Part 2: Studying abroad in the Philippines
From a single-cylinder engine to a V-twin engine
The mysterious agent
We opened our online English conversation program in August and had been continuing to fight tough battles. And on Christmas eve in 2009, I had come back from a business trip to Italy and was spending my time in Tokyo. I was having a drink at home with my friend, Akki, who was an agent for studying abroad in the Philippines.
I met Akki for the first time at Mactan–Cebu International Airport. It was when I was going back and forth between Tokyo and Cebu to study abroad in the Philippines. A friend that I had met while studying abroad looked at my flight schedule and said, “Oh, you’re going back on the same flight as Akki! He’s the one who introduced Cebu to me. He’s a very unique person so you’ll know who he is right away.”
She had met Akki at a language school for Spanish in Guatemala and had come to Cebu after meeting him.
“Wait, I won’t know who he is just knowing that he’s unique. Isn’t there something else you can tell me?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay. You’ll easily be able to tell,” she replied.
It wasn’t like we had to absolutely meet at the airport, so I just let it go. But the thing is, I really was easily able find him, just like she had said.
He was carefree and always smiling. And he would talk to anyone—no, if he saw a cute university student, he would instantly go and talk to them.
“Why did you come to study English here? Which school? Oh, it’s the same school as me! I’m going there too,” he said.
This guy was such a unique person that I just had to talk to him.
“By any chance, are you Mr. Akki?”
“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Akki,” he replied.
He’s the first person that introduced Japan to study abroad programs in the Philippines. Originally, he had been working at an accounting firm, but when the owner passed away, he decided to turn his life around and do the things that he truly wanted to. So, he went on a journey around the world. During his journey, he went to Cebu and had a drink next to a Korean, who would become the owner of the largest English conversation school in Asia with over 300 teachers. They hit it off well, and that’s the future owner told Akki that he had become a study abroad agent.
“I’ve only started recently and haven’t got many students yet, so I have a lot of empty rooms. If you don’t have a place to stay yet, come and stay. You can go sightsee around Cebu that way,” the future owner suggested on a whim.
As a thanks to the owner for letting him stay for a week, Akki began promoting studying abroad in the Philippines to Japanese people; that was what helped it spread around the country. He had lots of knowledge about the internet, so he made search results such as “ultra cheap study abroad”, “study abroad in the Philippines”, and “Cebu study abroad” become top results, leading to an increase in students.
I went to study abroad in the Philippines too due to looking at one of his webpages. It had been 2 years since he became an agent back then.
Akki’s life greatly changed from going overseas. When you go somewhere that you usually don’t go, you have new encounters. And within those new encounters, there are “fates” that will change lives.
Japanese people are a race that crossed the ocean; they originally didn’t fear risk. By seeking new “fates”, we were able to develop our civilization at a rapid rate. Although it doesn’t seem the case today, we’re supposed to be naturally skilled for overseas expansion.
He drank my prized wine without permission
I lived in Shibuya, Tokyo at the time. Though I didn’t live in the famed Roppongi Hills, my apartment was still very nice and on the top floor of an apartment complex, where there’s a roof balcony and the night view is beautiful. It’s very different from the room I had during my time studying abroad in the Philippines. I had carefully picked what kind of furniture and tableware to set in my spacious living room, and I was enjoying my single life greatly.
And yet, 2 men were drinking together on Christmas Eve, of all days. As an outsider, it wouldn’t have seemed like I was enjoying my single life that much.
“Ah, Akki, what are you drinking?” Akki had opened up a wine bottle, that would’ve cost hundreds of dollars at a restaurant, without my permission.
It was a vintage wine given as a gift to me by the president of an Italian motorcycle manufacturer. It was a red wine, Brunello di Montalcino to be specific. It was made in 1997, a golden year for wine. This type of wine is stored even at the Japanese embassy in Italy.
I can say for certain that it wasn’t the type of wine you would drink man to man. We had been drinking with cheap wine and appetizers bought from the supermarket, but Akki had gone into my bedroom and brought out my hidden wine, as well as uncured ham.
“Isn’t this wine good?” he asked.
“Wait a second. Are you aware of how much this wine costs?” I replied.
“It’s fine. Even if you kept storing it, it would’ve just rot,” he answered
“Wine doesn’t rot, Akki. Fine, I give up, let’s at least enjoy drinking it until the wine wakes up.”
“Does wine sleep, Raiko?”
Even thinking about this now, it was a wasteful thing to do.
“You’ve bit the prosciutto!” I exclaimed.
The block of uncured ham that I had bought from Italy now had a bite mark on it, thanks to Akki.
“There was a tasty looking block of meat in the refrigerator, so I took a bite out of it. It wasn’t good, Raiko. It’s too hard. It doesn’t taste good, huh?”
I sighed, “You’re supposed to slice it thinly to eat. It’s a first-class product from the city of Parma too…”
His attitude is basically equivalent to that of a school-age student studying abroad in the Philippines.
It was a winter night, where the air was feeling dry. The sky was clear that day so you could see the pretty night view of Shinjuku. Maybe Akki had gotten a little tipsy at this point because he began the following conversation.
“Raiko, what do you think of building a school in Cebu?”
“The online English conversation program that you’re doing right now is kind of off. I know you’re working hard running it, but it doesn’t quite feel like the real deal. You were able to learn how to speak English because you first studied abroad in the Philippines, and then combined it with an online English conversation program later on, right? If you’re just going to do an online program, isn’t that only half?”
I had a realization. I had been thinking to myself, I want to make a good online English conversation program, but I wasn’t running a true school that combined the experiences that worked for me. If I were to put this into engine terms, only one piston had been moving amongst the two.
Although my current business wasn’t an imitation of sorts, we weren’t unleashing our full potential. The ultimate English learning method that I had personally experienced was run on a V-twin engine, not a single cylinder engine. Akki knew that I was stressing out over the fact that we weren’t getting enough students for our online program. So in light of me returning for Christmas, he decided to talk to me about it.
“The owner of the school we both went to changed the other day. Apparently it was due to internal discord, but this owner helped me out a lot. Now there’s no reason anymore for me to promote them,” he shared to me sadly.
After a moment of silence, he straightened up and said, “Let me work with you for your study abroad program. With my promotion skills, I can send you 4 to 50 students every month. You have an excess of teachers anyway, right?”
I was at a loss for words.
He then took a large swig of Brunello di Montalcino.
“I’ll help you, so let’s work together. It’ll all fall into place,” he promised.
I thought about it long and hard. I knew for sure that this wasn’t something we could pull off with careless preparation. To run a study abroad program in the Philippines, you also have to take responsibility for the students’ wellbeing during their time there. And not only did you have to build a school, but you also have to make classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, laundry facilities, cleaning systems, and an endless list of many more.
If I look at existing schools and come up with a proposal that way, I can think of many reasons as to how it wouldn’t work out. I also didn’t realize then, but I was subconsciously using the news about Korean schools to predict potential issues and come up with solutions.
I had to challenge this idea of creating a school like nobody has ever done before with the mindset that it’ll work out in the end. I could not fear failure.
Throwing out all our possessions & battling with our last chance
Trust your intuition and go for the challenge
I was in Italy a month before Akki came to speak to me about the study abroad program. Europe’s largest motorcycle exhibition is held in Milano each November. I participate each year because the motorcycle manufacturer that I do business with, Malaguti, exhibits their products there.
On the way back from Milano, I was invited to the home of their chairman in Bologna. The chairman’s home is a massive mansion inside a garden, and even their living room is around 100 tatami mats in size. The most impressive part is that all the artwork that is displayed on their walls each seem like they have very deep histories behind them.
“Raiko, how’s your business in the Philippines? Is it going well?” the chairman asked me. That spring when I met him, I had spoken to him about my business so he wanted to make sure if things were going okay. Perhaps he noticed that I was less energetic these days.
“We’re struggling because we’re not getting enough students for our online program.” I had to answer him honestly. This was when I wasn’t thinking about study abroad programs at all.
“I see. There’s not much specific advice I can give to you, but let me tell you a story about our establishment.”
Malaguti is a long-established company in Italy with over 90 years of history. It’s the 2nd top manufacturer in the country, and it’s also the sole motorcycle manufacturer that is still run by the founder,” the chairman said.
The chairman enjoys wine from the region of Tuscany, and while drinking a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, he continued. “Malaguti was originally established by my father as a bicycle store. He was a bicycle racer, but after hurting his leg in an accident, he couldn’t participate in races anymore. So he made his store into a manufacturing business. He had no experience manufacturing motorcycles, so everyone tried to stop him. After all, he was a bicycle store owner who was trying to suddenly begin manufacturing motorcycles. There were an endless list of reasons as to why he shouldn’t do it, but he had a gut feeling to go for it. He had a feeling that the next generation would be the generation of motorcycles. As for me, I specialized in scooters and opened up a new sector that way. Don’t say the reasons why you can’t do it, and instead, think of ways you can do things.”
After pouring some wine in my glass, he said, “I was really surprised in the spring when you suddenly told me you were going to start an online English conversation program, but as a friend of yours, I was very happy to hear that. You must be struggling a lot from the new challenge, but trust your goals and find new ways to make it work.”
As I drank the wine that Mr. Malaguti had given to me in Tokyo, I reminisced on this memory. It was after having my expensive wine drunk and my cured ham eaten by the hands of Akki, as well as after I had paid off expensive fees for classes. But maybe the wine from Malaguti’s chairman helped me out.
A one week stay that costs 1 million Japanese Yen
Akki continued to speak. “It’s wrong in the first place for 2 guys to drink together on Christmas Eve. Next Christmas, let’s have a party with the students from the study abroad program. There’s no doubt that it’ll be a blast.”
To act on your intuition may have meant this very thing. Putting aside the Christmas party idea for now, I had a gut feeling that by combining online English conversation programs and study abroad programs in the Philippines, you could create a school that truly improves one’s English skills.
“There’s no reason to think and worry now. Let’s take on the challenge of creating a new school,” I declared.
The Italian motorcycle that always wins the world championship has a V-twin engine, so I decided to also establish my school using the same engine.
As we rolled into the year 2010, Akki came to Cebu too. He had no housing of course, so he would sleep on the couch in our office.
Before he arrived, I had asked him, “Do you have a place to stay?”
“Al always sleeps at the office so I think that’ll be fine,” he replied.
“Is there a shower?”
“Al always says that he takes a shower,” I said.
“Then that’ll be fine. I’ll go as soon as possible.”
Akki is a highly talented individual who raised the sales for a Korean managed English conversation school by a couple million Japanese Yen within a single week. If he stays on our couch for a whole month, how much will our sales go up by? Exciting thoughts like that ran through my mind.
Akki then said, “Raiko, this won’t do; there’s no shower. Al is using the bucket that’s used for mopping and is washing himself that way.”
I forgot that Mia took showers with a bucket full of water from the river. In the Philippines, washing yourself with a bucket full of water was their showers.
“I’m not going to wash myself with water that sits together with the bathroom mops.”
Akki complained like that in the beginning, but the only time he ever complained about it again was 6 months later, when he caught a cold.
He’s a strong one.
Selling off everything in Tokyo and converting to Pesos
Coming up with a way that works
Like Mr. Malaguti stated, there are an endless number of reasons as to why my study abroad program wouldn’t work, but right now, all we can do is to find ways that will make it work one-by-one.
First, it’s the financial aspect. There’s no way that a Japanese bank will hand out loans for us to build a school overseas. So, the only way to raise money is to sell what we can. I lived on the top floor of an apartment complex in Shibuya, where you could see the view of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku from the roof balcony.
I was past 45 and still single, and I didn’t have much of a reason to spend money other than for motorcycles, so I had a decent amount of savings. I had been slowly doing asset management as well, so I was fairly well-off.
I decided to sell it all off. I made a solid decision to make the following choices as well:
• Convert all my possessions to Philippine Pesos
• Give up my home in Tokyo and live in Cebu
• Don’t go home until you succeed
The 7 Super Teachers in the Philippines have bet their lives to follow me. And I realized that I was doing half of what they had done for me. I decided to burn all my bridges for the battle with my online English conversation program and study abroad program in the Philippines.
I had the vice president of my motorcycle delivery service become the president of the same business and sent him over to us in Cebu. The successful Korean managed English conversation schools had been sending over all of their owners to Cebu to work night and day. Paying money to remotely control a business from Tokyo is no way to win against our rivals.
The amount of investment in funds required this time is a different beast compared to the past risks we’ve taken before. And the businesses we’re fighting against are the elites within the elites.
The schools that have invested several million Japanese Yen are able to accept around 500 to 600 students to study abroad. We had no way of preparing such a budget, so we had to come up with adjustments. The big ideas we were aiming for our school were:
• Globally spread the heat coming from the liveliness of Asia and help change lives with the power of English.
• Create a school that that truly improves one’s English skill by combining an online English conversation program with a study abroad program for English in the Philippines.
A level of determination that nobody can beat
The students at the Korean managed English conversation schools in the Philippines usually have student populations that are over 95% Korean and are mostly university students. The reason is that they gain college credit for English by studying at these English conversation schools. They would get over 100,000 of them each year to study there.
At the time, study abroad programs in the Philippines were seen as a place to receive training for English, so as to prepare one to study abroad in the West. The established system was to prepare a large site in the outskirts, where not much is around. Then, set up a school and dormitory, create a curfew, set a limit for outside activities, and make the students study. Because their target consumers were university students, having them not fool around was an important sales point. I think it’s because the students’ parents were the ones funding their trips. The school that I attended was in an area where there was nothing around us as well, so that’s a reason why my restaurant succeeded.
I thought it was wasteful. You’ve come all the way to the Philippines, but you leave the country and go off to study in the West without learning about what the country has to offer. It is important to experience Western culture, yes, but the Philippines is going to be the door to join Asia’s expansion in the world. I don’t think it’s ever a waste to have knowledge on the Philippines, which is still a country that is developing. As for me, I wanted to build a school in a place where you can experience the heat coming from the liveliness of Asia.
When I came back to the office in Cebu, I encountered Mia at the entrance.
“Raiko, what happened?” she asked with a look of surprise.
“I made a major decision, so in order to prepare myself, I shaved it off.” I had shaved all of my hair before coming back to the Philippines.
“Ohh. What decision did you make? It suits you, by the way. Cleanly-shaven.”
“Hahaha. Thanks Mia,” I replied. I didn’t answer her question though. Just because I shared my hair off doesn’t mean things will change. It was more along the lines of rounding out my head so that I could give it my all.
I was scared. I really was. I was using all of my possessions that I had saved up over 45 years for this. There was no guarantee anything would succeed, so my only option was to just work hard. That’s it.
