Education in Japan: Two Essays on Overcoming Japan's Cartels of the Mind
by Ivan P. Hall
The university is the most critical player in the intellectual relations between countries--as the institution that forms the leadership of any modern state; as a seminal influence on the school system and mass media; and as a seat of learning and a social community. Courses on other nations and cultures, and the short-term presence of foreign students, exchange professors and visiting researchers all add to the cosmopolitan flavor of a campus. More basic are the permanently tenured foreign staff who through their teaching, writing, and full participation as colleagues make a continuing, long-term contribution.
Japan's national universities (kokuritsu daigaku) provide the litmus test for any evaluation of its recent claims to have "internationalized" its academic staff. They are vastly more prestigious than the private schools and continue to monopolize access to the higher bureaucracy and much of Japan's blue-ribbon corporate world. Their restrictions on foreign professors are system-wide and deliberate, having been made explicit in statutory regulations and official justifications; and their governmental tie makes them more indicative than the private universities of the attitudes and intentions of Japan's leadership.
Recently, a threatened avalanche of dismissals of senior foreign staff has been spreading anxiety and consternation throughout the foreign professoriate at national universities in response to a directive issued by the Ministry of Education (Mombusho) in December of 1992. (For the full text of this directive and a translation by the author, see the page following this article.)
The Asahi Shimbun has reported that most universities took the directive to mean that they should get rid of gaikokujin kyoshi (foreign teachers) over the age of 50 who are in the two upper salary brackets. The Mombusho reportedly has ruled out the hiring of any new teachers over the age of 40. One foreign scholar has written the press that even instructors over 35 are now being excluded from interviews at the national schools. Some of the older foreigners have been made to sign agreements to move on after two years. It is as though the U.S. Department of Education had ordered the leading U.S. universities not to hire any non-Americans over the age of 39--and this in the second largest system of higher education in the industrialized world!
This ageist assault on the seasoned foreign staff employed under the highly restrictive gaikokujin kyoshi system dating from 1893--still the dominant hiring patternc--comes on top of a failure to genuinely integrate foreign scholars with regular Japanese staff under the new gaikokujin kyoin (foreign staffer) system mandated by the Diet in 1982 as a means of "internationalizing" the national universities. The backsliding under this new system is even more disappointing than the regression under the old one. The historical and technical background is as follows:
Under the century-old kyoshi system (the term can also have the more pejorative ring of 'pedagogue), foreign teachers enjoyed a higher salary, but were denied professorial titles, participation in departmental and faculty meetings, the supervision of dissertations, permanent job security, and other rights and duties pertaining uniformly to the Japanese staff. Ranging in effect from professors to lecturers, but all lumped together as kyoshi, foreigners served in a generously remunerated but separate, inferior, and short-term academic echelon. Even today the gaikokujin kyoshi are best seen as the functional equivalent of foreign technical advisors in Third World developing countries--as transitory, disposable transmitters of foreign knowledge or techniques--rather than as fellow laborers in the ongoing quest for human knowledge. They have never been the genuine scholarly reciprocal of those numerous Japanese academics employed by universities in other advanced industrial countries.
In response to heavy external criticism, including a severe OECD report in 1971, the new legislation in 1982 authorized the employment of foreign professors at Japanese national and prefectural/municipal universities on terms identical to those for regular Japanese academic staff (kyoin), but with one enormous exception that quickly undermined the original purpose and spirit of the law. Although intended by its original sponsors to provide permanent employment similar to that of Japanese professors, and widely advertised as offering academic "tenure" to foreigners, the law as finally passed left the period of service to the discretion of each university. Twelve years later, as of 1994, only four foreign scholars (two at Tokyo and two at Kyushu universities) have been given open-ended, non-term-limited posts identical to those held by their Japanese colleagues. All the other national institutions have opted for short-term contracts, averaging about three years.
This led to cheery announcements by certain schools that they were now ready to "tenure foreign scholars with exactly the same salary, titles, duties and rights as we Japanese--and a three-year contract into the bargain!" A contract with a time limit, however, is not "tenure, and a working situation without the most fundamental consideration--job security--can hardly be considered equivalent to a permanent position. The regular Japanese staff at all Japanese universities are in effect "tenured," in the American sense of the term, from the moment they receive full-time employment. The new foreign kyoin--although now enjoying academic titles and the privilege of attending interminable faculty meetings--have very little clout in academic management since they are entirely dependent on the good will of Japanese colleagues for their contract renewals.
By 1987, there had been a modest utilization of the new gaikokujin kyoin positions at the national universities. Nationwide figures from the Mombusho showed twenty national universities employing fifty foreign professors, associate professors, and lecturers in the new "foreign staff" category. However, only thirteen of these were at the more prestigious kyuteidai (former imperial universities), and half of them were to be found at relatively minor schools or non-university research centers.
