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The Uni-Files

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

March 26, 2009

University jobs, permanency and so-called ‘musical chairs’

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding foreigners’ positions at Japanese universities. Ivan Hall lambasted the (allegedly) closed and exclusive mentality of both universities and the Ministry of Education in his 1998 book ‘Cartels of the Mind’. James McCrostie has echoed some of these sentiments more recently in a few articles found here and here.

I think both accounts are a little one-sided and imbalanced in many places, although they also certainly hit on a few painful truths. Having been around the scene for awhile I am acquainted with several cases of allegedly (there’s that word again) unjust treatment of foreign faculty at Japanese universities. From my front row seat, I’d have to say that I’ve seen all types: cases where the authorities were clearly discriminatory and unreasonable in their actions, cases where both parties have been sloppy or have failed to live up to expectations or agreements, and an equal number of cases where the non-Japanese complainant squarely falls into the “What on earth were you thinking!” category.

I myself have been involved in union action against what I viewed as unjust and unfair practices in the past. I say this so that no one rushes to the conclusion that my hesitancy to outright condemn the current foreign-teacher contracting practices at Japanese universities is a product of some deeper-rooted political polemic. So let me talk about and explain the situation as I see it.

Q- What was the great purge of the mid 90’s all about?

During this decade, the Ministry of Education wanted to loosen their ties with national universities and grant even more independence to private universities. This meant that less governmental funding was available. Universities had to gradually become semi-commercial/privatized entities (houjinka) which meant a lot of applying for grants and awards, fund raising etc. In other words, the money was no longer automatic.

Q- How did this affect individual universities?
Here’s an important thing to note. MEXT did NOT (and almost never DOES) tell individual universities how and where to save or appropriate funds, although they did offer various suggestions and general guidelines, but rather it was, and still is, up to each university to adapt and use funds according to their needs and local policies (this lead to an enormous number of faculty meetings in the late 90’s). (Sidebar- this notion that ‘someone in MEXT ‘calls’ ‘someone’ in each university and passes on ‘directives’, like a general at army headquarters passing on orders to his field commander, is just…well…wrong). Anyway, one of the ramifications of this was, of course, the possibility of cutbacks in faculty. Everyone, including MEXT, was aware that there was a lot of deadwood in Japanese universities. One response to this was that something called the ninkisei system was introduced. It meant that tenure, as we know it, was gone. Instead, a limited number of renewals on contracts (different lengths of time and number of renewals according to different status) became the norm. These renewals have to be voted upon by other staff and be able to meet the fiscal budget. And yeah- there is no doubt an element of quid pro quo involved in these semi-automatic renewals, thus not really achieving the aim of getting rid of the deadwood or even stirring them to life.

Q- So, what about your contract, Mike?

Originally I was hired as a Gaikokujin Kyouin (foreign teacher) on a one year contract renewable six times with no further extension. Now I am on a five year contract, renewable three times, with no possibility of extension. I have to be voted in by the board of trustees after completion of each contract. Part of what gets reviewed at this time is my university “rating”, that is we accumulate points for publications, presentations, community involvement, participation in professional organizations, committee work and so on. This is another ramification of the move to semi-privatization, as new standards of quality control and re-checking have been introduced.

Q- Whoa whoa back up there. How did you get from the original six years with no extension into this current, more permanent contract? Isn’t that an extension?

Actually I applied for newly created position (junkyouju- Associate Professor). The old position of gaikokujin kyouin was nullified, a new one opened, and I guess I had achieved enough during my time as gaikokujin kyouin to warrant a longer stay under a different contract (yes, I had to officially retire for one day and even got my retirement benefits before re-starting under the new contract).

Now here’s where I’d like you, dear reader, to consider something. If you read certain sites or books you will get the strong impression that foreigners gaining anything close to a permanent position is very rare. Yet, if you’ve been around the Japan EFL scene for awhile you’ll undoubtedly note that many of the same Gaijin teacher/professors’ names pop up here and there and that their affiliations are the same year after year. Yes, many foreigners are getting or holding more secure longer-term positions.

