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Towards an actor-centered typology of internationalization: a study of junior international faculty in Japanese universities


This paper offers new qualitative insights into ongoing internationalization processes in Japanese higher education. Drawing on ideas from migration studies and informed by analysis of junior international faculty members’ (JIFs) experiences in Japanese universities, we posit a novel, actor-centered typology of internationalization that delineates between integration, assimilation, and marginalization of mobile actors, and considers their implications in practice. Twenty-three interviews were conducted with JIFs from a variety of disciplines and institutions across Japan. Findings indicated a pattern of disillusionment with their role in internationalization, as many perceived themselves to be tokenized symbols of internationalization rather than valued actors within it. Participants identified various barriers which prevented them from participating in the academic “mainstream” and confined them to peripheral roles. We argue that their experiences are indicative of assimilative and marginalizing forms of internationalization, which pose persistent barriers to reform in Japanese universities despite decades of state-sponsored internationalization.


Understandings of internationalization in higher education have benefited from iterative theorizations and a progression of influential definitions of internationalization processes. “Internationalization” is defined as the process of “integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of postsecondary education” (Knight 2003, p. 2). Another recent definition by Hudzik describes “comprehensive internationalization” as follows:

A commitment confirmed through action to infuse and integrate international, global, and comparative content and perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education. It shapes [the] institutional ethos and values and touches the entire higher education enterprise… [it] impacts all of campus life. (Hudzik 2015, p. 7).

These definitions are effective in identifying the characteristics of internationalized universities and systems, making a valuable contribution to the field of higher education studies, and they continue to be influential at the level of policy (de Gayardon et al. 2015). However, persistent practical challenges in internationalization processes are evident in a number of contexts, indicating the need for further interrogation. One such context is Japan, in which reforms to higher education have seen slow progress despite decades of state-sponsored internationalization (Gonzalez Basurto 2016; Ota 2018). Recent research suggests that while internationalization may be occurring in Japanese higher education in quantitative terms (Huang 2018a), these metrics do not reflect the underlying realities of internationalization in practice.

In order to better understand these practical realities, we offer a bottom-up, or actor-centered, perspective on this issue by highlighting different forms of incorporation of international actors into internationalizing universities. For our purposes, the term incorporation entails the varied processes through which these actors become a part of the academic community at their institutions and beyond. From this perspective, we seek to interrogate the challenges of internationalization by foregrounding the experiences of junior international faculty (JIFs) in Japanese universities. We interviewed 23 JIFs who arrived between 2008 and 2018, a decade of state-sponsored internationalization. Through a direct engagement with the participants’ experiences, we offer new qualitative insights into the ongoing internationalization processes of which they are a part, and the barriers preventing them from fulfilling their potential as agents of change. To this end, the study seeks to answer these research questions:

  1. (1)

    How do JIFs in Japan evaluate internationalization and their role within it?

  2. (2)

    What barriers are preventing JIFs in Japan from contributing to internationalization in their institutions?

  3. (3)

    How can the experiences of JIFs support an actor-centered theorization to better inform our understanding of internationalization in practice?

In answering these questions, the study offers an empirical basis for more nuanced reflection on internationalization in Japan that recognizes the disconnect between the recruitment of international actors and the practical challenges of their incorporation and the consequences for reform. Drawing on these qualitative insights and theoretical tools from the field of migration studies, we propose an actor-centered typology of internationalization that gives greater consideration to the incorporation of mobile actors. With reference to the migration studies literature, we delineate between (a) integrative, (b) assimilative, and (c) marginalizing forms of incorporation, and consider the implications of each for internationalization and reform in Japanese universities. We suggest that such a typology can supplement the systemic definitions of internationalization provided by Knight and Hudzik, and aid in identifying potential opportunities and barriers to the success of internationalization across contexts.

Internationalization as an actor-driven process

A number of studies position international actors at the heart of the internationalization of higher education. Recently, international faculty members in particular, and their contributions to world-class research and teaching are the subject of growing attention, and cross-border mobility of academic staff continues to rise (Altbach and Yudkevich 2017). Rhetoric stating the benefits of attracting international faculty is informed by growing evidence that their presence is associated with elite research and development and enhanced knowledge production (Mahroum 2000). Growing evidence suggests that their research productivity compares favourably to their non-mobile counterparts (Kim et al. 2011; Mamiseishvili and Rosser 2010). Similarly, research involving international collaboration tends to perform better in terms of citations and impact (National Science Board 2016). The perceived importance of international faculty is reflected in global rankings, which often include their proportional representation among their metrics.

