Let me preface this with a huge disclaimer. This post is based on my experience and in no way should it be taken as applying to everyone. Each person will have different backgrounds, working environments, institutional systems and colleagues, so my purpose in this post is merely to give one perspective (and to answer a request for a post on this). I am employed at one of Japan’s top-ranked national universities, and experiences at other institutions would be very different I’m sure.
As you’ll gather from my previous post on how I got here, I didn’t always plan on being an academic. I sort of fell into it at first because I didn’t know what else to do, but at the end of my undergraduate I had a firm desire to continue education. It’s the case that most PhD courses—particularly in the humanities—are still structured with the assumption that you will have an academic career path post-PhD, though fortunately this is changing in a lot of places. I started my PhD still in the UK because I had a genuine interest in my research subject and wanted to know more, but it wasn’t because I wanted to become an academic; I simply wasn’t thinking about what I’d do afterwards. Of course, by the middle of it I assumed I would become a lecturer and before I got my Post-doc offer in Japan I basically had a position lined up.
But I came to Japan at the tail end of 2003 as a researcher in a large government-funded research institute. Then after a few years I decided I wanted to get back into academia because I missed teaching. I’d taught while in the UK doing my PhD, tutoring on introductory sociology. So, starting from around 2005 I began to seek out teaching positions in Japan. If you’re planning on this yourself, the magic website is JREC-IN. That website lists research and teaching jobs in Japan and importantly they have listings in Japanese but also English. You can search by keyword, field, or even by location (for example the Kanto area) and increasingly academic and research institutions list positions in both Japanese and English. I was fortunate to find out about the website from a colleague but surprisingly still there are many people who don’t know about it and look on other websites where most positions are as English teachers (you’ll still find those on JREC-IN too of course).
So I first found work as part-time English teacher at some Japanese universities. Now, those of you from other countries will know that adjunct lecturers aren’t treated the same (even close) as tenured lecturers/associate professors/professors… It’s exactly the same situation in Japan, but there are some advantages in being adjunct. Sure, you will struggle to have time or resources to do research and this is frustrating as hell. You’ll also find yourself rushed off your feet traveling from one university to another to teach different classes. Students will be frustrated when they learn that you don’t have an office (or even office hours in most cases) and that they can’t join your laboratory at master’s level… Oh, I said there were some advantages didn’t I? Okay, the main one is that you won’t be involved in the administration of the institution where you teach. Now this itself can be felt as a disadvantage, particularly if you’re planning on having an academic career, as decisions are made without your input. But you can also see it as an advantage because you don’t have to sit through meetings, you don’t have to complete (much) in the way administrative paperwork, and you don’t have the expectation to hunt for research grants—though of course if you want to do research, this is a problem.
I was fortunate in that when I started my career in Japan I was a full-time researcher. I ended up doing part-time research and part-time teaching before finding a full-time position at a Japanese univeristy.
A perusal of JREC-IN will give you a good overview of the kinds of positions available across Japan. When I was searching, the Japanese government was pushing for universities to internationalize and I found a full-time job as an administrative position—international liaison—but importantly it was as a ‘project’ Associate Professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. These positions, tokunin posts, are limited-term contracts, usually of one, three or perhaps five years after which you’ll need to move on. I held one of these positions until a tenured job came up. I was of course looking on JREC-IN and asking around my network to find out if any tenure or tenure-track jobs were around.
My job was sorting out and negotiating international cooperation agreements with overseas universities. At the time I joined, the university had many agreements that were not actively used (they’d fallen into disrepair basically) so the job of me and the team I worked with was to renew agreements and renegotiate where necessary. It was interesting work and it gave me a good understanding of international cooperation in Japanese universities. It was not, however, a teaching or research position. I moved from that work into the public relations department and dealt with the university’s website (and attempted to start a decent social media presence). And then I found it was possible to teach an occasional course. From there I managed to apply for and get a tenured associate professor position in the same university, in the International Student’s Center, dealing with the needs of non-Japanese students. This allowed me to teach courses on the social studies of science and technology, drama communication (see, even that drama degree that I didn’t finish came in handy!) and more. In 2016 the university reshaped its faculties and departments and I joined the department of Transdisciplinary Science and Engineering.
