Beyond sushi: the attractions of lecturing in Japan

Susan K Burton looks back at her time teaching at Japanese universities and wonders why more Westerners don’t head east

November 14, 2013

Source: Reuters

Ten years ago I had just received my doctorate in history from the University of Sussex and was working for the minimum wage at Waterstones. One Thursday lunch hour, I went to the public library to check out the new jobs in Times Higher Education and saw an advertisement for a foreign lecturer’s post at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Japan, to teach “various” subjects. I applied by email the same day and, by the Saturday, had been offered the job. Three months later I was in Japan.

I had lived there before, having spent two years as an assistant high school teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme and another two years on a Japanese Education Ministry scholarship studying at a university in Tokyo. Westerners are often put off by Japan’s reputation for strange social behaviour and impenetrable language but I have done very well out of Japan and I’ve often wondered why adverts like the one I saw are so frequently passed over by highly qualified Brits.

This is not to underestimate the differences between higher education in the UK and in Japan. Of the country’s 780 universities, 599 of them are privately owned. My posts have all been in private institutions and my experience of them is that they are often family dynasties, with the plum jobs and annual teaching awards going to the eldest sons. They are also profit-generating businesses, relying on student fees for 80 per cent of their funding. One institution where I worked had a policy of failing 30 per cent of every class to generate revenue from retake fees. This practice was unofficial and possibly illegal but, if you didn’t follow it, your grading sheet was returned to you with the suggestion that you “reflect” on it.

By contrast, at another college, a colleague was strongly encouraged to pass every student, even those he had never met or received any work from. Academic standards vary wildly, but improving students’ academic ability is not necessarily what Japanese universities are for. The tertiary education system is for the Japanese by the Japanese, and it is a filtration system training future workers for Japan Inc. Master’s and doctoral programmes are, by and large, considered detrimental to this process. Many of my academically minded Japanese colleagues gained their advanced degrees abroad, and most of Japan’s recent Nobel prizewinning scientists actually live and work in the US. Non-Japanese represent only 5 per cent of all faculty members, and are token foreign faces recruited to give an institution the air of internationalisation.

Japan used to be the last leg of the hippy trail and many of my older colleagues arrived in the country decades ago in cheesecloth and flares. They are now being replaced by white male graduates with MAs in TESOL (teaching of English to speakers of other languages) and Japanese wives, and they do the bulk of the part-time English language teaching: often more than 20 90-minute classes per week during the two 15-week semesters to make a decent living. Full-timers with doctorates do between five and seven classes, and also attend meetings.

Some early career lecturers use their time in Japan to turn their PhD into their first book and to pay off their student loan before returning home. But unless you are at one of the higher-ranking institutions, you are not pushed to publish or attend conferences, and many Japanese colleagues have not published a single paper since getting tenure. For this reason, Japan can be the academic graveyard of those who do not maintain clear goals, ambition and “a right attitude”, as the locals say.

According to my colleague Ve-Yin Tee – a doctoral graduate from the University of York and now a lecturer at Nanzan University – teaching in Japan, far away from colleagues and major conferences and publishers, encourages Westerners to think of it as a holiday and to take their foot off the pedal.

Japanese man serving sushi

In summer, when the temperature rarely dips below 30˚C, I have wandered down to the convenience store at midnight in my pyjamas for ice cream

“They get used to enjoying themselves instead of getting used to life as a scholar, and they develop bad habits,” he says. “Of course, some people come to Japan to ‘find themselves’, but it is a very bad idea to find yourself while your academic and professional career is at stake.”

The Japanese themselves also see foreigners very much as temporary guests in their country, and foreign academics are generally employed on different contracts from the Japanese, with age and renewal limits attached. The University of Tokyo, for example, has a five-year contractual limit on foreign lecturers; when your time is up you either look around for another university to take you (a practice known as the “revolving door”), or you go home. For Japan’s top-level institution, which pays lip service to the importance of competing globally, this practice is rather a giveaway.

In an article in the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun in 2006, Shinichiro Noriguchi, a former professor of English at the University of Kitakyushu, put the limit on foreigners at 10 years. After that, we “tend to have adapted to the system and have become ineffective as teachers”. In the lively debate that followed his remarks, he was widely interpreted by expatriates as meaning that after a decade away from home, their proficiency in their native language is so corrupted by Japanese and knowledge of their country so outdated that their expertise has in effect been lost. In reality, this is just a common excuse to get rid of older foreigners before they reach 20 years’ service, at which point Japanese universities have to commit to paying them a pension when they retire.

Over the years I have seen my Japanese colleagues awarded tenure automatically while we foreigners get very nervous when contract renewal time comes around. Personally, I have never had any trouble getting my contract renewed and I have even been offered tenure. But while I would like to think it is because of my professionalism and the high scores I receive on student evaluations, I cannot ignore the fact that there is a shortage of foreign female lecturers and that it is the rule to put your age and photograph on application forms. Many of my foreign female colleagues disagree with me on this, but then how come we are all blondes? Japanese academia is a conservative, male-dominated system in which women remain second-class citizens. Sexual harassment is a constant annoyance. Yet living within such a system made me realise that I could have a greater impact as an educator, as a female academic and authority figure. And expats anywhere have to be tough.

The lack of job security means that if you have a mortgage back home or children who would need to be put into one of the international schools, Japan is not for you. This is a place for mobile, motivated singles or couples who don’t mind sleeping on a futon in an apartment the size of a one-car garage. Most likely, these would be people at the beginning of their careers, as I was, with large student debts to repay – or else older people with nothing left to prove who fancy a year away in an exotic location on a fellowship stipend to boost their pension pots.

