A New System of University Tenure:
Remedy or Problem?

Michael H. Fox, Hyogo College

Tadashi Shiozawa, Chubu University

David Aldwinckle, Hokkaido Information University

AUGUST, 1999

Candidates for faculty positions at universities and colleges across the country have new reason for employment security concern: the Sentaku Ninkisei Hou, a law permitting "term-limitation system" (ninkisei) contracts for all university faculty, was passed by the Diet in June 1997 and enacted April 1988. Previously, all Japanese full-time faculty were granted tenure while contract-limited status was strictly reserved for non-Japanese nationals. Now, however, this law enables universities to raze the firewall between the two and contract everybody.

Why would Monbushou decide to institute a policy which would, for want of a better word, "gaijinize" all Japanese faculty? There is a concrete reason offered: the "enlivenment" (kasseika) of the educational system, to shake up and motivate university faculty to do more and better research. This paper will outline the Ninkisei Law, examine its rationale, use a case study to anticipate how it will affect the status of university faculty, not only in language education but all fields of humanities and the social sciences.

The Law in a Nutshell

The full name of the law is Daigaku no Kyouin Tou no Ninki ni Kansuru Houritsu (The Law Concerning Term Limitation of University Educators, ninkihou for short), dated June 13, 1997, and researchable in the Kyouiku Dairoppou (the Bible for laws affecting Japan's educators). According to Section 1, ninkisei, whose import can be rendered "limited contractual employment," is "necessary for the enlivenment of research in universities, and for the establishment of an environment where educational exchange is constantly carried out between educators with varied knowledge and experiences." Educators are defined as "professors, associate professors, lecturers and teachings assistants" (kyouju, jokyouju, koushi and joshu). Other "positions necessary to carry out research" may also be contracted.

Following sections specify that the terms of the contract must be openly disclosed and agreed to by the signee. Special clarifications are written for national and public universities since full-time civil servants have never before faced term limitation. For public institutions, the period of employment is to be decided by "those possessing appointive powers" (ninmeikensha). For private ones, it is the gakkou houjin, the adminstrative body which runs the school.

The law itself is extremely brief and contains little more than is written above. Compared to most industrialized countries where an evaluation for tenure is the norm, the ninkihou stipulates nothing. This is quite problematical, as it legitimizes easy disposal of employees, specifying evaluation for neither tenure, promotion, nor even continued employment. At present, the law leaves open the possibility of rehire under the terms of the first contract. One may be hired for three years, then rehired any number of times without being elevated to tenured status. The law assigns all other details to Mombusho ordinances yet to be composed. To make any other statement about the law's effect is to wander in the realm of speculation. It will be some years before the intricacies of the system become delineated.

The Purpose of Ninkisei

The explicit purpose of this new system, as noted above, is to reinvigorate higher education, which according to conventional thought, has atrophied due to a systematic enfranchisement of both student and teacher. As is well known, entrance to a particular university is considered a measure of intelligence, determines the level to which one may rise in government or industry, and serves as a marriage certificate. This is why Japan has been termed a gakureki shakai--an education-credential society . However, once an accredited pinnacle is reached, students often rest on their laurels and coast through school, their accessible future social, business and bureaucratic tracks already decided.

Much the same can be said for faculty, which is what many of these students want to become. Once they are employed at a beacon university, tenured from day one and promoted upon age or patronage, many have little incentive to work or do research. This problem has been officially criticized by the University Deliberation Council (Daigaku Shingikai), a consultative arm of Monbushou, which issued a report (Daigaku Shingikai Touhon, 1995) finding three harmful effects of present university employment practices: (a) an existing insularity demonstrated by the high percentage of faculty hired from the university's own student body, (b) neglect of student education as evidenced by excessive absences from class, and (c) salaries and promotions based on the seniority system (nenkou jouretsu seido) . A vicious circle of lethargy binds students to faculty: The image held by many, including both native and foreign educators, is that Japanese universities are places where professors pretend to teach and students pretend to learn. If each side cooperates reciprocally, established tracks will continue to function.

