A Union for English Teachers – The National Union of General Workers of Japan

I have written several posts that talked about the National Union of General Workers in Japan and their representation of foreign English teachers. NAMBU refers to the National Union affiliate in south Tokyo, but the union has affiliates in other regions of Japan, such as Osaka and Fukuoka. NAMBU represents workers at a large number of commercial education firms throughout Japan. Two of the major employers of NAMBU members are Berlitz and NOVA.

The work of the union is fascinating to me. No other group advocates for the legal or employment rights of foreign English teachers working in Asia. Groups such as JALT, KoTESOL, ETA-ROC, and Asia TEFL claim that they are concerned only with the promotion of scholarly activities involving English teachers and not their social or personal needs. Such concerns have been left primarily to private sector for-profit groups such as http://www.tealit.com and Dave’s ESL Cafe and to Third Sector organizations such as EFL Law.

It is ironic to me that groups claiming to represent English teaching as a professional activity would fail to support the social or personal needs of their members. Guarunteeing a livelihood for practioners has historically been the main function of a professional group. The refusal of English teaching groups to take responsibility for these needs of their members has been instrumental in what some sociologists have referred to this as the prolaterianization of the profession (see here for a bibliography on the topic). In addition, all the groups listed above are the local affiliates of TESOL which is heavily involved in lobbying for policy and representing the legal and employment rights of its members in the USA.

The vaccum created by this decision has been filled to some degree by trade union groups. In Japan NAMBU has been one of the most active groups. The following post is based on an interview with David Jobson. Dave is a regular contributor of comments to my blog. He started teaching ESL as a volunteer refugee settlement worker in 1991 at the University of Victoria. Since then, he has taught in Canada, US, Taiwan and Japan. Dave holds a CELTA Certificate and an MA in TESOL. In Japan, he was Treasurer of the Foreign Workers Caucus of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo South, president of the first union branch at an Assistant Language Teachers dispatch company and has appeared in the Japan Times regarding English teacher unionization. Currently, he is a member of the Canada Asia Pacific Resource Network.

What is NAMBU?

NAMBU refers to the National Union of General Workers union in South Tokyo. Literally, the name means South Part and refers to the south part of Tokyo.

Does the General Union have many Western members?

In almost every prefecture of Japan plus Tokyo and Osaka there is a National Union of General Workers union. They are nearly all Japanese members except those in Tokyo South, Osaka and Fukuoka where there are several hundred Western union members. Asian union members are affiliated with other unions.

The Tokyo Nambu union is about 80% Japanese. The one in Osaka is predominantly Western workers though, I believe, and the Fukuoka union is all Western workers, although it is less than 100 workers. In the Tokyo Nambu union probably 80-90% are English teachers, but the union also represents all Westerners at the major English language newspapers in Japan.

When did the General Union begin accepting Western members?

Western worker organizing at the Osaka union slightly predate the Tokyo South one, I believe. But things basically started in the mid-1990s.

These unions are based on the “community union” model. Basically in a community union model, a union will fight for any one individual. They need not have 3 people in order to create a branch union. In Japan, unlike Canada, you only need 3 people to form a union, not 45%. So, the National Union of General Workers decided to open up their unions to Westerners, but the longest serving Western union member I know of (an engineer) has been a member for 18 years, so he even predates when National Union of General Workers started officially organizing Western workers.

What are some of the problems the General Union has faced organizing English teachers?

Unionization rate is about 1% of all English teachers in Japan. Nova’s turnover rate is very high with the average worker only staying about half a year, so it is very hard to organize there, but it is the largest language school in Japan. With 5000+ teachers, it is actually the largest employer of migrant workers in Japan, even larger than Toyota or Subaru.

In general it is hard to organize where one year contracts are the norm, since it is easy for schools to dismiss teachers. According to the Asahi Newspaper, 97% of English teachers leave Japan within 3 years. The Tokyo Nambu union is not as interested in quantity of members as quality of members – without solidarity it is hard to fight successfully.

How is the General Union organized?

The shop steward system is used at some union branches and not at others. Berlitz uses shop stewards. The teachers decide amongst themselves who will be shop steward. Each branch union (Nova branch, Berlitz branch etc… ) has its own by-laws and they hold formal elections for the executive positions which are set out in each branch’s by-laws. Being a branch president of Nova or Berlitz can take up a lot of time! Some are part-timer organizers. If you are a branch executive of course you are constantly engaged in fighting unfair dismissals, collective bargaining and branch management as well as solidarity demos and actions at other branches. In the larger picture, migrant worker unions are on the leading edge of anti-racism, peace activism and other progressive movements. Tokyo Nambu holds an annual migrant workers/human rights demo each March.

Has unionization changed the relationships between teachers and students?

