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Hi Blog. Here’s a crie du coeur from an academic I respect mightily named Bern. He has spent umpteen years in Japan’s higher education, both at the faculty and the Dean level (there have been very few NJ Deans ever in Japan’s universities), and has complete fluency in reading, writing, and spoken Japanese. Yet even after all his work acculturating and developing the same (if not greater) job skills as native speakers, he could not avoid institutional harassment. As he says below, “until harassment and discrimination laws are clarified and given real teeth” in Japan, all NJ faculty and staff are at risk.
And I speak from personal experience that this can happen to anyone. For NJ educators’ mental and vocational integrity, due consideration should be taken before ever considering a career in Japanese academia. Someday I’ll give an opinion piece about why Japan’s positions for NJ academics are, quite simply, a hoax, and why Japanese educational institutions should be avoided, full stop. But not yet. Meanwhile, here’s Bern:
Date: April 9, 2017
While this post for your blog describes an attempt by one university to isolate and harass (including a false claim of harassment that failed in epic fashion) a foreign faculty member, it is also meant to be a reminder. As a foreigner in Japan, things can go wrong even with the Japanese language fluency, the cultural and legal knowledge, the degrees and publications, the connections, etc., etc. that we are always told we should get in order to be “safe.” In other words, and until harassment and discrimination laws are clarified and given real teeth, we are all at risk.
As stated above, I have over 26 years of experience as a university teacher and administrator, including positions at public, national and private universities in Japan and in the USA. I have also been successful in these positions. Among other things, I was the first non-Japanese in Iwate National University’s 120-year history to be made department head (英米パート主任), and then the first non-Japanese there to be made the head of a division (欧米言語文化コース代表). Previous to that, I was dean (学部長) at Miyazaki International College, at the time the youngest dean in Japan and one of just seven non-Japanese deans in the country. Finally, I’ve been a union member, including serving as officer, for twenty years, during which time I have helped well over fifty people with labor concerns.
I have just finished two years in the most bizarre employment situation I personally have ever encountered. Some background: I worked at Iwate National University until March, 2015. It was an exciting and sometimes challenging, position, with mostly great colleagues. However, the work demands were very high, and with the ongoing hiring freeze, coupled with multiple MEXT-mandated pay cuts and constant MEXT pressure to make wholesale curriculum changes to “fix” nonexistent problems, things did not look to get any easier in the years to come.
So when, in the late summer of 2014, Iwate Prefectural University (IPU) contacted me about possibly moving over to join them, I was very excited. The position was to be for equivalent pay but with far less administrative responsibilities, as well as teaching duties more in line with my research and education. Serious discussions started that August. I was to be replacing a good friend of mine, Christine, who was taking early retirement. I would be working with Ogawa, who I considered a friend, and who I ironically had helped to get her current position. I would also be working with Kumamoto, who I got to know when she suddenly had to take leave for a semester and I was asked to teach her 西洋文化研究法 class instead. (This is a course on academic writing and research methods in Japanese. In other words, and on just three weeks of notice, I had to prepare and then teach a class on Japanese academic writing and research methods in Japanese to twenty Japanese university students.) Moreover, I thought I knew Ishibashi, the current 学科長 (Dept. Head). I also knew the one other foreign faculty member–as he wishes for anonymity let’s call him “A”–who I felt was a good guy. I have an email account full of correspondence about how everyone at IPU was looking forward to working with me, and how we would work together to make IPU a better place.
And so I made the change over, unfortunately without getting everything formally in writing first. To say that actual conditions were different from the verbal offer actually understates what awaited me at Iwate Prefectural University.
I arrived at a department where nearly half of my new colleagues (five out of eleven) had in recent years filed 鬱病診断書 (official diagnoses of severe depression) and rarely or never came to work, a department where three people (again out of just eleven) had had formal harassment claims made against them in the past four years. However, more on that last bit later.
My first inkling of trouble came when “A” suddenly resigned his tenured position at IPU to take a nontenured position (for less money) elsewhere. He submitted this resignation at the end of February, about one month before I was to start at IPU. I was disappointed, so I asked him about his decision…and he responded only with “You’ll know yourself soon.” I asked Christine and Ogawa about this. Christine responded cheerfully with assurances that, while disagreements happened, most people got along fine. (In her defense, Christine had no Japanese language ability and so apparently was blissfully unaware of the seriousness of many of the ongoing issues. She also wrote written statements in support of me later.) Ogawa never responded, which was a huge red flag, but at that point I had already resigned…so had no choice but to move on.
March 27, 2015 was my moving day. While carrying boxes upstairs, I was seen by Ogawa, who reminded me that we’d agreed to meet that day to discuss the English curriculum. I dutifully stopped unloading boxes and went to her office–to be honest, I was excited about discussing curriculum reform with my colleague and friend. However, there was to be no discussion. Instead, Ogawa informed me that I was to use a collection of grammar exercises and other explanatory materials “she” (they were actually taken from multiple junior and senior high school textbooks) had produced to supplement my 英会話 (English conversation) activities. I was a bit stunned, as I wasn’t hired to teach English conversation, didn’t have any English conversation classes to teach, and had already ordered textbooks for my other classes (back in February!). I attempted to explain this, saying that we should discuss materials and methodology at length over the semester and try to make a joint decision by the summer…and she exploded. She told me that she thought I’d be more “cooperative,” and asked me again and again if I knew my “place.” Despite repeated efforts–often in writing–on my part, we would not discuss English curriculum reform (or anything else) again during my two years at that campus.
