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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

Japanese students walking in line

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.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Suad Alhalwachi

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

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  • Elizabeth Tasker

    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!

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  • Paul Haimes

    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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