Just using my smallish home city of Miyazaki as an example…besides myself at the UoM, we have an international university with a largely NJ staff, most of whom are long-termers, a municipal university which has granted long-term employment to NJ faculty, and a joshi tandai (women’s junior college) where the NJs have been around longer than I have at the University of Miyazaki. We all know each other. No, it’s not rare to meet tertiary education permanents or near-permanents. True- some NJs have gotten a raw deal and others have shot themselves in the foot but I simply can’t say that it is the standard or default practice to dump the foreign teachers quickly.

Q- But Japanese university teachers automatically get lifelong employment, don’t they?

In short, no. Most entry level Japanese teachers start on similarly impermanent, limited term contracts or various part-time contracts and slowly work themselves into better positions. Yes, some do lose their jobs when their contracts expire. We have some Japanese teachers in the English department at the UoM who are currently on limited contracts. And we have a few NJ teachers in the same tenuous entry-level position. Yeah- it’s a precarious spot to be in, not knowing what’s going to happen in a few years but it’s not as one-sided as it’s often made out to be.

Q- What about this ‘gaikokujin kyouin’ thing? Tell me more…

Eliminating these odd positions was one of the suggestions made by MEXT during the reform years. These ‘foreign teacher’ position were relics of the Meiji or Taisho periods and carried the implicit assumption that the foreigner was only going to be in Japan for a short time and would therefore have fewer responsibilities, be quite generously rewarded financially, but be very limited in terms of job permanency and influence. Unfortunately, some universities used the elimination of this position to dump some foreign teachers outright (no, no one at MEXT ‘told them to’ although they do have the habit of passing the buck back to MEXT). Were they deadwood? Were they not planning to be long-termers anyway? Did they get the shaft? I can think of examples of all three.

My own university parlayed this into a new, more permanent position (with far more responsibilities and a salary cut). Thank you. I think. Am I just lucky or is it because I am such a raging stud of a teacher? The accidental recipient of undeserved largesse or the due consequence of being such an academic and intellectual colossus? Am I good at playing my cards right or did they just fall into a fortunate place for me?

Q- But isn’t discrimination still rampant at Japanese universities?

Here’s a waffly answer- it depends. What does it ‘depend’ on? Well, for one, if your Japanese is excellent you’re obviously going to be more fully clued in to what’s going on and your viewpoints will hold far more sway on policy-making committees. If your Nihongo is poor, it is natural that in some sense you will be marginalized. (Mine is about middling- decent in terms of committee work- which can involve some obtuse, convoluted and formalized expressions- although daily work lingo is no problem at all).

Your fellow profs will, as can be expected, express a variety of attitudes. Worst are the few (yes, a minority) who may feel the necessity to remind me that I have a “Japanese job”. Funny that. I thought it was just a job- a job that I was qualified better to do than the other candidates. I don’t remember seeing a “Japanese nationals only” clause in the announcement. (Sidebar- these tend to be the same people who interpret everything as a cultural difference- “So sensei, you argued against the new e-learning course. I think your American individualistic culture can’t quite understand our Japanese plan”. Yes, there are always a few throwbacks of that particular vintage).

There are also those who have the quaint notion that should your contract be abrogated you could always “go home”. Yeah. And any of them could equally “go home”, back to Nagoya, or Osaka or wherever they originally came from. It’s as if they think I have a “real” job waiting open for me back in Canada, perhaps where my “real house” and “real wife and family” are waiting too. What I suppose I should call my “fake” house, wife and family are 5 minutes down the road from the university. That is what I “go home” to everyday.
(Sidebar- This inevitably reminds me of my trips to the immigration office before I got my Japanese permanent residency status six years back. I often had to fill out forms asking me for my “home address” which was presumably somewhere in Canada. Because I hadn’t lived in a permanent house in Canada since I had entered university as a student, and because my parents had moved three times since I had left Canada many moons ago, I had no idea what my “real” address was supposed to be. I didn’t want to provide false information, like my old childhood home [which I think now may be a crack house] so I usually opted for my parents’ then-current address, which was often a place I had never even visited, let alone lived in)