Some students are aware of the union. The schools try to hide the fact that there is a union of course. For example, union notice boards are discouraged. Nova hid the fact that there was a union at their company but when the Nova branch union leafleted the Tokyo Stock Exchange about the
matter, their stock price plummeted by 40% in a couple of days. At Berlitz and Nova it is hard for students not to know there is a union since the union leaders are often in Japanese and English newspapers, there is leaflettings, and some teachers sometimes talk about the union with
students, especially if they are in the newspaper and there are demos, strikes etc…

By the way Asahi Newspaper has a press ban on the Tokyo Nambu organizer Louis Carlet.

How has the presence of a union affected the careers of foreign English teachers?

In Japan there is now an alternative to moving from being a teacher to going into management and that is becoming a union member and negotiating better work conditions with management. To be a branch executive you have to have good people skills and know labour law, trade union law, unemployment insurance, workers comp, tenant law, etc…inside and out which few management types do.

NAMBU has branches at several schools including the British Council and Simul Academy. Simul Academy does high level translator and interpreter training. Fortunately the executives of Simul Academy know that they need high level professional teachers to train translators, so they are very
good to the unionized teachers and try to keep them so it is mid-level management with the high turn-ove rate.

The General Union has been involved in a series of bitter disputes with Nova. Have you experienced the same reaction in other unionized English schools?

No, some schools have responded positively. Lado International, for example, was not making social insurance contributions. Seven of their teachers approached the Tokyo Nambu union and the organizer calculated how much the company owed. If the company refused to recognize the union then the union was prepared to fight for these teachers and take the company to court over millions of yen of unpaid social insurance contributions. Lado decided to recognize the union and signed a collective agreement with hardly a fight. Each branch and each organizer has his own tactics though.

June 30, 2006 | Permalink

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Thanks for this informative post.

A question:

You discuss the “prolaterianization” of English teachers in Taiwan, yet at the same time you have elsewhere (or at least privately) discussed their professionalization. I know that these two are not necessarily contradictory, but I would like to understand better how you conceptualize the relationship between these two trends.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | June 30, 2006 at 11:18

Kerim, the point of my professionalization posts is that the struggle has not been at all successful. One of the reasons it’s not successful is that the conception of professionalization is based on a lay understanding of what a professional worker is.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 30, 2006 at 11:23

There is now a union for teachers at Berlitz in South Korea, by the way.

It was formally established just a couple of months ago. Their website is…


Posted by: David Jobson | July 01, 2006 at 13:37

Scott, is it a lay understanding, or a North American understanding? After all, in Europe professional workers unions are normal, but in the US professionals are often seen as part of managers and not unionized. Teachers are a giant exception, of course.


Posted by: Michael Turton | July 02, 2006 at 20:19

BTW, I won’t be up in Taipei on the 7th, so I’m going to miss what i know is going to be a fabulous presentation. Maybe Jerome should post bond or something, in case some furniture gets broken when you guys start tossing each other about….


Posted by: Michael Turton | July 02, 2006 at 20:22

In Japan, it is normal practice that managers are members of company unions, but this is often interpreted as one of the reasons for why unions have historically cooperated closely with management. My guess would be that most of the members of the General Union are not professional workers. We’ll have to ask Dave for clarification here.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 02, 2006 at 20:32

Scott: The problem with unions is that in the long run they seem inevitably to create more problems than they solve. According to Linda Chavez, the National Education Association is the US’ largest union. Amongst other firsts, it employs more full time political operators than the Republican and Democratic parties combined. You’ll perhaps remember that it was the California teacher’s union(s) that was prominent for spending some vast amount trying to defeat the gubernator.

The quote below comes from http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_2_new_jersey.html


The persistent corruption, vaporizing billions of taxpayer dollars, gave public-sector unions the leverage to wrest control of the state’s urban agenda for their own benefit, leading to even greater waste. Newark’s teachers’ union, for example, used Gibson’s legal woes to seize control of the schools from the mayor and deliver it to a school board—which the union, with more than 4,000 voting members, could easily elect. The result: a long period of school-system mismanagement and fraud, documented in a damning 1994 state investigation, which culminated in state takeover of the system the next year. In his book Black Mayors and School Politics, political scientist Wilbur Rich blames the school failure on “the public education cartel” and says that claims by teachers and board members that poverty caused the system to fail “is an insult to the Newark community.”

Jersey’s cities have never recovered. Newark now has only 280,000 residents, down from 450,000 in happier times. State taxpayers pay about three-quarters of a billion dollars annually to prop up the city’s schools and its municipal government. Crime is rampant, jobs scarce. Newark’s problems have radiated to neighboring towns, too, blighting once-healthy communities. East Orange—where Matthias Ogden Halsted brought his Manhattan pals—seethes with gang violence, with a crime rate three times the national average. Family income is less than half the state average; once-grand homes sit abandoned and boarded up. Irvington, which Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint depicted as filled with alluring shiksas living in Norman Rockwellesque tranquillity, is today one of New Jersey’s poorest communities, wracked by double-digit unemployment and a crime rate as bad as East Orange’s.

