Left unchecked, Japan's aging population and decreasing birthrate will reduce domestic economic productivity and, ultimately, affect the quality of life of all those who inhabit these islands.
It seems that, reluctantly, the government recognizes that a large part of any solution to this problem will involve bringing in a substantial number of foreign workers.
Unfortunately, and counterproductive to tackling the Japanese demographic reality, internationalization of the workforce is often linked to the notion of the erosion of national identity, a well-polished political foil tied emotionally to the fanciful idea of Japanese racial and genetic homogeneity.
The internationalization of the Japanese workforce is occurring slowly in some fields of employment, particularly in the service and blue-collar industries. However, another key part of the solution to the problem of an aging population is the employment and integration of highly skilled foreign professionals into Japanese society.
Take scientists, a group about which I have first-hand experience. Today, scientific advancements are rarely attributed to the work of a lone researcher. More often, progress is made when a new perspective is brought to an existing problem. To this end, collaboration and multidisciplinary research are highly valued within the worldwide scientific community, and labs tend to be very multicultural communities.
The Japanese domestic research environment, however, remains far from diverse. The numbers of both female and foreign scientists employed at Japanese universities are "extremely low" relative to other member countries of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the government admits. However, despite the government's statements to the contrary, many government initiatives actively prevent the integration of foreign scientists into the Japanese research and university environments.
In Japan, foreign scientists who work for the government are funded by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. Commendably, the JSPS supports a wide range of activities designed to foster international scientific collaboration. Annually, the JSPS provides about 200 fellowships for recently graduated foreign post-doctorates and 70 fellowships for senior foreign scientists to research at Japanese institutions for periods of up to 2 years and 10 months respectively. To put these numbers into perspective, in 2005 there were more than 103,000 professors and assistant professors and 20,000 lecturers employed full-time in Japanese universities and colleges.
Although these grants contribute toward the internationalization of the domestic research environment, the greatest inadequacy of the JSPS fellowships is that they are for fixed periods and have no provisions for performance-based re-application. Each is a one-time event. The emphasis is on the short-term turnover of a small number of researchers, and there is no provision for long-term integration. This contributes substantially to the fact that there are very few foreign researchers who continue to research in Japan after their JSPS fellowship has expired.
As one eminent senior Japanese scientist at Osaka City University acknowledges, "It is unfortunate for research and students that it is almost impossible to keep good foreign scientists in Japan."
Working at a university or college as a lecturer who also performs research is one alternative to the JSPS fellowships. This is the most common form of employment for scientists in Japan and around the world.
Employing a foreign scientist requires a small degree of goodwill and flexibility, and a belief that cultural and scientific exchange are valuable commodities. Foreign scientists usually cannot provide tuition in Japanese and thus are restricted to teaching in the scientific lingua franca. Unfortunately, the low level of English-language proficiency of the majority of students at Japanese universities/colleges means that employment of foreign research scientists to lecture in English is a luxury that can only be afforded by the more prestigious Japanese universities.
Thus, although the Japanese government claims to be keen to increase the number of foreign scientists working at Japanese universities, it does not provide any fellowships to facilitate this integration. The economic burden of employing foreign scientists falls upon the shoulders of individual universities, the majority of which can ill afford or are unwilling to outlay for cultural and scientific exchange in the present belt-tightening economic environment. The corporatization of Japanese universities in 2005 has led to the introduction of numerous budget-balancing practices (pay car parking, increased student fees, staff employment ceilings, and abolition of the position and facilities for guest professors, for example). The implications of this corporatization for the foreign scientist are that employment prospects at Japanese universities/colleges — previously poor — have in many instances become poorer or nonexistent.
The only other employment option available to foreign scientists who persist in pursuing their research objectives after JSPS funding is withdrawn and who cannot find work at a university is to become an employee of a Japanese scientist who works at a college/ university and can use kakenhi grants (Japanese government research funding) to provide a salary for the foreign scientist. Employed via this method, foreign scientists find that despite the fact that they might produce world-class research, they are outside established Japanese university bureaucratic procedures, excluded from university decision-making processes and are politically powerless within the university because of the position of subservience they must assume in order to be able to continue their research. This employment avenue is the road to inequality and discrimination.
Sadly, many capable foreign scientists leave Japan frustrated after their work experience.
"The institutionalized obstacles to integration are just too pervasive," says Brian Budgell, a Canadian medical scientist and associate professor at Kyoto University. "I would be happy to stay here, but with this atmosphere I can do better science elsewhere."
Education to a professional level is economically expensive for the government and increasingly for the individual.
Today, the search for personal economic fulfillment provides the impetus for a greater movement of skills from one country to another than at any other time in history.
One strategy to counter the loss of educational resources due to the emigration of young Japanese researchers and the retirement of older resident scientists is to provide conditions that will attract highly skilled, foreign-educated professionals. The JSPS does this adequately.
The logical next step is to provide a means of retaining those same professionals if they prove to be productive in the workplace and have the social skills to adjust to the local culture. This does not occur in Japan at present.
Foreign scientists who persist in pursuing their research in Japan have no job security, no potential for promotion, and probably don't pull a salary equal to that of their Japanese colleagues.
They have reduced funding opportunities, in addition to other federally sanctioned inequalities such as mandatory pension contributions in the absence of any real chance to transfer these payments to a pension fund of choice or be employed long enough to draw a pension.
To remedy the lack of internationalization of the Japanese scholastic environment, JSPS — now an independent administrative institution — needs to initiate programs that will provide tangible economic support for foreign scientists attempting to perform ongoing research at Japanese universities.
It should be clear — particularly in the wake of experience gained from allowing large numbers of Brazilians of Japanese origin to work in Japan — that the solution to the demographic problem involves not only the placement of foreign workers, but also the provision of legislative support for the integration of these workers into the Japanese community.
Anything less than equality is exploitation. Historically the precedent is clear: government-sponsored exploitation of any segment of the workforce is not a sustainable path to economic or social stability.
A boffin's tale
Brian Budgell is a Canadian scientist, resident in Japan for the past 15 years and currently an associate professor at the School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine at Kyoto University. Here he recalls his introduction to the university five years ago.
"On my first meeting with the head of school and the head of my division, I was informed that I was 'not a doctor in Japan' and that I would be assigned to teaching English. I was told to forget about research. This was quite different from the position that I had been led to believe I would hold. However, for the sake of my children, I could not suddenly resign.
"In the intervening years, every request to the school for research support, and every request for kakenhi (government grants) has been denied.
"Fortunately, most years I have been successful in getting grants from overseas bodies. I usually travel to Australia during school breaks to do research with my colleagues there. It actually works out very well for me, but my students in Japan are denied the benefit of exposure to this research. Also, I am not allowed to teach professional courses, such as diagnosis and treatment, in which I am highly qualified.
"I feel as if my students are being victimized by the archaic attitudes of the elderly Japanese professors. However, it is a Japanese problem that Japanese people have to solve.
"Now that my youngest son has graduated from Japanese high school, I am looking for positions outside of Japan.
"The institutionalized obstacles to integration are just too pervasive. I would be happy to stay here, but with this atmosphere I can do better science elsewhere."
Editor's note: Peter Osborne is a leading neuroscience researcher in the field of mammalian hibernation at Asahikawa Medical College in Hokkaido: www.asahikawa-med.ac.jp/dept/mc/phys1/profiles/osborne.html.