EESE 7/2002

The Problems of Xenophobia
and the Teaching of English at Japanese Universities

Alex Shishin (Kobe)


Japan has a long history of fascination and delight with things foreign. It has an equally long history of suspicion of foreign influences and foreigners themselves. This contradiction extends into every facet of Japanese life. It is significantly present in Japanese education. Since the Meiji Era - but especially in postwar era-Japan's need for learning English has created the need for importing foreign "native speaker" English teachers, most of whom teach part time at universities, companies and in private language schools. These foreign teachers, especially if they are white, may well be lionized almost like celebrities; but they are also likely to become throwaways, willingly or not. Virtually all foreign English teachers face workplace discrimination in Japan; in the interests of space, however, this paper will be limited primarily to xenophobia as it relates to Japanese higher education. Discrimination against non-Japanese in higher education has been dubbed "Academic Apartheid." The term was first used, to the best of my knowledge by this writer in a 1986 article in the Asahi Evening News. It was popularized by Ivan Hall's book Cartels of the Mind (1997).

Japanese Xenophobia and Xenophilia: a Quick Historical Overview

An ancient definition of Japan's fascination with foreign things is akogare. Rimmer (1988) defines this as "a sense of yearning [...] for something beyond the confines of ordinary life" in an essay on a No play written between 1500-1650 about a medieval lord, Kamo no Chomeis, who unsuccessfully tries to build a ship to sail to China. China and Korea not simply influenced but defined Japan's culture in ancient times. Japan went through an extremist xenophobic era beginning in 1633 when shogun Iemitsu almost totally isolated Japan from all foreign contacts, which continued well into the middle of the 19th century.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan attempted to modernize its industry and political systems to catch up to the West. Western influences and Western people themselves were suddenly officially welcomed as they never had been before. One consequence of this was the call for democracy by many Japanese people. Terrified, the Meiji ruling class countered this through appeals to patriotism. To do this they turned Shinto-based emperor worship into what Basil Hall Chaimberlain called a "new religion" in a 1912 essay, "The Invention of a New Religion":

Sentiment grew democratic, in so far (perhaps it was not very far) as American democratic ideals as were understood. Love of country seemed likely to yield to a humble bowing down before foreign models. Officialdom not unnaturally took fright at this abdication of national individualism. Evidently something must be done to turn the tide. Accordingly, patriotic sentiment was appealed to through the throne [...]. (Appendix, Chamberlain 1971 (1905): 532)

After the death of the charismatic Emperor Meiji his physically and mentally weak son, Taisho, became emperor. His reign (1914-1927) has been called "Taisho Democracy." That fairly liberated time, when interest in Western culture, democracy and socialism flourished, was directly predicated on the weakness of the emperor system (Bix 2000). Emperor Taisho became so debilitated during his short reign that his son, Hirohito, as Prince Regent, had to take over as de facto emperor in 1920.

So-called Taisho democracy was brought to an abrupt end under Hirohito by the extreme nationalism of the 1930's when ideology became manifestly anti-foreign. This had an influence on Japanese attitudes toward foreign languages as well as foreign cultures. LaFeber (1997) writes:

They [the Japanese] had long thought of themselves as a unique and superior people (and believed they had the military, political, and cultural accomplishments as evidence). Their ascendancy to world power between 1860 and 1920 occurred during the heyday of supposedly scientific racism in the West, a pseudo-science the Japanese studied closely because they and other Asians were so often the victims of it. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, the Japanese racism that drove the great war effort was based not on science but on history. The source of Japan's greatness and ultimate victory, according to novelists, cartoonists, journalists, and government propagandists, was the Emperor, whose origins went back 2,600 years to Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess. No other people could claim such a lineage. Other races "were filthy and impure," the Orwellian-named Thought Bureau of the Ministry of Education declared in 1937. American liberalism and so-called individualism were especially filthy, some leading Japanese publicists preached, because such terms only disguised the rich exploiting the poor, the destruction of community, and the "ugly plutocracy" of the Jews. One cartoonist considered the English language so dirty that he portrayed Americans speaking into garbage cans. (217-218)