In combination, these factors provide a powerful incentive for attracting international faculty as a “spearhead of internationalization”, a valuable resource with the potential to transform universities into more diverse, effective, and globally competitive institutions (Altbach and Yudkevich 2017, p. 9). Accordingly, both national governments and higher education institutions increasingly view international faculty as change agents who can kick-start reform at a systemic or institutional level (Altbach and Yudkevich 2017), making them a target for policymakers and university managers (Mihut et al. 2017; van der Wende 2015).

Despite the perceived value of international faculty, existing evidence indicates that they struggle to successfully incorporate into their institutions and fulfil the role of a change agent (Mihut et al. 2017). Jepsen et al. (2014) attribute this struggle to the fact that “academic institutions’ efforts to recruit international academics often outpace their expertise and support in the patriation and orientation process” (p. 1309). Pherali (2012) suggests that “perennial cultural” disconnects between international faculty and the local academic culture affects their ability to carry out day-to-day responsibilities, and impacts on their promotion prospects (Mihut et al. 2017, p. 22). Incorporation appears particularly difficult for junior international faculty, discursively constructed as vectors of dynamism and reform, but who are disproportionately impacted by imbalances of power, access to resources, and job security within the academic profession (van der Wende 2015). For instance, international faculty are more often confined to lower positions within the academic hierarchy, and the insecure working conditions inherent to low-prestige, fixed-term contracts appear to prevent the emergence of institutional loyalty (Siekkinen et al. 2017). These issues may be exacerbated in the context of hierarchy-based academic cultures such as Japan (Shin 2015).

Evidence of the challenges faced by international faculty—and particularly in junior positions—is growing, but there is little research that seeks to understand these challenges from the perspective of international faculty themselves. Furthermore, in contexts of state-sponsored internationalization that feature the deliberate recruitment of international actors, these actors are rarely asked to reflect on the broader processes of internationalization to which it is supposed they will contribute. By engaging directly with JIFs in Japan we seek to address these weaknesses in the literature.

Internationalization in Japan and the role of international faculty

A drive to internationalize Japanese universities has been near constant since the 1980s,Footnote 1 designed to prepare Japan for the knowledge society while halting its universities’ relative slide down international rankings (Tsuruta 2013). Accordingly, policy measures such as the Global 30 and Top Global University projects (MEXT 2009, 2017) have increasingly sought to internationalize their universities by, among other methods, incentivizing the recruitment of international students and faculty. In addition, non-elite universities in Japan are challenged by demographic decline among the Japanese population and attracting students and faculty members from abroad is seen as a way to combat the limited supply of both. International student mobility has dominated the headline policies designed to stimulate internationalization, but international faculty members are recognized in a similar regard in both projects mentioned above. Both state that an increase in the proportional representation of international academics is a key performance indicator, with a view to “changing the overall university system and the internal culture” of leading Japanese universities (MEXT 2009, 2017, p. 1).

However, despite the significant investment into these and a number of similar projects, critics argue that few changes have taken place within Japanese universities in practice. Hiroshi Ota describes the situation as follows:

Although policies of internationalization through quantitative expansion have been able to add a veneer of internationality or increase the outward-facing international image, it cannot be said that internationalization initiatives are being used as a means for qualitative reform of the university as a whole. (Ota 2018, p. 94)

Indeed, despite decades of investment in improving quantitative measures of internationalization by inviting greater numbers of non-native students and staff to campuses, scholars agree that Japanese universities have barely changed in qualitative terms (Breaden 2012; Poole 2016; Rivers 2010). Ota argues that the situation within Japanese universities is not representative of “comprehensive” internationalization in Hudzik’s terms, and as a consequence is unlikely to catalyze reform (Ota 2018). There is a growing sense that the quantitative approach to internationalization in Japan, with high proportions of international actors becoming an end in itself (Knight 2012), may be flawed. As Vickers (2018) describes, “behind the jargon lies profound confusion over what ‘internationalization’ means, why (or even whether) it matters, who it is for, and with whom it should engage” (p. 1).

