Monday, September 19, 2005

Faculty Unions in Japanese Universities: An Outline

by Robert Aspinall, PALE Coordinator

At present, universities in Japan are going through a period of transformation brought about by demographic change, economic recession and government policies of privatization. This article will outline the place of unions within the university system and discuss some or the ways in which they are dealing with the challenges that they are currently facing.

The Three Challenges Currently Being Faced by Universities in Japan

1. The biggest change currently facing Japanese universities is demographic. The population of 18-year olds in Japan peaked at 2.05 million in 1992 and has declined ever since to 1.51 million in 2000 and an estimated 1.2 million in 2010 – a drop of 26 percent in eight years or 41 percent in 18 years.

2. The demographic transformation has coincided with a period of prolonged economic recession and deflation for the Japanese economy, making it difficult for many families to afford the fees necessary to send their children to university.

3. The third factor that is transforming the Japanese higher education system is the government policy of privatization. In April 2004 all national universities will be become autonomous quasi-governmental organisations. The same thing will happen to universities run by local government (prefectures or cities) over the next three years. They will still receive subsidies from government but most observers expect that these will gradually be cut and student fees will have to rise. Faculty unions of public sector universities were opposed to the government policy of privatization. However, with no access to the policy-making arena, they were unable to stop the reform.

How Faculty Unions in Japan are Organised
Full time members of academic staff at universities and higher education colleges are organised differently depending on whether the organisation they work for is in the (formerly) public sector or the private sector. (The effect of privatization on this distinction is not yet clear.) Each member of staff who wants to be a member of a union pays subs (calculated as a percentage of salary) to the union that is organised at the level of his or her individual university or college.

There are 238 universities and junior colleges in the public sector. The academic staff unions of 86 of these institutions are affiliated to a national organisation called the Faculty and Staff Union of Japanese Universities (Zenkoku daigaku kosen kyoshokuin kumiai). Other institution-level unions are affiliated to other central organisations or do not affiliate with any larger organisation.

Unions organised by academic staff employed at each of the 989 private universities and junior colleges in Japan tend to follow something more like a company union or enterpirse union model. That means that their union is affiliated with other unions representing teachers at the other educational institutions operated by the same company. A typical private educational association may operate one four-year university, one two-year junior college, one or two high schools, one or two junior high schools, an elementary school, and a kindergarten. Teachers at each of these institutions will be members of unions that join together in one umbrella organisation that exists parallel to the association that employs the staff. This is the pattern of union organisation that is often found in private industry in Japan.

Every employee of the Toyota corporation, for example, will, regardless of skill or craft, be a member of the same union. One of the purposes of this kind of organisation is to instill in the employee loyalty to the company rather than loyalty to workers in similar circumstances who work for other companies. This system goes hand-in-hand with the Japanese lifetime employment system wherein loyalty to one’s company lasts for a working lifetime. In the university sector this has the effect of undermining efforts to create a united movement that might represent the interests of all academic staff regardless of who their employer might be.

The Lack of Power and Influence of Faculty Unions in Japan
For the most part, members of faculty at Japanese universities do not think of their unions as being particularly influential or effective in defending their interests or in representing their views when important decisions are made by government or university management. Up until now that has not been a problem for Japanese academic staff, however, because the organisational structure of the typical Japanese university (both public and private) protects jobs and allows widespread participation in management and administration.

The most important decision-making body of the university is the faculty meeting (kyojukai) attended by all professors, associate professors and lecturers. Nothing can be decided without the approval of this meeting. The downside of this democratic form of decision making is that meetings can drag on for hours. The present author has attended a faculty meeting that started at 10:00am and did not finish until 6:30pm (we had a short break for lunch).

The traditional security of tenure for Japanese professors has come under threat by the serious financial crisis facing many private universities. The lack of new students has forced some institutions to near bankruptcy. Many junior colleges are in the process of being closed or merged with four-year universities, and in the process jobs are being lost. Foreign professors in particular are vulnerable when this happens because they usually do not have the job-for-life that is guaranteed to Japanese faculty. In 1991 a union for foreign university teachers was formed called the General Union. It has had some success helping foreign teachers in cases of unfair dismissal, and, unlike the Japanese faculty unions, is prepared to use the courts to stand up for the rights of employees who are treated badly. Japanese unions are very unwilling to take cases to court because of the widespread aversion to this type of confrontational behaviour in Japanese society as a whole.

Further Reading
There are no books in English on Japanese university faculty unions. For more information on Japanese universities in general see:

Japanese Higher Education: Perspectives on Change and Reform edited by Roger Goodman, Yumiko Hada and Jerry Eades. Trans Pacific Press.

Also see Japanese Higher Education as Myth by Brian McVeigh, M.E. Sharpe 2002.

For information on school teachers’ unions in Japan see my book, Teachers’ Unions and the Politics of Education in Japan, SUNY (State University of New York) Press 2001.

For more information about the General Union that represents foreign faculty in Japan see the General Union website.

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