The Japanese committed atrocities during their long Pacific War (1933-1945) which included the Rape of Nanjing and biological warfare experiments at Unit 731. The postwar period has been dominated by the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party which has put nationalism, emperor worship and obscurization of Japan's war crimes on its agenda (see, for example, Van Wolferen 1989 and Bix 2000). This is what is behind the recent row over Japanese textbooks, written by nationalist historians and approved by the Education Ministry, which among other things make no mention of Japanese sexual slavery of Korea Women (See, "New textbook stirs up controversy over war," Japan Today, April 10, 2002) and the row over Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of Japan's war criminals are entombed.

Postwar Japan grew to be the world's second largest economy. With this growth and integration with the world political economy came the increasing need for English education. Japanese English education, however, has produced extremely poor results. After 6 years of secondary school and one or two years more in university most Japanese cannot communicate in English. In fact there are legions of English teachers who cannot speak English (see, for example, Van Wolferen 1989, Shishin 1999, Lemann 2002).

Not only the need for English fluency but also the failure of Japanese English teachers alone to establish universal Japanese English fluency has created an acute need for so-called native speakers of English at not only universities but also private language schools and, recently, in secondary schools as visiting Japan English Teachers under a special Education Ministry program (foreigners are not allowed to teach full time or even part time in Japanese secondary and elementary schools otherwise). While superficially welcomed, Foreign English teachers in Japan must inevitably confront institutional and popular Japanese racism.

Academic Apartheid in Japan's Universities

Most foreign university teachers (called gaikokujin kyoshi in Japanese) are technically part time workers, even if they are given full-time responsibilities. Most are engaged in language teaching (ESL) rather than straight academic teaching (i.e. Literature). Teachers hired under genuine full-time conditions are given tenure the moment they begin work. They are given a certificate (jirei), not a contract that must be periodically renewed. Under what in Japanese is called the "ninkisei" system most contracts for foreign teachers are one and two years. In many cases foreign teachers are informed that their contracts cannot be renewed after a prescribed period of time. These, in current gaikoku kyoshi slang, are called "sudden death" contracts. But in fact all contracts are potentially "sudden death" contracts because, informal guarantees notwithstanding, they can be perfunctorily terminated even after decades of faithful service.

The "sudden death" contract has been the rule at national and other public universities. Until recently, laws (dating back to the Meiji Era) forbidding non-Japanese to hold government jobs applied to professors at all public universities. After considerable domestic and international criticism special laws were passed in the 1980s that theoretically made it possible for foreigners to become tenured at public universities. In reality little has changed. Ivan Hall (1994), who himself was summarily dismissed from a national university (Tsukuba), writes:

In response to heavy external criticism, including a severe OECD report in 1971, the new legislation in 1982 authorized the employment of foreign professors at Japanese national and prefectural/municipal universities on terms identical to those for regular Japanese academic staff (kyoin), but with one enormous exception that quickly undermined the original purpose and spirit of the law. Although intended by its original sponsors to provide permanent employment similar to that of Japanese professors, and widely advertised as offering academic "tenure" to foreigners, the law as finally passed left the period of service to the discretion of each university. Twelve years later, as of 1994, only four foreign scholars (two at Tokyo and two at Kyushu universities) have been given open-ended, non-term-limited posts identical to those held by their Japanese colleagues. All the other national institutions have opted for short-term contracts, averaging about three years. (The Japan Policy Research Institute,

Hall makes the point that the national university serves as a "litmus test" for the rest of Japan's universities.