Drink until you die to understand the face of reality
A place where you can experience the Philippines
At the school that I attended in Cebu, everything—from meals to our housing—was Korean-style. The school had brought everything from Korea and created a little Korea in the Philippines. If they hadn’t done so, the parents may have not allowed their children to go and study abroad in the Philippines due to the country having a poor, dangerous image to some. I don’t want to forcibly create a school that would be approved by parents. The type of students that I wanted to come to mine were those who used their own money to study abroad in a country that they had chosen themselves. I wanted the students to specifically choose the Philippines to study abroad due to not only the low cost, but because they truly wanted to improve their English skills.
In the school I’ve created, there are Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean meals. The reason why I chose to have Filipino cuisine served is because, if the students are coming all the way to the Philippines, I want them to try Filipino food. This is because in order to understand another culture, the best way is through meals. Don’t worry if you want to eat outside of school though. In Cebu’s IT Park, there are over 50 restaurants, and you can have food from all over the world. Actually, this is another strategy of mine; I want my students to apply the English they’ve learned at these restaurants. In the Philippines, all employees work using English. There are lots of employees who aren’t the best at it, due to it being their secondary language, but everyone can speak it—drivers, security guards, even the janitors all use English.
Additionally, I want my students to initiate conversations with the Filipinos working in IT Park. IT Park has many top level companies from the West, and the elites of Cebu work here. By speaking English not only within the school but outside as well, new encounters are made, and new “fates” are born. I anticipate my students that come to the Philippines to meet “fates” that will change their lives. Fortunately, the location where we had set up our online English conversation business was also the best place to establish our study abroad program.
I said to Akki, “Akki, let’s modify the office for our online English conversation into our school. There aren’t any other schools in IT Park, but if we modify the cubicles in the office, it could work out. We’ll use the empty space we have in the office too.”
The office was 400 square meters in size, but we only had set up the cubicles and a large standby room for the teachers. We didn’t have a meeting room or even a lounge. And in the empty space towards the back, there was a large storage room. That was it.
“You would need a space for the students to relax too. The lounge would take up a lot of room,” Akki replied.
“But the window side has a nice view and if we place a sofa here, wouldn’t that work?” I said.
“What are you going to do about meals?”
“It’s okay, there is a dining hall for employees in this building. Let’s make a simple café space. There’s my own restaurant too, so we can have them deliver meals here.”
“What about laundry? And security guards? You need those. What are you going to do about cleaning?”
“You have to think about a dormitory too. This building is an office building so we can’t let them stay here.”
“Nobody will come study abroad with us if we make them take showers with buckets from the bathroom. Hahaha.”
There were a mountain of issues once we began.
We still laugh over the first cubicle that we made for our one-on-one classes. The walls were 2 meters on each side, and to soundproof it, we used an egg carton.
“Al, do you have any ideas to prevent the room next-door from hearing what goes on in this one?” I asked.
“You’re going to make a soundproofed room?”
“Yes. Have you seen those rooms that have those bumpy tiles on them to make it soundproof?”
“Oh, Raiko. How about an egg carton? It looks the same as the bumpy tiles.”
“Good idea. Let’s try it!”
The egg carton in the Philippines are made out of paper, so I thought it would act as a substitute for soundproofing. We went to the store, and they gave us a huge amount. But when we put them up, it was a big failure. Not only did it help soundproof, but it created a large ant and bug problem. It was instant chaos. The teachers endearingly called it the egg room from then on, but none of our study abroad students would ever go in willingly.
Drink the solution plan and forget about it
What’s necessary to run a study abroad program in the Philippines? I know what’s necessary for our online program now, but I wonder how authorization and whatnot works.
I wanted to open my school by the summer of 2010, so I thought about it a little.
“I’ve heard that a Korean managed school is being sold now.”
“You’re going to buy it?”
“That’s right. If I just buy the whole school, I can start immediately without knowing how everything works. It’ll be a lot cheaper and easier to run than starting from scratch.”
“Let’s go visit it.”
“Okay. Let’s set up an appointment for tomorrow.”
I was surprised when I went to visit it. It was small, dirty, and it was a reformed version of an old building in the outskirts of town. The reception area on the first floor had a counter made out of bamboo, so it was impossible to even write on it because the surface was so uneven. I couldn’t believe they had 70 students in this condition.
There was a table for table-tennis in the corner and past that were the stairs to the 2nd floor office.
“Wow, Raiko… We can’t use this for our study abroad program. To reform this would cost way too much.”
“It’s okay. We weren’t planning on buying the actual campus anyway. Can we just buy the study abroad program license and information on how to run it?”
The Korean owner had pretty terrible English, so it was difficult to communicate with them. But one thing they kept on saying over and over was, “It’s fine.” It was hard to trust them because of this.
“I guess we’ll have to establish a closer relationship with them and ask about the circumstances that way. What do you think, Akki?”
“I know of a golden way to become close with Koreans, but do you want to try it?”
“What? There’s such a thing?”
“Yeah. It’s kind of hard to pull off though since I’m getting old.”
“It’s a method that gets harder as you age?”
“Yep. It’s basically drinking until you die.”
“You drink and drink, and you drink until you die. In Korea, you can become close to others by drinking until you pass out.”
“Is that true?”
“I’ve confirmed that it’s true at my previous school.”
“Alright. Let’s prepare our stomachs and drink.”
Drinking with Koreans is a big struggle. They’re just extremely strong with alcohol. They throw soju into beer and drink it all in one shot. To think that I would have to do this every time I wanted to make friends… I’m glad that I wasn’t born in Korea.
I won’t ever forget the conversation we had during that about studying abroad in the Philippines.
“Do you not get any complaints even though your facilities are old?”
“It’s fine. We handle complaints easily.”
“What do you do?”
“Since we run on a Spartan method, we don’t allow our students to leave the school. But when it comes to students who complain, we take them out to have a drink with them. Most of the time, they become overjoyed and forget what they were complaining about. We kill time that way, and eventually, their study abroad period ends before they know it, and they go home. So, it’s fine. Isn’t it simple?”
I can’t buy this school. Their approach towards studying abroad in the Philippines is too different from us. Upon researching a little more in detail, I found out that we couldn’t use their license either. We wouldn’t be able to change the name, nor could we transfer the school to IT Park.
Make nothing of your stomach and just do it
Even the Japanese can do it
We tried predicting potential issues and preparing solution plans, but we were still over-optimistic.
“Akki, it’s no good. Even if we bought off a Korean-managed school, we have no information on how to run study abroad programs in the Philippines. We have to do it on our own.”
No matter how many more issues we predicted, it would be no use. The Koreans could do it, so surely we can do it too. We decided to think of solutions to problems as they came.
“Zette, could you collect all of the supervisors? There’s something I want to discuss with everyone.”
The 7 original Super Teachers came along.
“What happened, Raiko? Usually when we’re called in like this, it means it’s going to be a troublesme story, right?” Noreen, who’s good at noticing things, asked.
“There’s something I want everyone to research. I want to make a school here that can accommodate study abroad students,” I announced.
“What? Raiko, we’re going to make a school too?” Mia said, surprised.
“That’s right. I made a major decision.”
“So that’s why Raiko became a skinhead. I was thinking all along that the reason was that he got his heart broken. My worrying has gone to waste!” Dolly said.
“If he shaved off his head after getting his heart broken then he wouldn’t be able to find a girlfriend even more,” Desiree said back to Dolly.
“What are we going to research?” Zette returned the conversation to the topic.
“I understand your decision. Let’s think of ways to make the school work.”
They had gotten quite used to my personality by this point, but many of them were still shocked at my sudden decision once again. However, since they all used to teach at an English conversation school, there’s no way they wouldn’t be on board. Everyone was incredibly excited.
“We’re finally doing this, huh? I knew you would bring it up someday,” Noreen mentioned.
“I got it. Give us some time. Let’s research together, everyone,” said Helga.
Zette began to give more and more instructions.
“Helga, you research laws; they’re most likely very different than laws for online English conversation programs. Desiree, you research licenses for study abroad programs in the Philippines. Gayle, you still have connections from our previous school, right? Get in contact with them immediately. Noreen, you scour out the issues. Dolly and Mia, you guys are going to write the manual.”
In the end, we used the power of working as a team through our values of “fate” and “bonds.”
The difference against our rivals
“Raiko, the teachers you have are the real deal. They’re all the elites from your previous school. It seems like only the best teachers are working for you,” Akki told me.
In Korean managed schools, the teachers are typically never employed as full-time. And even when they become veteran teachers, they don’t get a raise in their salaries. It’s because when the schools post jobs for new teachers, they get a countless number of applicants, so they can just switch them out over and over. The amazing thing about them is that they’ve created a manual in which pretty much anyone can learn how to teach lessons. They train new teachers for just a few days and then let them begin conducting real lessons immediately, so they are able to continuously switch out even the veteran teachers. By doing this, they’re able to keep their labor costs low.
“I always thought it was wasteful that the good teachers had to leave. If they valued their teachers more and treated them better, there wouldn’t be this many schools for study abroad in the Philippines. It’s ironic that they’re going to be battling against a school that employs the teachers that they originally created.”
Akki asked, “What you want to do is create a school that combines an online English conversation program and study abroad program in the Philippines, right? How are you going to do it?”
“We’re going to make it so that when our teachers aren’t busy in the afternoon with the online program, they’re going to teach the study abroad students. And if the students study with the same teacher in both programs, they’d be able to continue to study seamlessly in either country. Consistency is important when learning English, so I think it’s a good idea,” I explained.
“You’re right. When it’s just the online program, you can’t expect their motivation to study will last for long. But if they can meet their teacher in real life when they come study abroad, that’ll definitely become a reason for them to work hard. And if they continue studying with the same teacher after returning, they’ll want to come study abroad again. So we have to sell the study abroad program as something that you can do over and over.”
“How about we accept short-term study abroad periods, like a week or 2 weeks?” I suggested.
At the time, the Korean study abroad programs had many students studying abroad for an average of 3 months, 6 months, or longer. They didn’t accept short-term students.
“If it’s just a week, I don’t think there’d be much of a difference even if they studied for 8 hours a day. But, if you combine that with the online English conversation program, I think there would be a big effect even if it’s just for a week.”
It was exactly the same as the system that I used to use; I would go to Cebu for 1 or 2 weeks and combine that with online programs to study effectively.
“Akki, I like that idea. Now we have to think about how to lower the cost…”
IT Park is the most expensive area in Cebu, and we also hire all full-time teachers. We had to think of a way somehow to lower this cost. The answer was the same, however. It was to combine our online program with our study abroad program. Therefore, it was important to use our office space as effectively as possible. Fortunately, the peak times for our online program were from 6 AM to 9 AM—before most people began their jobs and regular schools. And in the evenings, the peak time would be from 6 PM to midnight—a time where most people come back from their day. If we use this slow period that happens in the afternoons for our study abroad program, it’ll be very effective. And in the nights, we can serve students outside of Japan, due to their time zones. That way we can operate 24 hours a day.
Employing all our teachers full-time does cost a lot, but we decided to go with varying the teacher cost for students based on their expertise and level and have them select freely.
It’s a twin engine system where we fully spin our 2 pistons and change the gears based on how much power is necessary—a revolutionary system that no other English conversation school was doing.
“Akki. I know you were saying 4 to 50 students, but I want to get around 150 students now. So work hard. If we don’t have a decent number of students, it won’t be efficient.”
“Let’s also target markets outside of Japan. Korea and Taiwan are definite; we should open up to countries like Brazil and Russia too,” Akki said confidently.
“You’re right. We should aim for markets outside of Japan and increase students that way too.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m saying that, if I’m going to be recruiting students, I want a blonde cutie to come.”
The preferences that a motorcycle delivery service holds
Ordering a full jeepney
“Raiko, there are busses at some English conversation schools that go all the way to the airport to pick up their students.”
Due to the airport in Cebu not having a proper traffic system set in place yet, schools must go and pick up their students. Now that I mention this, I met Akki while I was waiting for the bus that my school was operating too. Jeepneys are modified trucks for passengers that are exclusive to the Philippines. There are no windows, no closing doors, and of course, there is no air conditioner either. One can ride whenever they wish to and can get off just as freely, so it’s a convenient method of transportation. The fee was 6 pesos at the time, which equals to around 15 Japanese Yen.
It’s something that everyone wants to try out when studying abroad in the Philippines, but I can’t say I would be able to recommend this Filipino symbol to the Japanese due to the many safety issues.
“Let’s find a jeepney that our students can ride safely. One hasn’t truly experienced the Philippines unless they’ve ridden one, after all,” I stated. “Even better, Akki, let’s make one ourselves.”
“Huh? Make one?” Akki said with a look of surprise.
“The structure of a jeepney isn’t that difficult. However you look at it, you can tell that they’re handmade and that there are builders out there who make them. Let’s find out who they are.”
There are a ton of small companies in the Philippines—the kind that don’t have websites. So, researching the web wasn’t an option.
“We can ask the taxi drivers,” Akki suggested.
Following Akki’s idea, we asked around for an entire day. Thankfully, we eventually found some luck.
“Yeah, I know a jeepney builder. I’ll take you guys there,” one taxi driver said and drove us to a factory.
What we came across were not the jeepneys we had envisioned. What we were looking for were the old school jeepneys that resembled American Jeeps. But in Cebu, their production had already ended.
“Nope, guess we can’t get them in Cebu… I did see Jeepneys that were the Jeep type in Manila though,” Akki remembered briefly.
“They have them in Manila?” I stopped. “Akki, we’re going to Manila right this second.”
Finding a jeepney builder in Manila
I must say, one thing that I’ve always been confident about is my speed at taking action. As soon as we had that conversation, we went back to the office and booked tickets to Manila for the following day.
Going to Manila isn’t something I ever imagined, so of course, we had no one in specific to ask over there either. Like we did in Cebu, we had to ask a bunch of taxi drivers and find them that way.
Luckily on the 3rd taxi we were told, “I was previously a jeepney driver so I know lots of builders. I’ll guide you around to them. How does 5,000 pesos sound?”
“Quit it with the nonsense. 5,000 pesos is too high; even 1,500 would be considered high,” Akki argued.
“Let’s get off, Raiko.”
I had no intention to get off, however.
“How does 4,000 sound?” the taxi driver said.
In the end, we argued for 2,500 pesos plus gas, and our jeepney factory tour kicked off to a start. The biggest one was called Ormoc, which was close to the airport. They wouldn’t comply no matter how much we talked to them, so we decided to pass. We ended up going to over 10 factories, and we also found a village in which there are many jeepney factories.
The 2nd factory we came across within the village was a small one, where a leading, skilled craftsman was working hard. He had 4 or 5 apprentices and together, they worked with a sense of passion and motivation. They may not be motorcyclists, but skilled mechanics all have a similar atmosphere to them, so I knew right away that these guys would be solid. I don’t have a complete explanation, but that’s how I felt. They practically had no equipment—only hand benders and 2 or 3 welding machines, so it was like a garage. However, the inside of the factory was very cleanly organized, and it felt nice to be there.
