Friday, January 13

On working conditions for foreign university professors in Japan

Last week, I learned of the decision at my place of work to change the status of foreign full-time teachers from contract work (任期雇用) to lifetime employment (終身雇用). Currently, all full-time foreign teachers (and, until recently, I was the only one) are given contract positions, requiring renewal every three years, while all Japanese full-time teachers are given life-time employment upon being hired. I had no idea why this two-tiered system exists, nor did anyone else seem to understand it, much less care about it. It has always felt to me like a vestige from the war years.

A foreigner seated with the rest of the faculty
I was told by two different colleagues that no one at the school was responsible for the policy and that if I wanted to question it, I would have to face off against politicians. My colleagues seemed to want to discourage me.

Visions of myself making halting speeches in some legislative body occasionally did cross my mind. However ridiculous those visions may have been, what possible justification could anyone make for such a policy? I wanted to ask, in particular, how does it benefit the prefecture to introduce such instability into the lives of certain employees?

I also wondered with respect to my own case: what if I wished to remain in Japan? Should I rent an apartment for only three years at a time? Should I consider home ownership as being too risky? Plan to get a new girlfriend or wife every three years, just in case my contract is not renewed? Lease a car for three years at a time rather than purchase one? In short, how is a person suppose to plan a life by three-year increments? And why should anyone have to?

Such segregationist rules would be blatantly illegal in the United States, and it's great to see that many public colleges in Japan have decided to discontinue them. The matter didn't seem to attract any interest from my fellow employees, but to me, it is a matter of great relief and even celebration. It will remove a number of unjust, irritating, and humiliating conditions to my job.

What were those conditions? And what did I learn from the situation? That's what I would like to explain.

Every three years, in renewing my contract, I have to reapply for my position, including submitting a report of all my academic activities for perusal by other members of the Literature Department and, eventually, all other faculty members, and absent myself from the general faculty meeting while all full-time teachers discuss my reapplication. Weeks after this, there is a formal ceremony in the president's office, attended by the highest administrators and conducted as if no one had met me before. Second, I have to undergo a second health examination -- in addition to the annual one that all employees take. This costs more than the equivalent of 130 US dollars and once required my receiving two chest X-rays within the same week. I have gone through this twice and will have to go through it once more in two and a half years.

But these are just irritations. What is worse is the mere fact of being treated like a second-class employee.

When I decided to come to Japan, I suppose that part of my curiosity was to know what it is like to live as an extreme racial minority. I could have remained part of a racial majority in the United States, but I made this choice and knew I might face unfavorable treatment. But I think members of a majority often have a kind of "imagination gap" with respect to minorities. It is not impossible but it is very difficult for them to imagine what the experience of the minority is like. Moreover, very few of them ever take an interest in minority issues or empathize with minorities. They remain protected by the larger group and its conception of itself as being not only normal but fair and just in most matters. Similarly, before coming to Japan, I did not fully imagine what it would feel like to be treated as being a less dignified employee simply because I am not Japanese.

I asked about the contract terms of my employment when I interviewed for my job at the school and was willing to accept it. It was the best offer I had at the time. However, something happened two-and-a-half years into my first three-year contract that enlightened me about the unjust nature of such professional segregation. First, I came to feel that one higher-up seemed not particularly favorable to the idea of my renewing my contract. This person actually questioned me whether it was my intention to renew, as if that had to be clarified verbally. Worse, another employee, jealous of the fact that that this first employee had always managed to get me to do extra personal work for her, decided, months before the new contract was processed, that it could be altered in such a way that such duties be included as part of my general job description. No other full-time employee at the school has any such "additional responsibilities" written into their contract. I had always done this work -- editing of academic papers -- even though it was not my duty to do so and simply because I did not know better. But the second colleague saw my contract renewal as a chance to serve her own interests and acquire the use of my labor by making it an official duty. The result of this machination, which was discussed openly in front of me during a sectional meeting, is that I became aware that i) changing fellow teachers' contracts is deemed illegal by the administration (amazing, huh?!) and ii) I became aware of the fact that the work that the first employee had always insisted was my duty to do for her was in fact not my duty. It should have been considered a personal favor. I also understood why I was never thanked for doing the work, since doing so would have acknowledged the favor as being just that--a favor and not a duty. Gullible me, I had just assumed that arrogance was the reason I was never thanked!

So, what did I learn from this? I think I learned something about the discriminatory nature of segregation. What makes segregation unfair is not that it is intrinsically discriminatory. It is not necessarily unjust to separate people into groups. Rather, the act of separation is like an open door that any person who wishes to discriminate against others may pass through easily. It can suggest discriminatory behavior and provide a smokescreen or appearance of legality and fairness to those who engage in discriminatory behavior. This is obvious when one group is given worse conditions or worse treatment from the outset, but I think it is also true when mere separation of groups is established.

Separating foreigners and non-foreigners in one's hiring conditions is unfair and needs to be banished in every institution in Japan. There will always be someone who will try to manipulate the administrative differences for some personal advantage. The 1954 US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education rejected the idea of people being "separate but equal" on the evidence that, in fact, blacks were always given worse treatment. That is different than the point I have made here. To my mind, segregation is discriminatory because it enables acts of discrimination, whether or not evidence of the discrimination can be found.

None of my colleagues seemed particularly interested in the topic -- there was no actual discussion of it -- but, as members of the majority, why would they be? They are already taken care of, and the whole system perhaps only looks to them like a minor inconvenience to me. Only a few persons I know of might have reason to object to my being treated on equal terms, but those are purely selfish reasons that they cannot defend publicly. With this decision, their tyrannical behavior towards me will no longer be tacitly encouraged by the school itself, and they will have to treat me with the same professional dignity that they show towards others.

I don't know if I will remain in Japan till retirement, but it doesn't matter. The point here is one of fairness, and it is not only about me. It is about other foreigners and it is about Japan as a society. In short, for the sake of foreigners working in Japan, and for the sake of Japan itself, it will be a great day when the system of contract employment for foreigners is abolished in all public institutions. I was delighted to hear the news and I applaud my fellow colleagues and for the administrators around Japan who first put this process of change in motion. Thank you!

Of course, the national trends are going in the other direction, as contract positions are increasing in number for both foreigners and Japanese, but this is a bright moment that I would like to acknowledge.