One researcher and tenured professor at a Japanese university, David Adwinkle, who recently became a Japanese citizen named Arudou Debito, keeps a record of Japanese universities that are fair and unfair to foreign faculty. The bad ones are named on a Blacklist and the good one get on a Greenlist. A number of universities have a double system of tenure for some foreign teachers and "sudden death contracts" for others. In Adwinkle/Arudou, these are put on both his "Green" and "Black" lists. He blacklists universities that discriminate against tenured foreign faculty. If a university is very bad he warns us to stay away, as in the following example:

NAME OF UNIVERSITY: Tsukuba University (National)
LOCATION: Tsukuba, Ibaragi Prefecture, Honshu
EMPLOYMENT ABUSE: Institutes Gaikokujin Kyouin system, meaning contracts for foreigners, but leaves it up to the Gakuchou and the "Discussion councils" (hyougikai) to individually determine the duration of tenure. Has history of bad faith in negotiations, specifically starting in April 1985 by cleaning out its longer-serving kyoushi by promising them promotion to Gaikokujin Kyouin, then effectively firing them. This situation had to be settled by litigation (cf. Drs Kang, Teele, and Sawada), and afterwards Dr. Kang died a broken man at age 61. The school then tried to charge his widow one million yen back rent for his office! Ten pages of heart-rending bad faith are recorded in Ivan Hall's Cartels of the Mind (ISBN 0-393-04537-4).
Stay away from this school. SOURCE OF INFORMATION: gaikokujin kyouin no ninki ni kansuru chousa (in response to a survey from Gifu University, as of December 1997), also Cartels of the Mind, pp. 107-117.

The following is a private university that discriminates against tenured foreign faculty:
NAME OF UNIVERSITY: International Christian University (Kokusai Kirisuto Kyou Daigaku) (Private)
LOCATION: Mitaka, near Tokyo
EMPLOYMENT ABUSE: Despite school's "international" title, institutes employment practices strikingly different for foreign staff. "Tenure exists automatically for all Japanese; foreigners must wait three years. Japanese get three terms off as sabbatical; foreigners get two. Japanese must come back for a minimum of one year after a sabbatical; foreigners must come back for two. ICU paid for international schooling, now that has been dropped, leaving many parents high and dry, and with the need to pick up $25,000 a year in ASIJ [American School in Japan] tuition. And now they are trying to screw those of us are resigning - and there are several - out of the rest of our spring term money. The list goes on and on." Charles Nuckolls. Source of Information: A 1998 ICU job announcement, followed by an account of Dr. Charles Nuckolls, Anthropology, former Associate Professor at ICU and tenured Associate Professor at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

An organization that concerns itself with Japanese academic apartheid is a the Professionalism, Administration and Leadership in Education (PALE) Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT). The PALE Journal of Professional Issues is on-line. One thing this journal covers is individual and group legal actions by foreign teachers against Japanese universities. Most of these cases revolve around unfair dismissals. This includes the Korst Case at University of the Ryuukyuus (April, 1998). the Galagher Case at Ashikawa University (August, 1998, Spring 2001), the union action at Kumamoto Prefectural University (December 1998, Autumn 1999, Spring 2001) and the van Dresser Case at Miyazaki International College (Spring, 2001). That foreigners have won, or partially won, against racist Japanese universities shows that xenophobia far from being monolithic in Japan.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence of bullying (ijime) directed against both part time and tenured foreign university instructors (which this writer experienced). Most of it is word of mouth at present. It is important to note that Japanese academics, particularly women, also experience institutional bullying. This has been dubbed "academic harassment" (akahara in Japanese) by Tokyo University sociology professor Chizuko Ueno (1997), who has also published an anthology of personal narratives by akahara victims, concentrating on Japanese women academics.

Other Aspects of Academic Xenophobia

The Japanese language has been deeply tied into the ideology of national identity "Japanese" when used by Japanese has been called "Kokugo" or the "national language;" "Nihongo" has been defined as the Japanese spoken by foreigners. Liberal Japanese are starting to go against this linguistic chauvinism but they remain comparatively few in number. Given this quasi-official reverence for the "national language" it is fair to speculate that xenophobia has been at least partially responsible for the poor English of Japanese people.

Until 2002, when English education finally commenced in public elementary schools, pupils in public education and in most private schools did not begin learning English until junior high school. It is very likely fears that children could become less "Japanese"(and therefore more immune to official ideological control) if taught a second language too early in life played a part this delay.

