From where I sit - A little more application required

November 18, 2010

The Japanese government has set a policy aim of increasing the internationalisation of higher education in both teaching and research. Recognising the limited Japanese-language capabilities of potential students and academics from abroad, its funding has gone mainly to institutions looking to increase their international student recruitment via courses taught in English. Some of the academics teaching in English speak excellent Japanese; others speak none.

The study of Japanese around the world is limited and largely basic; moreover, it is acknowledged to be one of the harder languages to learn. Despite five years of study I have passed only the old Japanese Language Proficiency Test level three, for which 300 kanji (Chinese-derived ideographic characters) are needed. Level one is the highest level, equivalent to high school graduation literacy of about 2,000 characters, plus levels of grammar and vocabulary sufficient for both reading and listening.

Those hoping to work in any specialist field, for example education, will need to know about another 300 characters. Many of the academics recently recruited to teach in Japan have a level of Japanese similar to mine: enough for daily life, but not enough to deal with bureaucratic forms or write complicated grant proposals.

However, all may not be lost for such academics when they seek to gain funding. One of the main funders of academic research in Japan, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), accepts project proposals in both English and Japanese. Both its website and the support staff at my university claim that proposals submitted in English are treated on the same basis as those submitted in Japanese, and the JSPS provides application forms in both languages. However, its web pages for the current funding round are not synchronised between the Japanese and English versions, casting doubt on the lip service it pays to treating submissions equally. The English version gives details only of the funding round for projects starting in April 2010, whereas the Japanese site offers details of the 2011 funding round - and links to the relevant forms in both English and Japanese. Luckily I have a friendly collaborator who has downloaded the forms for me.

Those without fluency in bureaucratic Japanese may be dependent on the assistance of research administration staff - assuming they know the deadlines are approaching and that the forms are there to be found. Unfortunately, many Japanese universities lack English-speaking support staff to assist academics who are not yet fluent in Japanese.

My collaborator has agreed to provide a translated version of the project proposal we are working on. We'll look into whether it's possible to submit both to the JSPS, so that any overseas reviewers it approaches can be given the English version and Japanese reviewers the Japanese one. Helping reviewers understand one's proposal is always beneficial, of course.

The Japanese funding agencies, like Japanese universities, need sustained efforts in developing bilingual administration if Japan is to attract the best academics from around the world to work here, and for those scholars to believe that it is possible to develop one's career while learning Japanese, rather than needing fluent Japanese from the start.

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