In a country teeming with cute cartoon characters, few are cuter or better known than the Nova bunny. The pink mascot stood in the doorways of language schools across Japan, promising a short educational encounter with an exotic foreigner. But now, thousands of teachers and students have found that the bunny bites, hard.
The collapse of Nova, Japan's biggest employer of foreigners, has left 4,000 teachers – including more than 900 from the UK – stranded without work, money and, in some cases, a place to live. "There are people who don't know where their next meal is coming from," said Bob Tench, an official with Nova's union. "It's very distressing."
The union is offering a lessons-for-food programme to former Nova students, 300,000 of whom have lost out on classes they have paid for. The British embassy in Tokyo has fielded dozens of calls from distressed ex-pats and several airlines are offering Nova teachers discounted tickets home.
"I came to pay off my college overdraft and credit card and now I'm living on pot noodles and cheap rice dishes," said Alec Macfarlane, who joined Nova in the summer after graduating from Liverpool University. Like many teachers, he is officially homeless, has not been paid for months, and is depending on the charity of friends and family in the UK.
The unravelling of one of Japan's most popular high-street companies has riveted nightly television viewers. The ubiquitous bunny fronted the nation's largest private language chain, controlling nearly half the market for English-language teaching; two generations of Japanese had their first and sometimes only encounter with a foreigner in a Nova classroom. But while the company's aggressive cost-cutting helped fuel Japan's language-learning boom, its president, Nozomu Sahashi, was criticised for his stingy hiring policies and take-no-prisoners' marketing.
Nova's slide began earlier this year when the government ordered it to close temporarily for posting misleading advertisements, and banned it from selling long-term contracts. With students abandoning it and suing for refunds, it filed for bankruptcy last week, crippled by debts of 44bn yen (£185m).
Mr. Sahashi has fled the company's offices and is nowhere to be found. In the meantime, Nova is promising that it will be back in business once it sorts out its financial problems. But furious ex-pat bloggers have already posted their verdict on their websites. "I'd like to boil that bunny in a pot," wrote one.
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