However, the ill effects of this system become acutely visible in an international comparison of the quality and output of university research. In addition to the oft-cited high-school test scores and number of patents obtained by industry (in both of which Japan ranks well), there is another Olympics for a nation's education system: the number of Nobel Laureates. Japan, a country famous for technological excellence, has been constantly embarrassed by its lack of medalists. So far, the United States has led the pack with 179, followed by Britain 67, Germany 61, France 21 and Switzerland 14 (Ikawa, 1997, p. 12). Japan has a meager seven, and of those, two are in literature, with only five in the natural sciences.

In 1987, Monbushou received a public impetus to overhaul the education system when researcher Tonegawa Susumu received the Nobel in physiology. In press conferences, Tonegawa explicitly stated that he was glad he moved to MIT in the US. He conceded that if he had stayed in Japan (where he would have had to spend years ingratiating himself to mentors, mentally unchallenged by unmotivated colleagues), he could never have become a laureate. A humiliating blow to the country's research echelons, seized by the press, which drew comparisons with Leo Esaki (a 1973 laureate in physics who left Japan for IBM in the USA), and heralded it as the "Tonegawa Shock". The shock continues. According to McGuire(1992) "Tonegawa has retained his Japanese citizenship, but has been scathing in his criticism of the scientific research system in Japan and has never returned to work in his native country" (p. 38). Japanese universities, according to the public opinion, is where researcher potential is stifled, not cultivated.

It is clear that some kind remedy has become necessary. Henceforth Monbushou, invoking the mantra of "enlivenment", arrived at the conclusion (see Daigaku Shingikai Touhon, 1995) that a decrease in job security through removal of automatic tenure would shake up the system by motivating researchers -for nowhere else in the OECD is tenure automatic at entry level. The new system of limited term contracts was first proposed for the 95 national and public universities--institutions with laboratories equipped for advanced technological and Nobel-worthy research--then expanded to include the private universities. Overseas practices were cited as justification: Most OECD universities employ educators under contracts for the first several years; significantly, American universities, the most Nobel-laden in the world, practice an "up-or-out" policy: two or so three-year renewable contracts, followed by either tenure or dismissal. Moreover, statistically, contracts do indeed motivate: the average researcher does the most work during this period. It was only logical that Ninkisei would work for Japan too--for good research would reward the motivated with a new contract, the slothful with nonrenewal, and Japan as a whole with a better education system and more international kudos.

The Asahikawa University Case

A recent event at Asahikawa Daigaku, a private university in Hokkaido, illustrates the workings of such a system without procedures for obtaining tenure. Gwendolyn Gallagher, an American national, was a full-time faculty member at the college for twelve consecutive years. At first, she was employed on a one-year contract which was renewed consecutively for six years. Thereafter, the university offered a five-year contract which Gallagher signed.

In the spring of 1996, at the conclusion of the contract, she was abruptly notified that her services were no longer desired and no new contract was offered. When asked the reasons for dismissal, required under the Labor Standards Law (roudou kijun hou), the administration not only refused, but also assumed the attitude that reasons were entirely unnecessary. It also made the claim, which the courts found to be without merit, that both parties had agreed that her last contract was terminal and non-renewable. The point, of course, is that under ninkisei, such terminations may become not only legal but routine.

Gallagher filed suit against the university. At the first hearing in April 1996, the judge stated that the Labor Standards Law does not recognize five-year contracts, and in order to make such a termination legal, the university was commanded to give an "applicable and logical reason" . The university then testified that Gallagher was "too Japanese" and that Asahikawa needed "fresh gaijin."

Plaintiff Gallagher construes these claims as masking a hidden agenda: the establishment of a system under which all personnel--Japanese or foreign, educational or administrative--could be made temporary or disposable at Asahikawa University. The university has already hired several administrators on yearly contracts (practically unheard-of in any college or company and probably illegal if ever brought to court). Gallagher views her own dismissal as a test case, where the administration is gauging the boundaries of its power.