My “place,” by the way, was professor (教授). Ogawa was a lecturer (講師), as was Kumamoto. That said, and this was confirmed by Mr. Chiba at the Labor Board (労働局), the unwritten policy at my new department was that rank didn’t matter, nor was there shared faculty governance in the usual sense seen at most national or public universities in Japan. Nothing was discussed or decided openly; we would have 学科会議 (department meetings), which I would attend religiously, only to be told that everything had already been decided. At these meetings, for instance, I first learned I would be denied the opportunity to work with the overseas exchange programs and even denied the opportunity to meet people arriving from overseas. E.g., regarding the latter, Kumamoto, after handing me a Japanese document–a letter of appreciation to Ohio University–and giving me five minutes (she actually stood next to me checking her watch) to translate it, then told me that I would not be allowed to meet the visiting faculty and students from OU that year. “Maybe next year,” I was told. Similarly, when I volunteered (begged) again and again to be informed of and allowed to participate in faculty-student events, including the Fourth of July Party, the Halloween Party, etc., etc., I was refused.
While I’ve heard again and again about this happening to many other foreigners, while I’ve personally advised foreign faculty who’ve been treated in this fashion, this is the first time such a thing had ever happened to me. I was systemically denied input into decision-making about school activities, English program reform, etc., etc. Instead, I was given the work nobody wanted to do. For example, I was made the first non-Japanese member of the 入試 committee, a committee so challenging new Japanese committee members are assigned a 先輩 (veteran colleague) to assist them with the multitude of responsibilities. I, however, was provided no veteran colleague. Instead, I was simply handed a large bag with the over 1,700 pages of things I “needed to know” about my new responsibilities, and then sent out alone to do, among other things, eleven high school visits in my first four months. (My Japanese colleagues went out in groups, to an average of just five schools.)
Still, I soldiered on, trying to prove myself to my new colleagues. In addition to the eleven high school campus visits, I did three 公開講座 (special lectures) on three different Saturdays (my Japanese colleagues averaged one), completed the onerous data-collection/number-crunching tasks (compiling from Japanese language surveys submitted by incoming freshman, etc.), etc., etc. And then, when I asked one day about the differences between the promised and actual work conditions, when I more strongly requested inclusion into the events and decision-making process, two of my colleagues (Kumamoto and Ogawa) did something I still find stunning:
They called a number of my students in and asked them to file a false harassment complaint against me.
How do I know they did this? Because my students–bless them–balked at doing this, and because these students then told me about what happened in writing. And not just this, Ogawa, in her complete stupidity, told two faculty members at other universities that she and Kumamoto would be doing this to me. Those faculty members (both friends) then informed me…again in writing.
To say I was blindsided, that I felt betrayed and humiliated and scared, is an understatement. Shocked, I reached out privately to Ogawa (my friend!) and asked for an explanation. She never responded. I then documented the harassment and asked Ishibashi to intervene, to mediate a discussion; he refused. Instead, on March 9, 2016, apparently after consultation with Ogawa and Kumamoto, Ishibashi stripped me of all duties beyond teaching.
I filed a complaint with the Labor Board (労働局), which reviewed the evidence, decided that I had a case, and intervened multiple times on my behalf. The national and regional unions intervened as well. It was in consultation with the latter that I first learned how often false harassment complaints are used to intimidate/bully at universities in Japan. I then found out that the same thing had happened not just to me, but to the three other faculty members at my university who had been accused of harassment.
The way it works is this: The 窓口 (ombudsman) for harassment complaints (in my case Kumamoto) calls in your students either singularly or in groups, talks about unstated and vague concerns or rumors she’s “heard” about you, tells the students she’s become aware from “other students” that you have been saying or doing inappropriate things in or outside of class, and then pressures your students to file a formal harassment complaint. Note that there does not have to be cause–e.g., no student had ever complained about me, and my student evaluations for that semester averaged a perfect score. More troubling, the specific contents of these complaints are kept confidential, making it very difficult to fight.
Again, I was lucky. My students protected me, and they did so in writing. Four faculty members submitted written statements in my support. I also taped conversations with Ishibashi, with Kumamoto and with Ogawa. Finally, after 26 years, I have an extensive support network inside and outside Japan. I wish all of you reading this similar luck.
That said, even with all my evidence, backing and connections, the best I could achieve was an “armed truce” where I was excluded and isolated but not harmed further. Note that at no time did I request the punishment of anyone–all I wanted was the harassment to stop and to be allowed to do the work they’d hired me to do. IPU refused to investigate–no student witnesses were ever contacted, nor did they speak to the multiple faculty members who’d submitted written statements in my support. They further refused to allow me to work–basically, I was getting paid to sit in my office to do nothing.
While some (including a number of my friends) teased me that this was an ideal position to be in, I wanted to be allowed to do my job. The Labor Board and the union recommended continuing to fight. However, fighting it out in court would have taken years, with the possible payout limited by Japanese law to 3,000,000 yen–or just $30,000 US–with about one third of that going to my attorney. (This, by the way, is what I mean by these laws not having teeth.)
I went out instead and found a tenured position at a university elsewhere. I am currently outside of Japan. The funniest thing is that, in my last conversation with him, Ishibashi assured me that I would never be able to find work again, that he “would see to it.” Maybe I should send him a postcard, signing it “Andy Dufresne”?
Be careful out there. Best, Bern
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