You can’t judge people by their status or appearance. The important parts are what kind of environment they put themselves in, as well as what kind of policies they live by.
All stainless, the only one in the Philippines
We immediately began to share our ideas on the jeepney we were going to make. It was also the first time the craftsman was going to make a jeepney for a study abroad program in the Philippines, so he was ecstatic.
“Above all else, we need air conditioning,” I said.
“We would have to put a glass window on the entrance door then. Should it be able to be locked?”
“Of course. We can’t have our students assaulted.”
“What about the interior? Do you want a TV?”
“No, we don’t need that.”
“But you would want an audio system, right? It’s not expensive anyway.”
Filipinos have high priorities for listening to music.
“Let’s make the interior blue since it’s our school’s color.”
“What about the outside? What color?”
“We don’t need color; I want to make a jeepney that’s completely stainless and shiny.”
“That’s nice. Did you know that in Manila, jeepneys that are completely stainess aren’t allowed? It’s because they’re really bright. So, nobody else has them. Cool idea.”
“Alright. Let’s go with all stainless.”
Our conversation kept continuing, and the craftsman followed everything about my order. Even my wishes concerning the size.
“Can you make the ceiling a little higher?”
“Sure. By how many inches?”
“Hmm, around this much. Like 4 inches.”
“What about the length of the jeepney? How many people do you want it to fit?”
Even the length is up to me. Large jeepneys will fit 11 people on each side, so 24 people in total. Large ones are hard to manage though.
“Alright. Make it for 7 people on each side, so 16 people in total.”
“The length would be 6.5 meters then. How about the engine? The best ones are made by Isuzu.”
“You’re going to put in a new one?”
“No way. We’re going to bring in an old one from Japan.”
“You’re going to import one later on?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. There’s a shop just for that, so I’ll go look at it tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?”
I didn’t go because I had a tight schedule, but I did want to take a look.
“There’s also the air conditioner. We would need a compressor for it, so it’ll be a little costly.”
“The price is an issue, but have you ever even built a jeepney that has air conditioning?”
“Hahaha. There’s no way I have! Are you okay?”
“Don’t worry about it. Anything is possible.”
When Filipinos say, “Anything is possible,” that’s when things are the most dangerous. They’ll say it’s possible over and over without thinking about it, and in the end, they’ll say “I can’t do it.” I’ve had this happen over and over when I was working on my online English conversation school.
Gaining trust is a very difficult thing to do. But this time, I trusted in this craftsman because of the way he acted. I have a friend who is a craftsman and is called an engineer all around the world, even if his job is working for a motorcycle delivery service. He has outstanding confidence that surpasses even the elites. So, this time, I trusted that this craftsman would be sure to build a good jeepney for me.
I’ll never forget how moved I became when I went to go receive the jeepney 3 months later. Bright, shiny, and all stainless. There isn’t a jeepney that looks better than this in Manila, let alone in Cebu. It isn’t related to the actual quality of our school, but my school is a school that is built by a motorcycle delivery service business so it was important to me. It’s a special jeepney, and it’s the only one in the world. There aren’t any others like it anywhere else.
The need for a dorm
Let’s go with a share house
Although our office was just 400 square meters, we had already been taking in demo students for our study abroad program. Therefore, we needed a dormitory. There were no previous examples of study abroad programs in the Philippines being built within an intelligent building, so it was a lot of work. Unlike the booths for our online program, IT Park would not allow us to create living facilities within our school building.
So, we had to look for dormitory spaces outside of our school. There are many hotels close by, but if we had our students stay there, it would be too expensive, and we wouldn’t be able to compete with the other schools. There are no real estate agents in the Philippines, so our only option was to search on our own. Al looked all over as well, but we couldn’t find any living facilities within IT Park that were close and would be suitable for Japanese people to live in.
For study abroad programs in the west, they usually have homestays or rent an apartment. But in the Philippines, homestays are an absolute no. Even if the houses are not like Mia’s, not having hot water is a norm, and individual rooms are not a thing either. The bathrooms and plumbing are completely different too.
We ended up walking around IT Park in order to find rooms. We saw a poster on a utility pole that said they were offering rooms for rent, so we called them immediately. Finally, we found a small, gated community with buildings that we could modify into dorms and were of a quality that foreigners could live in. It was a 5 minute walk from our office in IT Park. Though a little old, they have a security guard 24 hours a day.
Despite all of this, the walk to the office was an issue. 5 minutes is short, but the streets weren’t paved. And once you take a single step out of IT Park, you’re met with the harsh reality of the poor in the Philippines. A bunch of small, old houses and local stands are lined up along the streets. It’s the kind of place where when it rains, it becomes very difficult to walk in.
“Why is the environment so bad when it’s so close to IT Park?” I asked Al.
“The landlord told me that the Barangay Captain of this area is in an argument with the mayor, so the area isn’t receiving funds.”
“What? They aren’t receiving funds because of an argument?”
“It’s okay though. The mayor changed last year so things should get better eventually.”
“When is eventually?” I questioned. But no matter what, this place was our only choice. We started off with renting 3 houses.
This gated community only houses top class Filipinos, but for the Japanese, it’s not the kind of place we can live in without some modifications. Of course, there was no hot water, no toilet seats, and no air conditioning. So we started construction. The houses all had a shared kitchen space, dining space, and living space.
Akki said, “Let’s also include a bathtub. And for the hot water, let’s use a central system instead of a hot-water heater.”
Despite Akki still sleeping on the sofa in our office and taking cold showers in bathroom area where you wash mops, he was very assertive about the dormitories.
“If you make it like a share house, you can make individual rooms, as well as a space for the students to socialize. I think that’d be nice for this study abroad program.”
“It won’t be fun if you make the dormitory like the ones that the Korean schools have. Let’s keep the kitchens and increase the number of rooms. We’re also going to remake the toilets and showers.”
We decided to remodel the living rooms and create more rooms; 4 singles and 1 large quad to be specific.
Through Al’s connections, we asked a couple architects to come in and come up with quotas. We then took on the cheapest one. Well, this would have been an obvious thing to do in Japan, but in the Philippines, this course of action was something that we absolutely should not have done.
Doing interior construction in the Philippines
Due to being the first Japanese person to have a go at running their own study abroad program in the Philippines, everything was done by intuition and going with what feels right.
“How many days is it going to take?” I asked the architect.
They immediately answered, “It won’t even take a month. It’ll be done quickly.”
“Oh, wow!” I thought. Unfortunately, that was the only time I ever felt that way.
We agreed that I would pay off half the cost in the beginning, then 25% when they purchase the last materials, and after it was complete, I would pay the remaining amount.
The next day, they began the demolition construction. But after it was done, they wouldn’t proceed with continuing.
I asked the on-site manager, and they replied, “We don’t have enough money to buy the supplies.”
“Could you give us the 25% right now?”
They claimed that by doing this, they could continue with the construction as soon as possible. I ended up doing as they said because they began the construction a month ago, and nothing else had progressed.
It was a big mistake. I thought the construction would start again the next day, but I was met with the same sight of workers sleeping and not working. I called in Al, who was at office, and began talking with him and the workers.
“Why aren’t you guys starting?”
“We don’t have the supplies.”
“What? Didn’t I pay you guys yesterday?”
“The manager took it all.”
“Speaking of which, the manager isn’t here. Where is he? Can you contact him? Al, call him right away.”
“Raiko, the manager is apparently in Negros. It’s a different island. He said that there is a family emergency so he went back home. But he’s also saying that the construction will begin next week.”
“Is that true?”
“That’s what he’s saying, and there’s nothing else we can do. We just have to wait.”
“Al, he’s your own connection, right? Isn’t there anything we can do? Not just the manager, how about the company?”
“I’m asking my friend right now, but we’ll have to wait until next week.”
As expected, the construction wouldn’t begin the next week. The workers were walking around lazily as per usual.
“When is your boss coming back?”
“We don’t know. We’re not receiving our salary either, so we’re just as worried. Could you pay us?”
“Wait a second. I’ve already paid 75% of the amount to your company, but the only construction you guys have done is demolition. Nothing has progressed.”
“We don’t know about that. We can’t work because we don’t have the necessary supplies.”
No matter how many times Al tried to contact him after that, it didn’t seem like he would return.
“Al, this won’t do. Let’s change companies.”
“I know a good one.”
“Hey! If you know about a good one, then you should’ve chosen that one in the first place.”
“It’s because we chose the cheapest.”
I had no words to reply to him.
The unexpected continues
I learned about this through the above experience, but in order to succeed with construction in the Philippines, you need a strategy. You have to ask the company to give you a quota without the fee for supplies, and as needed, you go out and purchase the necessary materials later on. During the construction, you have to hire a smart inspector on your own. Since the inspector will get used to things very quickly, if you are going to conduct a long-term construction, you should switch out inspectors every 2 months.
Even with the next company, we ran into unexpected troubles once again. It was when we altered the location of the kitchen. We changed the valves of the tap water to water mixing valves and had them put it on in a different location. I put marks on it and made specific orders so that it would be clear. However, no matter how much we twisted the valve, water wouldn’t come out. And when I inspected what was going on, I was met with great surprise. They opened a hole in the wall and inserted the valve in it as I ordered, but they hadn’t connected it to the water pipe. Of course, there would be no water coming out.
It wasn’t just that. Once I ordered them to connect the water pipe and water began to come out, it ended up being a large flood. A huge amount of water began to flow from under the sink, and that was when I realized I hadn’t yet ordered them to connect the drainpipe. When we switched out the bathtub, there was no plug; the water wouldn’t fill up. The walls were slanted, and the doorknob was installed upside down. We ended up directly hiring a worker through Al and work on it on our own.
For the Korean schools, the construction workers and even the supplies are all brought in from Korea. The electricians, the plumber, and the carpenter are all Korean, and they come to the Philippines to work for them. I questioned why they would do something that costs so much, but I guess they had learned from experience. For me, I have a wish that I’d like to create as many jobs and opportunities in the Philippines as possible, so I don’t want to bring in craftsmen from Japan. If 1 Japanese craftsman can do the work of 10 Filipinos, I would pay them. However, I decided to grow and develop these Filipino workers on my own. It’s the same method that I used for my motorcycle delivery service. I believe that if you treat them with compassion, they’ll one day become good craftsmen.
My connection’s connection is a friend
Everything is alright
I think this was the spring of 2010. I had a notice from Desiree.
“Raiko, unlike online English conversation schools, the permits and licenses to run a study abroad program in the Philippines is very difficult. First, you need training for TESDA.”
TESDA is an education program that was created by the government in the Philippines to increase workers’ skills and techniques.
“They don’t have it open all the time, so I looked up their schedule. There’s one next month, so I submitted an application right away. 2 people have to take it, so it apparently takes 3 months. And we need 2 laptop computers. It’s necessary for training, so please prepare it for us.”
“You need 2 of them? Also, who’s going?”
“I’ll go and maybe the other can be Zette?”
After that was hard. Desiree and Zette trained alongside professors from Cebu’s universities. Nobody else had come from online English conversation schools or study abroad programs in the Philippines. The content itself was difficult as well, and they had to create standards for curriculums and level assignments through reports. For these 2 women who had only worked as teachers, everything was new.
They trained for 8 hours each day, and they also had meetings with the remaining teachers to develop the necessary materials. We had to solve each problem one by one.
Zette and Desiree are geniuses, so they fortunately passed in 3 months. But it took over a year to receive the license. It was the first time a study abroad program in the Philippines would be run by Japanese management, so the truly difficult part came after they graduated from training.
The story became complicated after Mr. John, who is a consultant, came in. Al, who I had told that the process was difficult, brought in a connection of his who is a consultant.
You often hear that in the Philippines, if you have connections, things will go well. But it’s difficult to see if it’s actually true. What you should do is develop bonds with others, but since he was Al’s connection, I let him work for us.
Until you receive a license from TESDA, you cannot run an study abroad program in the Philippines in which there is a tuition fee. I didn’t imagine that it would take over a year, so it was tough. Our only option was to train with demo students for over a year, despite our preparation being complete.
A silent hour & new staff training
We began our demo classes, so we were able to increase our number of teachers. And due to our classes being all one-on-one, we need just as many teachers as our students. Our online English conversation program had been steadily increasing students as well, so many teachers had come in from my previous school. It had been 2 years since Zette said, “Just wait and believe in us.”
This time, we were hiring completely new teachers. In the Philippines, you graduate from university when you are 20 and begin working at that age. It’s impossible for a 20 year old college graduate to immediately begin teaching. Even with training, it takes over 2 months. And when the training is over, we have them take the TESOL certification, which is a certification that lets you teach English to foreigners. In this way, we had the new teachers slowly get used to things.
But we were troubled as to how to deal with the new birds who wouldn’t chirp. We couldn’t just kill them, but we didn’t have the free time to wait for them either. I also didn’t want to force them to chirp. If you were to think logically, the solution may be to just find a different bird that chirps in a nice way and switch it out with the one that doesn’t. I didn’t believe in that though. I decided to slowly build up the birds that I’ve met through “fate.” And when a bond is developed, they should chirp for us in a beautiful way.
Training new graduates is difficult for both online English conversation schools, as well as study abroad programs in the Philippines.
“I can’t believe it. They’re looking at their phone during class.”
“They were only having small talk with their students.”
“Right. They didn’t have any topics either, so it was just small talk instead of free conversation.”
“If things continue like this, we shouldn’t even be focusing on the curriculum anymore.”
I was surprised that despite the new graduates having teaching certificates, there were teachers who didn’t know how to conduct class and just sat in silence with the student for an hour. Even though they were demo classes, I still felt bad for the students. The 7 super teachers ran around hysterically all the time because of this.
When we began conducting classes for our online program, I remember how even the 7 super teachers couldn’t conduct their classes well. And since this time we were dealing with new graduates who didn’t know any better, it was something that we should have expected. We had to set our formation wide and develop the knowledge on how to train new graduates. After all, we can’t just transfer teachers from the other schools all the time.
Completion & starting small
Teaching on your own, then observing the new graduates’ lessons, and after that, a meeting. The new graduates’ lessons were all recorded on video and were watched together and critiqued by the experienced teachers. This is the strategy that we used for our online English conversation program.
“You have to do things properly, even if you’re teaching demo students in the study abroad program.”
“Even if they’re not paying, they’re coming all the way to the Philippines for us. You can’t give them lackadaisical efforts in your lessons.”
“Let’s intermix the veteran teachers and new graduates and conduct lessons that way. For the new graduates’ lessons, we’ll help cover them.”
Like this, the new graduates and veteran teachers mixed their lessons together and gained experience that way.
