JALT TLT: James McCrostie on NJ job insecurity at Japan’s universities


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Hi Blog.  Here’s a nice short 500-word summary of one issue I’ve been covering for more than ten years now:  Academic Apartheid in Japan’s Universities.  Reprinted with permission of the author.  Arudou Debito in transit


Behind the Music: An explanation of the university shuffle
James McCrostie
Published in the April 2007 issue of JALT’s The Language Teacher
in the Job Info Center column (p. 45 – 46).

Working at Japanese universities resembles musical chairs. Every year the music starts and instructors with expiring contracts run around looking for a new job. Most universities hiring foreigners full-time offer one-year contracts, renewable three or four times. Contrary to popular belief, universities don’t cap renewals at three or four because if a teacher works long enough they can’t be fired. Schools remain safe as long as they state the number of renewals and a few have contracts renewable up to ten years.

To most thinking people, forcing instructors to leave every few years appears short sighted. Yet, university and government officials have their own reasons for preferring term-limits.

Keeping costs down is one reason. The penny pinching began in December 1992 when Ministry of Education officials phoned all the national universities and warned them against keeping foreign teachers in the higher pay brackets. Schools soon sacked foreigners over the age of 50 (most had been promised a job until retirement), replaced them with teachers on capped contracts, and refused to hire anyone over the age of 35 or 40 (Hall, 1994). Yet, despite a 1997 law allowing universities to employ Japanese faculty on term-limited contracts, the use of capped contracts to economize, while increasing, remains largely limited to foreign staff (Arudou & McLaughlin, 2001).

Attitudes towards foreign teachers reveal the more important reason for the caps. University and Ministry of Education bureaucrats regard foreigners as models of foreign culture with expiry dates stamped on their foreheads rather than real teachers who have a long-term role to play. For example, Niigata University’s president admitted wanting foreigners “churning over constantly” (JPRI Staff, 1996). In an Asahi Shimbun editorial, Shinichiro Noriguchi, a University of Kitakyushu English professor, contends “native speakers who have lived in Japan for more than ten years tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers” (Noriguchi, 2006).

Ministry of Education officials justified firing older foreigners from national universities by arguing younger instructors would be better examples of American culture (Hall, 1998). Nearly a decade later, Ministry bureaucrats justified term-limits by contending they “encouraged the movement of teachers to other universities which was of benefit to both teachers and the universities” (Cleary, 2001). Exactly how they benefited anyone was left unsaid.

If nothing else such attitudes are at least consistent, changing little since the Meiji Era. Viewing foreigners as disposable goes back to the 1903 sacking of Lafcadio Hearn from what is now Tokyo University.

Are the caps discriminatory? While nearly every Japanese instructor receives tenure from the day they are hired and nearly every foreigner is shown the door after a few years the Supreme Court, with a little legal legerdemain, ruled that such hiring practices don’t violate the Labor Standards Law which applies only after someone has been hired (van Dresser, 2001).

Luckily, some universities do appreciate that employing foreigners permanently can benefit a school. So what’s a foreigner in search of job stability to do? Getting a doctorate couldn’t hurt but the key is Japanese fluency. According to activist Arudou Debito “you’ve simply got to understand what’s going on around you” (Arudou, personal communication). Then again, neither provided much protection during the purge of the 1990’s.


Arudou, D. and McLaughlin, J. (2001). Employment conditions in the university: Update autumn 2001. JALT Kitakyushu Presentation. Retrieved January 20, 2007 from https://www.debito.org/JALTninkisei112401.html

Cleary, F. (2001). Taking it to the Ministry of Education: Round three. Pale Journal. 7(1). Retrieved January 20, 2007 from https://www.debito.org/HELPSpring2001.html#kumamoto

Hall, I. (1994). Academic Apartheid at Japan’s National Universities. JPRI Working Paper No. 3. Retrieved January 21, 2007 from http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp3.html

Hall, I. (1998) Cartels of the Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop. New York: W. W. Norton.