But such people are, as I said earlier, a small minority (an irritating minority, but a minority nonetheless). Most of my Japanese colleagues are quite accepting and cosmopolitan and think it quite natural that I be in a “permanent” position and play an active role in the faculty. So that’s what I do. If there is a type of sequestering, it is due far more to the nature of departmental politics (turf wars rage at universities) than my being a Gaijin.

BTW-some hints on what you can do to get or hold university positions are coming in a future blog entry.


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Implicit it may be, Mike, but you skip over the obvious in your answer to "why the purge in the mid-90s": the collapse of the Japanese economic bubble. The guidelines suggested by Monkasho ( and Mombusho as it was known before that) were a reaction to that downturn. It's also worth pointing out that those 'guidelines,' worthy of the scare quotes I'm now putting them in, have more influence than mere suggestions. Agreed they do not have the force of directives, but in the sink-or-swim climate which many universities found (and still find) themselves in, toeing the government line and thus getting government subsidies can make the difference.

To add a little depth to your historical survey of the gaijin presence at Japanese universities by a decade or so, the late 80s, early 90s were a period of great optimism and not a little naivete. It was the era of Japan Inc. and that vacuous hope of "internationalizaton," still heard but now mostly an historical relic. The universities were caught up in that same fever of hiring as were the conversation schools, any warm body fresh off the plane at Narita would do for the latter, and as little as an unsubstantiated B.A. could get one a part-time lectureship at a college. Nowadays, it is only a slight exaggeration to say you need a Ph.d to teach "this is a pen" at most Japanese universities. As with many a pendulum swing in educational reform the world over, it was from one extreme to another.

The point remains that economic fundamentals, accompanied and exacerbated by the demographic decline in the university-aged population, were the proximate causes of the purge. The discrimination problems involving NJ instructors pre-existed the purge, cf. your Armadildo piece ;) and in that sense as part of your present argument is a bit of a red herring, and will continue to exist whenever supply outstrips demand.

I will readily admit to a counter-charge of economic determinism in this rejoinder but it gives me the opportunity to ask a more interesting question: what has been and continues to be, albeit in reduced proportions, the nature of that demand? In other, more challenging words, has it not been the case that since the end of WW ll that the demand for English-language education, or even content-based education in the English language, has far exceeded any but the perceived (rather than the much fewer actual) needs of the Japanese nation?

Hi Mike. Another very interesting piece. I also enjoyed your article in the Yomiuri yesterday. It was a timely reminder of how to interact with students in a positive way. Thanks. One point jumped out at me in the article above, however. If your contract is now limited to 5 years, renewable three times only, you are still a contract employee and not a truly full time university instructor. I don't mean any disrespect, and apologize if any is taken, but if this is the nature of university teaching today, I'm so very glad I opted for the private high school route in which I am not guaranteed a lifetime contract, but can basically see out my career, if I so choose. I have been at my current institution for 13 years and, fortunately, the average ability in the four skills and the level of values awareness is much higher than the universities I've had occasion to visit. This is rare in Japan, but I've fallen into one very unusual situation. I, sadly, have met very few happy university instructors, outside the rare tenured PhD holders, and even some of them seem bitter, and I think it is necessary that each of us truly examine what it is we want out of teaching in Japan. Maybe a follow-up article on this topic needs to be written - as a reminder to current university and high school teachers and as a warning of sorts to those contemplating entering the field here(I'm only referring to true teachers with proper credentials). Great schools, high schools and universities, still exist in this country, but finding one that treats people with true respect, is still difficult. Thanks again for taking the time to stimulate thought and discussion.

Mark Hunter
Obayashi Sacred Heart School


Thanks Walter and Mark for your comments.

