From where I sit - On the outside, looking out

January 19, 2012

On the Friday before Christmas I was called into the dean's office and seated opposite five senior Japanese men in suits. The man from personnel handed me my new three-year full-time contract with a 5 per cent rise. The man from administration handed me a document explaining how I could apply for tenure if I improved my Japanese.

I felt relieved. They'd left it so late that I didn't think they were going to renew my contract. And after the enormously difficult 2011 that Japan had had, I wasn't sure that they were going to be in any position to do so.

It has not been a good year to be a gaijin ("foreigner", literally "outside person") in Japan. When, on the Tuesday after the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared on television and announced that radiation was leaking from the Fukushima power plant and heading towards Tokyo, Narita airport was besieged by foreigners trying to get out.

Japanese named these foreigners flyjin and castigated them for their lack of loyalty. But loyalty works both ways.

There is the widespread Japanese view that foreigners are temporary presences: expatriates posted here short term by multinationals or, in the case of academics, recruited as short-term specialist advisers or to add a little temporary colour to predominantly Japanese faculties.

While 30 per cent of the faculty at the University of Cambridge hail from overseas, at the University of Tokyo that figure is 6.25 per cent.

Only about 5,000 (3 per cent) of Japan's 161,000 full-time university teaching staff are foreign.

And while Japanese faculty tend to receive tenure automatically, most foreigners are limited to a series of short-term contracts. This system gives rise to the "revolving door" as many universities also place a cap on the number of contract renewals a foreign lecturer may receive, forcing them to move from institution to institution throughout their careers.

But at least we full-timers have a small measure of security. There are another 11,000 foreigners working part-time in tertiary education who are not so lucky.

As a full-timer with a doctorate, I teach seven 90-minute classes a week, attend meetings and carry out admin work. To earn a comparable salary, the foreign part-timers - predominantly men with Teaching English as a Foreign Language master's degrees married to Japanese women and with families to support - shuttle between universities, averaging 20 classes a week.

With Japan's declining population affecting student numbers and the disinclination of foreign students to study in a country hit by aftershocks and high levels of radioactivity, courses are already being cut: the part-timers are the first to go.

So, all things considered, I am grateful to have a job at all - and grateful for a generous annual research grant that came in very handy when the quake knocked my computer off my desk.

Once again I will sign up for Japanese lessons; I quit after the quake because I didn't want to be stranded if aftershocks halted the trains again.

I don't know whether I will ever be offered tenure, but I'm not sure that this is the issue it once was. Fukushima has changed Japan. Eastern Japan and its produce will exhibit high levels of radioactivity for the next 30 years. Radioactive hot spots are still popping up all over Tokyo. And many of us are thinking of following the flyjin out.

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