Losing side in the waiting game

October 10, 2013

Japan is a seniority-based society and academia is an elite men’s club, dominated by graduates of the highest-ranking universities. For those who work part-time in universities, particularly women, an already difficult situation is about to get even worse.

This year, new rules have been added to Japan’s labour contract law. Workers can be employed on fixed-term contracts - either part-time or full-time - for up to five years. After that, they must be offered permanent jobs or let go. In recent months, universities have held meetings to explain to worried, non-tenured staff what this will mean in practice. Most assume that they will simply be dismissed once their five years are up. Those who will be hardest hit are the Japanese-born part- time lecturers, particularly women.

Getting a full-time tenured position here is about who you know and the Japanese university you attended. Those who do not have access to the academic “waiting circle” (the Japanese academic version of the old boys’ network) may choose to go abroad to work instead. This option is particularly attractive to Japanese women, who return home hoping that, despite the sector’s pronounced gender imbalance, their foreign qualifications and experience will put them on the shortlists for full- time tenured posts. But the opposite is true: they are now “not Japanese enough”.

A female Japanese colleague, who previously held a tenured position at a high-level European university, was recently rejected for a full-time post in favour of a young male applicant with no PhD who had never travelled outside Japan. He was the former student of a male member of the hiring committee. She was told that in order to have got the job, she should have been “nice and mediocre”, and that she had made the mistake of publishing too many articles. No Japanese man wants to be outperformed by a woman, especially those who return to Japan not docile and subservient but “bossy and opinionated”. The hiring committee told her this directly when she tried to complain.

Consequently, these over-qualified female lecturers pull their wheelie cases full of papers around several universities a week, picking up two or three classes on one campus and then moving on, much as foreign part-time academics do. Salaries are around Yen28,000 (£176) per “koma” (or four- week course of lessons), and it is fairly common for part-timers to teach more than 20 of these a week, often working weekends. Some universities pay wages over the holidays, but others do not. Health and pension provisions are part-time workers’ own responsibility, and both are so expensive in Japan that many do without.

My colleague is now considering her options. She’d be a shoo-in for any number of overseas fellowships; indeed, she has already been offered a one-year research post back in Europe. But because of the new law, if she gives up the numerous part-time positions she now has, she will never get them back. Should she stick around and see if any of them become permanent after five years? Or, she asks with a resigned sigh, should she just give up academia altogether?

The full impact of the new rules may not be felt for another five years. The changes may well have been designed to encourage companies to offer temporary staff more security, but instead they risk making the Japanese academy even more of a closed shop, while leaving part-timers facing an ever more precarious future.

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