Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 21, 2009

Regarding Gregory Clark's comment on foreigners teaching in Japanese universities

Gregory Clark, Vice-President of Akita International University, and well-known as a provocateur to the Arudou Debito breed of gadfly, recently penned an article for the Japan Times entitled, “Antiforeigner discrimination a right for Japanese” (it can be found here - note that if this link expires, it has been reproduced on many Japan-based gaijin blogs, just do the obvious Googling). The article has been dissected and (mostly) slammed by the usual sites and suspects. What starts out as a possibly deserved jab at the “Nihon-girai” foreigner cliques and habits soon descends into the very same type of vitriolic over-generalized, simplistic, vilification that Clark accuses those ‘Japan-haters’ of. ‘Nuff said- I don’t want to dwell on this. But since this blog is about university English teaching, there is one aspect of Clark’s spiel that I do want to address.

Clark makes mention of the widespread belief that foreign university instructors are discriminated against in Japan and counters with the rhetorical question: “How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?”.

Let’s address this for a second. Is it really true? Is Clark’s point telling? After all, Clark isn’t the only person to have ever made this argument. Some point-by-point responses follow.

1. Although Western countries that have a strong secondary educational base in English (think Norway, Holland, Denmark, Germany etc.) are unlikely to hire native English speakers to teach English at universities, there are certainly university positions open to qualified NS teachers in places like Spain, Portugal as well as other Mediterranean countries, and no shortage of such teachers/positions in Eastern Europe. And of course, most of the developing world in an EFL teacher’s oyster.

2. It’s not really fair to compare proficiency in English at a university in an English-speaking country with Japanese at a uni in Japan. Why? English is the lingua franca of academia. The two languages don’t have reciprocal utility (*note to the overly sensitive or PC reader- this has nothing to do with the relative intrinsic worth or beauty of either language, and it has nothing to do with a myopic, chauvanistic Anglo-Saxon worldview or anything like. It is just a geopolitical fact. Live with it.). Almost anyone, regardless of nation, who has academic expertise or competence will have some facility in English. To be more accurate in the comparison we should compare Japanese to a language like Finnish, Slovenian or Czech, which is functionally limited to the national borders. Now, do all foreign professors working in these countries have competency in those languages? Although I suspect that a Brit working in the Czech Republic or an Aussie researching in Finland would start to pick up and use the local lingo while living there, you can be pretty sure that they wouldn’t have mastered those languages, and wouldn’t have to, before being hired.

3. If one held a strict rule that teachers at a Japanese university must be proficient in Japanese (in all aspects of the language), it pretty much follows that 99.9% of all the university teachers would be Japanese and an even higher percentage (99.999) of non-Japanese, including ohhh Stephen Hawking, would be excluded from consideration. On the other hand, if a university in Canada requests English competency for a certain position, academics from a huge chunk of the rest of the world will still be able to apply confidently. Keep in mind that this is not due to Canadian or native English-speaker largesse, it is simply a linguistic reality.

4. Universities want to invite scholars and instructors who can best help students develop skills. Hence, in Western countries you will find numerous scholars from non-Western countries, several of whom may have limited degrees of English skill, hired because they are good at what they do and can do it better than a local.

5. It is probably true that the less facility an academic has with English, the more he/she must be a scholar of international repute. It is also true that most (but not all) NJ university teachers in Japan did not develop scholarly reputations abroad and were subsequently invited (as you may have suspected, that goes for me too). But as I said above, universities want to invite scholars and/or instructors who can best help students develop necessary skills. If they believe that a qualified NJ might be able to help upgrade university student English skills sufficiently then the most important criterion for hiring a university instructor will have been satisfied.

