“Windswept Women”, and the Benesse Corporation: A Further Update (of sorts) on the Berlitz Dispute.

James McCrostie has provided an excellent update (featured here on Let’s Japan.org) on the long drawn out legal action between Berlitz (owned by the Benesse Corporation) and its workers, who dared to strike for better pay and were taken to court for doing so. Needless to say, the Japanese courts have not ruled on the issue (i.e. the workers’ unquestionable constitutional right to strike) and are waiting for the two sides to “reach an agreement”. This has been an incredibly distressing time for the activists involved, who, in addition to failing to achieve their principal aims, are being threatened by a crushing lawsuit brought against them for “damaging the company”. Of course, there is every chance the ridiculous lawsuit will be thrown out of court (eventually) but this is hardly the point. The point is that the Benesse Corporation are prepared to throw big money at crushing union resistance and they want to intimidate staff for having the audacity to ask for a share in the enormous profits the company were/are making.

Now we might ask what Benesse do with all these profits if they are so keen to keep them away from the “greedy workers” who generate such profits in the first place. After all, the president, Soichiro Fukutake, is one of the ten richest men in Japan with an estimated “worth” of 1.2 billion dollars. Well, after investing in swanky office accommodation (see left) and allowing its president to buy homes throughout Asia and Australia, they donate to charity and the arts. In fact, Soichiro Fukutake, is the proud owner of Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima island (which boasts, amongst other treasures, original work from the French impressionist painter, Claude Monet) and Forbes named him as one of the 48 heroes of world philanthropy.

Catherine Campbell.

Well Catherine Campbell is not one of Soichiro Fukutake’s charities. She was dismissed by Berlitz because she took too long to recover from breast cancer. (Apparently, Berlitz support  the pink ribbon Breast Cancer campaign through their health insurance union, but we have not found a link yet). The company had failed to enrol Catherine in health insurance, which is nothing but illegal and something for which they had been investigated in the past (with no action taken- what a surprise!) The consequences of the company’s incompetence and neglect meant Catherine had to return to Canada for treatment. When she returned, she was sacked.

Now Catherine was a leading organiser of the dispute (and one of the teachers being sued by them) so we suspect Berlitz were taking the opportunity to crush her personally and send a message to other activists. We know also that a reservist soldier was sacked on returning from Afghanistan on tour of duty. He had done previous tours of service without any complaints from Berlitz but after he had the audacity to strike they took a dimmer view of his “patriotic duties”; which just goes to show really what a real scummy lot they are over at Benesse Corporation.

Catherine says of her ordeal,

“On one hand, I’m lucky to be alive and healthy enough to even want to go back to work, so everything else pales in comparison,” she explained. “But on the other, the company’s decision does seem hard to understand. The leave is unpaid, and I don’t receive any health benefits, so it wouldn’t cost Berlitz anything to keep me on; and for me, it’s that much harder to restart my life without a job.”

We thought about Catherine as we looked at an art exhibition the Benesse Corporation sponsored to go to a Venice Arts festival. The exhibition,  Windswept Women, The Old Grirls’ Troupe. The press release reads

For this installation, Yanagi will take the Takamasa Yoshizaka-designed Japan Pavilion built in 1956 and cover its exterior with a black, membrane-like tent. Invoking the original idea of a “pavilion” as a free standing or temporary structure, the fluidity and mobility of the tent form will turn the Japan Pavilion into a temporary playhouse. Inside, Yanagi will install giant 4m high photograph stands containing portraits of women of varied ages. A new video work and series of small photographs will also be shown. Upon entering, viewers will feel disoriented, losing their sense of scale and perspective as they walk among oversized works.

The motif of this installation is a troupe comprised exclusively of women traveling with their mobile house—a tent—on the top of their caravan. This tent, inspired by the novels of Japanese modernist writer Kobo Abe, has already appeared in Yanagi’s previous Fairy Tales (2004-05) series of staged photographs, and has been a key to expressing ambivalent themes such as the tensions between “life and death,” “past and future,” “confinement and mobility” and “everyday life and festival.”

The photographs of gigantic women Yanagi has created for Venice symbolize resolution. They stand unmoved despite being surrounded by turbulent wind. No matter happens, they will keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Presented in ornately designed decorative frames, these women seem surreal but also embody an element of nostalgia. Although the images themselves have a macabre quality, they encourage us to embrace vitality. They take on added significance in Venice, where the threat of imminent death has been a concern for the city throughout its history, as well as in light of the critical economic recession currently affecting people throughout the world.

Oh what a cultured and sophisticated man Soichiro Fukutake is, a real hero for making this possible! And what of the real windswept women, like Catherine, who face death, who are resolute, who keep their feet firmly on the ground, who encourage us to embrace vitality. Why oh why does he want to crush them?

Well the art exhibition we at Marxist TEFL would like to see is a photo-narrative of Soichiro Fukutake being swept (by the wind of course) off a cliff and being strangled by a huge pink ribbon before he hits the ground. Violent and brutal you may say, but then that’s just our love of modern art!



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3 responses to ““Windswept Women”, and the Benesse Corporation: A Further Update (of sorts) on the Berlitz Dispute.

  1. Pingback: Locked out by the TEFL Industry, Disability Rights Now! « Marxist TEFL Group

  2. hoofin

    As an acquaintance of Catherine Campbell and others in the Berlitz group, I have been following this story, blogging here: http://hoofin.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/japan-times-covers-the-berlitz-japan-union-case/

    Aside from Catherine’s own compelling story, there is a policy question of why she wasn’t covered by the regular Japanese employer health insurance within Shakai Hoken? Can you imagine Canada summarily excluding Japanese from Canada’s health and disability programs, (which is how China would handle it in retaliation, by the way)?

    Are you also aware that Berlitz/Benesse in America has received $53 million in federal contracts in recent years?


    This is the one that galls me as an American taxpayer. Many Americans have heard of Berlitz, but they don’t know that a Japanese billionaire is behind it. More federal money going to subsidize Japan, in the shadows.

    I tried to put word through via union contacts to the U.S. military officer who was summarily dismissed by Berlitz while called up to Afghanistan. (That’s another one the folks back home in America haven’t read in their newspapers, by the way.) America has a law, nicknamed USERRA, that is supposed to protect U.S. servicemen even when they are working in foreign affiliates of U.S.-based companies. The last I checked, Berlitz International was headquartered outside of Princeton, New Jersey. It doesn’t matter who owns it.

  3. robin hood

    On order from Japanese parent company, Berlitz Germany commits hara-kiri

    Up to now, the German branch of the international Berlitz organization has had a reputation for high quality language instruction. Generations of German Geschäftsleute have Berlitz teachers to thank for their ability to communicate with suppliers and customers, discuss with officials, deal with colleagues, negotiate contracts, throughout the world.
    This will no longer be the case if Berlitz parent company, Benesse, a Japanese conglomerate, has its way.
    In order to make up for diminishing profitability – the result of years of, to say the least, benign neglect on the part of the people in charge – Benesse demands that teacher costs be drastically cut. This should be achieved both by massive lay-offs (about a third of the currently employed contract teachers) and a substantial pay reduction for the remaining salaried staff.
    The predictable result will be a “mcdonaldization” of the tradition-rich language school that has been operating in Germany for over a century, which will be debased from its status as the premium brand in the industry to just another “brand X”, run-of-the-mill language sausage factory.
    The teachers and clerical staff concerned by this suicidal move are determined not to let this programmed train wreck happen and they have started to mobilize all stake holders – students, corporate clients, political authorities – for support.

    For more information: wirtunwas@webmail.de

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