Despite these criticisms, research that directly engages with international faculty in Japanese universities is extremely limited. Suh’s (2005) study discusses the important legal changes that allowed international faculty to earn tenure in national universities, but she suggests that in practice kokoro no kabe (barriers of the heart) still prevent international faculty from being seen as legitimate candidates for promotion. This is illustrated by Yonezawa and Ishida (2012) whose survey revealed that international faculty were more likely to agree that “attaining promotion is difficult in Japanese universities” compared to their native-born counterparts.Footnote 2 Cooper (2016) highlights the “uneasy mixing” of international and local faculty within internationalizing universities in Japan, pointing to the common complaint that the “local administrative system [...] only sees value in indigenous approaches and methods”, devaluing international contributions (p. 91).

More recently, Futao Huang’s national survey of international faculty found that while the proportion of international faculty members in Japan has increased from 1% to around 4% between 1980 and 2015, there has been no corresponding rise in those in advanced academic positions (Huang 2018a). The survey also identified distinct sub-groups defined by their regional origin, particularly whether they came from UK/US, or China/South Korea. The UK/US faculty members were more often engaged in English teaching and had a lower level of qualifications, whereas those from China and South Korea were more commonly engaged in research, had a higher level of Japanese ability, and tended to occupy higher ranks in their universities (Huang 2018b). The study also contained a preliminary qualitative engagement with nine participants occupying high ranking positions within Japanese universities, and discovered that they tended to have trained in Japan from a young age and married Japanese nationals (Huang 2018a). However, this study did not engage qualitatively with JIFs.

Despite their growing numbers in Japan and evidence in policy documents that they are seen as important agents of systemic change, the perspectives of international faculty members have rarely been heard. Furthermore, amidst the broader societal rise of contract-based precarious labour among young workers in Japan (Osawa et al. 2013; Shima 2012), Japanese universities facing the dual challenges of funding constraints and pressures to internationalize increasingly hire junior faculty on limited, fixed-term contracts. The lack of scholarship on the experiences of JIFs in this precarious context at internationalizing universities is a notable gap in the literature. This study was designed to address this gap.

Incorporation of international actors: insights and models from migration studies

The research above suggests that while the presence of international faculty has increased, their incorporation into Japanese universities remains little understood. Both Knight (2003) and Hudzik (2015) identify the “integration” of international elements into the existing academic culture and practices to be critical to internationalization. However, the precise nature and shape of this “integration” is little discussed.

To develop this line of inquiry, we draw on several concepts from migration studies to guide our analysis. Migration studies is a theoretically rich field and offers various models of the incorporation of mobile populations. These insights have been applied predominantly to migration between nation-states, but in recent years migration scholars have begun to apply these concepts to broader issues of human mobility (Dahinden 2016), including the study of mobile faculty (Schaer et al. 2017). These concepts continue to evolve within the field, and a full review of the theoretical grounding of these concepts is beyond the scope of this paper (see Favell 2014; Grzymala-Kazlowska and Phillimore 2018; Schneider and Crul 2010 for useful summaries), but here we introduce three models of migrant incorporation: integration, assimilation, and marginalization, and adapt these concepts for the purposes of analyzing the incorporation of mobile faculty under internationalization.


Integration represents the dominant political approach to incorporating migrant populations in the European Union, which defines the concept as “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents” (EESC 2004, p. 1). The European ideal of successful integration is a cohesively evolving society that is “juxtaposed with the scenario of ‘parallel societies’” (Schneider and Crul 2010, p. 1144). Evident in these definitions, an integrative approach to migrant incorporation assumes a shared commitment to this process on the part of both the migrant and native populations. Importantly, the embodied culture of incoming migrants and the pre-existing “mainstream” embodied by the residents are both subject to change and reform as part of this shared integrative process (Favell 2014). Integration, therefore, implies a mutual process of adaptation in which migrants, natives, and the context that houses them are all subject to change.