That power was evident when the university turned a court defeat into a coup. In December 1996, the court concurred that Gallagher had been unfairly dismissed, issued a provisional ruling (karishobun) reinstating her status as a school employee, and ordered the university to pay her salary in full until the conclusion of the lawsuit. The university, witnessing the high degree of publicity in the press and a probable loss in court, offered in March of 1997 to reinstate Gallagher on a one-year renewable contract in a court-mediated settlement. This should have concluded the case, but upon returning to work, Gallagher found her usual seminars had been canceled, and shortly before the summer break in July, 1997, she was again notified of termination effective at the end of the academic year. The official reason was "curriculum change", although subsequent investigation revealed that her classes would be assigned to part-time faculty. Thus, fired twice as of the end of the 1997 academic year, Gallagher has once again filed suit for reinstatement. A landmark case, its distinguishing characteristic is the expectation of a decision rather than a settlement (wakai) forcing the court to step away from its usual passivity. The point is not merely the behavior of the university, but that under policies effected through the new law, such treatment--of foreign and native teachers alike--may become not merely legal, but standard.

Possible Effects of Universal Application

Japan's academics have also seen the writing on the wall, and lively debates on the Ninkisei Hou took place in many journals prior to Diet approval. In a highly-critical article, Yuge (Ronza 1997) believes ninkisei's real purpose is to commercialize education. Specifically, he says, the system seeks to nurture young researchers capable of developing profitable products and technologies in order to restore the nation's financial condition. He foresees a new educational system "dictated by MITI, obeyed by Monbushou." In this plan, "the humanities and social sciences will be nothing more than child's play." Higher education will turn into a proving ground where "faculty will be evaluated like civil servants, subject to transfer at the whim of senior officials" (p. 40).

Yuge's fears do not seem groundless. In the same journal, ninkisei supporter Satou (1997,) has an article entitled "The Industrial World Desires Faculty Fluidity." He believes that, "the next century will need creative scientists to confront industrial competitiveness" (20). He is quite sure that "universities are institutions of stagnation" and urges that "competitive principles are necessary in educational circles." He reasons, "What this country needs is less theory-conscious scholars, more responsible engineers and practical businessmen in positions of academic authority." The lynchpin of such thought: "What is good for MITI is good for the country."

What effect, if any will this have upon those in the humanities, particularly language education? It may very well signal the practical end of any hopes for tenured job security for foreign educators, and has been designed from the outset to provide low-cost, high-efficiency, replaceable intellectual labor components for industry. This may be good news for MITI's pet scientists and technologists, but not for educators of language and culture in the so called liberal arts.

The fact is that our field, the softer social sciences, does not quantify indicators of monetary output or intellectual property as the hard sciences do. How are we to patent our know-how, lay claims to intellectual property (outside of publishing more articles and textbooks), show that we are increasing national financial prosperity, or nurturing Nobel Prizes? It is clear that university administrators would be appraising performance in fields where results are less visible and often take longer than specified contract periods. It is not inconceivable that under ninkisei, the turnover rates in the softer sciences, particularly in language education, will reach startling new levels.1 The goals of limited tenure contracts are antithetical to liberal arts education, promoting systems of evaluation which if applied universally will be dubious in theory and result.

Rationale for Tenure

Ninkisei, in the form being promoted by Monbushou, is all about the universal elimination of tenure. This brings us to the necessary question, "Why does tenure exist?"

An answer proffered by a senior educator, "To prevent a Baptist Dean from firing all the Methodists". In other words, tenure exists to prevent dismissal on the basis of ideological, not professional grounds, and is thus crucial for an employment sector which must subsist on the free and open exchange of ideas. Who would dare express an idea against the threat of being fired? Although the current system of universal tenure is somewhat stifling, it hardly seems that the new Ninkisei Hou is the answer. In a system without a proper set of checks and balances, the newly introduced system will commercialize education by creating incentives for docile workers, not enlivened educators.


A new system of limited academic tenure has been introduced in Japanese universities. The explicit reasons are to stimulate research and education at institutions of higher learning. It is hoped that such a policy will lead to acquisition of Nobel Prizes. The implicit reasons are many, and include a renewed governmental desire to direct education, and develop a new breed of salaried worker to launch a second economic miracle--one that will return the country to financial prosperity. Candidates for positions at schools which implement ninkisei, should be concerned about its lack of any guarantees of fairness and objectivity. A recent case study of dismissal at Asahikawa University offers a scenario of arbitrary and abusive policy, which under the ninkisei may well become not only legal but general policy. Until a system is introduced which provides a sense of checks and balances, ameliorating the potential for employment abuse, Japan's educational system will produce a new wave of dismissed academics, many of whom will no doubt seek justice in the courts.