JPRI Staff. (1996). Foreign teachers in Japanese universities: An update.
JPRI Working Paper, 24. Retrieved January 20, 1997 from http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp24.html

Noriguchi, S. (2006). English education leaves much to be desired. Asahi Shimbun, Sep. 15, 2006. Retrieved January 20, 2007 from http://www.asahi.com/english/Heraldasahi/TKY200609150129.html

van Dresser, S. (2001). On the employment rights of repeatedly renewed contract workers. PALE Journal, 7(1). Retrieved January 20, 2007 from https://www.debito.org/HELPSpring2001.html#vandresser

10 comments on “JALT TLT: James McCrostie on NJ job insecurity at Japan’s universities

  • I am so sick of hearing fluency in Japanese as something that `would be helpful` while living in Japan. BULL****

    If you don`t put in the effort to be fluent after a year or two here you don`t deserve to be here. Yeah, I know people are busy and work on an American clock or what have you, but that just means you have to put in all the more effort as that is what immigration entails.

    Koreans come here and are fluent in 6 months. Chinese who have the same grammar structure as english can be in a year. Sure they can understand Kanji but they cannot read them aloud because the readings are Japanese. I can read Japanese way way faster than any Korean or Chinese I have met before and I can read Japanese as faster than someone whos reading speed is `normal`.

    Kanji is too difficult toka don`t give me that BS. It is not difficult to learn the nessessary Kanji in order to be literate. If you can read a newspaper you can read pretty much anything modern without difficultly. 2000 characters. 5 each day for 400 days. Do that while writing various sentences in various grammar forms every day. It is not difficult it just takes time and effort. Do you think Chinese or Koreans just pick it up naturally? No! they also have to study their asses off and many do while working over the legal limit of hours an international student is allowed to work.

    English spelling is way more difficult than Kanji. Think back to all the spelling tests and hand writing you had to do as a child before you became able to spell correctly. Think about all the times in your adult life when you think to yourself, is this spelled correctly. ALSO, ENGLISH IS NOT PHONETIC which makes it all the more imperative that you know the spelling of words HANDS DOWN. Japanese is phonetic. Modern Japanese is relatively easy to forms of Japanese that precede it.

    I had a guy come to my work the other day in China town. A french guy who struck up a convo in english. He asked me `so you can speak Japanese?` he was shocked when i said `of course`.

    I was a bit more shocked that he would use english to me as you cannot tell what language I speak by my face and he is not even a native speaker of english. [rant truncated]

    It is something that you MUST KNOW to live in Japan. Just because people don`t expect it does not mean you are welcome to do whatever you please…

  • I also entirely disagree with Mr. Miller. With lots of effort towards learning Japanese to fluency, and just a little bit of common sense when interacting with people you should find acceptance quite easily in many situations. I’m not denying problems, but I think people get a little overly negative and bitter when they themselves are the ones making little to no effort and expecting automatic acceptance. I don’t know Mr. Miller’s situation, so I’m just speaking from general experience.

    I think what a lot of people fail to realize, being involved in the language education community (whether you’re a teacher, learner, or both) themselves, is that most everyone is not involved in it. Most people won’t be thinking “this person can’t speak or read Japanese yet, but he’s progressing, that’s so good!” they’re going to be thinking “this person is illiterate and can’t speak”. So you’re going to be operating in an environment where you are treated as an illiterate if you don’t make a quick and dedicated effort to get yourself onto a level playing field with everyone else (i.e. fluency/literacy).

    And like Alex mentions, stop making excuses and just do it. Find a way. I don’t think it should take longer than 1-3 years to become fluent in any given language. Lots of people do it, you can too.

  • Mike, I’m extremely baffled by both your negativity and your actual claims. Your work situation sounds like paranoia on your part…maybe the fact that you “speak as little Japanese as possible at work” is the problem. If Japanese don’t want to hear you speak it, maybe (just maybe) that means your Japanese isn’t good. I have friends (even students) that speak fluent English that prefer to speak in Japanese because speaking in their second language tires them out (their words, not mine, although I certainly know the feeling). And it’s not about “impressing” people, it’s about being a literate adult. In your home country, are you “impressed” if someone from a foreign country speaks English? I would assume you just take it as normal.

    I think your rules are describing your problem, not an objective situation. Pretending not to be able to speak or understand Japanese is not the way to get along with Japanese people (I can’t believe I just typed that as if it’s not already blindingly obvious.) Would you want to talk to someone in your home country who was walking around with a miserable attitude about the impossibility of making friends while “playing dumb” about not being able to speak or comprehend anything? Yikes.

    I think you’re the one who’s missing the point entirely, my friend.

  • >I am so sick of hearing fluency in Japanese as something that `would be helpful` while living in >Japan. BULL****

    >If you don`t put in the effort to be fluent after a year or two here you don`t deserve to be >here.