The new graduate batch was 20 members, and now, a couple of them have developed into team leaders. It makes me truly happy to see the members who struggled together develop as time goes on. Dainz was a new graduate who couldn’t speak at all with their student for an hour but is now an accomplished leader. “Continuance” is a valuable asset.
Until our license for our study abroad program was issued, we conducted a year of training. And in November of 2011, we finally received our license. In our 400 square meter office, we developed a classroom that could accommodate 36 study abroad students. We had an increase in students for our online program as well, and 100 teachers were teaching students for both programs. Although many things were still trial-and-error, our program was slowly starting to look like an official school.
It was nearing the time in which we should begin investing in a serious manner. As a result of the many experiments in our 400 square meter office, we were starting to see the best kind of structure for a school that combines both an online program and study abroad program.
Handcrafting an English Conversation School
A decision to be the largest in the Philippines
We were starting to become serious in preparing the school for our study abroad program. Therefore, we decided to go talk with the building owner at the time, who we had become close with.
“We want to move to a larger space soon. Could we rent one more floor? I want to rent the 11th floor that we were talking about last time.”
One floor was 2,500 square meters, and at the time, there were many empty spaces.
“You’re really going to use another floor?”
“Yes. I’m sorry for making you wait for so long, but we’ve finally prepared enough to be able to expand. Do you remember in the beginning when you allowed us to use the office space for free? I told you that I was going to start off with one floor and then eventually rent out the whole building.”
“I thought you were joking. I definitely didn’t expect you guys to grow so much within 2 years. I’m sorry to say this, but I’ve already rented out that space.”
The effects of the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers were slowly wearing off, and the demand for office buildings were increasing.
So, we had to look for a different building. Luckily, there were 7 other buildings being developed within IT Park. They were almost complete, so we made an appointment with them right away. This was during Christmas in 2011.
Each floor was 1,100 square meters, so we would negotiate for 3 floors. But I was worried because it seemed like they were receiving offers from many others already.
The new building’s owner replied to me, “If you rent out 4 floors, we’ll reject the other offers and rent it out to you.”
“4 whole floors?”
If we rented all of them, we would become the largest of English conversation schools and study abroad programs within the Philippines. I hesitated at first, but if I’m aiming to create the world’s best English school, how could I not be the best in the Philippines?
And so we decided to rent out the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th floor of an 18-floor building in the very middle of IT Park.
Doing construction for 4,400 square meters all by ourselves
We would have Al’s team do the construction for the 4,400 square meters. At that time, we were remodeling 5 homes to become our dormitories, and our construction team had grown to over 20 people.
“If we ask a company to do it, they may scam us. Let’s buy the supplies in advance and directly hire a carpenter, plasterer, and electrician. It’ll work out,” I thought.
“Al, can you get a quota for this?”
“You’re going to use this building?” Al asked somewhat happily.
“I’ll write out the blueprint on my own at first, so I want you to ask a professional to create an official blueprint from that.”
We were going to create a school that had been developing for 2 years. It’s a school that we had created from scratch without the advice of a consultant. I had a clear image inside of my head as to what kind of school I wanted to run.
The school will have 120 booths for the study abroad students to take one-on-one classes. And there will be 30 rooms that will have group lessons conducted inside. The cafeteria inside will be able to accommodate over 200 people. I also wanted to create over 1,000 booths for our online English conversation program. Other than that, I also wanted to create a stage and lounge so that we can hold graduation ceremonies, as well as a self-study room, a medical office, and many more ideas came to mind.
We had been struggling with our 400 square meter office, so the Super Teachers were just as ecstatic too. I received many requests, such as a manager’s desk, a training room, and an interview room.
Al seemed to be acting differently. His clothing was looking nice and fashionable, and he purchased an iPad, which is a rare item in the Philippines. On that iPad, he was very into using Facebook. Of course, he was receiving a salary that was higher than the average Filipino, so maybe he was saving up a lot from sleeping in the office.
After a little while since construction had begun, Akki said, “Al isn’t sleeping in the office lately. I wonder if he’s busy.”
This made me curious as well.
In the beginning of 2012, construction on the interior had begun in a serious manner. 300 craftsmen had come and began working. Amongst our study abroad demo students, we had a student who was half Italian and half Iranian. His father was Italian and was running an architecture company. He himself was studying architecture in university, and came to study abroad at a graduate school in the Philippines while studying English at the same time. His name was Ethan. He came to study English when he wasn’t busy with graduate school, but he showed interest when we had begun construction on the interior.
“I don’t need any money, but could I help you out?” Ethan said.
There was no reason for me to reject his offer, so we had him join Al’s team.
After a little while, Ethan said, “Raiko, this is wrong. It’s costing too much money. Could you check this?”
“I don’t think there’s an issue with the money. Al is managing this directly and isn’t having a company manage it. I’ve known him for 6 years so it should be fine.”
“I see. But it’s still too expensive, and there are far too many workers. I wonder why he hired this many people? Could you ask Al the reason?”
Paying the highest lesson fee I’ve ever come across in my life
This was when I went with Ethan to go place an additional order for an air conditioner in the dormitories.
“Why is it more expensive than last time?” I asked the store. It was twice as expensive than before.
“No, it’s the same price as always. We’re just told to write a high price on the receipt. I don’t know his name, but the same guy that came with you last time comes to collect the difference in money. He’s the tall guy with an iPad.”
“Huh? A guy with an iPad?”
Ethan, who was with me, said, “As expected. Cebuano and Italian is actually similar and uses a lot of the same words.”
The Philippines used to be a territory of Spain, so many Spanish words are in the Cebuano language. And because Spanish and Italian are similar, Ethan understood a little bit of Cebuano.
Al didn’t know this, so he would always talk in Cebuano when Ethan was around.
“This was a little while ago, but something caught my attention when you, Raiko, were negotiating to lower the price. I heard Al say in Cebuano that you are Japanese, rich, and he also said high and split. You should really investigate the quotas one more time.”
I looked at the quotas again and got another one from a different company. As a result, the ones that Al had been creating were twice as expensive. Everything was connected now. I felt defeated.
Upon further investigation, a janitor at our school had been working at Al’s house as well, and he said that his house had a pool and even a car. The car was even more expensive than mine too.
This project’s quota was 30 million Japanese Yen even just for the air conditioning. The construction fee was several million Japanese Yen too. He was creating quotas that were twice as expensive and splitting the money with other companies. A fraction of this money can buy even a mansion in the Philippines.
I had known Al for 6 years at this point, and I had invited him to Japan before too. I was very unaware of Al’s actions. He stayed at my house, and we also enjoyed Asakusa, Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo Tower, and Disney Land together.
“Raiko, the showers in Japan are tough. The water is very cold,” I remember him saying. He would always rinse himself in the bathrooms, so he didn’t realize that the showers in Japan had hot water.
“If our school succeeds, I want to live in Japan,” he also said. I didn’t expect that Al, of all people, would betray me.
Looking back on it now, it was because we hadn’t developed a bond. Since the beginning, we had a relationship in which there were conflicts of interest, so our relationship may have been one of “Give and Take” all the way until the end. Al’s bond wasn’t with me, but rather, with his own wellbeing.
You’ve already lost when coming up with excuses
Everything is brought on by yourself
When running an overseas business, you encounter many unexpected problems. If I’m speaking in terms of likeliness, I’d say that everyone is sure to be betrayed at least once and run into many other issues that couldn’t have been predicted. But if you quit based on those excuses, you’ve already lost. Those who remain overseas right now have all overcome those hardships. The same goes for me—I won’t quit anytime soon.
The amount of investment required to run a study abroad program in the Philippines is large, so I was troubled as to how to approach it. It wouldn’t be good if I took action immediately and ended up in argument, so I decided to talk to Mr. John, the consultant.
“Guns are legal in the Philippines, so you shouldn’t sue. Let’s take action carefully.”
“But I have evidence. The electrician is willing to give a testimony, and the other companies have given us their quotas.”
Even then, John said, “The companies won’t give testimonies though. They won’t admit that they received a share of the money. Our argument will be too weak if we just have the electrician.”
“Our restaurant is run under Al’s name. The pooled money of several million Japanese Yen is in his bank account. Even with these details, I want to go against him. I want you to think of a good plan,” I asked.
“Alright, I’ll think of a plan. Give me some time, and don’t get hasty and tell the police officer. The Philippines is more dangerous than you think.”
John was also involved in the bond with Al. Right after I had talked with John, Al had spoken with the electrician and changed his testimony. Al had also taken out all of his money from his restauraunt bank account to remove the evidence.
I met Al 10 years ago, created a restaurant with him, and had gotten to the point where we were moments away from opening our school. Nonetheless, everything is brought on by yourself. Looking back on it now, I did have some feelings of having Al help me out all these years because he was useful, instead of it being through innocent feelings of compassion. The moment you think of “Take” in “Give and Take”, the relationship will never develop into a bond no matter how much you “Give.” Fortunately, I had taken notice of this early on so the damage wasn’t fatal. My online English conversation program and my study abroad program in the Philippines had only just begun. I wasn’t going to quit.
Leading 300 people to battle
Both of my programs won’t wait around for problem solving. I had to swiftly come up with a different solution. We had to remove Al’s team, which would leave us with no management. As expected, I had to do it on my own. I decided to command and lead these 300 people to battle. They were all craftsmen, so other than doing it in English, I was used to their work.
First, we have to decrease the number of workers. Until now, Al had hired far more than necessary and had been taking 10% of the craftsmen’s salary in advance. That’s why the number had inflated so much.
I also changed the way we bring in our supplies. I had Ethan do the purchasing, who only received the quota. We then had our driver go get the supplies, and when paying, we had the supplier come to the office of our school. Then, Helga would directly pay the supplier. In addition, we regularly changed our supplier. This is because if you do business with the same supplier for a long time, you let your guard down.
My management style is the one I’m skilled at—motorcycle delivery service style. If you lead a small company like a general in the Civil War era, things will go well. It’s kind of like riding a horse in the front of the army and going into battle with your sword ready. It won’t work out if you command from the back. It’s a method of showing how it’s done, say it verbally and have them listen, have them do it, and then compliment them for doing it right.
From way back, the basics of management is to motivate your members. Running together and developing feelings of a team is how motorcycle delivery services do it.
The speed at which the carpenters worked changed dramatically once I started working with them. I ordered them to do things as specifically as possible. Kind of like, 100 boards of 90 centimeters, cut the remaining in half the size, and in that, make 50 of them into quarters. If I had just ordered them to create a cabinet, it would not go well. I also explained to them using pictures and blueprints so that they would understand how to cut the boards. I made blueprints for everything, even the doors and down to the last cabinet. Of course, I’m an amateur so everything was drawn by hand and we took measurements on sight.
I also had to explain to them the order at which to assemble things. Place the nail over here first and that over there, and do that 100 times. It was like that. First, I had them make lockers for 1,500 people out of wood veneer. But they ended up making the openings all different and the sizes all different. In Japan, you can simply purchase them already made. I’ve said this before, but when you call in craftsmen in the Philippines to make things, they don’t have saws nor hammers with them. Electricians don’t even have screws. The painters don’t have paint, let alone brushes.
We purchased all of their supplies in advance. By the time we were almost finished with the school, we had an electric saw, an electric planer, and a drill. For painting, we had 5 air compressors. We had enough equipment to possibly run an architecture company. From my experience, if you take action in a developing country, countless business chances will arise. If I was in the mood, I felt as though I could not only run an online English conversation school and study abroad program in the Philippines, but also an architecture company.
In 6 months, we created over 1,000 desks for our online program, and for our study abroad program, we created 130 classrooms, a cafeteria, a stage, a self-study room, and more. And in this way, we created a school that is 4,400 square meters big. When we succeeded in moving in, we were all met with deep emotions.
The real hardship starts now
The first Japanese-run study abroad program in the Philippines
On May 2012, our study abroad program officially turned its wheels. It had been 2 and a half years since that Christmas where Akki opened my expensive wine and made the suggestion.
Our reception area is on the 8th floor, and once you step out of the elevators, you can see a bright, white counter that is 10 meters long. I made it so that it would be like the reception area of a hotel. And on its side, you have the cafeteria and lounge area, where students and teachers can rest.
It was the first official English conversation school that was made by a Japanese person, so I had researched the Korean schools a lot beforehand. I physically went to them and also studied with them as a trial to gather information. The Korean style schools can accept around 300 students, but since my school focuses on one-on-one classes, we can accept around 150 students. We decided not to seek just an increase in students, but rather, focus on the quality of our lessons, and create a school that is beautiful, clean, and has an overall good environment.
Akki, through his talents of being a study abroad agent, brought in 40 to 50 students right from the beginning. I thought that many of our students came through our online program, but upon further research, there were many students that had come to the Philippines to study abroad for the first time. If you ask for the opinions of friends and your parents, many students tend to lean towards studying abroad in the Philippines. However, those who seriously believe that they would like to improve their English skills through one-on-one classes, they find their way to studying abroad in the Philippines.
The age range of our students was very broad as well. Of course, the most common age was students, but there were also mothers who had brought along their children, and there were also retired elderly as well.
Additionally, there were many hardworking individuals around 30 years of age, who likely came due to a need for English in their jobs. They take a week or two off from work and come to study abroad short-term. Also, there were young women coming on their own as well, so it truly made me feel like the generation has changed dramatically compared to how it used to be.
Stop and Lecture
There’s no way things will go smoothly from the get go. I was stopped by 3 women in front of the elevator. They were students who were around 30, and they seemed intelligent.
“Mr. Fujioka, I’m unsatisfied. I came because I had heard that the owner was Japanese.”
Due to them believing that it’s a school created by a Japanese person, their expectations are incredibly high. Study abroad programs in the Philippines at the time didn’t have hot water nor air conditioning. You couldn’t flush toilet paper, and there were also schools that didn’t have toilet seats.
At my school, our showers have hot water. There is air conditioning. There are toilet seats, and toilet paper can be flushed. It was a great struggle to implement all of these, but due to these factors being a norm in Japan, it wouldn’t make sense to promote them.
It’s a ton of work to even fulfill the norms, but there’s no way students would listen to that. Our school is within a cutting-edge building, so everything is handcrafted in the school, but it did meet the standards for Japanese people. However, I was given a long lecture on the dormitories that we had remodeled from local Filipino homes.
We had remodeled the bathroom, kitchen, plumbing, the interior of the room, and even the ceiling, but due to the architecture standard being different from Japan, many things break quickly. Things such as the doorknob not being able to turn or the internet not connecting occur regularly. No water and no electricity don’t occur as frequently anymore, but they did occur occasionally, so there was a discrepancy in expectations due to the image that many Japanese people have of the Philippines being a complete resort area.
Issues arose with our curriculum as well. Different people from different countries react differently. I received complaints such as, “My teacher asked me my age during the lesson” and “They asked me why I had only one child.” Personal questions like these are disliked by Japanese people. It’s easy for students who can’t converse very well to improve by talking about themselves, which is how our teachers felt. However, this doesn’t translate well to the Japanese.
