A Critique of the Academic Apartheid Argument

By Koya Azumi

I suggested that [David Aldwinckle] is misunderstanding and misinterpreting the whole intent of the Shingikai proposal.

There are some facts that ought to be recognized first:

  1. The Daigaku Shingikai is NOT a part of the Ministry of Education, but is an outside advisory body consisting of eighteen persons, most of whom are educators. The Ministry has other Shingikai reporting to it. Shingikai makes policy recommendations to the Ministry.

  2. There are in excess of 130,000 full-time faculty members in universities in Japan. The Daigaku Shingi Kai has as its main focus university education in the entire nation. The few hundred foreigners who are teaching in universities in Japan are NOT their main concern.

  3. The Labor Standards Law in Japan forbids employment contracts extending beyond one year. The application of this rule, however, seems to vary by field (e.g., business, education) and situation. There are universities (mine included) which have used multi-year, non-renewable contracts for some teachers for a number of years in the past, which the government seems to have tolerated. Such term, contractual employment has been used mainly (but not exclusively) for language teachers, and the teachers on contractual appointments have been mainly (but not exclusively) foreigners. It has also been the case that many of those on contractual employment do not have PhDs.

A lot has gone wrong with Japanese higher education in part because of the employment system which gives tenure upon initial fulltime appointment. This is precisely what the Shingikai is proposing to change.

I repeat what I've said before: there is little evaluation or competition in the Japanese academic world. Being a professor in Japan must be the easiest job in the world! Getting rid of tenure is one of the ways in which a system of evaluation and competition is likely to be introduced into the academic world in Japan.

But then, there is the Labor Standards Law. For term employment to be accepted, the Law has to be changed and it is yet to be changed. The Shingikai recommendation has been no more than that, and it did point to the need to modify the Labor Law. Since the Shingikai proposal made the news, there has been considerable discussion in the press about it. It is healthy to have such open discussion.

If term employment has been applied more to foreigners than to Japanese, it is probably because of one or more of the following factors:

1. The person's qualifications

The question that arises when an appointment is considered is whether or not the applicant is a scholar worthy of being named a professor. This is an issue not limited to Japan. What are we to do with people who are artists, performers, technicians? Physical education teachers? Language teachers without disciplinary specialization and without PhDs?

2. The situation of that particular university

Each university has its own particular circumstance which calls for employing someone for a set period. My university made a three-year contractual, non-renewable appointment in a social science field and hired a Japanese national.

3. The particular policy of the university

At ICU (International Christian University) in Tokyo, it is university policy to hire non-Japanese initially for a three year appointment. We have this policy for the benefit of both the university and the applicant. Often the university does not and cannot know the person well enough to judge if it would like to keep the person for life, and the applicant comes to ICU and Japan with considerable apprehension. When the person comes on a term contract, his/her way back is paid for by the university. Were the person tenured from the beginning and to quit, his way back will not be paid for by the university. Toward the end of the second year of initial appointment the non-Japanese faculty member is considered for tenure.

At ICU there are 169 fulltime faculty members, of whom 44 are non-Japanese. Of the 44, 31 are tenured. The 11 who are on term employment are teachers of English.

"Academic Apartheid" portrays Japanese higher education to be highly centralized in which the Ministry of Education plays the major role. That is true, but the Ministry does not meddle with individual appointment except when a new program is being proposed. It is up to the university to decide its own personnel policy. If the university would like to become more cosmopolitan by hiring more non-Japanese professors, it can. Given the relative strength of Japanese economy, Japan now has a golden opportunity to radically improve its higher education by importing high calibre scholars from abroad.

Japan has come a long way since 1982, when the law was changed to allow foreigners to teach at national and public universities. Doing away with tenure by introducing the term employment for all university professors will surely be one of the ways in which university education and the performance of Japanese academic world in general may be made better.

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