In contrast, an assimilative approach to migrant incorporation is predicated on the a priori assumption that a singular cultural mainstream is embodied by the native population, and in the process of settling in a new country it is this mainstream to which migrants must adapt (Alba and Nee 1997). Under this process, migrants gradually acquire certain traits of the resident population, perhaps at the expense of their embodied cultural heritage, eventually coming to share a “common cultural life” with the residents (Park and Burgess 1921, p. 735). In assimilative contexts, typified by the example of the USA, the success of the assimilative process is often located in the “degree of incorporation into patterns of economic and social ‘success’” that pre-existed and are mainstream in the host society (Schneider and Crul 2010, p. 1144). Assimilation, thus described, does not assume the mutual commitment of migrant and resident groups to a shared process of incorporation. Natives and the mainstream culture in the host society are largely unchanged, and migrants seek to adapt to the norms present therein.


Rather than a model of incorporation itself, marginalization is the result of a failure to fully incorporate mobile actors into the “center” of a society or group. Marginalization (sometimes equated with social exclusion) is a multidimensional term that is evident in a number of social spheres, but typically describes a process of “peripheralization” experienced by migrant populations, wherein they are detached from the “principal social milieu” (Room 1995, p. 7). This term has often been used to describe failed migrant incorporation, particularly in contexts where migrants are not recognized as equal participants in society, but the concept is increasingly applied to any groups that have been “turned out from the proverbial centre… to its periphery” (Boychuk Duchscher and Cowin 2004, p. 290; Dickie-Clark 1966). The marginalized are liable to lack power and/or visibility and are unable to participate fully in mainstream patterns of social action, and unable to attain a position of security.

Three models of incorporating international actors in internationalizing universities

For the purposes of this paper, we posit the following adapted definitions of the three models of incorporation in the context of internationalizing universities:

Integration: A two-way process of mutual accommodation by international and local actors with potential to reform the academic mainstream

Assimilation: A one-way process of international actors’ adaptation to resemble the local academic mainstream

Marginalization: A process in which international actors are restricted to peripheral roles and excluded from full participation in the local academic mainstream

While we do not wish to ascribe normative value to any form of incorporation, they have different potential for catalyzing reform. Neither assimilation nor marginalization, here described, necessitates change within local actors or the academic mainstream. Integration, on the other hand, is predicated on a commitment by local and international actors to consciously change as individuals and to reform mainstream practices in the process of incorporation. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that integration may have greater potential for reform in universities. In light of this distinction, we seek to analyse the experiences of JIFs for evidence of integration, assimilation, and marginalization while incorporating into Japanese universities.


The criteria identifying the target population was as follows: (1) Full-time faculty members; (2) employed at Japanese 4-year universities; (3) in a faculty position in Japan for less than 10 years; (4) born outside of Japan; and (5) not possessing Japanese citizenship. These criteria were chosen to ensure that we would not accidentally sample individuals who were, to all intents and purposes, functioning as native Japanese faculty, and to identify those whose career in Japan had begun during the last decade of state-sponsored internationalization. We consider this early career status to be “junior” for the purposes of this study. When establishing our sampling strategy, we narrowed our focus further according to key dimensions of variation that were identified in Huang’s comprehensive survey (2018a, b), which concluded that regional origin and tenure status were the most significant factors influencing the roles of international faculty. Thus, we chose a semi-purposive sampling strategy that prioritized variation on these key dimensions.

To find interviewees, all eligible participants from Huang’s (2018a, b) survey were approached and those who responded affirmatively (N = 9) were interviewed. To increase the sample size and ensure sufficient variation, the researchers also contacted all non-native faculty from four institutions distributed geographically throughout Japan, representing both public and private, and urban and rural institutions. These institutions were selected to capture institutional variation within the system, and because all of the institutions were selected as part of recent state internationalization projects, evidence of an ambition to internationalize. Respondents were screened, and in total a further 14 participants were recruited via this method. The final sample is indicated in Table 1.

Table 1 Interview participants

Interviews took place in English or Japanese according to the preference of the participants. Interviews were audio recorded and professionally transcribed. Based on literature and piloting, the interview protocol concerned four domains: background and motivation for moving to Japan, employment situation including contractual status, academic experiences, and reflections on internationalization. We used a dual analytical strategy, interrogating the transcripts utilizing both inductive coding and the deductive application of the three models of incorporation described above. All documents were coded by at least two members of the research team and in their original language. Quotations originally in Japanese that are included in this article were back-translated and checked for accuracy with native speakers.

