A 1982 law allows foreign nationals to teach at public universities. The law changed an interpretation of the Japanese constitution that required faculty, as government employees, to be "persons of Japanese nationality."
Shortly after the law was passed, British chemist George Hall was appointed a professor at Kyoto University. He was invited by Nobel Prize winner Kenichi Fukui to be part of a new graduate molecular engineering program at the university after Hall's early retirement from Nottingham University. In August 1984 Geller left Stanford University to become an assistant professor of geophysics at Tokyo University.
Hall and Geller are the only scientists in a group of 39 foreigners who have become regular faculty members since the law was passed. Most of the others are members of foreign language departments. The law gives university administrators the right to fix the terms of the contracts awarded to foreign professors, and the overwhelming majority are hired as invited professors, with a fixed term and limited privileges. As one official from the Ministry of Education explained, "it is not improper for a foreign professor to be permanently employed. But most of them do not wish to settle down in Japan, and they themselves hope to be temporarily employed."
Hall, although he has a permanent appointment, expects to retire from the university in 18 months, at the age of 63, and return to England. He said his colleagues have mixed feelings about the fate of the position he holds. "Some want it to remain an international chair, and others want it to revert to a traditional [Japanese] appointment. I have no idea how it will turn out." Vacancies at Japanese universities are rarely advertised, and scientists without personal contacts within the department are unlikely to hear about an opening. Hall had visited the country several times and knew Fukui but was surprised by the invitation, which came at a point when he "was looking for a change in scenery."
Geller, now 34, had studied under Hiroo Kahamori, who left Tokyo in 1972 to become a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Geller had developed good relationships with several Japanese scientists, both at Cal Tech and at Stanford, and was impressed by the extent of their access to advanced computers.
Geller has a rare permanent appointment with no time limitations. Both he and Hall have high praise for the quality of the students they teach and say their duties are similar to those of a faculty member anywhere. One of Geller's students received his Ph.D. last year and has remained with him in the lab. Geller's administrative duties include assisting the chairman in handling such paperwork as a request to fix the roof.
Both men believe Japan must make room for foreign scientists if it hopes to remain competitive.
"Such an influx is possible only if the system changes," Hall said, "but so far it has changed very little. The red tape is quite extensive [officials insisted on certificates of attendance from two British elementary schools on his vita that no longer exist, he noted], and often there's a real mismatch between the systems."
Geller emphasized that both sides must be willing to change. "There are lots of foreign students who come to the United States and either remain or take their experiences back with them. But only recently has there been more than a handful of foreign students studying in Japan."
Geller said his department chair has invited an American scientist to spend a year in Tokyo as the lab's first foreign postdoc. He hopes the action is copied by other departments. "Our goal should be to build up a pool of scientists who are knowledgeable about Japan."