Job insecurity among Japan’s university teachers is a recipe for further decline

Buyer's market
Buyer’s market: With the population shrinking, colleges in Japan are desperate to seize a share of the dwindling ‘customer base.’ | ANN AKINO

Universities in Japan are caught up in a cutthroat struggle for survival. As the population of children plummets, so, in turn, does the number of college entrants.

The decline is particularly stark considering that the number of universities had swelled on the back of the postwar baby boom and bubble economy. Institutions of higher learning are frantic to seize a share of the dwindling “customer base.” Universities choosing students is a thing of the past: Now students select universities.

Born in the early 1970s, I’m what’s known in Japan as a second-wave baby boomer. As a college student in the early 1990s, I experienced the emotional stress and hardship of entrance-exam hell. Many uni hopefuls failed their exams and became so-called wandering ronin for a year until the next round of tests. The term was derived from samurai in the Meiji Era and earlier who left their feudal domain and thus belonged nowhere. During this “nowhere time,” these modern-day academic ronin often studied from early morning until late at night, leading to nervous breakdowns and even cases of children murdering their overbearing parents.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot, and nearly anyone can get into a college or university. It is now universities who must fight for shrinking rosters of students.

As the social conditions surrounding universities transform before our eyes, working conditions for those who teach there are deteriorating. In the past, job insecurity in this sector was almost unheard of. Those days are gone.

Want ads for teaching positions increasingly include the phrase “fixed-term appointment.” In the past, open-ended employment was a matter of course, and teachers had many years to teach and research, without the pressure to produce results overnight. Today, such jobs are few and far between, and positions are not just fixed term but also part time (hijōkin). Although I am now tenured, I too spent many years holding multiple part-time fixed-term positions.

The vast majority of young researchers today hold hijōkin positions. Most seek tenure, but with such spots increasingly rare, even the most talented researchers and teachers find themselves dealing with job insecurity, forced to make many sacrifices in their daily lives.

Behind this worrying trend is tremendous pressure on universities to produce results, and fast. That pressure is coming from the education ministry, whose University Reform Implementation Plan uses the slogan “Building universities to be engines of social transformation” and is peppered with exhortations to invite “industry-academia collaboration” and “develop globalized professionals.”

I strongly disagree with this rush for results. I believe that the raison d’etre of universities is to provide students with the time and space to reflect. It is up to the students themselves to decide what and how to think. We teachers can do little but present what we understand from the research we have conducted in our discipline. Considered reflection is not something that can be measured or expressed in numerical results.

Yet the education ministry permits students no such luxury. Its policies appear to be aimed at molding students into cookie-cutter cogs in the machine of our modern society. Universities failing to mass-produce such cogs in the most efficient way possible are to be shamed.

Instead of devoting themselves to thoughtful, thorough research, young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed researchers are wasting their energy worrying about where their next job is coming from. When bright young things are offered no chance to develop, universities’ futures must be called into question. Increasing the number of academic working poor hired as part-time teachers flies in the face of the education ministry’s call to build universities that “can compete on the world stage.”

At this point, let me introduce you to the case of a young female researcher who was treated like a disposable commodity but decided to fight back.

The story begins in 2007, when Ryukoku University’s Economics Department was looking for an assistant to administer fieldwork from April, the start of the academic year, on a three-year contract. The want ad stated that contract renewal was possible no more than once, and only with the authorization of the faculty council. Internal rules also stated that renewal was possible with the council’s OK.

The department’s chief personnel screener assured the plaintiff that “barring a scandal, you will be renewed at least once.” The young woman took the position on the assumption that the job (and the research) would continue for at least six years.

In June, the researcher was informed that the job would finish at the end of March 2010. When she inquired as to the reason for the nonrenewal, she was told that it had nothing to do with ability and that the contract was intended to be for only three years.

The researcher then approached the university’s teacher-and-staff union, which demanded retraction of the nonrenewal and engaged in several collective bargaining sessions on her behalf with the university administration. The university refused to budge, and in July 2010, the researcher sued in Kyoto District Court for reinstatement and back wages.

The plaintiff drew sympathy and support from a large number of co-workers and fellow researchers. As I’ve explained in past columns, under Japan’s labor laws, a dismissal is only legal if an employer can offer a rational reason according to social norms for the decision. Dismissals that don’t meet this standard are deemed invalid according to the principle of abuse of the right to dismiss (kaikoken ranyō hōri). But nonrenewal of fixed-term contracts has no such hurdle. In principle.

When fixed-term contracts are repeatedly renewed and when the employment is effectively permanent, or when there is rational reason to expect renewal, then a watered-down version of kaikoken ranyō hōri applies. Although it was only the plaintiff’s first renewal, university management had said that this was assured barring a major problem. Both the want ad and internal rules referred to the possibility of renewal, so there appeared to be reason to expect continuation of employment.

The next issue was the legitimacy of the refusal to renew. The university had given no specific reason for the refusal at the time of notice or before, yet in court the school suddenly began to cite the researcher’s lack of ability and motivation. It seemed apparent that the university was merely looking for reasons after the fact.

The two sides settled in December 2011, before a verdict was reached. The deal included one more year of employment but no back wages.

Forgive the length, but some of her statement after the verdict is worth repeating.

“It may seem a lousy deal considering that I deserved a full three years more of employment,” the plaintiff said, “but considering the antilabor trend of courts these days and the possibility of not being reinstated even if I’d won the case, taking such a deal represents an important victory in my fight.

“I also felt I wanted to respond to those within university management who fought for a settlement. The reason I sued in the first place was to register a protest about the way the university treats teachers as disposable commodities.

“Although the number of irregular, casual and contingent workers is skyrocketing at universities around the country, most researchers just roll over when subjected to injustice because of the fear of the impact any dispute would have on future job prospects. To those part-time teachers who constantly face the crisis of nonrenewal, I want to say that nothing will change unless we raise our voices. More importantly, something might change if we do raise our voices. Nothing would give me more pleasure than if even one more person gained courage from knowing about my case.”

Many part-time teachers do immerse themselves passionately in their classes and research despite facing the constant fear of sudden unemployment. Universities take advantage of this passion, using these young researchers when they need them and replacing them when they no longer do. We must not allow such treatment to continue.

Looking back on my years as a college student, I had many part-time teachers, a few of whom were inspiring and had a strong influence on me. From a student’s point of view, the employment status of their teachers (part time or tenured) makes little difference. And thus, it follows, there is no justification for the disparity in work terms or job security either. If the education ministry truly wants to “promote thorough and complete quality assurance,” it should begin by assuring the quality of the work environment of the human beings involved in education and research.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at On the fourth Thursday of each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law.