10+ Questions for Your Next University Employer

David C. Aldwinckle
Assistant Professor, Hokkaido Information University


Expatriate language teachers seeking jobs in any country face obstacles and pitfalls, but in Japan the situation is further compounded by barriers of language and culture; applicants generally hesitate to leave a bad impression by pressing employers for information, or stating clearly their preferences for job conditions. This reluctance is underscored by the expatriate's possible unfamiliarity with conventions and etiquette, and Japan's high degree of tacit understandings. In fact, until recently

Japanese candidates for academic positions rarely needed to make inquiries, since conditions were uniform and varied by generally public criteria--the prestige or wealth of the school and so forth. And if candidates did inquire, they might have asked contacts behind the scenes, not interviewers directly. However, if a matter of tact consigns the applicant to a temporary position with long hours, minimal benefits, and comparatively low pay, then a little pushiness may be worth the risk.

This paper discusses how an employee can avoid adverse employment conditions which are, unfortunately, rife for foreign educators in the Japanese university system. An essay this brief cannot comprehensively cover all fields of Japanese language education: It does not address seekers of stopover positions in either private eikaiwa schools (employing foreign staff under short-term contracts), or Japanese primary and secondary schools recruiting through the JET Program (specifically designed by the government to sustain revolving-door employment). Instead, this paper focuses upon universities, where, short of founding your own school as a private enterprise, long-term or permanent positions as a foreign educator in Japan are most likely to be available.

Employment conditions vary according to whether the position involves public- or private-sector employers, part- or full-time employment, or Japanese or non-Japanese employees.

Public and Private Sectors There are three different types of university in Japan: (a) National (kokuritsu daigaku--with the influential and trend-setting former Imperial Universities at the top), (b) Public (kouritsu daigaku, prefectural and metropolitan universities), and (c) Private (shiritsu, or more clearly watakushi ritsu daigaku). The National and Public Universities are public-sector institutions, fully funded by government taxes, meaning that educators are legally civil servants (koumuin). Private Universities are mostly private-sector funded and managed, with educators legally classified as laborers (roudousha), falling under the Labor Standards Law (roudou kijun hou). Spanning the system is Monbusho (the Ministry of Education), which controls and approves budgeting for public schools and educational accreditation, curricula, and hiring for all. In sum, foreign educators are bureaucrats in the National and Public Universities, laborers in the Private, and receive permission to teach from Monbusho in all cases.

Part Time, Full Time: In Japan, as all part-time (hijoukin) employment is (by definition) term-limited, employees regardless of nationality receive contracts. However, in the case of full-time (joukin) employment, citizenship does make a difference, and this is in part due to standard hiring practices in Japan's civil service.

Japanese, non-Japanese: Until the end of 1997, an oft-quoted (but never legally-delineated) understanding known as "the nationality clause" limited permanent, promotable civil service employees to Japanese citizens. Although hardly unique to these shores, when applied to education by an unusually powerful ministry, this practice set the standards for the employment of most foreign educators in Japan.

Because National and Public universities technically employ civil servants, full-time Japanese faculty automatically received (until recently) noncontractural unlimited-term employment, i.e. tenure, from day one on the job. Conversely, full-time foreigners, ineligible for civil service, were restricted to contracted employment in positions created for them exclusively: gaikokujin kyoushi (foreign instructor) with one-year contracts, and gaikokujin kyouin (foreign faculty) with three-year contracts. Foreign educators, regardless of qualification, served as full-time employees under part-time conditions--merely by dint of being on the government payroll.

In practice, tenure for foreigners has hardly ever been granted in the National or Public Universities, and very rarely in private ones: Japan has the lowest number of tenured foreign educators in the Organization for Economic Cooperative Development (OECD). According to Ivan Hall (p. 100, 1997) there are more tenured foreigners at George Washington University than in all of Japan!

In times when even tenured positions may disappear, "Contracted employment" may sound reasonably secure: It is legally "renewable by mutual consent," and some universities have granted perpetual renewals. Yet full-time foreign educators in Japan have found their employment highly insecure precisely because of contracts, and for reasons bureaucratic, political, and economic.