    And what if you put in the effort and you’re just not good at Japanese? Should I be kicked out of the country and say bye-bye to my Japanese wife?

    I can communicate with Japanese people – just not fluently.

    I was invited into to this country on an official government programme.

    To me, your words paraphrase to:

    “People who are not like me should get the hell out of Japan!”

  • My opinion is that there’s 130 million people in Japan. It’s impossible IMO to say that “Japanese people think this or Japanese people think that. In my mind, the problem is with the government and legal system playing into people’s fears more than anything else.

    I met a lot of Japanese people I liked and Japanese people I didn’t like. Although I must admit I get along with older Japanese much more easily than with younger Japanese and salaryman. There are some very friendly obaachans around Horikiri for example that I love so much to spend time with and hear them talk about their grandchildren and how society changed because of the increasing bureaucracy and commercialism during the 60s and 70s. If anything, I can safely consider these people to be real friends, even if I’m a white Canadian who is only in Japan for some months a year and isn’t quite fluent yet. But I’ve also met a lot of obaachans and ojiichans who weren’t nice at all. Depends on the person I guess. So much for “Japanese people are this and that.” In fact, most people tell me that the younger generation in Japan is more tolerant, which is the complete opposite of my personal experience.

    That’s why I never pay attention to people who tell me that I shouldn’t waste my time with Japan because of racism problems. I enjoy the time I spend there regardless of any problem there might be.

  • Mike,

    Alex and D you’re missing the point entirely. The point is, even if you’re fluent and you’re making many efforts to assimilate, you will never be accepted.

    I’m sorry it didn’t work for you, but I think you need to look into a mirror rather than claiming that other people can’t be accepted.

    MD is correct – there is no way to say that 130 million people have the same beliefs. There are people you like and don’t like everywhere, there are people with values that agree with your and disagree with yours everywhere. It doesn’t matter where someone is from, if they don’t “accept” me for some reason, I realize that it is their loss, and they are missing out – big time – and I move on without a second thought. The passport they happen to hold has nothing to do with it.

  • it sounds like an illegal double standard to me concerning hire practices at japanese universitys, why do all the foreign instructors need all these advanced degrees, etc..when there japanese counterparts only have the minimum qualifications? But yet they are secured in there job with full tenured rights? if it smells like job discrimination, then it is job disrcimination..

  • I have a question. How often are universities not renewing the yearly contracts before the limit on the contract is reached? I left one five year contract a year early to go to Toyo university which publicly advertised a four year contract (renewable yearly) with a possibility of eight years total. I and the other gaijin were shown the door after 2 years due to “financial circumstances beyond their control.” How common is this and do I have any recourse? Toyo claims that I signed away my rights after agreeing to the terms in my one year contract. I call their use of the numbers 4 and 8 classic bait and switch. I am moving on but I would like this to be known to all who may look for employment there.

  • Two points: 1) Jim asked “why do all the foreign instructors need all these advanced degrees, etc..when there japanese counterparts only have the minimum qualifications?” In my experience this is not really true and the vast majority of recently hired Japanese need a Phd and an impressive list of publications. It is a buyers market for Japanese academics as well.

    2) Todd complained about his contract at Toyo not being renewed. I heard of a foreign English teacher at Toyo who didn’t have their contract renewed 2 years ago. It happened quite late in the hiring season which made it tough for said teacher to find another position.

    Off hand I can also think of 2 other similar cases at different schools just in the past year so it does happen. I’m no Japanese law expert so I wouldn’t want to comment on what kind of recourse you would have. I think such cases do show the need for teachers to join and be an active member in one of the unions before they get a nasty surprise.

  • Thomas Simmons says:

    Only one real question for those who insist that knowing the language fluently is the key to a normal, stable life in Japan (since we are in the realm of the academic vocation) — how many tenured NJ are there? Waffle on how public daigaku and private compare. It is moot. Now how many non-native speakers of English born and raised and educated to some extent out side the USA are there tenured or eligible for tenure in the USA?

    It all comes down to how many? Whinging about those who disagree with your position is irrelevant. For those who may be better than most Japanese in the language but that will get your subclass no closer than if you are not competent in the language.

    — I’ve asked (and so has Ivan Hall) for stats on how many tenured NJ there from the MOE on at least two occasions. They won’t give that information. First, they say they don’t have it, then second they say it’s a privacy issue.


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