We recognize the importance of reflexivity in this study. All three members of the research team were also members of the target population at the time of writing. To guard against biases, we considered inviting a Japanese researcher to join the project. However, we decided that the project’s priority was the unencumbered presentation of the perceptions of JIFs. With this in mind, we concluded that our membership of the target population was critical in building rapport with participants, who quickly identified with us as “insiders”. Though we could have mitigated language issues with the addition of a native-Japanese member to the research team, we decided that the benefits of maintaining an “insider” relationship with participants outweighed the practical concerns of minor language barriers.


The presentation of findings is structured around dominant themes that emerged through the inductive coding process. To begin with a brief summary, participants were critical about the progress of internationalization in practice and demonstrated disillusionment with their potential to contribute to reform. Participants suggested that the reformative potential of international faculty in Japan was not recognized by those with the power to enable and institutionalize such reforms. Many participants felt confined to the periphery of their institutions, and their broader academic field within Japan. The significance of these findings in relation to our deductive analytical categories of integration, assimilation and marginalization is summarized in the discussion section below.

Disillusionment with internationalization as a route to reform

Participants shared extended examples of their personal experiences of internationalization, often characterized by the implication that a broadly defined “they”—that being native-Japanese actors—were tacitly trying to internationalize, but overwhelmingly reluctant to allow “international components” to be the drivers of this process of reform:

I don’t see any true internationalization happening… They’re satisfied in keeping the international component very well under control and it’s an element that can be adjusted as much as they prefer it to be. Participant T

A number of participants echoed that “true internationalization” was hamstrung by resistance to changes proposed by international actors. Typically, this resistance was attributed to older, high-ranking faculty who were dubious of—or even actively against—reforms in the twilight of their careers. This was commonly described by participants of the study:

Those who have been leaders in their fields don’t want to work together in this process; I feel like they just want to work peacefully as they always have and are afraid of being wrapped up in the tornado of change. Participant Q

They always block what we try to do, because they do not want to accept the new things... New thing means change… you have to change old habit[s], have to do some actual work. I know it’s hard for everyone, but I have to push things. Participant V

Participants’ attempts to introduce new ideas were rejected outright as being too risky, despite being tailored to the requests of departmental superiors. For example, the participant below had an established and successful media platform and offered to connect with their department as part of a drive for new media, but this was rejected outright.

They want to sort of do new media… Faculty are using [my media platformFootnote 3] to teach, so I thought this would fit quite well… They saw it as too much of a risk to do something so new. Participant C

In general, participants painted a picture of a widespread lack of commitment to the reformative aspect of internationalization, and few were optimistic that significant progress would be made in the near future. Indeed, we found little evidence of integrative forms of internationalization as no participants described instances of a mutual commitment to reform in practice.

Supported to assimilate: the importance of senior advocates

We do not wish to characterize senior Japanese academics as universally reluctant to engage with JIFs or reform in any regard. Indeed, some participants had developed strong relationships with high-ranking members of staff who had become important advocates in helping participants to assimilate into their institutions:

I do think that this is sort of essential in young academics’ careers… It has been absolutely essential in making the networks and learning how the system works… If I didn’t have that, it would be very different. Participant C

Participants often felt that Japanese academia was somewhat “opaque”, and that understanding the institutional processes and the cultures of particular academic communities were difficult to grasp without the help of a senior advocate. While administrative staff were able to help with a range of practical concerns such as finding accommodation, when seeking to settle into the academic community, the help of a senior academic advocate was portrayed as imperative:

Well the international friends I have in tenured positions, the ones who seem to be most content, they do seem to have a senior figure or a mentor. That seems to help a lot. Participant E

It was clear from these narratives that the presence of a senior advocate could help a great deal in settling into universities and academic communities. However, we also found evidence that in trying to help participants adapt to Japanese academic life, senior advocates could sometimes be seen to pressure JIFs to conform to Japanese forms of academic work, even at the expense of their embodied international skills.

I’m expected to work… like the Japanese, which doesn’t make sense to me at all because I have other knowledge contacts… I’m not Japanese, never will be. Participant E

[My supervisor] just told me that… at some point you’re going to have to be able to do it yourself and write some papers in Japanese, which I think is totally unproductive. Twice the effort, one-tenth of the audience… but he said, "Yes, you need to." Participant D

In these quotations it was clear that the process of settling into Japanese academia was often helped by the presence of a senior advocate, but this came with the risk of expectations to adapt to the norms of the Japanese academic mainstream, indicative of an assimilative form of incorporation. Such experiences were widespread among our participants.

