Academic Apartheid in Japan

Japan is Instituting Ninkisei for All Foreign Educators

By David Aldwinckle

(originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Jan 12, 1996)


The Japanese government is taking steps to limit the employment opportunities of foreign teachers of all nationalities in all universities, be they National, Public, or Private. In the past half decade, the Ministry of Education (Monbushou) has sent directives to all National and Public Universities, clearly stating that putting all foreign faculty on contracts, not tenure, is desired. Officials of those schools, who legally are employed as civil servants, have been obeying this, with extremely adverse results for the foreigners. Now Monbushou is attempting to include Private Universities, over which they have less mandate, in this policy drive. If Monbusho's success rate continutes as it has up to now, foreign faculty employed in the Japanese Education System will find their future in Japan severely limited simply because they are foreigners. (example from Japanese press jpegged here)


The policy drive in National and Public Universities has been established in the mass media and is well-documented elsewhere. The news is this: In the government-sponsored University "Shingikai" Study Group's Fourth Report (jpegged here), dated November 1995, they devote nearly six pages to describing ninkisei (C), or literally "term-limited employment system". In particular, on pages 9-10 of the report, they say (my translation): "Furthermore, as for Private Universities, it is common practice for foreign teachers to be hired on either termless posts, as per the Labor Standards Law, or else with terms that last for less than one year. However, it is desired (nozomareru) that the Private Universities also pave the way for hiring foreigners on contracts the same as National and Public Universities, with term limits of over one year...."


What is Ninkisei?

Ninkisei means that a school issues an employment contract for a teacher, valid for a certain amount of time, generally about two or three years (the Shingikai Report says "over one year" to make it look like they are extending the employment period).

The term "contract" may sound secure to Western ears, but the power of renewal lies in the school, not the teacher. In fact, the lack of a contract -- only a jirei (--letter of appointment) -- means "tenure".


  1. In a Japanese university, if you get a jirei from Day One of work, the period of employment is indefinite and open-ended; i.e., if you don't do something illegal, you won't get fired.
  2. There is no "publish or perish" system here like in the West - the punishment for not contributing or doing research is not dismissal - only non-promotion at worst.

Hence, a contract is actually a limit to the length of employment because it actually sets boundaries.

Why Is This News?

Isn't this a storm in a teacup?

Does Monbusho really have the power to institute contracts for all foreigners? It certainly does. Although Monbushou maintains that they cannot force schools to institute ninkisei -- they can only express that it is desirable and leave it up to the schools -- Monbushou in fact has incredible power in the Japanese educational system. They set strict guidelines on qualifications, curriculum, promotion, research, funding, and even staff makeups of schools (down to quotas of PhDs etc. in a department); and that's only what I've discovered after working in my Private University for 3 years. Monbusho also, with taxpayer money, is able to make financial alcoholics of the schools--by giving free grants for salary, research, and projects support, but threatening to cut it off at the earliest sign of noncooperation. That applies to Private Universities as well. So given the amount of arm-twisting Monbusho can do, word from them is not a simple "suggestion". It is a policy.

How far has this policy been carried out? The Shingikai report itself note on page ten that of 279 foreigners employed in National Universities, a full NINETY ONE PERCENT (254) are now on ninkisei. I don't have the figures for Public Universities. Moreover, the government is, by the Shingikai report above, encouraging the same application to Private Universities.

Ninkisei is a Raw Deal for Foreign Educators

The tone of the Japanese in the Shingikai report is positive. They basically say that ninkisei would "energize" (kassei ka suru) and "enliven" (kappatsu suru) the academic world. What they really mean is that they want to make it harder for deadwood faculty to stay on by making tenure nonautomatic. The debate circles in the vernacular press, as well as Monbushou, have noted that ninkisei would, in theory, apply to everybody in Japanese academia. But this is in theory for Japanese nationals, yet already in practice for foreign faculty.

Is being on a contract all that bad? Yes. Japanese universities have seldom hired foreigners as academic colleagues of the Japanese faculty (with all the privileges of tenured seiki Japanese teachers with no contracts). Instead, they have almost always been as utilized as "temps" - this word because, realistically, the school can decide how long foreigners will work on their school "projects". Worst of all, even with sufficient investment of time, these temps will not become regular faculty. Many universities (Hokkaido Gakuin Daigaku, for example) have rules that contracts are not renewable after a certain number of times -- say, three or four. Then foreign instructors are out on their ear because rules is rules. And the government has only encouraged this.

The Shingikai recommends positively that the schools should "take into account the conditions of each individual foreign instructor" (gaikokujin kyouin no koko no jijou ni oujiru). However, this is unenforcable. There is nothing explicitly stated about what recourses the foreign employee has over the employer--the civil-servant status of faculty in the National and Public schools makes Labor Standards Laws inapplicable (and the government recently ruled that foreigners cannot be employed on a promotion track to higher government posts anyway). Hence, in practice the school holds the aces. The Shingikai report itself reiterates that this is an "autonomous decision" (jishu teki na handan) of the schools.

The Damage Done

Even though Japan-born teachers are employed, often with tenure, in prestigious overseas institutions with all the academic fellowship thereof, foreign teachers cannot have the same privilege in Japan. And this is by Japanese government directive. This is unfair and demonstrates irresponsibility towards the goodwill of the international community.

