Most people, when they first arrive, work at a place like Nova, probably the biggest employer of native English teachers in the world. By dint of their overseas recruiting programme, NO-VAcation (as we called it when I worked there) is the first employer for many arriving in Japan. But even this has changed. Recently, after a long struggle with the local General Union, it was forced to provide its full-time teachers with health, pension and unemployment benefits.
Foreign University Lecturers and Four Unions Meet Ministry Officials and Lawmakers
What was expected to be another lackluster negotiating sessions with junior officials of the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Ministry of Labor and Welfare (MoL/W) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) concerning the problems of foreign university teachers turned out to be the real deal this time. Seven or more lawmakers or their secretaries and 15 ministry officials met with over 30 union members and their supporters on March 8th at House of Councilors Conference Hall in Nagatacho, Tokyo. Requests and questions had been submitted in advance by Part-time Teachers? Union Tokyo (UPTL-Tokyo), University Teachers Union (UTU), Part-time Teachers?Union in Osaka (UPTL-Kansai) and Fukuoka General Union (FGU). The issues raised concerned limited-term contracts and their consequences, discrimination against foreign teachers, especially with regard to promotion and information policy, and the drawbacks of the Japanese pension system to foreigners who work for fewer than 25 years in Japan. The UTU Survey of Foreign Nationals at Japanese Universities 2004 had clearly depicted these matters as major issues. The bureaucrats read out their replies to the union presentations unemotionally and almost inaudibly, but rapidly, so that even some Japanese could not understand.
The ensuing discussion showed the government?s position ? discrimination based on nationality is prohibited by the Labour Standards Law, but the conditions foreigners are subject to are not explicitly prohibited or addressed by the Law. If they were, the ministries would have to take them on case-by-case, or individuals could take the cases to the Labour Council. Reiko Endo of the (UPTL-Kansai) emphatically insisted that we have many clear cases of discrimination. As one example, Noboru Shida, president of the UPTL-Tokyo, introduced an associate professor of English who has been working at International University of Health and Welfare in Tochigi for ten years, during which he has been the university’s only tenured foreign teacher. Now the university is trying to demote him and cut his pay because they say his Japanese is not good ? this, even though he’s developed many language programs, is more widely published than all of his department colleagues combined, and has among the highest student evaluations in the university. In addition, all foreign teachers (with the exception of two Chinese contract teachers who don’t belong to the labor union) have been, or will soon be, fired. Demands for response by lawmakers produced only meaningless, repetitious, mumbled answers from the bureaucrats.
The atmosphere changed when Arudou Debito of Sapporo described the case of Gwendolyn Gallagher who was fired from Asahikawa University because her Japanese was too good! She was considered no longer a ?fresh gaijin?. No response was heard from the ministries officials. At that point, FGU chairperson Stephanie Houghton stood up to contrast the way she felt as an ALT working for the Ministry of Education in 1993 with the way she now feels at her university on a limited non-renewable contract; a policy seemingly approved by the ministry. She said she was disgusted at the racism she now feels in Japan as an unwanted long-term native-speaker. Stephanie then quoted from the definition of racial discrimination given in the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and asked whether the officials thought discrimination against culturally hybrid native-speakers of foreign languages (who no longer count as ?fresh gaijin?) counted as discrimination. Applause from the union side at her lively account ? embarrassment on the part of the officials.
Then, SPJ head Mizuho Fukushima stepped in to ask the officials to research the issues and provide written answers. The MoE official replied twice that they did not know whether any research had been done and whether any data existed. Stephanie reminded the officials that the Japanese government is obliged to submit reports to the United Nations on racial discrimination in Japan and asked how the government could possible do this if they did not research the problem. Once again, silence ensued. Lawmakers and unions once again pressured them to research the problems the unions had brought up and were ordered by Diet Member Fukushima to report to M. Kaneda`s office, in written form, and stated that the unions would be furnished the reports by Kaneda?s office. The hearing ended after 75 minutes.
The progress demonstrated at these hearings was the visible support of more Upper and Lower House representatives. The movement to secure equal treatment for foreign university instructors is gaining momentum, and the ministries cannot brush it aside easily anymore. But further cooperation among foreigners is required, as well as better networking among unions presenting foreigners? problems. For this reason, and for your own sake as a foreigner in Japan, take some interest these proceedings and support your labour unions in their struggle against discrimination, and for more stable workplaces. (HT-UTU)