Foreign academics create ‘girlfriend’s guide’ to Japanese academia

In a new book, female scholars share their experiences of gender and racial bias

September 24, 2020
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More than 20 academics have penned first-person accounts for a new book that offers an “in-depth investigation” of the double hurdle of gender and racial stereotyping that foreign female lecturers face in Japan.

The title of the book, Foreign Female English Teachers in Japanese Higher Education: Narratives from Our Quarter, refers to the fact that women make up only about one quarter of overseas lecturers in Japan.

The project stemmed from work by Diane Hawley Nagatomo, a professor at Ochanomizu University, who has written books about English teaching in Japan and whose past research has shown “enormous differences” in the experiences of male and female foreign teachers.

“It became clear that an in-depth investigation of these issues was in order, and this book came into being,” Professor Nagatomo and the book’s other editors, Kathleen Brown of Kurume University and Melodie Cook of the University of Niigata Prefecture, told Times Higher Education.

They believed the issues discussed could “resonate with all female EFL [English as a foreign language] faculty, regardless of their geographical location”.

“Throughout the entire process of working on this book, we kept referring to it as ‘the girlfriend’s guide’,” they added.

Aside from case studies and anecdotes, the book offers practical advice on starting a graduate programme, job-hunting, obtaining tenure, taking maternity leave and balancing childcare obligations. It also addresses darker problems such as harassment, which, although illegal, “may be difficult to identify” and report, especially for foreigners not fluent in Japanese.

The book’s editors said that the biggest obstacles for foreign women was “getting their feet in the door”, and then having to navigate limited-term contracts and job-hopping.  

“Women face additional hurdles because of gendered attitudes that women’s careers are second to men’s. Unfortunately, this results in the burden of childcare and homecare in Japan landing squarely on most women’s shoulders,” they said.

“Biased attitudes that foreign women (Western women, in particular) are in Japan temporarily may keep employment doors open wider for their Western male counterparts, who may be viewed as more likely to put down roots by marrying a Japanese woman and staying in Japan permanently.”

Women of colour have even more hurdles to jump, as they may be seen in racist terms, as “not quite as trustworthy as a white person”, the authors warned.

Richa Ohri, a lecturer at Chiba University, describes in the book how “several part-time colleagues felt that her being hired for a tenured position at their university was merely the result of the university trying to close the gender gap, and not the fact she spoke fluent Japanese, had numerous research publications, and a PhD”.

Still, the book reaches a hopeful conclusion. “We feel relatively optimistic that the situation will improve due to increasingly transparent hiring policies at universities,” the editors said, adding that some Japanese institutions were now actively seeking female candidates in job listings.

They recommended that women build “strong support networks that extended beyond the university”, including membership in professional organisations. As for being a young, foreign working mother in Japan, the situation “may be difficult, but not impossible”. 

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