What exactly is the purpose of tenure? One of my American profs simply said, "To make sure that if a Baptist becomes Dean, he doesn't fire all the Methodists". Tenure, for all its shortcomings, is crucial to academia because it ensures that ideas can be expressed without the threat of dismissal. The Japanese faculty as of now have no fear of that. But the foreigners do. Any trouble from them, and the school forgets to renew the contract.

Some have said that this will be instituted for new entrants only. In practice, that is entirely false -- the 91% (and growing) under-contract figure mentioned above contradicts that. In fact, there have been over thirty recorded cases over the past couple of years where foreigners had been given promises of "tenured positions", i.e. renewed contract employment until retirement age, and suddenly faced non-renewal. Or they were offered a year's salary for immediate retirement. And these are only the cases we know about in the English-language departments -- information in other fields has been hard to come by. Source: Dr Ivan Hall, himself fired, and spearheading the drive against this along legal, diplomatic, and media channels. Then the experienced teacher is often replaced with a younger, cheaper, less experienced teacher for another year or two, and the cycle continues.

Then again, why would this policy exist in the first place? Why would the Japanese Education System want to trade experienced teachers for youngsters who might not show the quality and dedication of the long timers?

Incentives for the Ninkisei System

Fact: the population pool of Japanese students is decreasing, and, according to NHK, will drop by about 150,000 within the next ten years. This trend will continue while the birthrate stands at 1.5, below population replacement levels. This is obviously a big concern for schools. And the present system, schools can't cut faculty unless people retire, and fixed costs rise as well-paid full professors get fixed-percentage guaranteed raises. Cost-cutting becomes the incentive.

But this is a school, not a business, right? Not really. Schools are not run by the academics (some of whom might think more about keeping trusted teachers)--they are run by the accountants down in Soumuka (General Affairs) whose bottom line is cost. This means schools have every incentive to "energize" their language departments by putting out a contract on Sumisu-kyouju, not renewing it, and then bringing in a young, fresh recruit fresh out of JET. And pay him less, since he has not accumulated the years and experience of the older staff. By design.

This is because foreigners are much easier to cut from the rosters than Japanese. If Ninkisei were even partially applied to Japanese as it has been for nearly all non-Japanese, there would be a huge uproar - in the native language. But the foreign faculty are a mere few hundred people who aren't even Japanese citizens. They don't have legal rights, recourses, or often the language ability to defend themselves. But won't their fellow Japanese staff stand up for them? Precedent indicates they generally have not. This is an order from Monbusho so shikata ga nai. Besides, why should they fight for the foreigners? This is Japan and the foreigners are only guests anyway.

The "gaijin as guest" argument ignores the fact that these foreign instructors have given their lives and contributed to Japanese society educationally, financially, and timewise. The long-timers have paid taxes, unemployment insurance, and social security into the Japanese system, just like any other faculty member, as well as overcome obstacles learning how to be a professional in Japan. There is no way for them to get those best years of their lives back, even if they go home. For foreign teachers, in many cases aged in their forties and fifties, to be laid off after a decade or two of teaching is hardly appropriate recompense for services rendered.

So they should just go home, right? In fact, many of them cannot do that. They have not paid in overseas social security, and job opportunities are quite limited at that age. If they want Japanese nenkin (retirement benefits) they must work in Japan for around 25 years. So they must stay to count out time, taking part-time jobs where they can be found, with courseloads double of what they had, yet no bonus and sometimes no health insurance. Some can no longer can make payments on their houses, and will have trouble putting their kids through school or saving for retirement. Worst of all, their families are the big losers - often they are Japanese citizens. Alas, they had to marry a foreigner, didn't they?

Gaijin are not guests. The long-timers, the real victims of this policy drive, have contributed to Japanese society just as much as nationals in the same position. To deny them the same social fruits just because they are foreign is nothing less than discrimination.

I could go on, but I think I've taken enough of your time. If you have the inclination to read my final argument - that this is all a power struggle between arch-enemies conservative Monbusouo and leftist Nikkyousou National Teacher's Union (Monbushou is trying to get the power of contract over them too) - I have made it available as Oliver Stone might cook it up.

The point is that foreign educators are being discriminated against in the Japanese Educational System, and the reason why it is news is because 1) it is based on government policy, and 2) they're trying to make it worse. For an OECD country that talks so much about kokusaika (internationalization) and becoming, as the Economist has noted, a "normal country", this is irony indeed. I hope you will not dismiss this message as mere tendentiousness --my intentions, I assure you, are earnest. I also hope you would consider this worthy of further consideration and/or forwarding to others who might be interested.

You have my sincerest gratitude for reading this far. This is an issue which has not received enough attention in the Western press (though Ambassador Mondale has taken it seriously, mentioning it in public six times). However, it affects academics and bodes ill for the future of academic exchanges with Japan. Science Magazine has taken this issue up a few times, but the problem is only getting worse. I hope that this will stimulate some interest. Please feel free to pass this on to whomever you think it will be helpful.

I deeply appreciate your time and attention to this.

Sincerely,David Aldwinckle in Sapporo, Japan.

(back to essays page)