Financially, the rewards of a stint in Japan are significant. Annual salaries for new PhD graduates start at about ¥6 million (£38,000), depending on age. Full professors are looking at upwards of ¥10 million. At my last institution, my personal research budget was ¥300,000 and my conference budget ¥200,000. Generous government grants are also available to those who fill in the right forms in Japanese.

The key to any successful expat posting is to learn the language. Japanese is indeed difficult to read and write but a basic conversational level can be achieved quite quickly because the language allows you to be very vague, and silence carries as much weight as words. (My employment contract, for example, was one side of a page of A4 stating that I would do whatever the university asked.) Further lessons will enable you to understand faculty memos, as well as the stickers on your rubbish bags telling you why the council didn’t collect them (because you didn’t wash out the milk cartons, cut them flat and hang them out to dry). But, most of all, learning Japanese shows your students and colleagues that you are making an effort to fit in: a desirable attribute in a society which values group membership over personal achievement.

Japanese women using smartphones and a camera

When news of my resignation spread across the campus, one of my female students ran up to me and squealed: ‘So you are getting married at last!’

It is difficult to say anything useful about the actual teaching because with so many universities of differing quality, the range of students and classes is extremely varied. Expect to teach some language classes, though. According to Tee – who has been in Japan nine years – you’ve got a good deal in Japan if at least half of your teaching assignments are roughly within your subject area. I’ve taught two academic writing classes, a couple of courses about British culture and society (at undergraduate and graduate level), courses on intercultural communication, and a lot of English language classes.

New lecturers are generally shocked at the silence in Japanese classrooms. Students rarely speak or ask questions; in a hierarchical society, you don’t question your superior. Many text on their phones, apply make-up or sleep during lectures because they are not expected to take part in any discussions. This is because it is considered rude to press your opinion on others and childish to make bold statements. But if you are a good enough lecturer to motivate your students and explain what you want from them, many will surpass your highest expectations. Paul Hullah, a tenured professor of British poetry at Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University, who has been in the country for 21 years, told me that teaching in Japan “stretches me, fulfils me, startles me with its perpetual newness as I learn something new in every class I teach. It challenges me to be better, and it makes me feel so very alive.”

For me, the major advantage of an academic life in Japan has been the opportunity to open my mind to new ways of thinking and living. The Japanese do think so very differently from Westerners. An architect colleague commented that when a Westerner walks into a room they see all the things in that room, a Japanese person sees the spaces between the things. Living in Japan, I know, has informed my work because I have been forced to see those spaces.

I have also fully exercised my adventurous nature. I have hiked in the mountains on staff weekend bonding trips, discussed grammar with my students while sitting naked in a giant melon-scented hot spring (on the compulsory first-year student orientation weekends); fought off snakes, giant spiders, poisonous millipedes and lethal giant hornets with my extendable pointer and accidentally dropped several university indoor slippers down the traditional “long drop” Japanese hole-in-the-floor toilets. I have closed my storm shutters and sat at home eating survival rations while typhoons uprooted trees and took the roofs off neighbouring houses, hidden under my table during the Great East Japan Earthquake and then fled the city when the radiation cloud rolled in from Fukushima. I have eaten sushi so fresh it was still gasping, but I have refused whale and also once a lobster – because it was trying to crawl off my plate.

In summer, when the temperature rarely dips below 30˚C, I have wandered down to the convenience store at midnight in my pyjamas for ice cream. There is very little street crime. I once left my phone on a bus and the company returned it to me within the hour in a taxi. Japanese customer service is beyond sublime. The trains run on time and graffiti are rare.

When news of my resignation spread across the campus, one of my female students ran up to me, grabbed my arm excitedly and squealed: “So you are getting married at last!” But no, I have not achieved every (Japanese) woman’s happiness; I am quitting my post because I need to go home and be English again for a while and to see my parents, and to stop pointing at everyday objects and only knowing their names in Japanese. Of course, if I was tenured like my Japanese colleagues, I could take a sabbatical, but I am not in the least bitter. I have been very well remunerated in Japan and have had a marvellous time. I can only hope that I have had the same positive impact on my students as Japan has had on me.

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Reader's comments (3)

travelling abroad is always great so we know how others think and experience the culture. i think you did well by going there

I'm an assistant professor at Hokkaido University in the Faculty of Science and this experience (to date) is quite different from my own. I teach only undergraduate physics (my own subject) and supervise graduate students, I do not cover any language classes. My students also do not multi-task in class, although this may be because I make them answer questions! I'm on the tenure-track and there is currently no indication (half-way through the process) that I will not make tenure. Indeed, Hokkaido has a growing number of foreign tenured faculty, although the number is still very small compared to the Japanese members. The pay is low compared to many universities in the USA, but I would say the job was comparable in demands. However, the tenure-track scheme (for both foreign and Japanese staff) is new at Hokkaido and I understand that until a few years ago, it was relatively uncommon to hire foreign faculty due to all classes being taught in Japanese. Maybe due to the nature of my field (my speciality is Astrophysics, which is a notably small area) but I haven't been able to stay away from the rat race of publishing expectations. That said, it is true my older colleagues do not have the publication record or international talk / conference experience that is normal outside Japan. I also suck at the language... but I'm trying to work on that!

I would love to work in Japan once I have my PhD, if I could find a tenure-track position. I haven't seen many positions going in my field (Interaction Design/HCI) but there is a very good chance I'm not looking in the right places.

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