Tokenization and symbolic internationalization

A common factor behind participants’ general disillusionment with internationalization was a perception that hiring international faculty was a symbolic gesture. Some indicated that their presence alone was sufficient to satisfy a range of local stakeholders, as they were statistically and visually supporting the institution’s claim that they were internationalizing:

Internationalization is about, I would not say showing off but about image, about presenting the way they’re saying, “We are internationalizing”, and you have the figures that prove [it]. Participant B

Participants also discussed being valued for the international image they project, which led them to be deployed as marketing tools for advertising their institutions. This was particularly evident among the Non-East Asian group, who tacitly embody a more direct connection to “the international” in the Japanese context.

Well, internationalization’s been the buzzword… For university publicity, they need some blue-eyed faces on photos, so I do feel that my colleagues and I are a little bit tokenish. Participant E

This “tokenish” role reflects how the presence of international faculty as a symbol of internationalization functions as a selling point of institutions and can be deployed to market the university, irrespective of the practical role of these faculty on campus.

Participants who openly discussed symbolic internationalization felt discouraged by the disconnect between the importance placed on them in marketing, and the contradictory lack of importance they carried on campus. In rhetoric, international faculty are valued because of the variety of knowledge, expertise, and perspectives that they can bring to their campuses, and they are powerful marketing tools because parentsFootnote 4 want their students to be exposed to these influences. However, these implicit values were not reflected in participants’ experiences. Rather, once they had arrived on campus, they felt micro-managed to ensure they would not cause disruption. Indeed, a number of participants were concerned that despite being hired because of their unique skillsets, they lacked the autonomy to capitalize on these differentials:

I feel like I’m… not only me… we feel like we are not really respected. We’re just told, like the students!... I feel like I’m used for their purpose- used to heighten their rank etc., yes. Participant S

They controlled my efforts, they managed my efforts in 100%, which means that I cannot do research, and I also cannot apply for kakenhi [grants-in-aid), I cannot get any fund.Footnote 5Participant V

The participants above were both discouraged from capitalizing on their expertise and perspectives, and perceived that their activities were strongly controlled. This was at odds with the supposed reason behind their recruitment and restricted their ability to contribute to and be satisfied with their roles at the university. Such experiences reflect neither integration nor assimilation.


Rather, these experiences are indicative of marginalization. Instead of becoming effective change agents, many participants faced barriers to incorporating into the academic mainstream. One participant felt that international faculty were “second-order” relative to the local faculty in their institution:

It’s my feeling but also some of my colleagues also feeling, we are second-order academics at [University A] because we are foreigners. We have [University A] faculties and you have the foreigner faculties at [University A]… We are part of a community, but they are different members of the community. Some are closer to the circle than others. Into the core than others. Participant B

The clear delineation between “University A Faculty” and “Foreigner faculties at University A” is indicative that this participant believed full membership of the university was restricted to local faculty members. When asked for an explanation, they argued that it was related to their temporary status, echoed by other participants that had not yet found a tenured position.

Given our, I would say, status, assistant professors, we’re almost nothing... They know that we are meaningless in the institution, so we don’t have weight… I told you about the presidential elections, almost two months ago. We didn’t have the right to vote because we are not tenured,Footnote 6 so we don’t have the right to vote... It tells you a lot about our ability to [make] change. Participant B

Currently, I’m not attending the faculty meetings, and I don’t know how much is because of being an assistant professor… I’m only tenure track. Participant U

Participants recognized the validity of some seniority dynamics, but often felt entirely excluded from institutional discussions and decision-making processes. This restriction from participation in faculty meetings and democratic processes was concerning, and similar restrictions extended to other areas of the academic community outside of the host institution.

Take the example of academic associations, their management committees etc. You hardly see foreign faculty there. I’ve never seen it… Very few foreign faculty get in there. That sense is very strong in Japan, particularly. Participant N

I attend the Japanese domestic conferences. Still, I feel like I’m a foreigner. They have their own groups, but to me, it’s a little hard to get in. Participant S

In either case, the exclusion from positions of influence within the academic community, along with their implicit status as “second-order” faculty was indicative of marginalization. Participants often felt peripheral to both their institutions and their fields, implicit in their tokenization or restriction from decision-making processes, which restricted their individual activities and impeded their ability to catalyze reform.

