August 2019

Learning to Speak Out as an Outsider: The Internationalization of the Academic Workforce in Japan

How contingent faculty can negotiate their in-between status to forge lasting and impactful solidarities

by Momoyo Mitsuno

In August 2008, I returned to Japan after four years of PhD study in Melbourne, Australia. From there, it took me another eight years to finally submit my thesis, which I successfully completed in January 2017. If I learned anything from my prolonged years of doctoral study and eight years of experience as contingent faculty, it is that PhD students and non-tenure track teaching staff alike face the challenges of belonging and contributing meaningfully to the academic community. For non-tenure track teaching staff, developing a sense of belonging is further complicated by the heterogeneity of their positions, high research demands, and the immediate concerns of the job market. Much has been debated about the rise of contingent and fixed-term professors in higher education, who are institutionally positioned outside the tenure track. According to Robert Merton, outsiders are “systematically frustrated by the social system: the disinherited, deprived, disenfranchised, dominated, and exploited Outsiders.”[1] While framing the debate in terms of insider and outsider statuses helps structure our understanding of inclusion and exclusion in higher education workforce, my experience as a fixed-term academic worker rather invites us to explore how relationships between in-groups and out-groups are negotiated by those located in multiple relations of power. As this article shows, peripheral academic workers often struggle to be part of a professional community of researchers while confronting challenges and consequences of working under precarious conditions.

In arguing for the significance of an outsider’s standpoint for sociological knowledge, American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins provides important insights into the culture of those who are marginalized in society. In the context of the histories of African American women, she argues that culture is not only an expression of the unique values of a specific group. Rather, Black feminists have a special ability to see the patterns and multiplicity of culture and social structure that oppress them.[2] This is because their self-definition and self-evaluation, which are derived from their culture and marginalized status, encourage them to assert their humanness while resisting multiple forms of oppression. Even more significantly, the social and material settings they occupy, such as church and family/home, act as enduring sites of oppression and resistance, emerging from a distinct view of reality unavailable to other groups. Hill Collins’ argument suggests that structural injustice does not uniformly constrain Black women’s choices but is experienced self-consciously and questioned collectively. Thus, choosing to account for who you are in an alternative perception of social reality is a form of activism, which can lead you to challenge the power relations that generate outsider figures. 

Open Source Photo by Michał Parzuchowski

Speaking out as an academic outsider does not have to be reduced to a single logic of outsider versus insider. On the contrary, outsiders’ critical engagement is significant for resisting such a one-dimensional categorization and exploring ways of inclusion in higher education that foster social justice. Hill Collins’ argument sensitizes us to contemporary higher education whereby figures of outsiders are created and incorporated and how such outsiders might exercise a power to disagree with their imposed category. My discussion is located in the context of my entry into academic workforce in Japan whereby researchers from overseas were strategically employed under the internationalization of higher education.

Internationalization suggests a trend in education whereby difference is encouraged at the institutional level. However, the idea of embracing difference can be constructed in such symbolic and strategic ways by institutional insiders that the self-affirmation of academic outsiders is not necessarily recognized, but is rather ignored.[3] This is suggested in the literature on the internationalization of higher education in Japan, from English education to the intake of international students.[4] These arguments not only point to cultural stereotypes reinforced through education, but draw our attention to unequal consequences which foreign professors suffer as outsiders in Japanese higher education.  For instance, to respond to internationalization, some universities in Japan have created new academic positions that offer courses in the English language or to increase English as a Foreign Language classes. And yet, such positions are often offered as non-tenured, entry-level positions, which occupy a low status in the workforce.

The definition of in-groups and out-groups is not simply informed by a national cultural model alone, but is collectively constructed in multiple relations of power, constituting part of a broader political economy.[5] This is manifested in one’s perception of economic choice. For instance, my continuous insecure employment in higher education for eight years was initially motivated by my pursuit of academic job opportunities. For early-career researchers, in particular for those trained overseas, entry-level positions in Japanese universities represent an opportunity to use their academic skills and develop unique experiences. In this context, for me, taking a fixed-term position was an important opportunity to build work experience in Japanese universities.

My first academic employment in Japan was as a fixed-term Assistant Professor of English education in 2009 at a medium-sized, non-elite, private university in greater Tokyo area. The Assistant Professor position was introduced within the Japanese higher education system in 2007, and at this university, I was one of the first Assistant Professors they employed, meaning that my employer and the other professors had no experience working with Assistant Professors who would only be there for a maximum of five years. At this university, Assistant Professors were treated differently from the other tenured professors. We had mandatory nine to five office hours, shared rather than personal offices, and more teaching and administrative obligations than tenured professors. During non-teaching weeks, our research time was controlled by a university-imposed work schedule. I enjoyed working with other assistant professors who were friendly and supportive of each other, but I also felt frustrated by my position in comparison with tenured professors who seemed to enjoy more autonomy in their work.

My position allowed me to gain work experience at a university, but the experience was not necessarily integrating me to the professional community in that university. The oppositional positioning of fixed-term Assistant Professor versus tenure-track professor narrowly framed my perception of the possibilities for action: to stay at the university or to do research elsewhere. It suppressed alternatives I could explore, such as publicly sharing knowledge about the conditions under which non-tenure-track Assistant Professors work. Instead, through my experience at this university, I learned that a way to respond to my situation was to work harder on my research and find a better position elsewhere. So I started writing papers for conferences and journals and applying for a research grant while working on the PhD thesis.

