language is infact an intangible commodity that the Japanese purchase in order to use when traveling abroad. The #1 reason that I’ve received about why they learn English is, “So we can communicate with foreigners!”
The Eikaiwa’s detractors would say that it’s just a business as their images of a proper school (as we know in the West) are quickly dashed with each 45 minute lesson and sterile teaching format. However, this business mentality has helped the companies spread from 北海道 to 九州 and given the masses greater access to the English lesson. What other idea has made it so easy for foreigners to come explore and fufill their adventurous desires in a country that otherwise might seem inaccessible. The Eikaiwa has served as a springboard into other careers in Japan as well as an opportunity to study the language, martial arts and even find a suitable husband or wife for many Japan enthusiasts.
We also cannot forget that these schools are a major source of employment for thousands of young Japanese who wish to use their English skills in their first job. If you consider how many of us study foreign languages on a global scale, how many of us actually get to use these langauges in the professional realm? If there had been a Spanish language school modeled after the Eikaiwa in the USA, I might have taken my first job there to increase my contact with native Spanish speakers. Many of the best English speaking Japanese I know either studied abroad, or worked/studied at an Eikaiwa.
As one who loves languages and suffered through many language classes at a ‘traditional’ school, I really wish that there had been this type of business in my town back home. After all my attention span only lasts about 45 minutes and I despise tests in the learning of language. Cheers to the Eikaiwa.