6. Very few NS English university instructors in Japan are hired to be scholars in the strict sense. They may be expected to conduct research and be involved in professional societies but, generally speaking, they are viewed largely as language instructors first and foremost. Almost everything in their job descriptions, duties and roles at the university will reflect this. Although this may feed the (unfortunate) distinction that we see these days between the view of such instructors as being “on-campus language center employees” (more on this in a soon-to-come blog entry) and being utilized as fully contributing members of the university’s academic society, if we are not invited scholars we should accept this as our de-facto role. However, as an English NS’s academic credibility develops, and his or her Japanese skills increase, the roles and expectations should change accordingly (the operative word being “should”).

The verdict? Clark’s statement was a (conveniently) inaccurate oversimplification. On the other hand, while it would be good for university English teachers in Japan to remind themselves that they don’t have the same status as invited, established academics, their overseers should also view them as having more to offer than temporary Eikaiwa instructors.

« Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)? | Main | Notes and anecdotes from the end of the second term… »


I wrote a response to Mr. Clark's most recent article today on my site.

Thank you,

Even though Mr. Clark is Vice President of a university (though a tiny one) he wouldn't even qualify to work as one of the contract English teachers he dismisses for not learning enough Japanese.

Mr. Clark doesn't even have a true graduate degree. He completed a degree at Oxford (in his online resume Mr. Clark admits his proffesor Daddy got him in). What Mr. Clark is less forthcoming about is his "MA" degree. Due to an archaic rule graduates of Oxford can, after a couple of years, get a BA upgraded to an MA. On his home page resume he tries to obscure the fact by listing having graduated from a college in Australia but that is really a high school.

I'd be the last to argue that someone is automatically a better person just because they have MA and doctorate diplomas hanging on their wall but it would seem like a pretty important qualification to be a uni Prez or VP.

Mr. Guest, very good point about the use of the English and Japanese languages and "reciprocal utility". And bitteradjunct, thanks for raising a point that has been made elsewhere.

Gregory Clark, a man who has no real postgraduate degree, was a "professor" at Sophia University for many years. Virtually no Western university equal to or exceeding the reputation enjoyed by Sophia in Japan (a pretty good one) would hire as a "professor" somebody lacking a proper postgraduate degree.

What specifically do university English teachers have to offer that is more than temporary Eikaiwa instructors?

Mike here. I think your post actually should have been entered under the previous blog entry, not the one regarding Grregory Clark's comments.

Anyway, good question. It's not so much what university teachers have to offer vs. Eikaiwa teachers, after all a teacher can be both. The question is whether Eikaiwa-type English is suitable at a university. First, university English study should imply more than conversation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if one regards university education basically as an academic enterprise, or even as professional training (as with much content-based learning) then the focus and content of the courses should be different from what one would expect at a commercial English school where the focus, expectations, and types of service are different.


I believe, that there have been cases (Hokkaido a few years back???) where the reason for a contract NOT to be renewed was because the foreign teacher had become 'too Japanese' and was thus not really a 'foreigner' any more. Even though those cases (if true) are rare, it does show that being fluent in Japanese is not always a bonus.

It makes sense to me that rudimentary functional Japanese is a huge bonus to anyone working in a Japanese institution. However, the Japanese themselves are still learning their own language as teenagers, so where does Gregory Clark think these foreign teachers who have the right qualifications and have invested years into their Japanese language ability going to come from? If all those who did not lost their jobs tomorrow, there'd be a very few people left to teach. Clark is being totally unrealistic.

I agree that there can not a a direct comparison to English as English is "lingua franca of academia" however for many of the foreign teachers they are teaching in institutions outside of traditional academia. They are students that want to learn English so they can at some point in the not to distant future enter the world of academia. Having taken 2nd language courses where the instructor did not speak my primary language I can say that I felt I would have been better served if there had been some overlap of communications.

It is often bragged by other countries that they are more civilized than America. One of there biggest examples is that they don't have any problems with racism. This is a misconception. Although their countries are made up of nearly all one race of people, unlike the melting-pot of America, their racism runs just as deep. One could argue that it runs deeper, since they have segregated themselves entirely. The Japanese feel the same disdain for Americans as they do for the Chineese, the English, the Russians, ect...

It is a fact of humanity. One of our oldest, ugliest traits.

