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[An extraordinary and disturbing story about Ainu teaching at the Hokkaido University of Education has emerged in the Times Higher Education Supplement (3/9/09) (thanks Sadami!)].

Ryuko Kubota, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, writes:

Hoping to make academic institutions more welcoming places, Japan has taken several steps to protect human rights. Among these have been progressive measures established to act against sexual and even academic harassment. Yet, as the case of three former professors of teacher education in Hokkaido shows, these measures are likely to be wielded by right-wing forces to deny academic freedom.

In March 2009, three professors of educational linguistics--who want to remain anonymous for fear of media harassment--were fired by their former employer Hokkaido University of Education on a charge of “academic harassment.”

Academic harassment is perhaps an unfamiliar term to many. While sexual harassment has been in public discourse in Japan since the 1980s, academic harassment is a relatively new concept. It can happen between a senior professor and a junior faculty member or between a professor and a student. It refers to the abuse of power in forcing or preventing someone to do certain activities in and outside of the classroom/lab or barring someone from career advancement.

According to the university officials and media coverage, the three professors allegedly forced their students in the teacher preparation program to learn about Korean and Ainu languages and caused psychological pressure to the extent that at least two students became unable to attend classes. Ainu is an indigenous people in Northern Japan where the university is located. Like many indigenous languages throughout the world, the Ainu language is on the verge of extinction and language instruction is crucial for its survival.

One of the professors has recently spoken at an international conference in Melbourne, Australia about the pedagogical needs for establishing a grammar system of the language of Ainu. In an informal conversation after the presentation, this professor stated that the academic harassment charge is a total fabrication. In reality, the students took initiative and enjoyed learning these languages through a contrastive approach and broadening their view of linguistic diversity beyond English and Japanese. Some students became fluent enough in the Ainu language to engage in casual conversations, while others independently created dictionaries of Ainu regional dialects. The university has not provided the professors with concrete and convincing evidence of alleged harassment. According to the professor, academic harassment might be a pretext for punishing faculty members engaged in teaching minority languages.

In another context, the professor developed an instructional unit about Ainu language and taught quite successfully at local elementary schools as a guest lecturer. But after a while, the schools suddenly stopped inviting him. He suspects that these acts of obstructing diversity education might be politically motivated.

In 2008, the Japanese government for the first time recognized Ainu as indigenous people. The government has also established a special committee to discuss policies for Ainu people. The committee released a draft report a few days ago. The final report, which was submitted on July 29, includes recommendations such as advancing revitalization of Ainu culture, raising awareness of general public, and promoting employment. These recent developments have likely created fear among conservative groups that they would open a door to land claims, affirmative action, and other rights-based movements. Firing professors who taught about Ainu language might be politically motivated as a preemptive strategy to undermine the indigenous movement.

The three professors have filed a lawsuit against the university. However, they are up against the cunning tactics that officials have employed in framing the issue as academic harassment. It would be difficult to prove the absence of harassment, especially when the students involved are applying for teaching jobs; they would naturally fear retribution for supporting their former professors.

Equally disturbing is the implications for academic freedom. The instructional content in question is not even controversial; rather it is an exemplary effort to enhance intercultural and interethnic understanding among younger generations in the civil society. From the perspective of the professors who were fired and the students who lost their learning opportunity, it is a serious violation of academic freedom caused by the abuse of administrative power. If this type of disciplinary measures were widely used, many professors would be put in a precarious position and under constant pressure to avoid issues that might stand against the administrator’s political view.

The case of the three professors is worth watching closely. We must not allow progressive measures designed to open discussion and protect personal freedoms to be exploited as tools for suppressing academic freedom.

Ryuko Kubota
Professor
University of British Columbia

Comments

It's great that the academic community is drawing attention to this; great blog!

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