By David C. Aldwinckle
Adapted from a presentation at Kyushu JALT Hanami Retreat
Saturday, March 26, 1999, Hita, Kyushu
Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, Friends, UMJ, and SIGNIF April 4, 1999
To be published in JALT's The Language Teacher Magazine

(click on topic heading below to skip down)


When searching for a job in any employment system, there are pitfalls to avoid. The same goes for language teaching in Japan--for if one is not careful, one may wind up in a temporary position with long hours, minimal benefits, and comparatively low pay. This paper deals with the information a potential employee needs from an employer in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to take the position. It first gives a briefing about the Japanese university system for absolute beginners, then raises pertinent questions for employees to ask their employers.

Two caveats at the outset: First, this paper assumes that said employee wishes to have a secure, long-term job in Japan; thus it is not directed towards educators seeking temporary stopover positions. Second, a paper this brief cannot be comprehensive about all sectors of Japanese education and is in not intended to be part of lengthy conference calls unlimited, so not covered are: a) private eikaiwa schools, which employ foreign staff under short-term contracts as a matter of course (as businesses are legally permitted to do); or b) Japanese primary and secondary education (i.e. elementary, junior, and senior high schools), because entry to these institutions is usually via the JET Program, specifically designed by the government to offer short-term revolving-door employment.

Instead, this paper focusses upon the university system, where the long-term or permanent positions as a foreign educator in Japan (short of founding your own school as a private enterprise) are more likely to be available.


There is a six-celled classification system for educators in the Japanese university system: public-sector employment vs private-sector employment, Japanese vs non-Japanese, and part-time vs full-time. These paradigms affect employment conditions.

Public Sector vs Private Sector. There are three different types of university in Japan: 1) National (Kokuritsu Daigaku--including the prestigous former Imperial Universities), 2) Public (Kouritsu Daigaku, including prefectural universities), and 3) Private (Shiritsu, or more clearly Watakushi-ritsu Daigaku). The National and Public Universities are public-sector, fully funded by government taxes, which means educators are legally civil servants (koumuin). Private Universities are mostly private-sector funded and managed, which means educators are legally classified as laborers (roudousha), falling under the Labor Standards Law (roudou kijun hou) covering any non-bureaucrat. Spanning the system is Monbushou (the Ministry of Education), which controls all educational accreditation, curriculum approval, educator hiring approval, and (Privates excepted) budgeting. In sum, foreign educators are legally bureaucrats in the National and Public Universities, are laborers in the Private, and are given permission to teach by Monbushou in all cases.

Japanese vs Non-Japanese, and Part Time vs Full Time. Nationality has been an issue for employment in Japanese universities because most foreign educators have effectively received part-time non-tenured status. This is due to "standard operating practice" in the Japanese bureaucracy. Due to an oft-quoted (but never specifically legally-delineated) understanding known as "the nationality clause", people without Japanese nationality were practically never hired (until recent liberalizations in local governments) as full-time, promotable civil servants in any part of the bureaucracy. Instead, "full-time" foreigners were given short-term contracts--which Japanese received only if they were working part-time (hijoukin).

Thus, as an extension of the bureaucracy, National and Public Universities gave full-time (joukin) foreign educators fixed-term positions exclusively created for foreigners: 1-year gaikokujin kyoushi (foreign instructor) contracts, plus to 3-year gaikokujin kyouin (foreign staff) contracts, permitted after 1982. Japanese joukin, however, were (until recently) automatically granted uncontracted, unlimited-term employment--effectively tenure--from day one of employment. Thus, Japan's university hires all part-time educators, regardless of nationality, under contract employment, but hires full-timers under a bifucated system--citizens mostly tenured, foreigners mostly contracted.

The result has been that tenure for foreigners has hardly ever been granted in the National or Public Universities, and very rarely in Private. In fact, despite being the second-largest university system in the OECD, Japan has the lowest number of tenured foreign educators--there are more tenured foreigners in one single major American university (George Washington U.) than in all of Japan's Nationals put together (Hall 1997, p. 100)! As for the system in tenure's staid, contracting may sound clear and secure ("renewable by mutual consent" is the legal requirement), but in practice consent has not always been mutual. In fact, 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 considered standard in many universities (Sapporo Gakuin University, Private, cf. University Blacklist 1998). Politically, nonrenewal has been an effective means for firing foreigners in times of dispute (Tsukuba University, National, cf Hall ibid, pp. 107-17). Economically, in the face of rising costs and diminishing student numbers, contracts have enabled Monbushou to enforce a tacit campaign between 1992-4 to replace elderly foreign educators with younger, cheaper foreigners in the National Universities (cf ibid, p. 81); Hokkaido University has become famous for its occasional "foreigner house cleanings" (cf. University Blacklist, 1998).

Regulations changed in the latter half of the 1990's. In 1995, the Daigaku Shingikai (University Deliberation Council), a consulting arm of Monbushou, recommended adopting contract employment for full-time foreign faculty in all universities, including the hitherto untouched Privates. This legally paved the way for full-time contracts for Japanese everywhere. In August 1997, the Japanese Diet passed the Sentaku Ninkisei Hou (The Optional Term-Limitation Law), which formally legitimized non-tenured status for all full-time Japanese educators. It states that employment conditions, tenured or contracted, are completely at the discretion of the universities.

