I have taught English in different places around the world, and in 2012-2013, I pursued an English teaching job in Japan with a company called AEON.
The Japanese English industry is made up of eikaiwas, or English schools, of which Aeon has the best reputation. Indeed, it seems another company named Interac is even worse in terms of the tactics it uses (screaming at and belittling its new trainees.)
They had a group interview in New York City. I thought the format was a bit unusual, but I was attracted to the symmetry and elegance of their methodology, so I decided to take the plunge and accept the job when it was offered.
When I got to Japan, I had a full-blown flu. I had become acquainted with the cultural notion that being sick in Japan was a no-no generally, and calling out is considered bad form. I didn’t want to say I was sick as soon as I got to Japan, so I decided to try to work through it.
As the orientation started, it became clear that although we would be English teachers, there was a huge emphasis placed upon behavior. Just like the interview, we sat in chairs and we were expected to sit still. We were told to “avoid distracting habits, and avoid distracting extremes.” I found this vague pronouncement was worded deliberately so that all behavior can be deemed worthy of scrutiny and correction by AEON staff. Any questions directed towards trainees had only one direct answer. Speaking out seemed to be a no-no, unless one was directed to speak.
For me, the worst aspect of the training was that we were introduced to the methodology for one type of lesson on a Monday, and then we had to teach this lesson on a Tuesday. Since there are 42 distinct steps to the lesson plan, performing the lesson is next to impossible. I felt betrayed that I was forced learn the methodology in such a short period, as the company oddly prefers its employees to operate under duress. Indeed, if the company wanted its new trainees to be prepared, I cannot think of a worse way to do it. One AEON employee said that this is done because the AEON staff wants to see how trainees respond to what they describe as a moderate amount of stress.
I was resentful about these circumstances, and I was also very sick, so I could not perform under the circumstances. My performance was terrible and lacked competence. After three days, I was told that I could resign or be fired. I left, and I take responsibility to this day for my poor performance.
When I came back to the States, I wrote about what happened on a forum for English teachers called Dave’s ESL Cafe. At the same time, a lawyer friend of mine said that it was ridiculous that I paid for the cost of the flight to Japan. I replied that I knew that beforehand, so I doubt that he could obtain any kind of settlement, but I told him that he was welcome to try.
He did not get any settlement, but the AEON office said that they knew about my online postings . Then a representative from the AEON office told my lawyer to “shut the hell up.” The reason was because my contract had a non-disclosure agreement, which said that I could not speak out against AEON.
It is hard to overstate how much this threat. First, it was the company itself that cancelled the contract, so they wanted to me to adhere to a contract that they unilaterally cancelled after three days. Second, I made about $250 while there, but the flight to Japan was a $1,000 bucks alone, so I lost a fair amount of money on this contract, let alone tons of time and effort. More importantly, the contract specifically states that the only legal jurisdiction for the contract was Japan, and I was back in a country where free speech is sacrosanct. Most importantly, it became clear that they wanted to maintain a firewall so nobody would know what happens during the Initial Training sessions, at the expense of the mostly young and well-meaning trainees who are selected by Aeon.
It became clear to me that they were anxious for me not to talk about my experience in Japan. But why the secrecy with a company that just teaches English?
I became convinced that the company was a cult, not because they drink out of skulls or have elaborate religious ceremonies or do anything untoward on a daily basis as a business, but because they are in the business of behavioral modification. Even more important, the company is deliberately surreptitious and vague about what happens during the initial training week. I believed, and believe, that if my experience was to mean anything, it would mean that I must inform others as much as possible with accurate information about what the initial training week was really like.
So I proceeded to describe the company as a cult. The thread is here:
I also described the initial training week in detail here:
So what began as an unfortunate work experience has transformed into a self-directed effort on my part to state my case about this company that I now believe in my bones to be a cult. I have no doubt that the company will continue to recruit successfully in the United States. I just wanted the twenty-somethings who were considering this company to know what to expect in Japan, so they could decide for themselves if the company was for them, in a neutral environment.
I do not think Aeon is evil. I think it is a cult. Many people may find the environment congenial. But it is an environment dedicated to behavior modification.
But this leads to the ultimate question: is my description of AEON as a cult accurate? If no, then I should retract this accusation and apologize for it, publicly and quickly. If yes, then everything I have done to describe the company as a cult has been a vital public service. No matter what, I need to get to the bottom of this, and this forum seemed like the perfect place to resolve this issue.
As I am the one who is making this accusation, my motives and my judgment should come under close scrutiny. I am making a serious accusation, and so I expect nothing less.
There is also the question of cultural differences. If the company behaves like a cult, then maybe because that is how companies operate in Japan? I don’t buy into this personally, but it’s not a crazy argument. Indeed, the cultural and geographical chasm makes it more difficult to answer the question. (It also has made proper scrutiny of the company difficult.)