Marginalization was also reflected in disadvantageous terms of employment for those housed in departments or academic units populated disproportionately by international faculty, such as rolling contracts and a lack of job security. One participant gave the example of a department within their institution that housed predominantly international faculty members, and in which all staff were restricted to rolling two-year contracts. Though these short contracts were the subject of unrest and consultation with university managers, both international and Japanese faculty within the department occupied the same position. However, when a new department opened that housed only Japanese staff all new hires were tenured immediately, to the participant’s frustration.

I worked really hard for 20 yearsFootnote 7 and nobody ever offered me a tenure. Now new faculty are getting tenure? Why?... Why does the international faculty, why do the foreigners get a different contract with less benefits? This is discrimination. Participant R

The participant later explained that the contractual situation was indicative of their “second-order” status within the university, and actively discouraged international faculty from investing in the institution and a life in Japan. Clearly, even in universities with a significant population of international faculty, they may still feel marginalized by institutional and systemic practices.


These results help to explain the limited progress of reform that has been achieved through a decade of internationalization. Findings indicate that a focus on recruitment and performative displays of the presence of international faculty contributed to the tokenization of this population and reflected a lack of a commitment to develop pathways for integration to support their contributions to reform. Jepsen et al.’s (2014) concerns are evident, as participants’ narratives indicate that the act of being hired in Japanese universities, and the importance placed on them in recruitment and advertising, is not matched by efforts to create the conditions to make the most of their differential competencies and contribute to the university. The assumption that international faculty members will contribute to broader international collaborations, publications, and citation counts relies upon the activation of international networks and the use of specific knowledge and skills that differentiate the international faculty from the locals (National Science Board 2016). The fact that some participants felt the expectation to assimilate to local academic norms rather than take advantage of their differential skills-base means that one of the recognized incentives for the recruitment of international faculty is not being capitalized upon in practice. This explains why, despite a four-fold increase in international faculty members in Japanese universities, qualitative reform has not occurred (Gonzalez Basurto 2016; Ota 2018). Furthermore, their marginalization, evident in exclusion from faculty meetings and academic associations, explains the difficulties in acting as spearheads of reform (Altbach and Yudkevich 2017). Such difficulties are intensified by institutionalized practices that codify the marginal status of some international faculty and restrict their opportunities to obtain secure positions with the potential to influence reform (Mihut et al. 2017).

Towards an actor-centered typology of internationalization

To reflect and theorize based on these findings, scholarship from the field of migration studies has provided us with the concepts of integration, assimilation, and marginalization. When applying these concepts to the case of JIFs in Japan, it was apparent that there were no examples of integration. Despite interviewing across 13 universities, participants did not give any examples of Japanese actors engaging in a “two-way process of mutual accommodation” with international faculty (EESC 2004). This is a critical finding that may go some way to explaining the limited reformative power internationalization has demonstrated in the Japanese context.

On the other hand, we did find some evidence of assimilation. The most positive experiences among our participants were characterized by targeted support from senior advocates who aided the process of adaptation to the norms of Japanese higher education. This is strongly evocative of assimilation, in which “success” is the emulation of existing models of success, in this case embodied by participants’ senior advocates (Schneider and Crul 2010). The positive experiences of those with senior advocates to aid their assimilation may be a valuable insight to deepen the broader narrative around internationalization in Japan.

However, evidence of marginalization was particularly widespread in the data. In these instances, not only were local actors refraining from engaging in a process of mutual accommodation and reform, conditions sometimes actively blocked participants from conforming to and joining the local academic mainstream. Many were excluded from full participation in mainstream academic activities such as faculty meetings, presidential elections, and leadership within academic societies, and were instead fulfilling tokenistic or symbolic roles. In this third form, international actors are marginalized to a peripheral and potentially inferior position within their institutions. When marginalized, our participants were confined to contemporary forms of Dejima,Footnote 8 manifested in their substantive exclusion from established academic communities and the institutional loci of power of colleges, faculties, and academic associations.

Based on this analysis, we propose the following as an actor-centered typology of internationalization in Table 2.

