Friday, September 14, 2012

Jinji Ido: Why Japanese teachers change schools all the time

If you work in a public school, then you may have noticed that, come the end of the year, many teachers are transferred to other locations. In big schools, it is not uncommon for a good portion of the staff to pack up at the end of the school year and, if you are lucky, you might just be able to get rid of that one teacher you just can't stand.

This part of a time honored tradition known as jinji ido (人事異動), often translated as "personnel transfer." Let's take a closer look...

Historically speaking, jinji ido evolved from post-war Japanese corporate practices. In many respects, this is related to the "lifetime employment system" wherein a worker toils at a single company for his whole career with the implicit promise he/she will not be fired in exchange for unflinching loyalty. 

Since employment is expected to last from graduation to retirement, employees are expected to learn every aspect of their company's operations; all the way from assembly plant processes to accounting. Therefore, this necessitated a system where employees were transferred to operations all over Japan, theoretically gaining a new set of skills whenever they transferred departments.

This personnel system was also adopted by the civil service and education establishments and is still in use to this day.

Jinji Ido in Schools
In terms of elementary, middle, and high schools, jinji ido is almost always practiced within a given prefecture. The school principle, local board of education, and prefecture board of education generally have the final say about where teachers move to and how many move. Private schools typically don't practice jinji ido unless they are part of a gakuen (学園 or big group of academies).

There are many issues that factor into personal changes, including seniority, performance, teacher union-board of education (BOE) relations, and the subjects in which the teacher is licensed to teach. Home room teachers are frequently moved, but part time teachers aren't always subject to the same jinji ido rules.

The process by which jinji ido is decided upon is extremely opaque and it is largely decided by the whims of the local and prefectural BOEs. Generally speaking, the prefecture will ask local BOEs about what teacher wants to be moved, what slots need to be filled next school year, and what teachers aren't getting along well at a given school (we will get into that more in a bit).

School principals will typically interview full time teachers at least once or twice a year. The word of the administrative staff plays a big roll in jinji ido and a good word from the principal can go a long way. Also, Most elementary and junior high schools endevor to not change their homeroom teachers, but some teachers either request to be moved or are deemed a bad fit for the class.

Merits and Demerits

A group of departing teachers getting a send off at a rinin-shiki (離任式), or send-off cerimony
The obvious merit to changing up schools is that one teacher can experience a variety of different environments, class sizes, and teaching styles. It also, in theory, keeps teachers from becoming complacent. All in all, it fits well with the Japanese philosophy of building a well rounded, versatile employee.

While this works in theory, jinji ido also has a long tradition of being used as an offensive weapon by administration officials--and this isn't just limited to educational institutions. Keep in mind that firing employees in Japan is difficult, expensive, and socially unacceptable. This is even more so the case with public employees whom are only let go in the event of significant malfesiance on their part.

Because of this legal and social stucture, teachers who are deemed unfit, lazy, or not pulling their weight are often sent to "problem schools" that have a reputation for less-than-stellar student bodies. Even worse, teachers can be "punished" by being sent off to a school that is very, very far away. While no respectable BOE will ever admit to this, jinji ido has become a good way of sweeping problem teacher under the rug as well as keeping employees in line. This system has been used to similar effect in private industry and national civil service, along with the infamous practice of madogiwa (窓際), or being placed in a desolate corner of the office and forced to do menial tasks until you quit or reach retirement.

Also, teachers are usually given new assignments on very short notice. To top it all off, many schools don't allow teachers to announce their transfers to students until right before the rinin-shiki (also known as a tentaishoku sobetsu-kai 転退職送別会) at graduation.

Finally, since the BOE and school higher-ups have an outsized say in the jinji ido process, the dreaded "monster parents" and their "monster kids" can have a very powerful influence in the decision process. Parents who unflinchingly believe that their little one can do no wrong (usually despite mountains of evidence to the contrary) often have the ability to lean on local officials and school administrators, especially if they are part of the shockingly powerful school Parent-Teacher Association. Teachers who get on the wrong side of an influential monster parent may be in for a particularly unpleasant transfer.

Do you have any experiences with jinji ido in your work or school? Any opinions? If so, make sure to let us know the in comment section!


  1. This is really fascinating. I didn't know all the details behind the transfers, so thank you for the information. The most annoying part to me is all the secrecy.

  2. I've been told that jinji ido can be traced back to political tactics in the Edo Period. I was told that Tokagawa intentionally moved significant people around, sometimes separating them from their families, in order to keep them under control. Is there any truth to this?

  3. I have heard Japanese colleagues allude to the same history. However, "jinji ido" has only existed under that name since the post-war period, and I had some trouble finding a Japanese language source to definitively link it back to feudal practices.

    I did find a university thesis postulating about the real meaning of "tenkin." I was excited, because one of the subheadings in the paper is "a definition and history of tenkin", but the history lesson in this paper doesn't dig too deep. Nonetheless, the student poses an interesting argument. Companies talk about the educational and professional benefit of working in many different roles and places, or about ensuring workplace equality by having each employee share the burden of an undesirable position over time, but really these are all just pretty words painted over an ugly reality: Japanese companies, bound to honor traditional promises of lifelong job security, practice "tenkin" to keep employees in line with the constant threat of transfer and to weed out less devoted employees by forcing them to quit.

  4. Lynn- Glad you enjoyed this entry. Unless you work in a Japan (or even if you do!), its all very opaque. Japanese organizations aren't exact limpid pools of administrative transparency.

    Michelle and LP- I have heard similar theories from colleges but like LP I found no historical evidence to back it up. I suspect it has more to do with the social and legal costs of firing of firing people than it does with Edo tradition. If a school/board of education hires a teacher, it is very very hard for them to fire the individual even if they screw up big time. This would be tantamount to saying "we chose a bad teacher and are fully responsible."

    Also, you might have read about the recent suicide of a high schooler due to corporal punishment by a basketball coach. There was quite a big stink due to the fact that this particular coach ducked jinji ido for almost 14 years. The reason being that he got results and ran a top tier team.

    Hashimoto (the mayor of Osaka) called the school out for failing to shift peronnel and allowing for the coach to assume too much power in the school. Something tells me that because of this schools might get more strict with moving teachers out in the future.