For Korean students, the conversation doesn’t begin until you know each other’s ages. It’s very important as to who is older because the way you interact changes depending on that. There still remains a culture in which you respect your elders, so in conversations, you have to say your age after your name.
It’s more complicated for Chinese students. Sometimes you have to take great care in how you interact with women, so there are times at which women and men do not want to study together.
For Russian students, you realize that when they’re not speaking, they’re very beautiful. However, once they begin speaking, they demand a lot. They get angry if everything doesn’t revolve around them, so it’s a lot of work.
It’s an unexpected result that my school has students from many different countries, whilst the school that I studied abroad at years ago was 95% Korean and 5% Japanese. I think it’s because we attract students globally through our online program. When you have students from all over the world, you have to deal with a lot of differences, so it’s a lot of work. But at the same time, it’s very fun. There are times when unexpected problems occur, but because of that, my brain is stimulated and I can grow as a result. It’s the same for students who study abroad. I want them to not just study English, but also meet students from many different countries and experience various cultures as well.
Right now, we have students from Japan, China, Taiwan, Korean, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Thailand, and sometimes Thailand, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. The other day we had a student from India, which surprised me. Don’t Indians already speak English?
Another shot at a restaurant
1,000 meals a day
Meals are a necessary component to any study abroad program in the Philippines. In the beginning we catered meals from the restaurant I began with Al years ago, but since we parted paths, I had to think of an alternate method.
When we were just doing our online program, we were fine with 100 meals a day. However, once we began our study abroad program officially, it became necessary to have 1,000 meals a day. It’s not an amount that can be carried in from outside sources, so we had to start making it within the school.
I discussed the matter with the owner of the building, and he said that we couldn’t cook on the floor where we have our study abroad program. However, he let us rent the 1st floor, which is a space to place a restaurant. I had just gone through a painful experience from running a restaurant so I originally wanted just a kitchen space, but the expensive rent on the 1st floor wouldn’t match with just running a kitchen space. In order to raise the quality of our school meals, we decided to establish a restaurant there. Because the study abroad programs in the past have all had closed off kitchens, there are no health standards. Luckily or unluckily I’m not sure, but my school creates meals according to the standards of international restaurants and under the strict judgement of the health bureau in the Philippines.
Of course, when our students use our restaurant, we offer their meals at a discount. When class ends, many different students come down to the 1st floor and happily talk with each other over beer.
If in special economic zones such as IT Park, foreigners can have 100% ownership of online English conversation schools if they export at least 70% of their production. But when it comes to study abroad programs, it’s still considered a part of the education industry, so the permits and licenses are difficult to acquire. In addition, foreigners can only have 40% ownership of the company.
The dormitories that the students live in can be bought by foreigners as well, if they own a license for condominiums. However, they would not be able to purchase a regular house.
As for restaurants, they are only available through retail, so you cannot run it unless you have it under a Filipino name. So how do I run my restaurant? Well, I have 100% ownership of it, and I have it registered under a Filipino name.
Since I can only have 40% ownership of my study abroad program, it is very risky. This is the reason why many investments don’t occur in the Philippines.
And although I failed my first restaurant, I just have to do it over and over until I succeed. To keep trying until you succeed despite failure is my method of choice. And so, I decided to take another risk.
Construction is my specialty, however…
I have confidence in the interior construction of my restaurant. If I was able to construct an online English conversation program and a study abroad program, it should be easy. I already had skilled craftsmen that I had found amongst 300 of them.
I created the design as soon as possible and started the preparation to receive a license and permit. For this restaurant, I decided to design it as an open-air restaurant. The teachers complained that it was unbelievable for a Japanese restaurant to not have air conditioning, but it’s an area that feels very open and faces the spacious lawn in front of the school. I thought it’d be a waste to close that view off, so I made it an open deck. But right when I thought, Let’s start making it, an issue occurred.
In Cebu, it’s very challenging to find a chef that can cook Japanese food well. Filipino food wouldn’t be a problem, but when it comes to Japanese food, nobody has cooked it before. A couple of chefs who claimed that they could cook Japanese food came in to interview, but the taste of their food wasn’t up to the quality that I, a Japanese person, would approve of. Since it wouldn’t work out if we had them study through YouTube or recipe websites, I was feeling worried.
“Raiko, a weird person is coming in to interview. His name is Shikou Sumida. He’s Japanese,” Helga from HR told me. She came in to ask me if he was trying to interview as a Japanese staff instead of a chef. This was when another “fate” had flew in.
“Who is Shikou Sumida?”
“How should I know? Do you want to interview him?”
I decided to meet him, hoping he was some type of chef.
This was my encounter with Nori, which is his other name. He’s a guy who is always smiling, and he’s the emperor of nightlife. Shikou Sumida was a type of architect, who measured sizes through blueprints and used ink to mark it off in the construction site.
I was feeling a little down that he was different from what I expected.
However, he replied, “I like ramen, and it’s my dream to someday run a ramen shop.”
I thought about it for a little bit, and I decided that this, too, is “fate.”
I didn’t think of running my restaurant as a ramen shop, but since expensive dishes such as sushi and tempura are not affordable for students, I wanted to make it an easy, cheap, bar-style restaurant.
“Nori, we’re trying to prepare a Japanese-style restaurant right now, but are you interested?”
“Of course. But I don’t have any experience.”
“That’s true. Do you want to train in Japan and then make ramen here?”
I think there are various kinds of “destinies.” For Akki, he met the Korean owner of a school here and became a study abroad agent that way. As for Nori, he began working at a ramen shop after meeting me.
Until the preparation of our restaurant was complete, I had Nori train for 3 months at a shop in Tokyo, which my friend runs.
My friend had multiple shops, including yakitori shops and ramen shops, but we assigned him at the yakitori one. If we assigned him to a ramen shop, he would only be able to make ramen, which is why we sent him to a yakitori shop. My house in Tokyo wasn’t available anymore, so he stayed at Akki’s house.
The opening of our restaurant was scheduled to match the peak season of our study abroad program, which is in August. This time, we were having a complete amateur open a restaurant after 3 months of training. It was what it was because we couldn’t find any other chefs in Cebu, but I was still worried. So, I also called in a chef from China who ran a Japanese restaurant there.
A Reliable Team
My Chinese younger brother, Wang Jun
I have to explain a little bit here. I believe that the gold in online English conversation programs and study abroad programs in the Philippines lies in China. Once we gather skills and experience with Japanese students, I hope to start venturing there.
Because we were running a restaurant in the Philippines, we developed many connections. And our programs were flourishing as well. So I decided on the same strategy for China. Right after beginning my study abroad program, I started a restaurant in China too. The one who helped me out was my younger brother in China. He’s a younger brother from within my heart, and we have a strong bond with each other.
His name is Wang Jun. He came to Japan in 2005 to study abroad, and he home-stayed at my childhood home. He isn’t good at English, and he didn’t like competing with the elites in America, so he came to Japan, where “there are few rivals.” I didn’t exactly favor him saying that, but he’s for sure an amazing guy because in 7 months, he went from not being able to speak anything to passing the highest level of the Japanese Language Examination.
He’s a genius who skipped a grade while in China, and had always been one grade above his peers since he was a child. He graduated from a graduate school in Japan and worked at a top, leading company, but upon hearing about my online English conversation business, he came to work for me.
When Wang Jun was a student, he worked part-time at my motorcycle delivery service business. He couldn’t speak Japanese at first, so he started off with washing dishes, but he wanted a more intelligent job, which is how I introduced him to accounting. He hadn’t studied accounting before, and he also didn’t know about standards in Japan.
I passed a book that was titled something like Easy Accounting for Anyone and told him, “If you really want to do it, go read this book and understand it.” It had only been around half a year since he came to Japan, so his Japanese wasn’t that good.
“I can do it in 2 weeks. Let me work in accounting in 2 weeks,” he said. And he really was able to understand all of it within 2 weeks and began helping us. Even now, we continue to use the accounting system that he created for our motorcycle delivery service business.
He told us that he would help out with the motorcycle delivery service business even after graduating from graduate school, but there weren’t any jobs at our motorcycle delivery service business that would fully utilize his potential, nor could we issue him a visa. So, he began working at a separate company.
When I began starting my English conversation business, he said, “If you’re going to go into battle, I’ll battle alongside you. Even if my salary gets cut in half.” And like that, he quit his job and came to work for me. Despite him not being good at English, he still decided to help me. Now, we battle together against the elites. And since we’re dealing with English, which Wang Jun isn’t good at, who knows what lies ahead…
You don’t need language at an English conversation school
We have an office over in Shanghai for both our online program and study abroad program, but we’ve also been running a restaurant there since 2009. It’s in an area called Tianzi Fang, which used to have many French people living within it. It’s a chic area that was developed through many artists and cafés gathering in the location. Our restaurant is in the middle of it, and it’s a wonderful Japanese restaurant, if I do say so myself.
I thought about having Nori train in China too, but we couldn’t do it because he didn’t speak any Chinese.
“Wang Jun, we’re going to open a restaurant for our study abroad program in the Philippines. Could you send over a chef that you know?”
With that simple request, Wang Jun brought the head of the restaurant over to Cebu. The head of the restaurant, Xiao Qiu, and I had known each other for 6 years. He’s a talented chef who always serves me dishes that I love when I go to China.
Xiao Qiu said, “Raiko, you’re underestimating the restaurant industry. I trained at a Japanese restaurant for 8 years and then became independent after that. It’s hard running a new restaurant even if you trained as much as me, so there’s no way you would be able to start a restaurant with a mere 3 months of training.”
My restaurant plan was indeed reckless, so Xiao Qiu was upset.
“Raiko, your actions are always spur-of-the-moment. We can’t do much now, so for now, cut down on your menu to serve as few items as possible and open the restaurant as soon as possible. Things will somehow work out if you have me by your side. We’ll just have to have the staff learn hands-on as much as they can while I’m here.”
Xiao Qiu is also a very leaderly and independent person. He must be the type that thinks that in the business world, there are no excuses no matter the situation. Because of this, he came up with a strategy to start up the restaurant immediately. It was his first time being overseas, but he left before seeing the ocean. During the three weeks that he was here, he never left the kitchen, and as a result, he went home without viewing the resort island side of Cebu.
First, we went to the market. We can’t start anything until we know what ingredients are available in the Philippines, so gathering supplies was our beginning step. After that, we immediately went into the kitchen and began creating a menu with Xiao Qiu, me, and a Filipino who has no idea how to cook Japanese food. Thanks to Xiao Qiu, our restaurant business was finally starting to make progress.
I was worried at first if things would work out because in the beginning, he couldn’t speak English or Japanese. But he said, “It’s alright. I trained alongside Japanese people every day until now. Language doesn’t matter. Leave the kitchen to me.”
As expected, he was brilliant. As soon as Xiao Qiu held his knife in his hand and began cooking, the Filipino chef instantly glued his eyes on him. Since they are both cooks, the Filipino chef must’ve understood the level of skill that Xiao Qiu had. The scene of him standing up with confidence and effortlessly cutting the ingredients is enough to entrance you. The Filipino chef instantly began to listen to Xiao Qiu’s commands after that.
In the world of craftsmen, language isn’t necessary after all.
Being blacklisted due to ramen
There’s a question that I’m always asked on a flight
“Did you bring ramen soup base with you today?”
Apparently, the airlines always think that I’m a carrier for ramen soup base. I do carry in ramen soup base, but it’s because It’s going to be used at our restaurant in the Philippines, and it doesn’t taste good unless it’s from Japan. Of course, for ingredients such as tonkotsu, we use local food in Cebu. However, ramen soup base is the core ingredient in ramen, so I always bring it in from Japan.
There was actually one time in which I caused a flight delay at Narita airport. The flight had a layover in Manila, and it was with a Japanese airline that was fighting to be number one with departing on-time. The soup base that I was carrying with me was soy-sauce soup base and was bought through wholesale, so it was a big eighteen liter can without any labels. Obviously, I was intending to bring it as checked luggage. But, right before departing, I was called through the broadcast system.
“Mr. Raiko Fujioka, who is going to Manila…”
I’ll let you imagine how embarrassing and worrying it is to have your name suddenly broadcasted through the whole airport.
I had to prove that the eighteen liter can wasn’t a dangerous item. If the outside had a label of some sort with ingredients, it would’ve been fine. However, there was absolutely nothing. There was no way for them to know that it’s soy-sauce soup base. I thought about calling the company and having them send over the ingredient list, but it wouldn’t make it in time for my departure. And as the time until departure came down to 10 minutes, I thought of an idea. I should open the lid and show it to them.
In the end, I ended up causing the world’s most on-time airlines to be 5 minutes late due to redoing the packaging of the can. And due to that, I’ve been written up on airlines’ blacklists. Apparently I’m labeled as “Ramen Man” on the airlines’ computers, which is why I’m asked the following question.
“Did you bring ramen soup base with you today?”
I was asked the same question when going to Italy, China, Korea, and even in Iran when I was on the way to Dubai.
Anyway…I’m gonna go back to talking about the opening of my restaurant.
I was stressed because Nori’s ramen didn’t taste good, which couldn’t be helped because he trained for only 3 months. We had a large water problem too. Tokyo has soft water, but the water in Cebu is hard. As a result, we couldn’t make good dashi stock. And when our ingredients changed even by a little, things wouldn’t go well either. We couldn’t make it taste good no matter how many times we tried.
But when Xiao Qiu helped us, he solved it in one-shot through his 10 years of knowledge and experience. The hardness of water and ingredients didn’t matter. He created a wonderful flavor, and we were ready to open before 3 days had even passed.
Our menu was mainly izakaya food with yakitori as the focus. We also served ramen. Finally, we were able to create a restaurant that incorporates the local ingredients. This is a little off topic, but the reason why we are able to serve not just Japanese food, but also Chinese and Korean, is all because of Xiao Qiu’s talents and efforts.
“I can only be here for 2 more weeks. I can’t leave my restaurant in China for too long, so I’ll train you guys for 1 more week. We’ll have our grand opening in a week!” Xiao Qiu said to everyone.
On August 1st 2012, we invited Wang Jun to translate for us as we had our grand opening. The one who had the hardest time may have been Wang Jun, who understands Chinese, Japanese, and English. Nori was assigned with cooking ramen, and Wang Jun cooked yakitori on the grill all day. Additionally, Wang Jun also had to translate Xiao Qiu’s Chinese into English and Japanese and was on his feet from day to night.
Even the receptionists for our study abroad program, our guidance staff for our online program, the staff that manages our dormitories, and even the janitors all put on aprons and came in to help us out. Whether it be washing the dishes, cleaning up the tables, or helping out with the orders, they all worked hard to make the grand opening possible. This was all possible through compassion, and although things were chaotic, the grand opening of the restaurant is definitely a memory that has stayed with me.