Table 2 An actor-centered typology of internationalization

The typology we present has a number of strengths. Firstly, it draws attention to the processual nature of internationalization, and the need to pay attention to the incorporation of mobile actors as well as their recruitment as a definitive factor in internationalization’s success. Secondly, it provides theoretically grounded guidance for those wishing to catalzse a broader process of reform, by highlighting the need to create conditions in which international actors are not confined to the periphery and can engage with and change the academic mainstream in light of their differential expertise. Thirdly, it represents the start of a new line of inquiry into internationalization processes and encourages others in the field to bring a broad range of theoretical insights to bear on internationalization, and the different forms of incorporation of international actors therein.

Concluding remarks

Our evidence suggests that JIFs in Japan, rhetorically positioned at the heart of internationalization as a reformative process, feel disillusioned about their ability to contribute. A number of barriers contribute to this disillusionment, and we argue that a commitment to “mutual accommodation” between JIFs and the academic mainstream in Japanese universities is necessary if their contributions to internationalization are to extend beyond the symbolic. The presence of international actors is not, in isolation, sufficient to catalyze a long-term process of renewal and reform of universities. We argue that, if more lasting reform is indeed desired, Japanese universities must not be satisfied by the recruitment of more international actors and must refocus on their integration, with a view to challenging marginalization and activating the embodied reformative potential that international actors possess.

This study reinforces the need to be critical and iterative in developing our understanding of what internationalization can and should look like. If, as Knight and Hudzik suggest, the “integration” of international “dimensions,” “content and perspectives” is necessary, we should clarify and pursue how this “integration” can be achieved (Hudzik 2015; Knight, 2003). The typology we present is an attempt to contribute to this discussion by giving greater theoretical nuance to the idea of integration in practice. We certainly encourage others to criticize, build upon, and reform the typology we present. Indeed, while we maintain that it is a useful explanatory tool in the Japanese context, it remains preliminary and we recognize that we are not positioned to infer about the typology’s broader applicability in other contexts. We suggest the typology would benefit from being tested and enriched by further comparisons.

We hope to address these limitations, among others, in future research and recognize that this article and the typology we present are the start of a conversation. For now we hope that this can be another step towards change in the rhetorical focus of internationalization away from quantitative recruitment targets and towards a more qualitative endeavour (Gonzalez Basurto 2016; Ota 2018) emphasizing the myriad contributions that international faculty members stand to make if integrated more effectively.


  1. 1.

    A full summary of the recent history of internationalization in Japan is available in Yonezawa and Yonezawa (2016).

  2. 2.

    In response to the question “It is difficult to attain promotion in Japanese universities,” 58% of international faculty members agreed, compared to only 26.3% of native-Japanese.

  3. 3.

    Redacted to protect participant anonymity.

  4. 4.

    “Our customers are not our students. Our customers are their parents.” — Participant K.

  5. 5.

    We were unable to confirm this on the university website.

  6. 6.

    We cross referenced this against university regulations, and non-tenured faculty were indeed unable to vote. In addition, the regulations for the presidential election were not available in English.

  7. 7.

    20 years was exclaimed as an example of the reaction of other colleagues at the institution, not the participant themselves. This participant was a special case having worked at the host institution for close to 10 years and had recently been made the dean of their small department, and the only tenured member of staff.

  8. 8.

    Dejima is the name of the island located in modern day Nagasaki that functioned as the only formal conduit for all international trade during the sakoku (closed country) period, which lasted from 1641 to 1854. All trade was heavily regulated by Japanese nationals, and for more than 200 years, foreigners were not permitted to enter the mainland. Recently, authors have evoked the image of Dejima to describe the marginalization of international academic units, programs, and actors within Japanese universities (Shimauchi 2017; Yamamoto 2018)


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The researchers would like to acknowledge the kind support of Professor Futao Huang.


This research was supported by financial assistance from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) funding numbers: 16H02067 and 17H06888.

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Correspondence to Thomas Brotherhood.

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Brotherhood, T., Hammond, C.D. & Kim, Y. Towards an actor-centered typology of internationalization: a study of junior international faculty in Japanese universities. High Educ 79, 497–514 (2020).

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  • International faculty
  • Japan
  • Internationalization
  • Higher education
  • Integration
  • Assimilation
  • Marginalization