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Articles, Key Resources and Links on Living in Japan

What’s a Foreigner to Do?

Discrimination and Hiring Practices in Japanese Universities

What does the overseas job hunter do when confronted with an ad that starts off: “Male under 35 wanted for sales management position.”

And then there’s the job interview. Queries about marital status, intention to have or not to have children, spousal employment, physical health, age, and other personal issues may not only acceptable but mandated by company policy.

Foreigners are shocked, angered, and often humiliated by what they consider blatant discrimination. But one country’s laws are not another’s, and a foreign resident is unlikely to be in a position to change them.

Moreover, the initial negative reaction to a practice that differs from that of our own culture is by definition ethnocentrism: judging another culture based on our own culture’s standards.

But what happens when the laws of a host country seem to target you, specifically, as a foreigner--or perhaps as a female foreigner?

Many Westerners come to Japan in search of work, and the majority job hunt when they arrive rather than prearranging jobs prior to coming, so the current hiring situation for foreigners is a concern for many.

In April 1999, Japan enacted a law specifically prohibiting gender discrimination in recruitment, hiring, and other employment practices. But the gender-based “double-track” system, which treats workers differently in terms of tenure, posting, salaries, pensions, promotion, and hiring, is so deeply entrenched in the employment system that to expect full equality in a short period of time is unrealistic. While there is certainly more attention being given to the problem, it remains to be seen whether the law will actually be enforced.

Foreigners Are Different

And while such new laws may apply to Japanese nationals, historically, Japan has always treated foreigners as somehow different: separate and unequal. The Korean-Japanese population, born in Japan and in many cases second or third generation Japanese residents, still do not enjoy the same rights as “real” Japanese citizens. In the university system, the job title of any non-Japanese lecturer, instructor, or professor is almost always preceded by the word “foreigner.”

In 1992 the Ministry of Education directed national universities to decrease their foreign faculty, and in 1995 universities were specifically asked to hire younger faculty. Since 1992, a number of older (senior) foreign lecturers have been given the boot, often without warning or pension. Many of these people were permanently residing in Japan. Not only did they find themselves jobless, but they were also unemployable because of their age.

What does all this mean to the Westerner who is considering employment at a Japanese university? If an individual wants to come to Japan for a few years and teach as a lecturer on a short-term contract, without expectations of a pension or tenure, it would appear that there is no problem. However, if the new employee is hired to replace a senior faculty member being fired, there may be an ethical issue involved. Even now, in ads for positions at Japanese universities, age limits and contract terms are often explicitly stated. Fortunately, there are several web sites (see sidebar) which give some background on the employment history of many public and national institutions.

For Most Westerners, Japan is Still a Nice Place to Live

In a broad sense, Westerners--native English-speakers in particular—have enjoyed comfortable lifestyles, warm hospitality, high salaries, and many other benefits. So, despite the fact that foreigners might find the employment system discriminatory when judged by Western standards, Japan still remains a pretty nice place to live for most of us. In fact, the exclusion of foreign faculty in higher education is undoubtedly much more harmful to Japan itself than to the foreign faculty involved. The students are denied access to the new ideas, the global exchange of information, and the cultural interchange and diversity which are the lifeblood of a good university.

Drawing the line between practicing cultural relativism and accepting a system or practice we find immoral or unfair continues to be a major dilemma for sojourners and foreign residents all over the world. What should someone living in a foreign country do when confronted with discrimination, human rights violations, child labor, and the like? Ignoring such cases on the basis of cultural sensitivity seems irresponsible, yet we can sometimes cause more harm than good unless we fully understand both the history and the culturally appropriate means of bringing these problems to light.

Academic Jobs in Japan

David Aldwinkle’s web page contains detailed information--including many of the essays listed above—about discriminatory practices at Japanese universities, recent court cases, and advice about working in higher education. It also includes a “Blacklist” and “Greenlist” with information on hiring and discriminatory practices at specific universities:

JALT’s (Japan Association of Language Teaching),, has articles on hiring, discrimination, specific universities, etc.

HELEN KORENGOLD has lived and worked in Japan for seven years and is currently working in the international program at Minnesota State Univ., Akita, Japan Campus.

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