When Japanese start to learn English their instruction is still generally confined to "grammar-translation" rather than communication. Their English instruction is carried out primarily in Japanese-and frequently by teachers who are themselves dysfunctional in English. The goal of English instruction in junior high school is the passing of entrance examinations to high schools. In high schools students study English for university entrance exams.

English dysfunctionality is an earmark especially of Japan's traditional English and American Literature departments - where a wall has been put between "practical English" and the English of Literature. The general exclusiveness toward foreigners allows English-dysfunctional teachers to shelter their incompetence and sanctions their hostilities toward foreign English speakers and fluent Japanese English speakers. The anti-English English teacher is a significant presence in Japanese academia (see Shishin 1999).

It is significant that the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's 1999 call to make English an official language was met with no enthusiastic mass support from the Japanese English teaching community. A number of prominent Japanese English language scholars came out strongly against this quickly shelved proposal. The arguments of two these scholars, Takao Suzuki (professor emeritus at Keio University) and Kei Nakamura (professor at Seijo University), are important in that their views reflect those held by many others in their fields.

In "Language Expert Closes the Book on Official English," (3/17/00) the Mainichi Daily News reporter Kazuo Kojima quotes a number of Nakamura's fears about making English an official language. Among other fears, such as it might over-burden children to study two languages, are those that seem xenophobic. One is a fear that this will lead to a "dumbing down of the Japanese." Making the doubly dubious assertion that Japan's Meiji "forefathers" knew English well because they knew Japanese better than the modern generations, Nakamura argues:

Can people heading off to English conversation schools say they've mastered Japanese and understand Japanese culture? They shouldn't be polishing off their English skills now. They should concentrate on Japanese. If people study English without mastering Japanese, you'll see the creation of slaves to the English language.

Nakamura does not consider that learning two languages at the same time might enhance sensitivity to the first language. In his mind, just as in entrance exams your success means someone else's failure, one skill of necessity diminishes another. This leads into to the following: "Another reason for my opposition to making English an official language is that it constitutes English linguistic imperialism. That is, making it an official language assists in making English a universal language." Characteristically xenophobes see one's country as a victim of outside forces. What is particularly ironic that Japan, as the world second largest economy, uses English in establishing domains in foreign countries, including those that speak English. Nakamura takes a certain pride in the poor English abilities of the Japanese. He declares:

Historically, there have been three reasons for giving official language status. A dominating people has forced its language on a dominated people; a dominated people give their language official status as a means to restore its use; or, the language serves to act as a communication conduit in multicultural countries, such as the United States.
Today's Japan doesn't fit in to any of these areas. The Japanese language serves as a symbol of the state's identity. Having continued as an independent language for hundreds of years, it is a rare idea indeed to want to artificially replace Japanese with English.

Because of what amounts to a national purity, though Nakamura does not directly say this, he thinks "it's only natural that Japanese can't speak English. But I don't think that matters too much."

A major aspect of xenophobia is the belief in national exceptionalism, or "uniqueness." This is implicit in the often-used expression "We Japanese" or "We are Japanese" (Ware ware nihonjin). The ideology of Japanese uniqueness is called nihonjinron in Japanese. Exceptionalism is invariably based on myth-that is half-truths and lies. Nakamura does not take into account that Asians nations like Thailand were not conquered by English speaking people and yet produce better foreign language learners than Japan. Neither does he consider that Japan was conquered and dominated by the United States. (There is a persistent myth in mainland Japan that Okinawans speak good English because of the US military bases there.)

