Academic freedom in Japan's higher education--a more in-depth look
by Charles Jannuzi
Many attempts at analyzing the nature of government in post-war Japan tend to emphasize continuity with 'old' Japan and its conservative nationalism. However, such analysis does not insightfully refer to tendencies that are ancient or even old by historical standards. Instead, any connection with past rule has to be made with early modern Japan, from the start of the Meiji era (1868) to the start of the second world war.
Sweeping political, social and cultural changes in the last half of the 19th century opened up Japan to outside ideas, knowledge and technology. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was actually a political revolution which swept away most elements of the old shogunate government and its prestige culture. New factions of elites capable of leadership and rule emerged during a time of great social unrest and change.
Some historical background
Under the guise of restoring an emperor, they established a constitutional monarchy which then oversaw the laws and policies of early modern Japan of the Meiji and Taishou eras (1868-1927). Enlightenment-inspired moves toward pluralism and democracy were checked by a government headed and run by the survivors of a political and social revolution. They gave top priority to retaining and expanding their power through institutionalizing a national culture of unity and by pushing for the all-out industrial development of the country.
From the very beginning of modern Japan, a tightly controlled education system at the primary and lower secondary (middle school) levels was instituted to help effect conformance to a national culture and manage top-down control of social change and development. On the other hand, a relatively lighter, more liberal touch to the upper levels (upper secondary, normal schools for teacher training, tertiary) was thought vital to assure that these levels expanded in terms of facilities and trained staff. Teachers at this level required sufficient academic freedom to assure advanced learning in scientific and technical subjects.
Relative academic freedom brought with it deep obligations: Access to the top parts of the higher education system was supposed to be granted only to a tested, loyal, meritocratic elite deemed capable and selfless enough to run a modernized Japan. All teachers took on the status of civil servants of the imperial state. Even teachers at the numerous, privately run high schools and colleges could be characterized as 'quasi-civil servants'.
For nationalists in the Meiji and Taishou periods, the desires of the individual had to be subordinated to the needs of the traditional household, legitimate civil government, and the national development state. Rights such as freedoms of speech, conscience, and assembly were not so much positive rights as they were limited privileges granted to loyal subjects by the government, at the top of which sat the emperor.
Still, in the period from the Meiji Restoration up through the 1920s, the Japanese version of academic freedom was considered vital to intellectual inquiry and scientific progress--key components of national development. The fight for academic freedom resulted in some victories when university professors criticized government policy and survived calls for their dismissal. Up to the end of the Taishou era (1912-26), most professors and lecturers singled out for expressing 'dangerous thoughts' (usually about the government or the emperor) were allowed to retain their posts.
Typically, those who got into trouble had tried to use modern social science to analyze the imperial system or its related religion, 'state Shinto'. Though most academics were not this brave, the few scholars who were might lose their academic posts and face severe ostracism. At least in terms of punishment, the only offense that could be worse would be to pursue Marxist analysis. Marxists could be imprisoned.
From the late 1920s onwards, Japan slid increasingly into authoritarian rule and militarism. University professors could be forced to resign their positions and find their works banned.
Post-war Japan--rupture or continuity?
One argument says that the overwhelming loss and destruction of the war, combined with American occupation and reconstruction, led to a total rupture from early modern Japan. The argument then continues that this embrace of American concepts of government, society, and individual rights re-created Japan as Asia's most liberal, western nation, with a war-renouncing constitution to keep things that way.
An opposing view, however, holds that conservative-nationalist resistance to outside power helped much less liberal elements re-assert control over the political economy of Japan. The conclusion of this interpretation of post-war Japan is that human rights are not well-protected, especially for anyone or any group not viewed as 'Japanese'.
Academic freedom, a positive right in the constitution
Academic freedom is now firmly established as a positive right in Japan. It has been since the Occupation government promulgated what many legal scholars and historians have described as a 'liberal' and 'enlightened' constitution in 1946. This document, along with fundamental laws creating a somewhat Americanized education system, took effect in 1947, a year when most Japanese were desperately struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves.
In the constitution, academic freedom took its place alongside the more commonly stated rights of 'freedom of speech', 'thought', 'conscience', 'assembly' and 'association'. Chapter III (Rights and Duties), Article 23 states, 'Academic freedom is guaranteed.' Academic freedom exists undeniably as a 'positive' right in constitutional law. The question is, Has it become a right in practice, such as through case law (legal precedents) in favor of wronged academics and enlightened institutional policies?
In higher education, a national system of control under the ministry of education prevails, although it is nowhere near as complete as the government hold on primary and secondary education. Nationalist conservatives (including so-called independent 'reformers') have run the central government since the end of the occupation, with only two short-lived socialist intervals.
This exposes Japan's academia as somewhat left of the politicians who head the government that attempts to oversee and subsidize endeavors in research, scholarship, and teaching.
In addition to providing continuity, bureaucrats in the ministry of education act as a buffer between university academics and politicians because overall they hold a wider ranging set of philosophies and opinions on education and universities than the elected and appointed leadership.
