Universities in Japan force most of their foreign instructors to play an unnerving version of musical chairs. Every year the music starts and instructors with expiring contracts scramble for an opening at a new school. University administrators force teachers to play “musical jobs” by offering limited-term contracts.
The game has lots of players — many with permanent residence and families — searching for a vacant chair. There are about 5,700 foreign instructors working full-time at Japanese universities, the vast majority on limited-term contracts.
Contract conditions for foreign instructors at Japanese universities vary widely. Some offer bonuses, housing, private offices and research allowances, while others don’t. However, contracts share certain common features.
Contract instructors typically teach almost twice as many classes as the tenured faculty. Whereas tenured professors usually teach six or seven 90-minute classes a week, instructors on contracts usually teach eight to 10 classes, with 12 or 14 not unheard of. The number of possible contract renewals is also capped, most commonly at three years. Finally, contract jobs often come with a starting age limit of 35 or 40. The practice of mentioning age limits on job ads has now been banned, but with date of birth written on the resume, de facto limits are certainly still imposed.
There are no easy answers to why universities prefer an employment system that Ivan Hall described in his book “Cartels of the Mind” as “academic apartheid.” Forcing experienced instructors to leave every few years seems short-sighted at best. Yet Japanese university administrators and ministry of education officials do have their own justifications.
Contrary to popular belief, universities don’t cap the term of employment at three years because labor law forces them to offer lifetime employment to teachers employed for more than three years. When hiring, a university must clearly state the number of times a contract can be renewed, but there is no set limit on that figure. A few schools offer one-year contracts renewable up to 10 times. However, without a clear cap on renewals a university might have to endure an embarrassing legal fight and hefty severance payment if they ever decided they no longer wanted to renew a contract.
Since the demographic crisis facing universities forces them to be more money-conscious and “competitive,” one might expect that limited-term contracts have something to do with the bottom line. After all, a new foreign teacher can be hired at an entry-level salary. This is also a reason why so many schools set age limits: Younger means cheaper on the university pay scales. Contract lecturers also typically receive fewer benefits than tenured faculty.
In fact, penny-pinching began in December 1992 when, according to Hall, Ministry of Education officials phoned all the national universities and warned them against keeping foreign teachers in the higher pay brackets. In response, many schools sacked foreigners over the age of 50 (most had been promised a job until retirement) and replaced them with younger teachers on capped contracts.
However, the costs associated with a handful of foreign instructors represent a mere drop in the budget bucket of most universities. The savings are not nearly enough to bail their leaking institutions out from the demographic storm now lashing Japan’s post-secondary education system. Attitudes held by university and government bureaucrats toward foreign teachers reveal the more fundamental reason for the contract system.
There’s historical evidence that the practice is a remnant of Japan’s xenophobic past. During the late Meiji Era, from about 1868 to 1912, “o-yatoi gaikokujin” — literally, “hired foreigners” — were employed as consultants, much like Tom Cruise’s role in “The Last Samurai.” In many cases the foreigners were well paid, and were expected to teach about their country’s culture and the latest scientific achievements. Long-term foreign residents, however, were not desired, so the foreign consultants trained Japanese instructors, and when their three-year contracts ended they were not renewed.
Given their views toward foreigners, some current university administrators seem to be reincarnations of their Meiji-Era predecessors. One assistant professor, “Mary,” who was popular with faculty and students alike at an international university, had agreed to her three-year contract only after assurances that it could be renewed if she did a good job. After three years of impressive yearly evaluations and a pay raise — not to mention the fact that she held a Ph.D., Japanese oral and written fluency, and was researching on a government grant that she would lose if she lost her job — her contract was not renewed. By way of an explanation, the university president told her, “You’ve been in Japan too long.”
Unfortunately, this attitude is all too common. Too many university and ministry of education mandarins regard foreign faculty as models of foreign culture with expiry dates stamped on their foreheads rather than as qualified professionals who have a long-term role to play. For example, in the early 1990s Niigata University’s president justified the dismissal of 54-year-old Sharon Vaipae by stating his desire to keep the foreigners “churning over constantly.”
During a labor dispute in 2000, ministry bureaucrats justified term-limits to a delegation of union members by contending that they “encouraged the movement of teachers to other universities, which was of benefit to both teachers and the universities.” Exactly how this benefited anyone was left unexplained.
In a 2006 Asahi Shimbun Op-Ed piece, Shinichiro Noriguchi, a University of Kitakyushu English professor, went so far as to identify the expiry date on foreign instructors at 10 years after landing in Japan. He contends that foreigners who have lived in Japan for more than a decade “tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers” and begin to suffer from an affliction he labeled “Japanized” English. If nothing else, such attitudes are at least consistent. Viewing foreign academics as disposable goes back to the 1903 sacking of author Lafcadio Hearn from what is now Tokyo University after his seven years of service.
Are the caps discriminatory? While most Japanese instructors receive automatic tenure and most foreigners receive a capped contract, the Supreme Court, with a little legal legerdemain, ruled that using different hiring systems for foreigners and Japanese doesn’t violate the Labor Standards Law. The law only applies after someone has been hired, it ruled, and not during the hiring process itself, thus making discriminating universities immune from legal action.
Luckily, some universities do appreciate that employing foreigners permanently benefits students and schools, and that equally qualified foreign faculty are worthy of equal treatment. More of this would, in turn, encourage more foreigners to gain fluency in spoken and written Japanese.
Universities now have more autonomy from the ministry of education, which originally made the recommendation to keep foreigners on limited-term contracts. So a better question becomes whether the revolving door contract system hurts students.
The limited-term contract system essentially guarantees that students get shortchanged. An instructor starting a new contract takes their first year getting accustomed to students and creating teaching materials. During the next year or two a teacher can refine and improve their lesson plans and teaching.
Then, just when a teacher starts becoming a more productive and effective faculty member, they are forced to largely ignore their teaching and research duties and devote their final contract year to assembling extensive application packages in response to job ads that omit crucial details like salary, and then find the time and money to attend job interviews. Forcing out experienced instructors for new recruits means students often don’t get the best classroom instruction. It also reduces the chances of foreign instructors starting clubs, doing volunteer work with students, or applying for multiyear research grants.
At the same time as Japanese universities have started letting a few foreigners climb the ivory-tower staircase to permanent employment, they’ve begun forcing Japanese instructors onto term-limited contracts. In 1997 a law passed making it possible for universities to offer Japanese instructors limited-term contracts.
At first few schools forced Japanese academics onto contracts, but prodding to “reform” from the ministry of education and the realities of declining enrollments have recently made them much more popular to university administrators. Sadly for Japanese academics, in the near future the annual round of “musical jobs” in the groves of academia may be a game that everyone has to play.
James McCrostie worked on contracts for nine years before finding a permanent position at Daito Bunka University. John Spiri has taught full-time at four universities over the course of 11 years in Japan. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org