As of 1992, there were 2,685 regular foreign staff (of all levels and types) among the 129,029 full-time staffers at all Japanese universities. Of these foreigners, 1,780 were to be found in the private sector, 819 at national universities, and 86 at municipal and other "public" universities. At the rank of professor and associate professor, there were 134 foreigners among a total of 32,230 at national universities, and 1,002 among a total of 41,004 at the private schools. However, there has been no relaxing of the term-appointment rule nor any change since 1987 in the number of non-term, genuinely tenured appointments at national universities--still, as of 1994, only four, at Tokyo and Kyushu.
The saddest episode in this implementation process occurred in 1985 at the "new model" University of Tsukuba, which had already decreed a four-year cut-off for its 31 kyoshi under the old system. That April, after the start of the new academic year--and with no place for them to go--it summarily fired, as a result of its own internal politics, four of the longer-serving kyoshi (Korean, German, American, and Taiwanese), who had initially been asked not to move elsewhere and promised new contracts as kyoin from 1985 on.
By contrast, the large number of foreign scholars tenured at American universities is common knowledge. In the Japan Foundation's directory of Japan specialists in the United States and Canada, fully 17% of the 1,420 individuals listed are Japanese men and women born in Japan, and many of these individuals--while permanent residents of the United States or Canada--retain their Japanese citizenship. Many other Japanese nationals can be found in mainline disciplines unrelated to Japanese language or culture, such as MIT's Nobel prize-winning microbiologist Susumu Tonegawa, or the recent Dean of Princeton's Engineering School, Dr. Hisashi Kobayashi. To these, of course, would have to be added even greater numbers of non-Japanese foreign scholars working on a tenured basis in the U.S.
For the past quarter century university appointments have generally been open to all qualified comers in all of the advanced industrial nations of Western Europe, North America, and the British Commonwealth. American and Commonwealth universities have long recruited on a world-wide basis. France has often been cited by the Japanese as another administrative state where university staff, as civil servants, are required to possess French nationality. But even in France, with the reforms following the great campus upheavals of the late 1960s, foreign scholars are now eligible for all but the top administrative posts. Similarly, in West Germany--where professors were public officials of the individual states (Laender)all restrictions had been lifted by the 1970s on the employment and advancement of foreign scholars into any teaching or administrative post.
Does Japan's patent academic apartheid matter, beyond the fates of the individual foreign scholars concerned? I think it does. Japan's avoidance of human variety and energy, based not on professional qualifications but on a simplistic national/ethnic criterion, deprives Japanese universities not only of the scholarly production for which Western schools hire internationally, but also of the good will and social interchange with intellectual elites abroad that Japan badly needs in meeting its vastly expanded international responsibilities. Japanese calling for a greater foreign professorial presence on Japan's campuses have argued that it would bring a fresh stimulus and challenge to the Japanese staff. Others, making the same point back-handedly, have confessed that the real resistance derives from the fear most of the Japanese staff have of foreign scholarly competition. They worry (rightly or wrongly) that the outlanders might publish more voluminously, cancel fewer lectures, or even stir up too much intellectual controversy. Still others assert that non-Japanese would never fit in socially.
For the United States, this imbalance in academic employment opportunities has had a subtle if largely unnoticed impact on political, trade, historical (e.g., in interpretations of the Pacific War), and other bilateral issues by giving Japan a stronger rhetorical footing in America than the U.S. enjoys in Japan. American scholars in Japan who could provide a stronger intellectual presence--having been around long enough to speak and write the Japanese language well and acquire other accessory skills--are barred from respectable academic niches, and normally return to the U.S. after the first whack of the revolving door if they are set on serious academic careers. That leaves the briefly visiting American academic superstar--who often knows little of Japan, gets whirled around on a magic carpet of sedulous attention, and recrosses the Pacific without having left much of a dent behind.
What should be of concern to our Japanese friends, of course, is that the issue of their academic closed shop is gradually being connected by others to the broader demands for an open market, and for reciprocating to foreign journalists, lawyers, scholars, and students those same professional opportunities that Japanese nationals have long enjoyed in other countries. Since Japan's national universities are government-run, it would not be inappropriate for U.S. federal and other agencies active in cultural relations with Japan to overcome their shyness about giving possible offense, and raise a judicious eyebrow or two. These might include the U.S. Information Service at our Tokyo embassy; the federally-funded Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission in Washington; the binational Japan-U.S. Educational Commission (Fulbright Program) in Tokyo; and the inter-governmental U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON).
As far as its prestigious national universities are concerned, Japan isn't opening up as advertised--it's closing down. Full speed, in reverse!
IVAN P. HALL is the biographer of Mori Arinori, Japan's first minister of education. He recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Gakushuin, a private University, over matters identical to those described in this article. He is a member of the Board of Advisers of the Japan Policy Research Institute.
(click here to see JPRI's first update on this issue)
(click here to go back to the essays page)