Ever since I came to Cebu, time passes by in an instant. In contrast to the calm skies on this island, everything is happening in a rush. But, what I was sure of was that something was slowly beginning to change.
A small sprout that slowly begins to change
A new current
Some changes have slowly begun to arise. Last year, 3 Filipino teachers came to Japan as visiting professors for Meiji University. They were the first Filipinos in Cebu to have received a teacher’s visa to go to Japan. Although it was for 3 months, they were able to stand on a platform and teach Japanese university students.
I had a strange “fate” with Meiji University a couple of years ago. Professor Takagi, who found our Callan Method learning program, came to my office in Tokyo. There is no designated space in my Tokyo office for English activities, so I just do it on the side of my motorcycle delivery service business. It was the first time a university professor came to our office that is located on the roof of our motorcycle delivery service business. I think this office, where the riders of my motorcycle delivery service business spend their time, is a very far, distant world from the one that university professors live in.
Professor Takagi hit it off by talking about the unique learning methods taught in London and our experiences with them. Eventually, we began talking about the reformation of English classes in universities, which is when we made the strong decision to work together to improve the quality of English education that hasn’t changed in over 50 years through my online English conversation program and study abroad program. Now, both of my programs are recognized at 25 universities, beginning with Meiji University and then Kyorin University, Jissen Women’s University, Kyoai Gakuen University; the list goes on.
We’ve reached a point where we are now able to conduct cultural exchange activities between Japanese university students and Filipino students through our online English conversation program.
It’s been over a decade since I first came to study abroad in the Philippines, and the cityscape has surely changed. Back then, there were very few traffic lights, and when they were available, you could say that 1 out of 3 wasn’t working. Now, traffic has increased greatly, and there are traffic jams everywhere. Public transportation hasn’t improved yet, so many jeepneys are driving around. The power shortages that happened like a daily occurrence are very rare nowadays.
IT Park also was kind of like an empty plot of land with only 5 buildings standing. But now, over 20 buildings stand proudly, and even when counting just restaurants, there are over 50. It’s developing into a chic area that is advancing the most out of all of Cebu.
There are now 3 direct flights flying from Narita to Cebu, and direct flights have also begun from Osaka, as well as Nagoya. Cebu is now easy as ever to fly to from Japan, and over 10,000 students come to study abroad each year. It’s now the closest and useful English-speaking country for Japan.
An intense moment
We have celebrities come to study with us occasionally. I can’t reveal their names, but an amazing female singer came to the Philippines to study abroad under our program. She’s quite famous and has been featured multiple times on the Kohaku Uta Gassen Show, which is a must-see in Japan on New Year’s Eve. She also attended a prestigious school and can speak sophisticated English as a result. So, her lessons were assigned at the highest level.
I knew I had to keep it a secret that she was coming to study abroad, but I became too excited that a famous female singer was coming for the first time, so I slipped the news to the teachers. Her songs are famous in the Philippines too, so everyone was ecstatic. As our excitement grew, we ended up requesting for her to sing at the entrance ceremony.
Professional singers don’t sing lackadaisically. Even if it’s just one song, they’ll sing it seriously and with full power. It was so intense that there were some students who shed tears from her singing, so I believe that the students who got to be there at that moment were incredibly lucky.
After that, she softly informed me, “Raiko. Those who are in an occupation like me wish to relax during our private life. It’d be nice if you could be thoughtful of that.”
She’s an open-hearted person that also loves drinking, so we ended up drinking together every evening. She stayed at the only designer hotel in Cebu, so the bar inside was very chic.
I got to hear about her feelings about singing, and she also smiled and laughed along to my silly stories.
We also went to a small island together. It’s the kind of island where although there’s not much at all, it’s still abundant. There’s no running water nor electricity, and you can walk around the island in 15 minutes. 600 cheerful island people live there, and they all love music strongly.
Once the water becomes low-tide, boats cannot reach the island anymore. You have to walk a little bit in order to reach the island. She held her skirt so that it would avoid touching the water, but it ended up being soaked.
As we reached the island, we were warmly welcomed. On the island, there is a café and a broken piano. It’s not tuned and there are sounds that it cannot make, but it is still considered the island’s treasure. The island people brought over guitars and gathered to the café, where a large music festival began.
There is not a single man on this island that cannot sing. Apparently, it’s because when they fall in love, they take their guitar and go sing in front of the girl’s house.
They were very happy that a singing princess came to visit that day, so they excitedly began drinking, singing, and dancing even when it was still the afternoon.
The past mayor of the island rolled up his shirt above his stomach and began dancing. The singing princess joined the circle of island people and started to sing. The ocean was right in front of you, and the café only had a roof. She was barefoot. There were no microphones nor instruments, so we could hear her voice clearly. For a split second, even the sound of the waves stopped, and the only sound that you could hear was her singing. And at that moment, I wished that time could be frozen at that moment for 100 years.
A light moment
When you have 700 teachers and 500 study abroad students in Cebu, one does not have a private life. Everyone knows what I did, where I was, and who I met. When it comes to teachers, they especially are skilled at collecting acquiring information. The reason is that whenever the teachers’ siblings and even friends see me out and about, they inform them. So, of course, they also quickly figured out that I was drinking with the singing princess every night at the bar.
“Raiko, I feel bad for her. She’s single and all alone. There’s no doubt she’s lonely,” one of my teachers said.
Since our city does not have many events, the people here love talking about romance. And my teachers also know that I’m not popular with women, so they gathered information for me even without me requesting to do so. They were also largely hoping that she would stay even after her study abroad period comes to an end.
The 7 Super Teachers said they were going to have an emergency meeting, so I went to go see what was up. But upon entrance, I found out that the topic was “Why Raiko isn’t popular with women.”
“Raiko, women are waiting for you to confess.”
“Men have to be confident.”
“You should sing if you’re in the Philippines.”
Like this, they continued to develop strategies and thoughts concerning my romantic life. One thing for sure is that I can’t play the guitar, nor can I sing.
However, I wrote a love letter to her immediately after she graduated from our school. I wrote, “I want to be in a relationship with you.”
Unfortunately, the quick reply that I received was in English, and it said, “I can honestly say that I don’t have any feelings to you. I’m really sorry.”
Since the reply was in English, I felt both a sense of loss as well as a feeling that our school was very helpful for her learning. If she had said yes, the news probably would have been huge amongst the school.
By the way, I saw on Yahoo! News the other day that she had gotten married.
The singing princess still studies with us through our online program. I hope that one day she’ll come back to study in the Philippines with us once again.
The meeting to review my actions later on was horrifying.
“Raiko, you’re just stupid.”
“We knew that you were drinking with her at the bar every night, so we had thought that you guys were already talking about relationships.”
“Why didn’t you say it to her directly while she was in Cebu?”
“We were being too easy on you. We thought that things were going well.”
“Right. To not say anything while she’s here and then confess through a letter after she goes home? Horrible.”
“We should’ve trained and instructed you more strictly.”
A change occurs in my teachers and their lifestyles
I went to Korea with Helga and Dolly the other day, and Gayle is in Australia. Ever since starting our study abroad program, our teachers are slowly beginning to be able to venture overseas.
Desiree got a Japanese boyfriend, and Zette, who was single, has gotten married. Noreen is soon becoming a mom as well. Mia now has 2 children and is now living in a home close to IT Park. It has running water, and you can also take a proper shower. I went to visit the other day, and the baby car is being fully used for her younger sister’s child.
Time sure flies past quickly.
A year after we began our study abroad program, Noreen had her wedding in November 2012. It was held in a large church, and over 100 friends and family member came. Filipino style weddings are very lively and have singing and dancing. The bride and groom dance too, of course. Something that surprised me was how they sew on the celebratory money on to the bride’s wedding dress. It was a perfect wedding for the bright and merry couple. Once I had gotten a little tired from dancing, I was asked to give a speech.
“This is a story from 30 years ago, when I was 19. I had no solid plans for my future, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. So I went to America. Through some weird fate, I found my way to an elderly American woman. I learned the importance of passion through the way she didn’t seek anything in return. At that time, I couldn’t speak proper English so I wasn’t able to express my thanks to her adequately. But even then, I tried thanking her, and she replied, ‘The time for Japan will come soon. Once Japan grows, it’s sure that you will meet other young challengers who are up next. If you want to thank me, I want you to give compassion to the young challengers you’ll meet in the future.’
I still can’t forget that memory because the young challengers I met were you guys. The Philippines is a young country that is going to drastically begin growing. If what I’m doing is helping the country even a little bit, I don’t want you to forget this same idea. Once the Philippines grows, the next challengers should show up soon as well. And when that happens, I want you to help them out through selfless compassion. I’m passing this same idea that I received 30 years ago to you all. Grow even further and help the next generation.”
By beginning my programs in this country, the Super Teachers and their lifestyles have slowly been able to change.
When it rains, it pours
This happened right when 2013 began. The first “Kuroda Bazooka” was shot by the Bank of Japan. I felt like I was battling in the frontline and was shot from the back by my ally. My English business that had finally began sailing smoothly was now a mess because of it. Right as we were becoming profitable, an extreme depreciation of the Japanese Yen had occurred. I think that other Japanese companies overseas were likewise facing near death situations. I had no comprehension as to why it was a good idea for our currency to drop in value.
Japan is a country that has covered itself with a barrier by using Japanese, a language that only Japanese people speak, and it has also shut down the effects of outside cultures—which has led to a prevention of the country’s own development. When it comes to exports, Japan’s export dependency is only 11.4%.
Despite Japan being the world’s best industrial nation, it can’t move forward in revolutionizing itself globally. While the country has many industries that can expand overseas, due to not having enough global workers, they’re only able to reach outside of the country through their skills.
I believe that the reason why the economy would get better due to a drop in the Yen’s value even though we only have an export dependency percentage of 11.4% is because Japanese people cannot speak English. This is because if Japanese people could speak English and work freely overseas, then there’s no doubt that an increase in the Yen’s value would be better.
If the depreciation of Japanese Yen continues, our chances of being able to expand overseas will be increasingly be taken by other countries that do have the ability, and in the end, overseas capital will buy out the skills we have.
What’s necessary for Japan is to learn to speak English and expand overseas, and to do that, an appreciation of Japanese Yen is necessary. The reason is because as our birth rate declines drastically, our only remaining option is to go out into the world.
Instead of waiting in Japan and expecting effects from the depreciation of Yen while selling products overseas, we should utilize the high value in Yen to bring in good products globally and create the best products all over the world.
Even I, the owner of a motorcycle delivery service business, am battling overseas through my English programs. Instead of using the Kuroda Bazooka to battle with Yen Depreciation, I want our country to battle by working hard to develop globally talented individuals.
I was on the verge of tears this time because the sales of my program had dropped over 30% because of all of this.
A large earthquake in Cebu
A large earthquake occurred in Cebu on October 15th, 2013. It was thought that not many natural disasters occurred in Cebu, but I realized that a place where you can live in absolute peace does not exist in the world after all.
It was a magnitude of 4, which is not a big deal for the Japanese. However, for the people in Cebu, it’s a huge shake. The teachers and study abroad students immediately began to take cover. Everyone went down to the 1st floor and divided themselves amongst their teams. Then, they waited for further instructions. It was such a clean and effective escape that I was surprised to say the least.
There’s actually a story to this that occurred 2 years before this. I experienced my first earthquake in Cebu, and it was smaller at magnitude 3. But since it was my first earthquake here, I panicked. It was when we were in a different building within IT Park, and we hadn’t begun our study abroad program yet, so in total, we had around 50 teachers and staff. Everything was chaotic. I was Skyping with the Tokyo office and had slightly joked around and said, “It’s shaking a little. I didn’t know there were earthquakes in Cebu too.”
But then the 7 Super Teachers ran over to me with faces white with fear.
“Everyone is escaping. Hurry!”
But I said, “An earthquake like this isn’t a big deal. Tell everyone there’s no need to escape.”
To which they replied, “What are you even saying?!”
They were incredibly angry at me for saying that. They were all in such a panic that there was a teacher who had collapsed due to hyperventilation.
Once most had taken cover and the office went silent, the next moment a couple of teachers came running up the stairs to our office on the 7th floor.
“Raiko, it’s an emergency. A tsunami is coming!”
“We’re going to die. What can we do?”
“We have to escape to the roof. Raiko, you have to escape too.”
They all said this to me while crying.
“Hold on a second. It’s only magnitude 3, so it’s alright. This building is far from the ocean, and we’re also on the 7th floor. We’ll be fine even if a tsunami comes.”
However, my words didn’t reach them at all.
“The tsunami has gone all the way to the shopping center!”
“The area close to the sea is completely destroyed.”
Like this, rumors were making their way through emails and chats. Once I was finally able to calm them down, 2 hours had passed. And of course, not tsunami came. I wanted to continue the lessons for our online program, but they were worried sick.
“I’m worried about my family.”
“My home might be gone because of the tsunami.”
“I want to go help them.”
No matter how you thought of it, everything would have been A-OK, but this is all a part of Filipino’s kindness and hospitality. I gave up and decided to stop lessons for that day.
After that our operator in Tokyo had to explain the situation to all of our students, so I’m sure it was a struggle.
Upon learning my lesson from this earthquake, I decided to begin disaster drills. I think we were able to succeed as practiced for the 2nd earthquake despite it being stronger than the first was due to practicing many times.
Due to the earthquake in October, damage had occurred to a historical building in Cebu. However, nothing happened to us, as we were in the newest building within IT Park. When deciding where to move offices, I had also considered earthquakes as a factor. The building we’re in can withstand even a magnitude of 8.
One of the strongest typhoons on record
Even after the earthquakes, the trials continued. Before a month had passed, one of the strongest typhoons on record, had approached Cebu on November 7th, 2013.
It had a central pressure of 896 hPa and a maximum instantaneous wind speed of 105 meters per second. I had never heard of a typhoon that went under a central pressure of 900 hPa ever on the news. And a storm has a wind speed of 35 meters per second, so for the typhoon to have 105 meters was unimaginable. Typhoon Haiyan, or Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, was approaching us soon.
The news repeatedly said to take caution and to prepare to the fullest, but since the typhoon was so strong, I felt lost as to what measures we should take. We also have students studying abroad with us, so the amount of worry I had was very high.
105 meters per second is over 400 kilometers per hour. It’s so fast that if you go over 200 kilometers per hour with a motorcycle, you can’t breathe when you lift your helmet’s shield. 400 kilometers per hour is probably like putting your head out of the window from a linear motor car.
From crying due to the Yen depreciation to being stung from the earthquake, I now felt like I was being mauled by a bear because of this typhoon.