In spite of these concerns, I would not be spending my time on this issue unless I thought it was important, and that the company requires psychological changes and ordained behavior (albiet a small to moderate one compared to many other cults) to its new members. Below, I evaluate whether the company fits the Warning Signs of a cult.
Thanks for reading.
For all 30 questions, I answered each sign with a yes or a no.
For the first 20 questions, if I answered yes, then I am asserting that Aeon resembles a cult; if I answered no, the group is not like a cult.
For the last 10 questions, if I answered no, Aeon resembles a cult; if I answered yes, the group is not like a cult.
For all 30 questions, I also provided a number that goes from 1 to 10. If I put the number at 1, it means that Aeon has no resemblance to a cult. If I put the number 10, then I believe that the statement definitely fits my description of Aeon as a cult. All 30 statements follow this number rubric.
Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.
1 Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. - Definitely an authoritarian environment. Yes. I am not sure about accountability to everyone, but the company clearly does not like to explain its methods to its potential employees. They can’t even state what their schedule is in clear English. 8.5
2 No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. -Yes. There is no place for asking why Aeon does what it does. This is actually considered bad form by the company. 9
3 No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement. - No. Aeon actually joined a group in response to the fraud that occurred at NOVA. 1.
4 Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions. - No, this does not apply. 1
5 There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil. - No. Aeon actually assumes that the vast majority of its foreign workplace will not stay past two years. 1
6 Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances. - Most grievances relate to bait and switch tactics of the company. I believe these common complaints can be traced to the company’s need to assert control over its own workers through surreptitious, indirect ways, instead of just stating fact out what they are looking for from the beginning. 6
7 There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader. - Some articles in the Japan Times, but not enough really. That’s why I have been motivated to address this issue. 2
8 Followers feel they can never be "good enough”. Yes. The entire company’s approach is based upon the principle, that must always strive to reach an Aeon ideal. Indeed, a massive, indeed excessive amount of information is given at the very beginning of training so as to deliberately overwhelm new hires, just to see how they respond to such things. The whole point is to keep the new foreigner in perpetual weakness. 9.5
9 The group/leader is always right. - Yes. Aeon cannot tolerate deviance because they they hold the notion that their methodology is above reproach and cannot be improved. 9
10 The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing "truth" or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible. - Yes. There is only one way to be, and there is only one way for new hires to learn that way, and it is done by deliberately putting new hires under stress, as the company puts it. Indeed, Aeon sacrifices competence of new hires in exchange for leveraging total control. 9
Ten warning signs regarding people involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader.
1 Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration. Yes. 8
2 Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower's mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused--as that person's involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens. - Yes. The company really does not want any new hire to have any personality except for the prescribed one. Over time, I suspect hires have difficulty separating their Aeon self from their real self. 8
3 Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution". - Not really, but you won’t be working long if you express any criticism or doubt about anything. 6
4 Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior. - Definitely, yes! Go to an interview. See how staff members talk. I did not think it was possible for people to act and talk like this all the time. They do. 10
5 Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement. - Yes! You cannot be a free thinker and work for Aeon. I do not think this is possible. 8.5
6 Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests. - Yes. There was a lot of frenetic activity in the training that lacked a constructive purpose from my point of view. Why force-feed tons of information when there was an opportunity to provide this information for a period of months? But the point of the initial training is not to inform, but to establish control over new hires. 9
7 A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor. - Yes. Anything that is funny has to come from working within a preprogrammed persona. 9
8 Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader. - No, Aeon does not separate employees from their families. However, for all intents and purposes one is alone in Japan, and dependent upon the company for a lot. Aeon has learned of how to take advantage of this. 3
9 Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful. No, not really. There are limits to what Aeon can do. Having said that, the group feels entitled to change any habits or extremes deemed “distracting.” 2
10 Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided. No. 2
Ten signs of a safe group/leader.
1 A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive. - Well, it depends what the question may be. There are no “normal” conversations with Aeon, and one has to adjust to that. 8
2 A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know. Yes…2
3 A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight. - No! You are accountable to Aeon, but Aeon is not accountable to you. 8
4 A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them. - Yes, 2.
5 A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them. - Yes. I don’t think there has been enough written about the company that challenges their methods. 3
6 A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened. - Yes…Again, once you are in Japan, you are cut off from traditional social networks, which Aeon uses to their advantage. 3
7 A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others. - I don’t think forcing new hires to learn a methodology in one day is reasonable. 8
8 A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem. - No, individual autonomy, critical thinking and in my opinion self-respect are characteristics that they definitely do not want. 10
9 A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice. - No. The company puts on its website that a workweek is 40 hours. As soon as one comes to Japan, required responsibilities are given above and beyond the 40 hour workweek. When I pointed this out, there was zero effort to correct this mistake. 8.5
10 A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.- No, there is zero genuine dialogue in this environment. Trainees are judged by how much knowledge one can obtain under duress, all the while conforming to the appropriate behavioral patterns. 9