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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013

WHO'S WHO

Online English studies benefit Japanese, Filipinos

Native of Bangladesh creates affordable Skype-based school


Staff writer

Mohammad Moin tries to realize what he calls "intellectual fair trade" through his operation of an online English conversation school for Japanese — all taught by Filipino teachers.

News photo
Learning curve: Mohammad Moin, founder and CEO of PIKT, a Tokyo-based online English school, stands in front of a cafe near Shibuya Station. MAMI MARUKO

The inexpensive English lessons are offered to Japanese students via Skype, while at the same time giving employment opportunities to Filipinos — most of whom have graduated from top universities in their countries but have no jobs.

Moin, 33, who was born in Bangladesh, said that several years ago he found out from a Filipino university friend that the Philippines was suffering from high unemployment, especially among women and young people. The two came up with the idea of opening the online school, which is headquartered in Tokyo and a branch in Cebu.

With his team of staff from four countries — Japan, the Philippines, India and South Korea — he created 12 different curricula for the online school, which targets different levels and aims, ranging from elementary and high school students to people studying business English or for English proficiency tests, like the TOEIC or IELTS.

"We have contracts with 150 to 200 Filipino teachers — some of whom are single mothers with children. This was one of the best things to connect the two countries and to provide opportunities to both countries as a social contribution," he said.

He said that when he first arrived in Japan, he was shocked to find out that many Japanese could not communicate well in English.

"When I first came to Japan, I thought that Japanese would be fluent in English, but it was different. I expected them to be fluent, because they are the most developed nation in the world, and the second-biggest economy. I'm from a developing country like Bangladesh, but we can speak English on a certain level. I thought Japanese should be better in English, because they have better (educational) opportunities," he said.

Establishing the online English school, he said, was his own way of "making a contribution to the Japanese society," which gave him an opportunity to study and work for more than a decade.

Moin said that acquiring a foreign language doesn't come easily to anyone. In order to learn any language, one must put a lot of time and effort into it, he said.

"There are methods like 'speed learning' in Japan, such as attaining English just by listening, but it doesn't work like that. You have to be adamant to reach your goal," he said. His own experience with learning Japanese — which he is now fluent in — was spending more than 2,000 hours and learning 5,000 kanji in nine months. He eventually attained level 1 on the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test — the top level.

Moin said he first became interested in Japan through his father, a medical researcher who has visited many countries for his work. His father visited Japan in 1999, and told Moin about his impressions and experiences during his time here.

"He liked Japan very much, and talked to me — I was a high school student at the time — about the Japanese culture. Japan's infrastructure and safeness, kindness, politeness, and hospitality of the Japanese people," he said.

A lot of his classmates studied abroad at some point, and he said he was thinking of doing the same. His father recommended he study in Japan instead of the more popular, English-speaking destinations like the United States and Europe.

Then he happened to see a poster advertising Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita Prefecture when he visited the Japanese Embassy in Dhaka. He won a four-year scholarship from the Japanese government, and arrived in Japan in 2001, transferring from Dhaka University to APU in his second year.

APU is the first university in Japan that has a dual-language curriculum — with courses taught in either Japanese or English. The students are from 81 countries, and nearly 50 percent of the students are from overseas.

Moin said he made friends from all over the world, and in his second year established with his friends from Tonga and Canada a free "juku" (cram school), teaching English to local Japanese people.

"We did it as a volunteer activity. (The juku was the starting point for teaching) Japanese and contributing to Japan . . . for their language ability," he said.

Moin graduated from APU in March 2005, and first worked for a Japanese manufacturer based in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture. He was assigned to the business controlling department for three years, where he was responsible for expanding the company's operations in India and Thailand.

He moved to Tokyo in 2007 with his Bangladeshi wife, whom he had married in 2006, and switched jobs to the Japan unit of the German automobile parts and electric tools company Bosch as marketing manager. While working for that company, he attained an MBA from Tsukuba University.

In 2010, he started his company, PIKT, initially as a social venture with support from Bosch, and he quit Bosch in November to concentrate on it full time.

He has recently obtained Japanese nationality, and lives in Shiki, Saitama Prefecture with his wife and two children.

"I wouldn't have been able to bring the business to this stage without my wife's cooperation," said Moin, adding that his wife handles the administrative side of the business. "She believes in me. She never said, 'You can't quit your job (at Bosch).' This helps me and motivates me to move faster."

He said it was hard to manage his time during the early days of the business — juggling his work and the business with the MBA course and family life — and there were many times when he could not sleep at night.

"It was like a one-man show. I had to think a lot and bring all the concepts together — how I wanted the system, the website, the curriculum, and how I should establish my own firm in Japan and the Philippines. But it was a learning experience for me," he said.

He stressed that the most difficult part of the business was to train the Filipino tutors. "They don't know Japanese culture. If they don't know it, they won't know how to teach the Japanese. For example, Japanese are very serious about time. On the contrary, Filipinos are loose at time. You have to train them, because tutors are the backbone of this system. If they don't know the Japanese culture, and they don't know how to teach, nobody will be interested," he said.

To this end, he said he made 100 slides on Japanese culture — about time management of Japanese culture, what Japanese are sensitive about, how they behave, what kind of things they like and dislike — and trains the tutors for at least 16 hours before they actually start teaching.

In the next five years, he said his target is to reach out to "more than 15 million Japanese people" to learn English at his online school.

He said that he also wants to be a bridging point between Japan and the Philippines in the future.

"Japanese branding and knowhow should be spreading all over the world," he said. "Japanese economy is shrinking and you don't have lots of opportunities in Japan. It's time for the small and medium enterprises to go overseas.

"Japanese people should be able to communicate in an international language — which is English. I want the Japanese companies to make an M&A, invest in different Asian countries and take the lead of Asia. That's my vision."

He also hopes his company will be able to employ staff from 50 different countries in the future.

"It's important to have views from people from different countries so that innovative ideas will be born. Also, if we have staff from different countries who have studied in Japan, we can spread the Japanese brand all over the world," he said.

For more about PIKT, visit www.pikt.jp.


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