All I could do was to prepare myself for whatever comes and accept one’s fate. Even if it directly hits us but our campus remains, Cebu City will still be in shambles. And even if just IT Park is fine, the city won’t hold up, so our business will fall apart.
“Call in everyone. We have to prepare a strategy as soon as possible,” I said.
The Super Teachers gathered quickly.
“If we can survive for a week, international aid will come for sure. Let’s prepare ourselves so that we can hold on for a week,” I announced.
Noreen replied, “Raiko, what should we prepare? I’ve never done something like this before.”
“Noreen, call in a construction team first. It’s so that they can reinforce the windows in the student dormitories.”
“We’ll have the families of our teachers be able to take cover here too. Helga, get approval from the building management.”
“Gayle, confirm how many people are going to take cover here. Tell the teachers to be sure to have their families come here if they live near the ocean or rivers.”
“Mia, how many students our studying abroad with us? I’ll tell the students directly what’s happening, so gather all the students once their lessons have ended for the day.”
“Dolly, gather the café team and set up shifts. We need to be able to prepare meals for the teachers, their families, and the students.”
“Zette, have them prepare water and food that will be enough to make a minimum of 1,000 meals a day for a week.
“Desiree, go talk to the owner of the building and have him prepare gasoline for our power generator.
We prepared 150 bottles of 4 gallon bottles of water and enough food supplies for 1,000 meals a day for a week. The building owner prepared 6,000 gallons for our generator. I was confident we could survive for a week.
Typhoon Haiyan finally reaches touchdown
The predicted touchdown time for the typhoon was at 8 AM the next day, so we had our students come to the school at 5 AM. Additionally, we had the families of the teachers who were mainly poor or lived close to the river or ocean come escape to our school.
We had begun the process from the evening before, so in the morning, there were already over 300 people.
Cebu had been out of power, so our generator was quietly humming along. The lively café and lounge that’s usually filled with our students was silent as well.
IT Park still had internet, so we could receive news updates and many questions came along from our students—both online and offline.
“What time is it touching down and how much damage is predicted?”
“How long are we going to be here?”
“Can the windows of the building withstand a wind speed of 105 meters per second?”
Their parents were probably worried sick too. I had researched the building’s measures towards earthquakes, but I had no idea what it was like against typhoons. I asked the building owner about it too, however, he said that it was built to the highest standards in the Philippines. The glass in the building is built with the latest engineering too, so he said it would be okay. But until the actual typhoon comes, we can’t know for sure. 895 hPa is something that nobody has experienced before.
“Right now, the Japanese and American news are saying that the typhoon is predicted to touch down around 8 AM. Its effects are still extreme, and nothing has changed in its strength. Distance yourself from the building windows and take as much caution as possible.”
The children took notice of the adults’ serious faces and were quiet.
8 AM finally came. The winds became strong, and the building was slightly shaking. This is something that you would always experience in Japan though. I checked the news; it was 50 kilometers off to the North. It’s a big typhoon for sure, but it seems like things will be okay. I believed we would survive after all.
We survived, now collect donations immediately
The afternoon before the typhoon had reached its peak, a newscaster from NHK had come. They explained the situation from the 8th floor of our school, and they were also speaking about the students studying abroad. Outside there were still strong winds and rain, but the building wouldn’t budge anymore. The power outage within the city had continued on, but the power within our building was still working due to our power generator.
The students, as well as the families of the teachers had calmed down a bit and began doing things like playing games and watching movies together in the lounge. A pleasant atmosphere spread across the room. The typhoon began to weaken little by little, and by the evening, the rain had stopped. The teachers’ families were able to go home to take care of their homes. The power and water outage still continued in the student dormitories, but it came back soon enough, and the students were able to sleep soundly there. At night, we received an inquiry on safety confirmation from the Japanese embassy, and I was able to tell them that all of our students were safe and sound.
Luckily, the Philippines was able to make it through Typhoon Haiyan without much damage. But, Leyte Island, especially the city of Tacloban, had been destroyed in a devastating manner. Cebu was saved through luck, but the typhoon was still the same strength and had directly struck Leyte Island.
I had prepared myself to accept that this typhoon could cause my business to fall apart, so I had a large sense of thankfulness. As survivors, we all had strong feelings of needing to help out those who needed it. So we began to collect donations. We had over 10,000 students on our online program, as well as our students for out study abroad program, so we had an incredible turnout. We quickly gathered 2 million Japanese Yen, and by the end of the month, we had over 4 million.
There were many family members of the teachers who were in other disaster regions, so we had to help them. 2 projects started—one for Leyte Island and the other for the teachers’ families.
And everything was lost
Doing the important things by yourself
I have to go see it with my own eyes I felt, so I traveled to Tacloban City in Leyte Island a week after the typhoon.
“Why are you going, Raiko? Let’s have someone else go see,” Zette said desperately and tried to stop me.
“Raiko, you’re Japanese so you’ll stand out. It’s dangerous,” Desiree said calmly.
“That’s right. Only the military has gone there yet. It’s not in a condition in which we can visit,” Noreen said.
Dolly replied, “They don’t have enough food yet either. I heard on the news that many robberies were going on because of it.”
But, there was no way that I couldn’t go now. The Philippines, a country that had helped me grow into the person I am today, was struggling.
“I have to collect donations from our online students. Unless I see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t be able to persuade them. The teachers’ families are suffering right now too. I can’t not doing anything,” I told them.
They gave up on stopping me, but Zette started again, “If Raiko is going, I’m going too. Let’s all go.”
“We’re using my car to get to transportation, so we can only take as few people as possible. We have to take our security guard too, so let’s just have one person,” I announced.
Dolly, the youngest one, immediately rose her hand and said, “I’ll go.”
Since the island had just gone through disaster, there was no transportation except by boat. It wasn’t just any boat either, it was a cargo boat.
I was shocked at the news I had seen, but the sight that my eyes came across was something I could never have imagined. There was nothing left from the high tides and strong wind. All of the electric poles had snapped in half, and there were trucks stuck in trees.
Imagine it a little bit.
A Philippine shore where many coconut trees grow. Those branches where there are supposed to be coconut tree leaves are left bare due to the strong wind. All of the trees looked like electric poles because they had lost all of their leaves. All houses were swept away because of the water, and within the rubble, the sight of a tree without leaves or branches standing was a horrifying sight. And when I saw a boat that had made its way far onto the shore, the scene was a replica of the one I had seen during the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
Finding a place to volunteer
The story will rewind a little, but after the typhoon, my school in IT Park was on the frontline of Japanese mass media. It’s because we had the fastest and largest internet network due to our online English conversation program. NHK, TBS, TV Asahi, and Kyodo News came and used our classrooms as offices to send their news to Japan. I helped them out because I wanted to do anything that would rescue Leyte Island. I assigned 2 teachers as secretaries and worked hard to make this work. It was a lot of work to deliver water, food, and generators. The Japanese mass media companies travelled from Cebu to Leyte Island afterwards too.
Kyodo News had to create a base inside Tacloban airport, so I brought over onigiri that my study abroad students had made and went to support them. Inside the airport, military members from various countries across the world were working without rest. Many helicopters were flying around the area as well. They couldn’t use the roads, so they had to deliver food from helicopters. And because the control tower was destroyed and unusable, instructions and information had to be communicated directly in person. In the empty space of the airport, a large number of tents were set up and many resources were piled up alongside them.
I received information from journalists and began looking for a place to volunteer. I heard that once you went further out from Tacloban City, the outside areas hadn’t received aid yet. So, I went down south with my car. After driving for approximately 10 kilometers, I found a church. Numerous children had seeked shelter in the church’s parking lot, as they had no home to go back to nor any food. I had 1,000 pieces of bread with me, so I dropped all of it off at that church. The children had probably eaten nothing because they seemed incredibly happy. Although I could only largely depend on the military, I promised to myself that I would soon bring back relief supplies to the children after seeing their large smiles.
I asked the pastor what they needed.
“The children are only able to eat cold emergency food. If you can come back again, I want to be able to feed them something warm,” he told me.
In the beginning, I had no idea where to start because the disaster was so widespread. But now, I found a starting point.
Chapter 38: A 3-day march without rest
Volunteering in Leyte Island
Our study abroad program was still a little chaotic, but I couldn’t just wait. We began our volunteer activities the last weekend of November, which was 3 weeks after the typhoon. It would be easy if we just delivered relief supplies, but this time, we worked hard together with those in the disaster areas.
First, I began with the warm food that the pastor had requested. Filipino noodles, warm rice, and fried chicken. We prepared 1,000 meals, so even with just chicken meat, we had 100 kilograms. The children hadn’t eaten warm food until we came in as volunteers, so they were ecstatic.
Our fourth time volunteering was in December 2013, and I was thinking of giving them Christmas presents. It’s a project that I had prepared a week in advance. We had a minibus for our study abroad program, so I was able to fully fill it up with presents.
Volunteering in Tacloban City is a lot of work. It’s a 3 day march without rest. It would be different if the island was connected to Cebu, but Leyte Island is separated from us. Not only that, Tacloban City is on the other side of the island; it’s on the opposite side. We rode the boat at 9 PM, and it takes us 7 hours to get there, so we arrive at around 4 AM. It’s dangerous at night, so we wait until 6 AM when the sun has risen to continue to Tacloban City. The distance to get there is around 100 kilometers, but due to the destroyed roads, it takes us around 3 hours. Of course, there are no hotels or even water or electricity, so we can’t stay anywhere overnight. We have to withdraw by the time it gets dark. So, we drive for 3 hours again, arrive at the port, and take off to cebu with the boat leaving at 10 PM. If we leave Cebu on Saturday night, we come back at 5 AM Monday morning, so the teachers and students who volunteer have to go straight back to class. If we leave Friday, we head to the port right after class ends and come back Sunday morning.
We were supposed to leave on Friday for our Christmas volunteer activity. This time, we had food supplies for 1,000 meals, 350 presents for the children, and 500 present sets for the families. For the students, we got them stationary, notebooks, and writing materials. For the families, we got mosquito repellant, mosquito nets, blankets, soap, toothbrush, and other living necessities.
The sports-oriented Callan Method
There is a secretly famous English conversation school in London. It’s a very grueling school, but if you want to improve your English quickly, I’d say it’s worthwhile. The school invented the Callan Method, which is based on the Audiolingual Approach. The Callan Method is claimed to raise one’s English level at 4 times the speed of other methods. It takes on average 350 hours of studying to pass the Cambridge examination, but with the Callan Method, you can pass it with approximately 80. Not only that, the acceptance rate for those who study under the Callan Method is 95%. It’s a method that is approved in over 30 countries (mostly in Europe) and around 400 language schools. Even a fair number of Japanese people know about it.
I decided that I wanted to use the Callan Method for my programs too, but I didn’t have any connections for it. No matter how much I approached them from Cebu, it didn’t go well, and I was reminded of the beginnings of when I established my motorcycle import business. Back then, I would establish unexpected relationships by talking to people in person and with my own words. Even if it may lead to nothing, I had to go. I was becoming worried day by day from the delay in textbook creation, so I decided to go for it and fly to London.
They had wonderful, historical buildings situated on Oxford Street, a street with many gift shops. They had 2 buildings, one for class and one for management, and there was another building situated between them. I knew that my request was unreasonable, but I immediately encountered an unexpected “fate” here too. Although I had no appointment, I was able to meet with the president, Mr. Tom, and the nephew of Mr. Callan, Charles. They were very surprised when I told them I was running an online English conversation business in the Philippines. And they patiently listened to me discuss with them the thoughts I had about our teaching materials.
They then invited me to dine with them at a membership-only club. It was a famous one, and Winston Churchill used to be a member as well. It’s within a historic building in the middle of London, but it is so significant at the entrance. Once entered, a butler kindly welcomes you and calls your name. Upon handing over your coat and going in, a museum-like area opens up. Past that is the dining hall. Of course, there were no prices listed on the menu. The host member writes your order and hands it over to the waiter. The dishes were brought to us upon trays; they were so delicious that I was doubtful I was in England. Later, we had after-meal tea in the library with books from hundreds of years ago around us.
An overbooked boat
“Dolly, what should I do? I can’t ride the boat.” The driver who was heading to the port before us contacted our office.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
There’s no way we could go without having our present-filled car get on the boat. I asked them the reason, but apparently it’s due to the boat being overbooked. Since Christmas was approaching, there were many cars from Cebu.
Cebu’s port has 6 piers, and there are many boats facing backwards. There weren’t just ferry boats tonight; there were also cargo boats and high-speed boats too. A boat amateur like me had no idea what kind of rules they operated on. There were many cars and trucks as well. Dolly definitely wasn’t expecting overbooking either since we had made reservations a week ago. She even went to get confirmation from the owner of the boat.
“What are you saying? I won’t accept not being able to ride. We’ve spoken to the owners too… Isn’t there any other person responsible here?”
Dolly isn’t the type of person who will simply back off after being told no.
“I’ll go right away, so wait a second. Don’t accept what’s happening, okay?” she said. And like that, she immediately went to the pier after her class ended.
After that, we were in chaos for 3 hours. The boat’s departure time was scheduled to be at 9, but Dolly wouldn’t let the other cars get on the boat, even when it had turned 10. She was desperate because if the other cars got on, ours would lose the chance. And after that, the other teachers came to join her, such as Zette, so it became an even bigger commotion.
To be swarmed by these members causes a headache even for me, so the operator couldn’t stand it. He stuck his fingers into his ears to try to stop the noise, and even when he turned his head away from them, my teachers would come around and force him to listen. Another teacher began singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, and overall, it was just insane. But as they worked hard and kept this going on for 3 hours, a shocking thing happened.
Dolly and Zette suddenly began to cry. I’m going to remind you that our now supervisors (the original Super Teachers) are absolutely not the type to cry. But as the battle went on for 3 hours, they had to use their last remaining weapon. Once the other teachers all began to cry with them, we finally reached our grand victory.
I surely didn’t expect for us to be able to persuade them through crying. When I asked about this later, I was told that a boat staff who was bribed sold our tickets, which caused our spots to be lost.
“I was annoyed so I used my last remaining option. Well, look who’s laughing now?” Dolly and Zette seemed very proud of themselves.
Like this, I was somehow able to ride the boat with my teachers, students, and staff, along with our present-filled bus and car.
An unbelievable experience
Finally heading to Leyte Island
By the time the boat departed, it was around 11. In the boat, there were many bunkbeds lined along the walls. Besides the cargo room where cars are placed, there were 2 boat decks, but they were all covered with the bunkbeds since there were close to 1,000 passengers.
When things calmed down a little bit, our chef, Domin, began speaking.
“I’m from Tacloban City, so I’m really happy to see my family. I wanted to go home on the day of the typhoon, but I had to cook meals for the students so I didn’t say it.”
“Raiko, thank you for inviting me to join you.”