Another point I'd like to make is on the subject of national language. I strongly believe it is duty of someone who chooses to live in a foreign country, to learn and speak the national language. It is an issue of respect.

Hi Mike. I had a negative kneejerk reaction to your use of the word 'gadfly' to describe Debito. Then I checked my dictionary and actually it fits Debito quite well. Yes, he does poke and provoke, as one definition mentioned, but someone with his drive and bravery is absolutely necessary to wake people up to many of the human rights issues in Japan. Sadly, the Clarks of this world, who view Japan as so different that it doesn't have to respect rights, need a good slapdown occasionally. Rights are a universal and Debito has never asked for any rights that are any more than simply levelling the field. He has my support totally. I don't think I'd enjoy socializing with him, but that's not the point. We have to be very careful about not shooting the messenger. I have turned a blind eye to things I shouldn't have and recently, partly because of Debito's inspiration, started to speak up a lot more, particularly in the area of gender as I teach at a private girl's school.
I don't have children with a Japanese spouse, but if I did, that would be another area I would focus on. Words like the katakana 'hafu' jar me.

Hi Mark.

I can't say I'm a big fan of Debito's, although that may be obvious by now. The problem for me is this: in order to secure and maintain and understanding of the position (and rights etc.) of foreign residents in Japan, whose minds would we like to influence, whose understanding do we need? I think you'd agree that the answer is Japanese public officials, authorities, decision-makers. And then I ask myself, is Debito having that effect? Is he making such people more aware, more understanding of foreign residents and their situations? (not that they are always unaware or unsympathetic, far from it).

My answer would be no. Why? My own reactions when activists for any cause become shrill, predictable, play loose with the facts, whether they be PETA lobbyists, anti-abortion activists, radical feminists or what-have-you is that they are playing more to the gallery (preaching to the choir) rather than appealing to those who can affect change. And I stop listening, even distrusting them from the outset because I see them as being more involved in spreading propaganda than enlightenment.

Political posturing, in the form of encouraging a cathartic response from followers, often becomes a substitute for activism, and activism a euphemism for political posturing. So, is Debito creating understanding or is he actually repelling those who foreign residents would like to gain understanding from, all in the name of activism for foreigners' rights?

Actually, I wrote a detailed (and critical) response to Debito's recent Japan Times article on "Toadies, Zombie Debates" et al but I don't know exactly where to post it. It's not suitable as one of my Yomiuri articles, it's too long as a Japan Times letter, his website is one of the last places I expect rational discussion to take place in, and I'm not sure that it fits with the theme of this blog (which is sponsored by ETJ and hosted by ELTNews).

But if people want to read it, I may post it as an entry here. And, it goes without saying, some will strongly disagree.

Hi Mike. Thanks for responding. I disagree that Debito is not influencing the right people. First, by waking up the foreign community, which in my opinion too often rolls over and allows abuses to continue, he is strengthening, rather than weakening a potential base for his (our) cause. Second, to the best of my knowledge, he does publish in Japanese and gives speeches and attends many symposia conducted in the Japanese language. I am not accusing you of this because I don't know you, but I do know many people, Japanese and non-Japanese living here who just don't like to face or be faced with some rather unpleasant truths about our adopted homeland. I still haven't figured out why this is so, but one pet theory I have is that there are so many wonderful things about Japan, its people and culture, that we don't want this overwhelming positive impression / experience to be tainted by nastier aspects, particularly if we'eve committed for the long term. I just don't really know. Suffice to say, we will have to agree to disagree on Debito's approach because I just don't see Japan being a better place without his voice. Anyway, thanks for bothering to respond. At some point, however, if you have not already written about it, I'd appreciate reading your views on activism in the EFL classroom. For me, I cannot separate my values from my teaching and fortunately the organization I work for is
very much in favor of EFL being taught through global issues / rights education. I can certainly visualize how in a medical college this might be possible, but probably there is already a Japanese language section that covers these issues.

Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today