In his interview with Japan Echo, Vol. 26, October 1999 ("Giving English Education a Firmer Focus"), linguist Takao Suzuki, author of Nihonjin wa naze eigo ga dekinai ka (Why Can't the Japanese Speak English?), denies that he believes that the infusion of so much English into Japanese daily life constitutes "English imperialism." Yet, his sense of English somehow victimizing Japan echoes Nakamura's xenophobia. He declares himself displeased that the then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa conferred with the then President George Bush in English during his 1991 visit to Japan:

Unfortunately, Mr. Miyazawa is completely ignorant of the concept of "linguistic sovereignty." Back when he was prime minister, he met with US President George Bush during the latter's visit to Japan for nearly two hours without an interpreter, taking just a stenographer along. I'm not sure how good an English speaker Miyazawa thinks he is, but negotiating in English is an acquiescence to the other side's ground rules. In the delicate world of diplomacy, this was tantamount to a renunciation of linguistic equality.

One wonders why Miyazawa's ability to speak to Bush in English would necessarily mean acquiescence to Bush's ground rules-particularly when Bush's market opening mission failed and Bush succeed only in making an ass of himself, by vomiting in front of Miyazawa at a televised official dinner. Here we see how xenophobia arises from an imagined sense of national inferiority. Especially in light of the fact that Bush's ill-fated Japan visit was the beginning of the end of his presidency, why does not Nakamura take pride in the fact that his prime minister could negotiate in English and the American president could not do so in Japanese? In the xenophobic mind a potential strength is very often perceived as a weakness.

Given the above, it is no surprise that Suzuki does not believe the purpose of Japanese learning English should be either learning from other cultures or an attempt at friendship. English has been used too much for the former since the Meiji Era, he asserts. "Henceforth we need to shift the aim of English education to fostering students who can convincingly describe Japan's distinctive circumstances to people unfamiliar with our country" (the exceptionalist argument again.) As is typical of xenophobes, Suzuki considers international exchanges in terms of conflict, not friendship:

There's a widespread misconception of what internationalization and international exchange mean. Many people think international exchange is about making friends with foreigners, but that's not it. The real purpose is to let people of different nationalities dispute with each other without causing a rupture of their relationship [sic].

Not only does Suzuki believe "Language education to 'deepen international understanding' is of virtually no use" he also wants foreign texts purged from the English curriculum:

Rather than using American or British news stories as texts in English classes, we should use English-language newspapers published in Japan. If the story is about developments in Japan, there's greater familiarity with the subject matter and a stronger likelihood that even difficult words can be understood. Colleges, too, should use texts that deal with Japanese history, society, or literature in their English classes, and they should also increase the number of nonlanguage courses that are taught in English at higher levels of education.

As is also typical of xenophobes, Suzuki searches for insults to his nation, assuming them before the fact:

We shouldn't have to apologize for using "Japanese English." The notion that English belongs to the Americans or Britons is narrow-minded. English is now the language of the world.

It is in this way that foreign workers are misperceived to have terrible powers as "English Imperialists" that the dominant culture does not have, when in fact they are if anything bewildered and helpless.


Xenophobia, as well as xenopilia, arises from some kind of sense of inadequacy or deprivation and a sense of danger. In longing there is fear and in fear longing and in both there is always the volatile emotion of envy. It is for this reason that a nation, like an individual, can (and most often will) carry within its psyche the seeming conflicting attitudes of hating and yet longing toward the perceived Other. It is also for this reason that awkwardness before the Other can be misinterpreted as xenophobia and superficial (and opportunistic) friendliness misunderstood as friendship.

The fears expressed by Nakamura and Suzuki above regarding Japanese "linguistic sovereignty" echo fears of post colonial nations of being dominated by their former oppressors through what is now popularly called "Globalism." Ironically, Japan is not a former colony but a former colonizer. Neither is it a developing nation but the second largest economy in the world. Much of this fear over national sovereignty very likely comes from the shame of national defeat in World War II.

In Japanese feelings for the "native speaker" of English as the perceived Other can range from extremes of mindless hatred to uncritical love. Unfortunately, emotions that arouse suspicion, if not outright hate, have become the basis of laws and institutional rules. Thus today, in spite of all the decades of talk about internationalization, the prevailing attitude still remains that the necessary foreign teacher of English must be milked for his or her language skills, kept excluded, and gotten rid of quickly. This paper has touched on only a fraction of the problems surrounding Japanese xenophobia.


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