by Futao Huang

Japan needs to open up to international faculty

Professor Futao Huang discusses Japan’s international faculty in University World News.

International mobility of scholars is one of higher education’s oldest forms of internationalisation. As early as the late 11th century, mobile scholars contributed considerably to the emergence of medieval universities in Europe.

In the late 19th century, the recruitment of professors or researchers from Western countries, especially from the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and France, played a significant role in the creation of Japan’s first modern university – the University of Tokyo – and the modernisation of Japanese higher education generally.

The number of international faculty in Japan has expanded steadily since the 1950s, with the restructuring of Japan’s higher education modelled on US ideas, especially the massification and internationalisation of higher education since the 1960s and late 1970s, respectively. In recent years, although there is insufficient data, the international mobility of academics has increased in Japan.


My research looks at the demographic breakdown of international faculty. It showed most international professors worked in private universities, while the largest number of associate professors worked in national universities. The largest number of lecturers and assistant professors were concentrated in private universities (445 persons) and national universities (472 persons), respectively.

The number of male international faculty was almost four times higher than that of female international faculty. By country of origin, the largest number of international faculty came from China (45%), followed by South Korea (22%), the US (17%), the UK (8%) and Australia (3%). Chinese and Korean faculty together accounted for nearly 70% of the total.

Chinese faculty were mainly found in private universities, followed by national universities and local public universities. Although the Korean faculty constituted the second-largest group, their number in private universities was less than faculty from the US. This is possibly because US faculty provided more language programmes than Korean faculty.

Similarly, the largest number of faculty from other English-speaking countries, like the UK, Australia, and Canada, were also found in private universities.

International faculty tend to be found more in economics and management, linguistics, culture, literature, engineering and information science, and English. More international faculty worked in the ‘soft sciences’, especially humanities and social sciences. Fewer faculty came from the ‘hard sciences’, such as engineering and information science, natural sciences and medical science.

Some 70% of international faculty were doctoral degree holders, with 822 of the 1,457 doctorate holders having earned their PhD in Japan. Some 1,129 international faculty earned their masters degrees outside of Japan and 524 obtained their degrees from Japanese universities. At graduate level, 1,131 international faculty received their bachelor degrees outside Japan while only 116 were awarded bachelor degrees by Japanese universities.

Pull factors

The study identified several main factors that might be closely concerned with faculty or researchers’ movement from their home country to Japan. In several cases, interviewees emphasised that two or three factors played an equal role in affecting their employment at Japanese universities.

It became clear that the main pull factors were:

  • Academic and professional reasons were cited by interviewees. One female associate professor from Iran said: ‘I graduated from a Japanese university in Tokyo and applied for this position three years ago. I was deeply impressed by the good research environment in the university and by my supervisor. I was asked to return to my country many times, but to be honest, it will be more difficult for me to continue my academic activities in Iran as a female academic. I am very happy now because I can apply my research into my teaching and also do my research as I like here.’
  • More than half of the interviewees, including those from Western and Asian countries, admitted that they preferred to stay in Japan because they like the country and its culture. A Vietnamese academic stated: ‘Japan is an incredible country in modern science and technology. Also, it is a country of mixing both Asian and Western values of culture. It is a competitive society, but also one full of respect and courtesy. I am not discriminated against here just because I am a foreigner.’
  • Quality of life and staying closer to a spouse or family are also important factors for several international academics. One Chinese professor said: ‘I am concerned about air pollution and unclean food and the very complicated relationship between administrators and academics in Chinese universities. My wife is Japanese and she does not want to come with me back to China. This is also important.’
  • Interviewees listed esteem and self-actualisation when asked why they chose to work in Japan. One associate professor from the UK stated: ‘I am very respected here, although I am not old. I suppose that I am a symbol of internationalisation here. I teach English for undergraduate students and also teach Japanese professors how to write good English. I am involved in faculty development activities here. I take a great deal of pleasure from what I am doing here. I think it is just the kind of campus environment I want to work in.’
  • International faculty from the US, France and Australia emphasised that family reasons are also important reasons as they are more likely to be married to Japanese nationals.

So the study shows, first, that there are multiple factors at global, international, national, institutional and individual levels that have strongly affected the sharp increase in the number of full-time international faculty at Japanese universities, especially in the private sector.

Second, despite the rapid expansion, the share of full-time international faculty still accounts for less than 5% of the total. The academic market in Japan is not as open to internationals as that of Australia, North America or many European countries, such as the UK or the Netherlands.

Third, the study presents a more detailed description of the personal, educational and professional identities of the international faculty at Japanese universities and colleges than in previous studies. One new finding is that not all international faculty directly emigrated from their home countries or countries outside of Japan. Nearly 40% of international faculty were educated and trained in Japanese universities and colleges.

Fourth, the size and mission or function of Japanese universities and colleges have a direct influence on the acceptance of international faculty. For example, the largest number of international faculty were hired in private institutions and teach in the humanities and social sciences.

Fifth, despite a rapid increase in the proportion of international faculty, there was no significant growth in the proportion of international faculty who were hired as institutional leaders; neither was there any striking rise in the proportion of international academics who are women.

The study shows that academic and professional factors have most commonly driven faculty to move from their home countries to work in Japanese universities, followed by the attraction of Japanese culture, the pursuit of better living conditions and quality of life and self-actualisation.

The implications for the Japanese government include the need to provide more attractive policies and strategies and to open the academic market to international faculty if internationalisation of higher education is to be achieved.

Moreover, institutions should provide more favourable working conditions and form more appropriate support systems for international faculty, with a focus especially on employing more female international faculty.