The American embassy in Tokyo has backed protests by foreign teachers at Japanese state universities against what they claim are "systematic dismissals" of foreign academics over a certain age and "academic apartheid" by the conservative Japanese ministry of education.
Several United States and European academics, who have been told their employment contracts are to end, have received a sympathetic hearing from Ambassador Walter Mondale, the former United States vice president.
Later the embassy issued a statement indicating the issue has been added to the long roster of US complaints against unfair Japanese protectionism: "We are concerned with the treatment of American professors at Japanese universities. We are currently consulting with ministry of education officials for clarification of their position regarding the employment of foreigners at Japanese national universities. We hope the ministry, as well as universities, will see that fair consideration is given to the concerns of these professors." The statement suggested reciprocity of academic access is at stake.
The British embassy, however, has refused to join the US-led cause. "Frankly, we don't have a problem with it," Mike Barrett, director of the British Council and cultural counsellor of the British embassy, said.
While conceding that Japanese universities are "trying to ease out people with long-term contracts in favour of people who are younger and cheaper", and that this has led to "some injustice and disappointment" and "undoubtedly unfair treatment", Mr Barrett said the UK government has no particular position on the matter. "It is purely a contractual matter . . . people enter into contracts with their eyes open."
In 1993, there were 990 foreigners employed on a regular basis at Japanese national (state) universities, of whom 182 were "professors" or "associate professors," against 32,825 of the same rank who are Japanese.
Roughly half the foreign staff at national universities are still technically employed as gaikokujin kyoshi (foreign instructors) on one-year renewable contracts. The system was introduced in 1893. Until 1983 it was the only category for non-Japanese academics.
US academic Ivan Hall, who is spearheading the protest movement against recent dismissals, writes that gaikokujin kyoshi served in "a generously remunerated but separate, inferior, and short-term academic echelon" and "even today . . . are best seen as the functional equivalent of foreign technical advisers in third world developing countries - as transitory, disposable transmitters of foreign knowledge or techniques - rather than as fellow labourers in the ongoing quest for human knowledge."
Foreign academics were excluded from management decisions under this system - including being barred from faculty meetings.
In the face of strong external criticism, including a report by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, legislation was passed in 1982 that authorised employment of foreigners at Japanese state and local government universities under the same terms as regular Japanese academic staff (kyoin) but, crucially, allowed the contract period to be decided at the discretion of each university. Since then only 41 of the new class of 389 foreign kyoin have been granted indefinite "tenure" identical to their Japanese academic colleagues.
Most foreign "academics" in Japanese universities are hired to teach English or other foreign languages or, a more high-sounding offshoot recently in vogue, to introduce foreign "culture". Lulled by higher salaries than their Japanese counterparts, by the standard perk of subsidised public housing (a major plus in urban areas of Japan with high rents) as "government workers", and by the intellectually undemanding work schedule required by the ivory tower, play-pen atmosphere of many Japanese universities, few seem to have given much thought to their security of employment.
The Asahi newspaper stated most universities took a 1992 directive from the ministry's bureau of higher education to mean they should make redundant foreign academics over a certain age and replace them with younger ones.
A survey by a Japanese law firm found 70 per cent of foreign faculty over the age of 45, hired under the old kyoshi system, had been told to leave.
Mr Barrett says UK academics have succeeded in gaining permanent tenure at Japanese universities. However, his citing of a recent award of an emeritus professorship by Hokkaido University to Willy Jones was not the best example.
"It's purely for glory and honour, no money, except for teaching one graduate seminar part-time at the department of literature," Professor Jones said from Sapporo, capital of Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.
Professor Jones was feeling somewhat flat after being asked to leave the staff of Hokkaido University after 15.5 years service, all one-year contracts, and at the age of 64.
His colleagues there had begged the ministry to let him stay a little longer, to make 17 years, and qualify him for a non-contributory pension of some 2 million Yen (Pounds 14,300) a year.
But the ministry insisted he had already passed the mandatory retirement age.
Towards the end, his salary at Hokkaido University had reached between 600,000 and 700,000 Yen and "for that, they could get two new ones".