Over ten years ago when I found that first job at Tokyo Tech, the idea of tenure-track was not much of a thing in Japanese universities. There would be a probationary period of several years of course, but tenure-track in the sense of a strictly determined path to tenure, with expectations of a certain number (and quality) of publications, evaluation etc. didn’t really exist in Japan as far as I could see. Now you’ll see far more of these types of positions, just as we do around the world.
So what is it like as a tenured academic in Japan? From my experience and understanding, if you are employed as an English teacher you will have a lot of classes to teach and very little time to devote to research. I’m employed as a sociologist so my experience has been different. Before I took sick leave (see my post Panic! at the Bistro) I was teaching a few classes per semester on varied topics related to my field and also conducting research. I only ever taught in English, though knowing some Japanese is certainly helpful when Japanese students struggle to understand. Some institutions such as ours have increasing numbers of international students so I found that many of my classes were filled with them. This was great for several reasons, but mostly because the differing experiences of each student could lead to a great class atmosphere.
As a tenured academic you will be expected to apply for research funding. The main source of funding you will apply for is known as Kakenhi Grants-in Aid for Scientific Research. Applying for this could be a post in itself, but I don’t consider myself an expert so the best thing to do if you’re interested is to talk with the relevant department in your institution. I was fortunate to be successful and be the Primary Investigator of a project to create a system for sharing caring knowledge and feelings amongst nurses in Japan, but it’s also possible to be a member of research projects as co-researchers (doing this is a good way to get a feel for research in Japan).
You will, once you get tenure, be expected to sit on committees. A lot of committees. You’ll find several hours a day you will be in meetings and most of the time these will be in Japanese. When you apply for jobs you’ll often see the phrase asking for applicants who have “Enough Japanese to perform administrative duties” and this means things like completing internal forms and taking part in meetings in Japanese. Many institutions are now working to become bilingual in Japanese and English, but it’s likely you’ll find yourself using Japanese a lot. This was certainly the case for me. In the larger meetings I decided to make a compromise for myself, based on my Japanese ability and as a push for Internationalisation, that I would receive questions and some discussion in Japanese but when I needed to clearly get my point across I would use English. Some institutions will be forgiving with this but not all. So, meetings, a ton of meetings… This is Japan so there’ll be main committees, sub-committees, preparatory-committees and working groups (which will end up being committees). At one point I sat on eleven different committees on different topics so much of my week was taken up with meetings. As you can imagine this doesn’t give you much time for research let alone time to hone and plan your classes, see students to help them with their concerns or do much else. It’s something that I think has to change and I’m sure it’s not something unique to Japan but Japan is particularly good at creating administrative work (read: meetings) to the potential detriment of improving quality of education.
If your Japanese level is very good you may find that you get a buzz out of improving the workings of your institution through the various committees and their work. If you speak very little Japanese you may find that you sit there not understanding anything but that there is little expectation for you to take part. This can be a blessing for some. If, like me, your Japanese is intermediate, you may (as I did) get frustrated that you aren’t able to fully influence decisions because, although you understand mostly what is discussed, you aren’t able to pick up some nuances (or you feel you can’t) and in a nuanced way express your point. I’ll write another post on my experiences of Japanese language in future, but be aware that it can be frustrating as a non-Japanese faculty member, particularly depending on your field or faculty.
As for teaching, when you do have time to devote to that, it is not dissimilar to other universities outside of Japan. Class sizes vary—you may be lecturing to hundreds or giving attention to only a few students—and there is a period at the beginning of each course where students can register or change their mind. This latter point is very frustrating if the course is based on group work as groups will change for the first few weeks. Japanese students will, on the whole, tend to be more passive than you’re used to, if you’ve taught outside of Asia, but it isn’t insurmountable and with the right amount of coaxing you can create good and active class environments.
I’m guessing a lot of this information is redundant but hopefully it’s of interest to some of you. I created a thread on twitter so add any information or comments there!