Walter, I certainly agree that economic factors were the catalyst for reform- I just didn't have the space to get into that. Rather, what I wanted to focus on more was the widely-held view in the 90's that national universities were rather moribund places that needed some shaking up, some accountability (with a fair bit of justification). Many of the more adventurous and productive instructors also felt that they could achieve more if they were loosened from some of the bureaucratic restraints (not educational policy per se) that came with being tied to the (then) Mombusho pipeline.

As for the ultimate policy purposes, I think it is natural that government ministries will place emphasis foremost upon how a policy best serves the nation. But when it came to applying these at a more local level (actual universities and their decision-making committees) that "what's the best policy for making our nation great" carries a lot less weight. They tend to be far less beholden to big picture scenarios.

As for the discrimination issue, certainly it preceded the purge as you say, I didn't intend to imply that it began then. But some institutions did use the purge to make discriminatory attitudes more manifest.
(Note- If the spelling of "Armadildo" was a deliberate alteration I should put my smiley emoticon here. If not, I should point out that it was actually "Armadillo").

Mark- Thanks for the positive comments. Actually, I thought yesterday's Yomiuri article covered too much old ground too lightly, so I was slightly unhappy with my final product, but there you go...

I think your distinction comes down to semantics. Since under the Ninkisei, no national university instructors are 'tenured' in the old sense and thereby must have contracts continually approved, we will be left saying that there are no full-time university instructors at national universities, period. Instead I'd describe these as full-time instruction positions but with contracts of different terms and lengths. Certainly the existence of a contract in and of itself does not deny full-time status unless one is talking about specially contracted teachers (including outsourced types). Certainly in every way that we normally define a full-time worker, I'm a full time employee at UoM. Some teachers are on limited term contracts similar to the old 'sennin' positions but those positions are distinct from mine. And mine is still distinct from the contracts of our most eminent professors, including the dean, who is -you guessed it- on a contract. I certainly don't take offense at your categorization or description but I think the blanket "not a full-time university instructor" is inaccurate (or at least based on a definition I would not be willing to accept as normative).


Hi Mike. You are correct, my choice of words was not the best. The 'no possibility of extension' part is perhaps what I should have alluded to in my reply. Does this mean that you did 6 one year contracts and presumably will do 3 five year contracts? For a total of 21 years? It is the limiting of professionals, of which you are obviously one, to clauses like this that really grates on me. Are Japanese teachers limited in this way? If so, why would anyone choose to make a career out of it? Particularly considering the Private Schools Pension Plan rules.
Any further thoughts on this, if you have time, would be appreciated.

Have a good one, eh.

Mark Hunter

Hi Mark.

Here's my contract in brief:
Gaikokujin Kyouin 6x1 year contracts. No extension.
Junkyouju 3x5 year contracts. No extension.

But what that 'no extension' refers to is that particular contract. When it is completed I can be promoted to a new position in my university, or move laterally, but under a different contract heading. Or I could always choose to look for work elsewhere or just be unemployed- but I can't say forcing the latter is systemic.

Having these limited-term contracts can however be an effective way of getting rid of people you just don't like in the organization (although it's never as simple as a single 'boss' deciding). It can be abused. On the other hand it also demands more accountability from the instructor and unsettles the deadwood in the system.

Yes, almost all Japanese in national universities have some sort of contract limitation. Those who are distinguished in one way or another will usually get promoted upon completion of the initial contract, say the same 15 years as me total, as a junkyouju or jokyouju. Others who are not promoted to professorships usually will be shifted into parallel positions although they may well choose to seek work elsewhere. High-ranking professors will have lengthier contracts of course, taking them through until retirement effectively, but 'limited' contracts nonetheless. In fact my own takes me right up to age 60 as it stands now.


Yes, Mike, it was a deliberate alteration, thus my emoticon that went with it. It was inspired by your own vocalic pseudonym, I presume, for you-know-who. If not, nevermind, just the syllables and vowels do lend themselves to a certain levity.