If academic freedom is looked at from the perspective of freedom to teach, do scholarship or research within a specialty, then academics at national and public universities in Japan are given considerable latitude. They do not have to conform to a national curriculum or use ministry-approved textbooks. Compared to corporate researchers, many at universities and national research centers can pursue pure research and abstract theory, regardless of immediate applications or returns on investment.
Academic freedom and labor policies
Most cases that concern, at least in part, 'academic freedom' in Japan play themselves out in labor negotiations, case arbitration, and the courts. This is because academic freedom is often said to be violated when universities and their program are accused of not giving a justifiable reason when demoting, financially penalizing, firing, dismissing or not renewing the contract of teaching or research personnel.
Unless tasked with administrative and committees, some academics get to spend most of their time doing research and scholarship. The national universities especially are staffed with large numbers of people whose main job is somehow connected to research, not teaching.
Other academics get to teach advanced-level courses using the content they prefer (no matter how idiosyncratic), running small seminars for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students that are much closer to the sort of narrow specialties that scholarly academics prefer. If a university teacher of this second type demonstrates enough success at research and scholarship at a specialty, he or she may be given the chance to join the group who do little or no teaching.
A third type of faculty consists of those who have to do most of the lower-level teaching, right down to the so-called 'service' courses of general education required of first and second year students. This system is filled out by large numbers of part-time teachers usually teaching in general education as well. People in this third lower tier are most often involved in claims over breach of the right of academic freedom. While they tend to have much less academic freedom because of the constraints of their teaching assignments, they are also the most likely to have their salaries cut or their positions reassigned or terminated.
Troubles at Tokyo Metropolitan University
Take the example of Tokyo Metropolitan University, the highest-ranking public (not national) university in Japan Because of troubled finances at many local governments, starting in 2005, public universities (86 total) were put into process of consolidating and corporatizing along the lines of the national universities (all 87 were corporatized in the period 2003-4).
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government had been proposing since 2003 the establishment of a new public university corporation through been the consolidation of four existing institutions into one: the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Technology, Tokyo Metropolitan University of Health Sciences, and Tokyo Metropolitan College were supposed to be merged with the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan University.
Many of the faculty at the institutions affected have objected vociferously to the proposed imposition of performance-based pay and five-year contracts. Those who objected also refused to sign agreements for course assignments, which the administration needed in order to apply to the national government for approval in establishing the re-chartered public university corporation.
The 100 professors and lecturers who have refused to agree to re-assignment demanded, among other things, that faculty councils retain control of teaching appointments and that full-time teachers not be forced to submit to the five-year contracts. Many in the current faculties object to the proposed heavier load of introductory level classes with larger numbers of students to teach and evaluate. They understandably wish to avoid being put into that third tier of contractual or provisionally employed teachers.
Although the national universities were forced to lead the way in privatization and corporatization, the plan to combine public institutions in Tokyo is considered a model case which could be applied as 'best practice' for management in the reorganization and streamlining of both public and former national universities nationwide. The proposals for 3-5-year contracts and merit pay for teachers have drawn special attention.
Actually, the contract-merit system that the Tokyo Metropolitan government is now attempting to impose on the teaching faculties of its universities and colleges comes from a plan put forward at national research centers and at the former national universities in order to 'invigorate' government-funded research. It most likely originates from private industry and private universities (who were the first to use merit-based contracts for educators).
This is the so-called 'tokunin' system whereby researchers sign contracts (often five years for researchers, but often three years for teachers). Renewal--leading to a possible career track position--depends upon a review process and successful results, such as the development of patents and commercial applications stemming from the initial period of research. However, it is questionable whether such a system is the most appropriate for the professional development of university teachers, nor is it clear how their performance under such a 'tokunin' system can be effectively and objectively evaluated.
The goings-on at national universities
The administrations of former national universities (now National University Corporations or NUCs), however, have appeared to be reluctant to propose such a system for MOST of their teaching personnel. That reluctance changed only recently, and the largely powerless foreign lecturers became precedent-setting example. For example, as of April 2005, University of Kobe, a former national university, adopted a contract system for its foreign lecturers, limiting them to a three-year contract and no automatic renewals (though they would be allowed to compete for the position should it be re-opened to new candidates).
Private universities and the plight of foreign nationals
The policies and practices that affect the academic freedom and employment rights of foreign nationals within Japan's extensive private system of universities and two-year colleges (together totaling 984 institutions) vary so much as to make concise generalizations nearly impossible. It is an understatement to say that a broad range of situations is possible.
At one extreme, discrimination is obviously rampant: unlike their full-time Japanese counterparts, who have not been forced onto contracts, foreign personnel at many private universities and colleges might (1) face arbitrary dismissal, (2) have one- or three-year contracts with strict renewal limits imposed, (3) receive lower salaries, no bonuses and higher pay cuts, (4) be barred from meetings where decisions are made, and (5) be denied health insurance and retirement benefits (since employers try to avoid bearing their share of the fees for the national scheme).
Any charge of nationwide discrimination, however, has to be qualified because the administrations of some private universities and colleges are so dictatorial and their unions so weak that even Japanese nationals can face similarly severe employment conditions and unfair labor practices. Moreover, the very numerous part-time personnel--who often do more teaching than full-time faculty, regardless of nationality--have very little control over their job situations and fewer employment rights or benefits.