Japanese scholars face minor revolution

August 10, 2001

In most industrial countries universities compete for the best scholars and researchers knowing that their presence will bring prestige and cash.

Not so in Japan. All 99 national universities receive the same amount of research funds, regardless of the quality or commercial viability of their research.

All 60,000-plus national university professors and researchers have tenure until retirement. And all salaries rise with age. Only in situations of gross misconduct are they ever dismissed.

But the effect of the limited tenure system that the education ministry introduced in 1998 is starting to trickle through. Latest data show that 56 institutions hired 607 staff on limited terms compared with just 17 employing 83 staff in 1998.

Hiring is still limited to graduate schools of universities, however, and some universities are opposed to the idea.

Robert Kneller, a Tokyo University professor, said: "The pressure to publish is much less here. In the US, even your base salary depends on how well known you are. In Japan, salaries for all national universities are the same whether you are in the city or in the sticks."

Most Japanese universities operate under the lab system known as koza . Modelled on German universities, each lab is headed by a professor, one associate professor, two assistants (doctorate and masters candidates), and one or two technicians.

A koza is both a research team and a laboratory unit responsible for giving lectures to students in the faculty. Government research funds go to these labs in a lump sum.

This means bright, creative assistant professors and PhD candidates with good ideas are financed on the decision of koza heads.

Given the choice of pursuing one's own research or keeping the head professor sweet, most choose the latter.

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