Bureaucratically, capping renewals (at two or so) is standard in many universities. Nonrenewal has been an effective means for firing the troublesome foreigner for personal reasons. (For detailed accounts consult, consult Aldwinckle 1999 and sources therein.) And in the face of rising costs and diminishing student numbers, contracts have enabled Monbusho to replace elderly foreign educators with younger, cheaper foreigners in the National Universities (Hall, 1997). In sum, a contract system without the possibility of tenure has allowed universities to fire foreign employees, and almost invariably foreign employees, at will, and on a national scale seen nowhere else in the OECD (Hall, 1997).

Regulations changed in the latter half of the 1990's. The Daigaku Shingikai (University Deliberation Council) (1995), a consulting arm of Monbusho, recommended standardized contracts for full-time foreign faculty at private universities as well, paving the way for full-time limited-term contracts for Japanese at all universities. In August 1997, the Diet passed the Sentaku Ninkisei Hou , Optional Term-Limitation Law, formally legalizing non-tenured, contracted status for full-time Japanese educators.

This law, however, specified that all universities may hire foreign educators under whatever terms the universities themselves see fit. This includes tenure, and although no clear systematic approach for granting it has been stipulated in the 1997 law. In any case, the end result is that, for better (tenure) and for worse (contracts), parity between Japanese and non-Japanese has recently become legally possible throughout the Japanese university system.

This background indicates why the following questions for potential employees are so important. Not all universities are aware of or responsive enough to the new laws to systemize tenure for full-time non-Japanese. Contract employment remains insecure--and steeply tilted against non-Japanese candidates. Nor are universities always forthcoming about employment conditions in their job announcements, so proper investigation of conditions becomes crucial for finding the better jobs.

The Ten+ Questions a Prospective University Employee Needs Answered

1. Is this university a National, Public, or Private University? If it is National or Public, as a bureaucratic organ it will probably not grant tenure immediately, or even have the rudiments of tenure-track system. Private universities, with a longer history of employment options, are more likely to--although very few do in any case.

2. Is this position full-time (joukin) or part-time (hijoukin)? If part-time, the position will be contracted, as it is for everyone in Japan. If full-time, it will probably be contracted for foreigners (though in exceptional universities tenure may be granted from commencement). However, be advised that some universities obfuscate with terminology: At the Prefectural University of Kumamoto, original contracts describing foreign faculty positions as sennin no kyouin ("full-time faculty member" in the English translation) later mutated into tokubetsu shokutaku hijoukin gaikokujin kyoushi, "special, irregular, temporary/part-time"--making employees, in the words of school administrators, "full-time part-timers"; c.f. Aldwinckle, 1999.) So narrow the terminology down to joukin or hijoukin in inquiries.

3. If full-time and contracted, how long is the contract period? Are renewals capped? If the term is only for one year, it would be advisable to search for a job elsewhere, for these conditions offer the minimal job security of a part-time hijoukin teacher and a lot more work. A three year term is a little better, but beware of renewal limitation (often two renewals is the limit), effectively dismissal regardless of accrued research or goodwill. It is advisable in any case to search for the rare position where foreigners are tenured from day one, of course.

4. What do the university regulations actually say about tenure for foreigners? Is it possible? If they say no, it would again be advisable to look elsewhere for a more stable position. If they say yes or maybe, inquire about an established tenure track (unlikely given the recentness of the laws), and then ask:

5. How many foreigners currently have tenure here? This is a litmus test. If none do, chances are you will not be an exception. If some, find out how many and how long ago. Find their names in public records (such as JACET) to ask them directly about job conditions.

6. How many classes (koma) will I teach? Some schools give unsuspecting foreigners a class load more than double that of Japanese full-timers. The average load is around five to seven koma, with one koma equalling one 90-minute class taught each week. (Use the word koma in inquiries to avoid possible confusion between "class" and "period.") Find out if there are other responsibilities such as evening classes, summer classes, seminars (zemi), exam preparation and marking--which can be extra work uncompensated.

