It’s tough to be a foreign academic in Japan. Here’s why

Globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education institutions have been significant concerns in Japan since the 1980s. Various strategies have been used by the Japanese government, including the Global 30 project issued in 2009 and the Top Global University Project in 2014. These efforts have led to a significant numerical increase in international students and academics at Japanese universities.

Meanwhile, governmental policies and institutional initiatives by Japanese universities have also been actively encouraging international inbound graduates to work in Japan. As a result, the proportion of international academics at Japanese universities has increased from 1.17% in 1983 to 5.10% in 2022.

On the other hand, however, Japan is still viewed negatively by immigrants, with many of them reporting struggling with various challenges in Japan.

International academics at Japanese universities have also been found to suffer from a variety of challenges in their work, culture and interpersonal relationships, influencing profoundly their integration at Japanese universities. This can be attributed to several reasons stemming from the contextual environment and social-cultural milieu in Japan.


Neoliberalism, rooted in economic principles, places a strong emphasis on privatisation and marketisation. These principles have become deeply entrenched in the reform initiatives within Japanese universities since the mid-1990s.

The formal commencement of this transformation occurred with the incorporation of Japanese National Universities in 2004. Aligned with the global shift towards neoliberalism, the primary source of revenue for national universities, in the form of operational grants from the Japanese government, saw annual budget reductions of 1%.

In this evolving landscape, universities have become inextricably intertwined in both international and national competitive markets. Consequently, they are increasingly motivated to enhance their reputation and academic performance. Academics have been redefined as ‘individual entrepreneurial actors’, tasked with navigating this heightened competition and the quest for greater accountability and performance benchmark targets.

This performance-based evaluation approach, rather than fostering improved output, represents a formidable challenge for international academics. Many find themselves confined to distinct and restrictive roles, particularly in language-related teaching positions, and with substantial workloads.

Despite their aspirations to cultivate scholarly reputations, the burden of excessive teaching loads and performance-based evaluations often leaves international academics striving merely to meet the minimum requirements for promotion. Consequently, a new division of workload and power imbalances, often rooted in nationality, emerges, undermining the integration of international academics.


Driven by the forces of globalisation, internationalisation has emerged as a pressing imperative within Japanese universities.

These internal and external transformations have exerted profound influences on Japan’s higher education landscape, creating a compelling impetus for the recruitment of international academics, who are often regarded as catalysts for substantive university reform and serve as critical indicators in elevating universities’ standings in global rankings.

Many international academics, especially those with noticeable foreign characteristics, such as white academics (whiteness is often associated with internationalisation), have been recruited to visibly represent the internationalisation efforts of Japanese universities. Their presence is seen as a means to enhance perceptions of diversity within Japanese higher education.

Owing to their symbolic value, many international academics perceive themselves as public-facing ambassadors and tokenised figures.

Due to their foreign appearance, Japanese universities and, at times, Japanese academics may harbour preconceived notions about the expertise and capabilities of international academics. This can result in their potential relegation to roles primarily related to language-related subjects, often limiting their opportunities in other academic domains.

Japanese exclusionism

Theoretically, Japanese exclusionism is defined as an attitude or practice whereby an individual or entity negatively assesses or restricts opportunities and rights for others based on attributes such as ethnicity or religion, thereby emphasising their distinct differences from a Japanese identity.

In practice, this ideology finds expression in the form of Nihonjinron, which has become a prevailing ideology in Japanese society, largely due to its active promotion by the Japanese government.

This mindset acts as a barrier to the engagement and integration of non-Japanese individuals, including those of ethnically Japanese descent who are raised outside Japan as they may find themselves unfamiliar with Japanese culture and language.

The insistence on and admiration for Japanese uniqueness and distinctiveness propagated by Nihonjinron can foster mistrust and suspicion toward non-Japanese individuals, ultimately resulting in inequality between Japanese and foreigners in Japan.

Empirical evidence consistently indicates that international academics lacking Japanese knowledge, for example, of Japanese language or culture, are susceptible to exclusion within institutional dynamics and decision-making processes. This socio-cultural environment undeniably exerts a significant influence on whether international academics can integrate or not.

Fundamental reforms

Despite numerous efforts to increase the presence of international academics and to enhance the internationalisation of Japanese universities, the complex interplay of historical and ongoing forces has resulted in the creation of a competitive and exclusionary academic environment. This environment poses significant challenges to the successful integration of international academics in Japan.

To position Japan as an internationally appealing education hub for the Global South, a more comprehensive and holistic approach is needed which encompasses not only the recruitment but also the comprehensive integration of international academics.

Achieving this goal requires fundamental reforms within higher education institutions, which may be a time-consuming and challenging process, particularly given the bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of the higher education system in Japan.

Lilan Chen is a specially appointed assistant professor at the Centre for Student Success Research and Practice, Osaka University, Japan. E-mail: lilanchen.slics@osaka-u.ac.jp