Anyway, perhaps my excuse for pointing out the obvious is how you couched your question, it being slightly oblique to what you were really wanting to get at, also in your Armadillo parody, that is the discrimination issue.

I have to say it's a tired one, every generation of ex-pat instructor going through the process, a series of for-and-against negotiations, positive and/or negative transactions, of the realization that it exists (everywhere I might add, in outsider/insider interactions) but that it also is at the same time case-by-case.

During that purge period you mentioned, where I teach a number of NJ faculty were sacked, and some would argue they were sacked for discriminatory reasons. One was let go because of his irrepressible urges to sleep with his female students. Another was forced to resign (with benefits, or be fired without) because he was an incorrigible if congenial slacker, a mendacious poseur whose credo was, to quote, "you have to pretty stupid to get fired from a Japanese university." The next guy, a Ph.d who thought his way of doing things was superior to the Japanese way of doing things, took the hint and split when he was given the inevitable ultimatum. Yet another individual, highly intelligent and capable when not drunk out of his mind, which was most of the time, was, after many warnings, not renewed. His coup de grace came not long after having serenaded on his accordion the new-term start party, pissed to the gills as usual, along with made-up lyrics insulting the also-attending president of the university.

I could go on, including stories of Japanese faculty who were also given the boot and/or neutralized for destructive tendencies during that same purge period, and while government loosening of university policies may have made these dismissals somewhat easier they would have occurred nevertheless. The point is that discrimination is not solely based on blanket rejection of the other or non-insider, though that of course exists, it is also based, at times, for good reason.

What happens, unfortunately, is that those good reasons feed the ethnocentric mistrust of the non-insider and then you do get a generalized guilty until proven innocent hiring policy, and this, my final point, has a lot to do with the contract rather than tenure policy at Japanese universities.

On a personal note, I was hired in '91 right off the bat as tenured faculty, having opted for it rather than contract with much-reduced deductions. I've followed the ever-changing circumstances/requirements and am now full professor. I have made mistakes along the way, some friends and some enemies, have cause for some bitterness, but I still enjoy teaching/research and the respect of those who count. What else can you ask for?

Interesting post Walter.

I have absolutely no issue with what you say. As I mentioned in the blog, I have been privy to some NJ behavior where the miscreants mights as well have had "Don't renew my contract!" signs attached to their backs. And I've witnessed the other side too- skilled, reliable people dismissed on flimsy pretexts. I certainly don't think the discrimination is systemic- and that's where I part company from Hall, McCrostie, Debito et al.

I'd say it's idiosyncratic- but that doesn't make it any the less palatable when one is on the receiving end of "idiot-syncratic" (ta-tum!) institutional behavior(which also goes in the reverse direction for those NJ teachers whose -ahem- idiosyncrasies end up abusing the trust of the institutions that hired them).

You are probably right in claiming that, in one sense at least, it is a tired issue, and one often prone to unreflective polemic and knee-jerk finger-pointing (now there's a healthy mix of metaphors!). My blog post was really all about getting a wider perspective on the issue.


Hi Mike,
this discussion was very interesting for me as a uni teacher in Germany where a great deal has changed as far as permanent contracts are concerned over the past 5 years or so. I worked in Honolulu with a largely Japanese student body and was surfing the net to find out info about Japanese university teaching. I enjoyed your clarification of a lot of the 'xenophobic' treatment that I'd read about with respect to Japanese universities. There is even a blacklist saying don't apply to the 'worst' offenders.
Sam Hume

Hi Sam. Thanks for writing. I know that there is a prominent blacklist of Japanese universities out there, and it's true that some of the listed offenders are notorious, but one should also take that list with a grain of salt. Some of the alleged infelicities have taken place for reasons other than university policy or systemic prejudice. I know many people who work in a contended, fulfilling manner at some of the institutions listed. Try direct contact with a current non-Japanese faculty member for inside info if you are thinking of taking a position but you are unsure of the atmosphere and attitudes.


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