7. Am I allowed to attend and speak at faculty meetings? ("Faculty meeting" word choices vary from school to school, along the lines of kyouin kaigi, kyouju kai, etc.) If not, I would refuse to take the job, full stop. If you are allowed in with speaking rights, you would have a hotline to all the major decision makers and can provide input (not to mention raise objections) on university matters before the entire university. If not, you will have no voice at any time when policy that will affect your employment status is deliberated upon. Do not rely on other faculty members to represent your interests in university meetings, because overnight oustings often take place.

8. Are unemployment insurance (shitsugyou hoken, now koyou hoken) and health insurance (kenkou hoken) included in my pay? Unemployment insurance is required by law for part-time teachers (hijoukin) in all universities, but only for contracted full-timers in Private ones. This is necessary in case of the layoffs which temps all too frequently incur. Foreigners can get unemployment benefits in Japan if they are paid in.) However, some do not always pay it in. More important is health insurance, because without it you will be paying five times more for the same medical treatment; your family will not be covered and will be paying over three times more. In any case, comprehensive health insurance is the right of any full-time worker in Japan. If you do not get at least health insurance, do not take the job.

9. Will I get paid a bonus (bonasu) and retirement pay (taishoku kin)? Many universities pay their foreigners significantly more per month than the regular staff, but do not pay them a bonus. A bonus, paid twice annuallly, adds up to around five months' basic salary (kihon kyuu) per annum. If you are not getting a bonus, you will be getting paid significantly less than the Japanese no matter how they configure the math. Get a bonus or suffer from low salary. In addition, retirement pay is something all Japanese full-timers are entitled to, and they receive it even if they leave part way through their careers. If you are not entitled, you are losing out on a major payoff for years of services rendered.

10. Will I get the other benefits entitled other Japanese full-time academics? These include (a) an office of your own, (b) a research budget (kenkyuuhi), c) a computer budget, (d) access to joint-research funds (kyoudou kenkyuuhi) from Monbusho, (e) the right to sit on committees. There is a lot of leeway here, but a few benchmarks: (a) Ascertain that your office is not a single "teachers' room" exclusively for all foreigners--no better than the gaijin ghettos at a regular eikaiwa school. (b) The amount of research budget differs widely and in applicability for overseas research, but at least make sure you get one. (c) With no computer, you will be cut off from your colleagues' internet and email, and thus the bulk of current collegial interchange. (d) Committees may sound cumbersome, and they are, but committee work is where you increase your exposure and usefulness to the school, lending input where it is needed and increasing your job security--for invisible foreigners give administrators every excuse to argue how dispensible they are. It is difficult for your Japanese peers to take you seriously as a full-fledged colleague without committee work.

11 Miscellany: These are quirky conditions found in some universities which do not fit neatly into categories: (a) Are there time clocks to punch? Time clocks are unusual, but through them administrators can monitor your every move and deny you trips overseas or days off during workload lulls (Ohu University, Public, ibid). (b) Am I officially working less than 40 hours a week? Some universities say 30 hours, thereby quietly but officially classifing you as part-time (Prefectural University of Kumamoto, ibid).

In sum, to avoid a part-time position with full-time duties, I would suggest that you not take a job if the following conditions are not granted as a bare minimum: (a) attendance and voting rights at faculty meetings, (b) health insurance, (c) classroom load of 5 to 7 koma, (d) bonus of around 5 months per annum, (e) a contract period longer than one year.

Although universities may balk at a foreigner asking so many questions, the fact is that this information, particularly the bare minimum conditions, are supposed to be easily researchable. According to the abovementioned ninkisei law, universities are required at the outset to disclose full employment conditions, including any potential job limitations, in their job announcements. If the school requests you contact them for more details or are unduly cagey in their responses, understand that they are defying Monbusho and thus may have some unwelcome surprises in store.

In any case, avoid the pitfalls that are all too common here. Acceptance of a position is of course at the reader's discretion, but unless people become better informed about adverse conditions latent within the Japanese university system, the already insecure circumstances for foreign educators here will probably continue unchecked.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the JALT Hita Hanami Retreat, Saturday, March 26, 1999, Hita, Kyushu, and an abridgement published Tokyo Classified, 268, May 15, 1999.