After two years, I found employment as a lecturer in an area closer to my research at a new liberal arts college in a rural part of Japan. This position continued for three years until my contract expired. The second university presented itself as an international university and had specific curriculum and employment policies. All courses were taught in English and all the professors were hired on a three-year contract with the possibility of renewal. These policies were unorthodox to the conventions of Japanese universities at that time. While all professors worked on a non-tenured position at this university, some of them positioned themselves as outsiders to Japanese universities. In other words, they positioned themselves as agents of internationalization by forming an outsider identity to Japanese higher education, which historically excluded foreign professors. In this work environment, the academic staff adopted a more egalitarian structure. I built friendship not only with other Assistant Professors on a three-year contract, but also with professors who held higher positions. However, this liberal attitude also obscured power relations in the workforce, which was suggested by a series of alternative categories created by some colleagues to distinguish themselves from the other colleagues. By their estimation, there were two categories of professors at this university: professors who were recruited through open search and professors who were appointed by the university. A perception was held among some of us that appointed professors had a higher status and more power and privilege, as they were closer to the university administration.

Recruited professors were a numerical majority, but they had to assert their value to the university by publishing research, developing new courses, teaching well, and sitting on committees, in order to be an insider of this university. Some of my colleagues responded by informally claiming that they had more legitimate attributes than appointed professors, such as degrees from English-speaking countries, that qualified them to work at an international university. This alternative division of groups organized the way power relations were negotiated among colleagues who owned a space of gossip.[6] Such colleagues had research experience overseas previously. They framed their claim by drawing on their earlier experience of academic socialization in contrast to the current situation, which was compelling enough for other colleagues with similar academic experience to identify with.  In other words, by creating and spreading an alternative way of categorization outside the knowledge of appointed professors, some colleagues were able to tactically mobilize their academic and international expertise to counter an imposed marginal position while making contributions to the university.

This informal division of superiority and inferiority was not limited to workplace gossip. It also made a lasting impact on my experience when one appointed professor told me that he was certain that my contract would not be renewed, a baseless comment to indicate that I was less valued at the university than him. As I found his action offensive, I reported this to the university administration.  Ultimately, I had to face the university’s decision to not renew my contract, which was only announced toward the end of my third year.  This decision was supposed to be based on their evaluation of my performance as a teacher and as a researcher, although the details of their evaluation and decision were never disclosed to me.

While I no longer belonged to the university, I still belonged to a community of outsider fellow colleagues, which helped me take control of my changing circumstances and to carry on as an academic worker. With the non-renewal of my contract, my colleagues gave me advice of various kinds, from fighting back to finding another position in a short period of time. They, along with some university staff sympathetic to me, supported me in my situation in many ways, such as offers of help with the move, chats and lunches. These acts of kindness took place informally where outsiders’ power to disagree was kept out of the reach of institutional insiders’ control. 

Being an outsider is a situational identity which increasingly reflects the experiences of instructors in the landscape of contemporary higher education. Being an outsider can provide an opportunity to join a community of outside academic workers when difference is embraced. It can also contribute to perpetuating injustice and marginality of others once one gains access to the organizational structure dominated by the powerful. My discussion is limited to my own narrative account of an early career researcher’s work experience in the context of the internationalization of higher education in Japan. However, the case provides insight into how marginality generates “an excitement to creativity.”[7] In other words, contingent and fixed-term faculty can create and extend their solidarity to support other disadvantaged standpoints from within the university, instead of isolating themselves in apathy. As such, they engage in the negotiation of boundaries and conflicts between in-groups and out-groups to shape their perception of political choice.

Momoyo Mitsuno is a sociologist and a lecturer at Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture, Japan. In 2017. She completed her PhD, “Representing teachers’ engagements with the self: A sociological analysis of the emergence of teachers’ blogs in Japan,” at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include the identity formation of educational workers, grassroots movements, and the construction of collective identity. Before taking the current position, she taught at multiple universities in Japan as a fixed-term assistant professor while writing a PhD thesis.

Further Reading

[1] Merton, Robert K. “Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge.” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 1 (1972): 9-47. 29

[2] Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Social Problems, no. 6 (1986).

[3] Brotherhood, Thomas, Christopher D. Hammond, and Yangson Kim. “Towards an Actor-Centered Typology of Internationalization: A Study of Junior International Faculty in Japanese Universities.” Higher Education (2019).

[4] Breaden, Jeremy. “Internationalisation and Paternalist Micro-Management in a Japanese University.” Japanese Studies 32, no. 1 (2012): 21-37.

[5] Kubota, Ryuko. “Neoliberal Paradoxes of Language Learning: Xenophobia and International Communication.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 37, no. 5 (2016): 467-80.

[6] Elias, Norbert, and John Lloyd Scotson. The Established and the Outsiders : Sociological Enquiry into Community Problems. 2Rev.ed. ed, Theory, Culture & Society Series: Sage, 1994.

[7] Collins, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” s15

1 comment on “Learning to Speak Out as an Outsider: The Internationalization of the Academic Workforce in Japan

  1. ALawlessLog

    Wow, what a powerful and incisive analysis from, of and into the margins of working in the academy! Thank you, your words resonate.


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