However, this freedom of choice also opened avenues for foreign educators. The original Monbushou directive of 1982, entitled Kokuritsu mata wa kouritsu no daigaku ni okeru gaikokujin kyouin no nin'you tou ni kansuru tokubetsu sochihou, ("Special Measures Act for the Appointment of Foreign Staff at National and Public Universities"), has recently been reinterpreted to enable National and Public Universities, at their discretion, to grant tenure to foreigners. However, this has not caused a job-market sensation due to lack of initiative. The author's experience is that lower levels of the Japanese bureaucracy can be uncreative in its interpretation of rules--often assuming that Monbushou proposed guidelines for system adjustments are strict commands, or refusing to read between the lines for fear of reprisal. Indeed, in the above sochihou, a system for tenuring foreigners was not explicitly forbidden, but neither was a clear system for granting it (such as the Western "up-or-out") delineated. Which leaves matters up to good fortune, for if the Dean has the courage to assume that "no impossibility creates possibilities", he may choose to grant tenure regardless of nationality. The results remain to be seen. In sum, recent changes have enabled employment position parity between Japanese and non-Japanese everywhere in the Japanese university system, so long as administrators choose to exercise it.


Given this background of haphazard guidelines, the employee must take his or her own initiative to ascertain job potential and avoid pitfalls. Not all universities are aware or responsive enough to the new laws to tenure full-time non-Japanese, and there is little incentive for them to change: contract employment is bureaucratically rife with precedent, moreover economically and politically advantageous for the employer. Furthermore, despite Monbushou directives, universities are not always forthright about employment conditions in their job announcements (cf. JALT's The Language Teacher Magazine 1998-9), so proper investigation of conditions is crucial for finding better employment. Therefore, there are several questions which must be answered for due assessment of the situation:


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.


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, there have been cases where universities obfuscate with language to make a position sound better than it is (Prefectural University of Kumamoto, Public: "sennin no kyouin" was translated as "full time" in the English letters of appointment, yet construed as "part-time" in the Japanese) (cf. University Blacklist 1999). Narrowing the terminology down to "joukin" or "hijoukin" in inquiries is safer.


If only for one year, it would be advisable to search for a job elsewhere, for under these conditions you would have the minimal job security of a part-time hijoukin teacher while receiving a lot more work for unworthwhile compensation. If for three years, that is better but not much, and beware of renewal "capping"--effectively the same as firing because it is done regardless of accrued research or goodwill. It is advisable in any case to search for the rare-bird positions where foreigners are tenured from day one, of course.


If 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, however unlikely at this point in time. If they say tenure is or may be possible, find out:


This is a litmus test. If none, chances are that the new employee will not be an exception. If yes, find out how many and how long ago. The truly tenacious may find the tenured in public records (such as JACET directories) and ask them directly about job conditions.


Some schools give unsuspecting foreigners a class load that can be more than double that of Japanese full-timers. The average load for Japanese educators is between five and seven "koma" per week, with one koma equalling one 90-minute class (use the word koma in inquiries to avoid possible confusion between "class" and "period"). Moreover, inquire whether there are other "understood 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 differ from school to school, but kyouin kaigi, kyouju kai, etc.)

If not, this author suggests one should refuse to take the job, full stop. If the foreign employee is allowed in with speaking rights, he or she would have a hotline to all the major decisionmakers, providing input (not to mention raise objections) on policy matters in front the entire university. If not, the employee will have no voice at any time when policy that will affects employment status is deliberated upon. It is not advisable, furthermore, to rely on other faculty members to represent one's interests in university meetings, because overnight oustings often take place (cf. Niigata University, National, ibid).

8) ARE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE (shitsugyou hoken, now koyou hoken) AND HEALTH INSURANCE (kenkou hoken) ALSO 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 Privates. This is necessary in case of the layoffs which frequently happen to temp educators (and yes, foreigners can get unemployment benefit in Japan if they are paid in). However, some universities (The Prefectural University of Kumamoto, ibid) do not pay it in. More important is health insurance, because without it the employee and family will not be covered, with the former paying five times more and the latter over three times more for standard medical treatment. In any case, comprehensive health insurance is the right of any full-time worker in Japan. If it is not part of the job benefits, 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 there is no a bonus, the employee will be getting paid significantly less than the Japanese no matter how one configures the math. No bonus means lowered salary, period. In addition, retirement pay is something all Japanese full-timers are entitled to, and they receive it either at the end of their career (of course) or even if they leave part-way. If not entitled, the employee will lose out on a major payoff for years of services rendered.


These include a) an office of your own, b) a research budget (kenkyuuhi), c) a computer budget, d) access to joint-research monies (kyoudou kenkyuuhi) from Monbushou, 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 ghettoes at a regular eikaiwa school. b) The amount of research budget differs widely and in applicability for overseas research, but at least make sure it exists. c) With no computer, said employee will be highly isolated from educational colleagues in terms of internet or email. e) Committees may sound cumbersome, but committee work is where the employees increase their exposure and usefulness to the school, lending input where it is needed and increasing job security--for not being visible gives administrators every excuse to argue how temporary the foreigners are.


These are quirky conditions found in some universities which do not slot neatly into question paradigms: 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). Let me know here about some of the other odd permutations out there.


In sum, if the following conditions are not granted as a bare minimum, I would suggest that the reader does not take the job. You will wind up in a part-time position doing full-time duties:

1) Attendance and voting rights at Faculty Meetings,
2) Health insurance,
3) Classroom load of 5 to 7 koma,
4) Bonus of around 5 months per annum,
5) 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 obtainable. According to the aforementioned Sentaku Ninkisei Hou, universities are required at the outset to disclose full employment conditions, including any potential job limitations, when in their initial job descriptions. If the school requests the employee contact them for more details, or are unduly cagey in their responses, understand that they are defying Monbushou and thus may have some unwelcome surprises in store.

In any case, I advise the reader to follow this advice and 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 in Japan will probably continue unchecked.


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