A reader wrote to me asking about a friend who has a PhD in Computer Science and who is working as a professor at a prestigious US university. His wife is Japanese and they are thinking about returning to Japan for a while. The friend wants to get an academic job here in Japan and wants to know how to go about it.
This is not the first time I've been asked this question, but information about the subject is extremely limited. Indeed, I don't think I've ever seen a traditional academic (university) job in Japan advertised to foreigners. So if there are any readers out there who can shed more light on the subject, I'd love to hear from you. Looking on the Internet isn't much good, almost all variants of "academic" + "jobs" turns up English teaching jobs and usually for English schools or high schools, not for full blown universities.
To do my research, I contacted various acquaintances holding down positions in local Japanese universities. In choosing whom to call, I completely excluded foreign-run universities and language schools. I basically asked each person how they got their job and whether they knew of any system for getting a job in a methodical manner.
What I found out is that the Japanese university employment network appears to be a closed one and practically the only way to get in is to receive an introduction from a member of the staff. Further, positions for foreigners are somewhat limited to those with a foreign language as a common denominator. This includes English programs (plenty), MBA programs (few, but interesting), and technology programs (plenty in certain leading edge fields).
I talked to one senior (Japanese) professor at Waseda University. He told me that in theory Japanese universities are supposed to announce all new positions publicly and visiting their Japanese domestic web sites can sometimes provide useful information. However, he also admitted that in fact many of the positions are already 90% decided by the time they are publicized, so you need to be in on the ground floor to find solid opportunities. It's not fair, but it is a reality.
On further questioning, he agreed that really you had to be personally introduced by an existing staff member - preferably the head of the relevant department. He thought that foreign academics directly contacting their peers in Japan might be acceptable approach, providing it was done with finesse, but a much better way would be to develop a friendship through meeting target employers/referees through one of the many academic conferences happening around the world.
Another one-time professor at Keio agreed that personal relationships are vital. His path into a rewarding job was to get hired into the English department for a while, gain the confidence of the other staff members, then expand the course material on his own initiative to include business studies. Within a couple of years, his job description and work satisfaction levels were completely different to where he first started.
As for advice to the gentleman in the US, it sounds like meeting a Japanese professor through an international conference is the way to go. Luckily there are plenty such events, and my advice is try to get some quality time with one of the Japanese professors presenting a paper. Interestingly, often these presenters are quite junior, because the senior guys often don't get much chance to practice their English and thus feel that such presentations are a painful experience. However, if you're lucky enough to get to know a live-wire bilingual assistant-professor in their 30's, you may have the very best source for upcoming job opportunities that you could possibly want!
Another method that I was told works, is to find a foreigner in a university, who has been there for a while and is getting ready to leave to go home. You can find these people by trawling the Internet for Japanese university web sites containing the term "Foreign visiting professor" or something similar. Then contact the University secretary and ask to talk to that person. It seems that providing the departing professor is well regarded, his recommendations for potential replacement staff carry a lot of weight and credibility.
Terrie Lloyd is the founder of DaiJob, Inc. He also writes a weekly newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people about business and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at www.terrie.com. For further contact with Terrie, email him at email@example.com.