The very first job that brought me to Japan as a gainfully employed adult was teaching at a private English school. While most of our customers were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, we also offered kids’ classes, even for preschool-aged children.
With young learners, the first hurdle to get past was for them to not freak out about talking with someone from a different country. While that might sound horribly racist, there just aren’t that many opportunities to meet people from other cultures in Japan, especially in a child’s daily life, and the first meeting was usually a little intimidating for them (the company policy that didn’t allow foreign staff to speak Japanese in front of the customers probably didn’t help in this regard).
Thankfully, it usually only took a couple of minutes for the kids to see that non-Japanese instructors aren’t terrifying monsters. Unfortunately, this startling commercial for a chain of children’s English schools in Japan only takes 15 seconds to visually imply that, yes, actually, they are.
Seiha English Academy may not be as instantly recognizable as Aeon, Berlitz, ECC, and the other major players in Japan’s English education industry. Seiha’s been around since 1985 though, and in its 30 years of operation the Fukuoka-based company has opened more than 400 schools, predominantly in west Japan, to teach English to bright young minds ages 15 and under.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, and to provide a visual metaphor of just how effective its lessons are, Seiha has put out the following ad, which opens with a father and son walking across a parking lot.
“So, how’re your English lessons these days?” the dad asks his Seiha-going kid. The boy, obviously keen to show off his newly acquired linguistic skills, decides to answer in English. That’s not so weird, but his internal decision marks the last moment before the ad takes a sudden detour into Freaky-ville.
Sure, any Japanese parent would be impressed to hear their child answer with a hearty “I’m great!” in perfectly accented English, before going on to extol the virtues of Seiha’s teachers who are native English-speakers. Still, Dad would probably prefer to hear the words from his son’s own mouth, and not that of a foreign man whose head is protruding from between the kid’s lips.
We suppose we could also nitpick the fact that as the man says “I’m doing great!” in English the Japanese subtitles at the bottom of the screen actually mean “I’m having a lot of fun!” It’s doubtful that most viewers will notice the discrepancy, though, either because they’re not bilingual or too busy covering their eyes and weeping in terror.
There’s actually a method to this visual madness, though, as the company’s tagline later pops up on screen: “So much English skill that you won’t believe it’s your kid talking.”
▼ Surprisingly, the on-screen text does not translate as “We are devouring your children’s souls from the inside!”
Just before the ad comes to a close, the kid, trying to snap his parent out of his stupor, asks, “Are you OK, dad?” It’s quite telling that he doesn’t make any attempt to say yes.
Neither did these online commenters in Japan.
“Too startling, too creepy.”
“The heck kind of commercial did they make?”
“Stop, please. You’re making my kids cry.”
After watching the ad, we’re feeling pretty traumatized ourselves, especially as the commercial doesn’t answer the most disturbing question it raises.
Is that smooth-sounding English-speaker a disembodied head, or is there a whole miniature person inside that boy’s esophagus?