I was filled with feelings of guilt.
Domin and I are partners who ran a restaurant together next to the Korean school 10 years ago. Now, he works for me alongside his wife.
After the typhoon, I couldn’t let him go home because of the students’ meals, no matter how much I wanted to. I knew that he was crying with his wife after the typhoon because they couldn’t get in contact with their family in Tacloban City. But after that, they were able to get in contact and confirm their safety. I brought lots of presents for their family this time; it’s the biggest one out of all of them.
Funny enough, this crazy volunteer schedule was very popular amongst my teachers. Everyone wanted to take days off so that they could participate. And 5 students were participating too, even though they had to pay for their own boat fare and food. Today we had a student from Iran joining us too; it goes to show that the desire to help has no nationality.
We got to the port in the early morning, and we reached Tacloban City by car at around 8:30. Then, we began to cook. We got the help of the locals as well, and Chef Domin continued to work hard. He seemed happy to be able to help out the people in his hometown. Even his dad came to help today. Despite being in the disaster area, he came over because he had heard that his son was coming to volunteer. We finished cooking by the time it was afternoon, so Domin was able to visit home with his dad.
We had not only prepared meals, but also presents, so over 1,500 locals turned up. The students, teachers, and I all worked together, but by the time we finished handing everything out, it was already past 3:30.
Staying a night at Tacloban airport, where there are no windows or walls
After volunteering, I had to head to our office in Shanghai. Tacloban airport had been damaged, but since a month had passed, a portion of the airport resumed operation 3 days before. I was headed to Shanghai with a connection in Manila. Shanghai was extremely cold compared to the warm Philippines, but I utilized my Christmas holiday to have a meeting about expanding in China.
However…I had another trial come my way before actually making it there. The airplane was overbooked too, so I couldn’t get on. I knew nobody in Tacloban City, and the teachers and students had sent me off to the airport and were now heading to the port that’s 100 kilometers away. There’s no hotel, water, or even electricity, so I couldn’t not go. Unfortunately, the computers weren’t working well, so the ticket management system hadn’t been operating well either. When I was told that the next flight would be at 9:20 AM the next morning, I felt like I was about to faint. I had to spend the night at the airport.
The control tower’s glass was all broken, and there was no wall to set up a ladder to fix it either because the wall had been destroyed from the typhoon. They had at least fixed the roof, but since there were no windows or walls, I could see the airplane runways from the inside. Additionally, they stopped the generator at night so there was no electricity. As for water, I only had bottled water. I felt like I was losing my mind.
The staff who worked at the airport probably lost many members of their families too. If they’re working this hard even under such circumstances, I had no right to be upset with them. I received a handwritten flight schedule from them, and in the evening, all the airport staff went home to their homes that had been largely destroyed.
Receiving the best Christmas present
Amongst the pitch-black night sky, a sea of stars spread began to spread across the darkness. It was such a quiet night that it felt like it was all a lie that I had done so much with the teachers and students in the afternoon. There were no electric lights, so the only source was a wavering candle flame. As I slowly took in the starry sky, I was reminded of the time I first came to study abroad in the Philippines.
“It’s almost Christmas.”
It was Christmas in 2005 when I brought over a snowman to the Philippines, and it was also Christmas when I decided to walk down the path of online English conversation programs. The day I decided to build a school with Akki to study abroad in the Philippines was Christmas too.
It seems like my businesses in the Philippines always face turning points during Christmas. The English conversation school I began with the 7 Super Teachers now has over 700 teachers, and it’s even larger than the school I started my journey in. We have over 100,000 registered members on our online program, and we also take in over 5,000 students on a yearly basis for our study abroad program.
I really wasn’t expecting things to succeed so much, and I can honestly say that the Philippines completely changed my life. I had been living a life in which I never rested and reflected like this up until now, so maybe this is God giving me some time to think.
As I lay down on a board on the airport floor and stared at the starry sky, I thought, My life has completely changed by learning to speak English. I’ve met all sorts of people, and I have a team that I can truly trust. I was just a simple motorcycle delivery service guy, but the Philippines has let me become the most fortunate person in the world.
There were no sounds except the wind, and I was able to see stars so many stars that night that would’ve never been possible in Tokyo. I received the world’s best Christmas present that night.
I couldn’t sleep well on the ferry boat’s bunkbed the night before, but before I knew it, I was sleeping soundly on the board on the airport floor. In the early morning, the assigned staff from the day before came in.
Right before departing, they said, “I’m sorry for all the trouble caused. Tacloban is in a terrible state right now, but please do come again. I’ll be sure to have the city brought back to life by then.”
“It’s actually a really, really wonderful city.”
What they said will never leave my mind.
We still continue our volunteer activities in Tacloban City to this day. Until the city truly returns to being the wonderful city that it was, I don’t plan to stop.
Crises turn into opportunities
A helper from the opposite side of the world
After having a busy time with volunteering after the typhoon, a serious crisis occurred at my school in December 2013. It was a serious decrease in our students due to bad reputation. Our inquiries regarding study abroad had come to a sudden stop. We had over 150 students studying abroad with us, but they had fallen down to 37, so it was very tough. After investing as much as we could for the success of our programs, the Kuroda Bazooka, earthquake, typhoon, and now this, the biggest crisis, has hit us.
Dolly was shouting, “We have to cover for ourselves with the online program!”
Zette was desperate too. “Nothing good will happen if we fall apart too. Everyone, think of ideas.”
“The number of our teachers has decreased too because those from Leyte have gone home,” said Noreen.
“We don’t have as many students studying abroad now, so let’s move those teachers to our online program and do 5,000 classes at most within a day,” Desiree spoke.
Gayle immediately replied, “We can do 3,500 for Japan.”
“And then we have China and Korea. How’s Iran?” Mia asked.
We were able to get in contact with Brazil. “We’re still preparing, but we can start off with a small amount. Could you split some of your teachers for us?”
We had support from the opposite side of the world too. Around a year and a half ago, one of our team members had gone over to Sao Paolo. By conducting classes for South America too, we’re able to cover the opposite times of our locations in Asia.
I realized something when Skyping with a staff member who was helping us from the U.S.
“The peak times in Asia are exactly opposite with the U.S. If only Americans studied English…”
“Hahaha. Raiko, Americans are pretty good at English!”
While joking around like this, he said, “Raiko, how about South America? Many people from Mexico and South America come to learn English here.”
“Alright! Then let’s do Brazil. They have the World Cup and the Olympics.”
“Those are your only intentions!”
It’s true that I had pretty simple reasons for wanting to start an office in Sao Paolo. But it was good in that as the topics of the Olympics and the World Cup would come up in conversations, I could tell the story of how it all came to be.
So, can you speak Portuguese?
This was in 2012, when I was drinking with a friend who I met through studying abroad in the Philippines years ago. It was both a Christmas party and end-of-the-year party.
“I guess I’ll go,” Hide said. He was a Medical Representative at a large foreign pharmaceutical company, and had been making it big.
“What are you going to do about your job? Aren’t you the one making the top sales? We don’t make much money so you won’t get much of a salary,” I told him.
“Once we develop, we’ll have the market to ourselves, right?”
“Hahaha. That’s right. We can make it big in Brazil and all of South America, but we have to do the development on our own.”
“Hide, can you even speak Portuguese? You’re not even good at English,” I teased.
“It’s fine. It’ll work out! Also, I’m popular with women. Get it? Because in Japanese, motel sounds like ‘popular with women.’”
We were in tears from laughing.
“It’s hard to believe you claiming that you’re popular with women when you’re still single at 36.”
“And you say that your business model is the motel industry. This won’t do!”
Hide said he would get a Brazilian girlfriend and learn the language that way, and then develop his business. We thought he was joking, but then he said in a serious tone, “No, I’ll be sure to make it happen. I’ll quit my company and never return, so let me do it.”
Perhaps he was a little drunk.
“There aren’t many things in life that are as challenging as this,” he continued.
“We can start a huge revolution with online English conversation programs. We can send over your study abroad students to use it too. So, let me have Brazil.”
I didn’t want to pay someone who was going to use the motel industry as their business model, but afterwards, he really did go and quit his job. So, I paid his flight at least. Well, it was more like just using my mileage to reserve a ticket.
It’s been a year since that happened. Brazil is on the opposite side of the world, so I couldn’t help him out or even visit him. He did everything on his own while in a new, foreign country. From creating a website to marketing, he started off by learning Portuguese at a language school.
He sure is something. I’ve been fighting a tough battle in the Philippines, where English is already spoken, so I knew that expanding to Brazil was no easy feat. When he said he wanted to help me out during this hard time for my study abroad program, I started to tear up.
Thank you, Hide, for all that you’ve done.
Crises are always opportunities
Our team in China was working their hardest too. They were growing and would soon be just as big as our Japanese program, so they were running about trying to get more students to study abroad with us.
“Raiko, there’s no point in increasing our students online. We have to do something about the study abroad students,” said Wang Jun.
“I have a secret plan. I’ll go to Cebu right away,” he continued.
After the typhoon, he came over from Shanghai. Wang Jun told me, “Crises are always opportunities. I’ll go around all the English conversation schools in Cebu. I’m sure that they’ve all been damaged one way or another, so I’ll look for students that could transfer over to our school. I’m confident there will be demand.”
It’s true that my school had the least amount of damage due to being inside a building built with the latest technology within a highly advanced area. It was to the point where we could use internet even during the typhoon. But depending on the school, there was a lot of variance in damage, so many students had given up and gone home to their home country.
“Wang Jun, we can’t do that. As a Japanese company, we shouldn’t utilize the failures of our opponents to our advantage. It’ll just get us a bad reputation.”
“What are you saying? We aren’t utilizing the failures of our opponents. It’s compassion; we’re helping out the students who are struggling from disaster. Don’t worry, I won’t contact Japanese students. I’ll target the Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean students.”
And like that, Wang Jun called and made appointments with various study abroad agents in the Philippines for students of those countries. The agents had been receiving many complaints and inquiries, and we even had an agent, who we had never done business with before, come visit us to inspect our school. Wang Jun had persuaded them to come.
“The big difference compared to Korean schools is the teachers’ hearts. By hiring all of our teachers as full-time employees, we emphasize quality over quantity. We even have teachers who have gone through 5 years of training and experience. Meeting them was ‘fate’, and at our school, we highly value the importance of ‘fate’ and ‘bonds.’”
There was no difference between our price and our competitors, but for the first year, we weren’t able to make our way into the Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean market.
We were in a huge crisis, but it turned out to be just as large of an opportunity. Students from other schools transferred over to ours in full force.
Our school researched the facilities of Korean schools before creation, so their facilities are no match compared to ours. Our environment is excellent, and our method of teaching is highly developed as well. My school Is also the only school that combines both an online program and study abroad program. This Japanese English conversation school that hadn’t been able to expand internationally was able to spread globally in an instant.
It’ll be okay even if everything is lost
A decision to never withdraw
Doing business overseas means that crises will come, and they will still continue to come for mine as well. But the moment you think you’ll lose and decide to withdraw from the battle, you’ve already lost. I don’t ever want to forget that my ancestors came to Japan by swimming across the ocean. The early humans who originated from Africa were able to go to the far east and even the peninsulas. But those who risked their lives to cross the ocean were the Japanese. The pioneer spirit that the Japanese have of venturing into unknown territory is unlike any other country.
As I run my business, I have a thought that keeps getting stronger and stronger. It’s that I want more Japanese people to venture out into the world. Japanese people are supposed to be up for challenges, but I think there are many people who are stuck in the country due to the simple reason of not being able to speak foreign languages. As you have read, I’ve experienced countless battles, but I’ve also met wonderful “destinies” and have created many “bonds” —even as a simple guy who runs a motorcycle delivery service. By venturing out into the world, great change comes your way.
I had planned for my life to end with just motorcycles, but somehow, I ended up here. I have offices in Cebu, Shanghai, Seoul, Tehran, and Sao Paolo. And I have over 1,000 staff members across the world. Now I also do business with Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and am planning on expanding to Russia and Vietnam too. All of this was possible by learning how to communicate in English.
I’m sure many more challenges will come our way in the future. But I plan to overcome them all by establishing relationships with others and helping each other out—thus utilizing the values of “fate”, “compassion”, “continuance”, and “bonds.” When overseas, you have to be aware of your strengths and polish them up well, so that you can be prepared to deal with crises. You can’t just go out into the world because you think you’ll be able to make it big easily. Many companies have tried to have a go in Cebu but have withdrawn because they couldn’t survive. Companies that challenge themselves without being scared of risk are strong, but I don’t think they’ll last long if they expand overseas just because they think the labor costs are low.
I think my battles will head to the world championships from now on. Apparently, my rival company in China had received an investment of 1.5 billion Japanese Yen the other day. If a start-up in Japan received 50 million Japanese Yen, it would still be a big deal, so it’s a lot of money. But I think being able to survive with limited resources is a talent that Japanese people are equipped with, and I have the intention of creating the world’s best English conversation school through it.
I want to be able to change as many people’s lives as I can through the power of English. And by creating jobs In the Philippines, I want to impact the country’s future as well.
If you’re going to put it into terms of The North Wind and the Sun, I’ll be going with the sun no matter how many times I’m betrayed or lied to. By telling my team that “It’ll work out,” my team of teachers can grow to become truly qualified individuals because they will believe in their worth too. The business model I learned from running a motorcycle delivery service business is to create a true team that trusts and believes in one another.
You can count on me to continue to fight alongside my Filipino Super Teachers, motorcycle-delivery-service style.
The original Super Teachers and I were chatting away.
“If this typhoon had come to Cebu, I would’ve lost all of my possessions and my life would have reached the end.”
“Hahaha, oh Raiko. It’d be okay even if everything was lost. You have us!” Zette answered.
“What matters is this team,” said Helga.
“We won’t lose even if the typhoon had taken away everything—even all of our possessions,” Dolly continued.
“As long as one of us out of the seven had survived, we could start things up again,” Gayle added.
Desiree came in and said, “Don’t worry. Until we create the world’s best English conversation program, we’ll be sure to never stop.”
“Let’s collect more and more members for our team,” cheered Noreen.
And Mia finished, “Let’s build another school along the seaside! It’ll be beautiful.”
Right now, I’m walking along with a vast, white blanket of sand. Along the shore, there are coconut trees growing strongly, and the large waves from the ocean are washing my feet with every step I take. It comes and goes, and it comes and goes. The waves don’t have an ending.
I feel like my vitality has gotten stronger as I’ve lived on a tropical island. The intense Cebu sun shines down its power to the life beneath it, and it protects all forms of life so as to help them push through no matter what kind of crises or failure comes their way. I have a large team that supports me, and I hope to fight together with them no matter what kind of difficulty comes along.
Until I can create the world’s best school, I’ll never stop running on this path.
With a motorcycle, of course.