Posted by: Biff Cappuccino | July 02, 2006 at 23:42

I’m not taking sides on this one, but the opposite argument can be found here. Union workers in the USA always earn more than nonunion workers, even in the same industry.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 03, 2006 at 17:28


I’ve been thinking about my question, and I realized that when I refer to “professionalization” I’ve been thinking about comments you’ve made about the education industry in Taiwan, not the teachers. It of course makes total sense that the normalization of the teaching industry would go hand in hand with the proletarianization fo the work force. However, I do think it is important to look at the relationship between these two trends.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | July 03, 2006 at 20:12

One of things about English teaching is that as an occupational group, it occupies a special position. The workers in the group are spread geographically across a large number of legally distinct zones. The occupation has been socially defined as providing ‘pin money’ for adventurous young kids, and as such, workers in it have not been afforded anywhere near the same rights as local workers doing the same job. The local affiliates of professional groups that represent English teachers in the USA and Europe have also refused to offer the same support English teachers are offered in their home countries. Reasoning for this is based on similar arguments to those used by local governments. Until recently, many foreign teachers were left protected ONLY by the status of their nationality. While this may make a difference in the short-run, for those trying to live a normal life-long career as educators, this has not been enough.

I suspect that in Japan many of the teachers involved in the union would have preferred development along professional lines. Certainly the union people I have talked with are capable of this in terms of intellect and education, but the support from international professional groups has just not been there.

The only groups that have shown interest in representing foreign teachers legally are local unions. While this clearly designates them as ‘workers’ and not professionals, beggars can’t be choosy.

But it does provide a powerful response to the frequent claims of English teachers in the region concerning ‘the profession’.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | July 03, 2006 at 22:24

I agree with you on not taking sides. And naturally I can sympathize with the difficulties faced by expatriates working in Japan if their experience is anything similar to ours in Taiwan.

I checked out the url you provided. I’ve seen studies showing precisely the opposite, but they’re unfortunately contained in a 2003 book on unions by Linda Chavez. (I realize that one book does not maketh me an expert… ha…) Not to mention that it’s my impression that a company which unionizes will always (excepting a market monopoly or state intervention) be driven into bankruptcy by its union. The “wages” of unemployment are not likely part of the calculus of the gov. figures.

The problem with unions appears to be structural and I doubt the inevitable result in the long term (grotesque corruption in the management ranks and cultivated professional incompetence in the ranks of the workers) will be any different for teachers in Japan.

Here’s my crude schematic for how things develop: While establishing the union, the company boss is enemy No. 1. Once the union is established, the enemy then becomes non-unionized workers. Once the union is comfortably seated, it takes on the characteristics of a monopoly. At this stage, competent employees become a liability and are eased out or fired. They’re a liability because union leadership wants to increase its revenues. Revenues come from upping union membership fees and from expanding union membership rolls. Manifestly competent employees become an eyesore because union leadership is always looking for excuses to hire new employees.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about worksites grotesquely padded with useless labor. If memory serves, Eastern Airlines was flying with a union-mandated three pilots per cockpit just prior to tail-spinning out of the Friendly Skies into bankruptcy. Union theory was safety-first. What if both pilots suffered heart-failure. Ergo hire a third. No doubt, they’d have aimed to squeeze a fourth pilot in there at some point. Just to be safe…

The list of these union-made monkeyshines is endless. Remember the multiple bankruptcies of New York city way back? Apparently, union-made too.

South African Apartheid was union-made too. First the mining unions threw out the Chinese. Then the blacks. As mentioned above, the first enemy is the boss. Next it’s non-union-members. Then it’s monopoly status and all hell breaks loose… ha…

I have nothing against teachers. And I have no alternative solution to their plight. Nor do I think unions should be banned. I’m a libertarian after all. But many well-intentioned solutions (communism, fascism, minimum-wage laws, heroin, etc.) create far more problems than they were designed to solve.

Posted by: Biff Cappuccino | July 04, 2006 at 01:51

By the way, just a couple of days ago, Oct 26, 2007, Nova closed all of its 900 branch schools and applied for court protection from its creditors.

Nova has not paid its 2000 Japanese staff since July and its 4000 migrant worker teachers since September.

The CEO, Sahashi, was dismissed by the Board of Directors and the corporation was placed into receivership. The receivers announced that on Nov 5, 2007 they will decide whether to declare bankruptcy or not.

Under Japanese law, employees can receive 80% of unpaid wages if a company declares bankruptcy.

Posted by: David Jobson | October 28, 2007 at 02:42


One Response to “A Union for English Teachers – The National Union of General Workers of Japan”

  1. Cherie MacDonald Says:

    Nambu’s history of organizing foreign teachers goes back a lot farther than your piece suggests. I was a member in 1974 and was fired for trying to organize my workplace at TEC (Labo). The union supported me in fighting the firing in court and out of court. There were several local branches of the union at Tokyo language schools at the time. The first one to affiliate to Nambu had been at Sony LL in the early 1970s.

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