The Unexpected Professor

by Sarah Somerset

I have many reasons to be grateful over the course of my long academic career in Japan. A notable exception is that occasionally I am not taken seriously. I am not sure whether this is because I am female, because I am foreign, or both.

In the beginning of my twenty year career in Japan I transported my two children on each end of my bicycle. One sat in a baby seat which hooked onto the inside of the handlebars, and the other at the rear on a child seat which could be flipped over as a shopping basket. I would put the toddler in the baby seat and hold the bicycle still while her sister climbed onto the child seat. It was immensely pleasurable transporting my children this way. I would try and accelerate my toddler’s first language acquisition by singing English nursery rhymes directly into her right ear while cycling. Sometimes my preschooler at the rear would turn her head to gently rest on my back and fall asleep.

However, it was both difficult and dangerous to transport them this way, especially in the rain and up and down slopes, all the while carrying shopping. One day I was transporting my toddler, who was now old enough to sit in the rear seat. Despite my admonitions she would not sit still, but rather turned herself around to face sideways. Next she put her feet in the spokes and started screaming. I stopped the bike and noticed blood streaming from her foot. I insisted she sit still and pushed the bicycle to the nearest doctor, who happened to be a paediatrician. There were many other patients waiting to see her, so I was directed to her husband’s surgery in the adjacent room. Despite being an Ear Nose and Throat specialist he quickly attended to my toddler’s wound, and after several visits it healed completely. After that incident I no longer carried two children on a bicycle, and bought a small second hand car.

One day I was driving through the university gates on my way to work. I did not normally drive there because I lived close enough to cycle, but on this day I had to carry teaching materials to the campus. I stopped at the gates to greet the guard.

Sensei ka nan ka?” (“Are you a teacher or something?”) he quizzed me.

I had been teaching there for over a year. I assured him that I was, and he waved me in.

Many years later I changed universities, by which time my daughters had grown up and returned to Tasmania. Because I did not have to transport them anymore, I reverted to cycling. I was often stopped by police officers as I went shopping on my bicycle. I think they were curious because there weren’t many foreign-looking residents in the city. One asked me why I was living there.

“I am with the university,” I informed him.

“Is your husband working here?” he asked me.

“No, I work here.” I replied. I was an Associate Professor at the time.

Another time I was cycling home late at night along an empty narrow road. Instead of crossing the road at the shortest possible distance I crossed it at an angle. I did not indicate with my right arm that I was crossing the road. Soon two police officers were following me on their motorcycles into the even narrower lanes leading to my house.

“Can we see your residence card?” one of them asked me, noting my foreign appearance.

“Sure,” I replied, showing it to them.

The officer must have thought that I was an illegal immigrant. He made me wait while making lengthy enquiries on his phone about my residence and professional status. An academic’s professional status is recorded as ‘Professor’ (kyojuu), regardless of the rank. He looked disappointed when he returned the card to me explaining that my status was bona fide. I still remember the Japanese words he uttered to me.

Kyojuu desu ka?” (“Are you a Professor?”) he asked incredulously.

Mada desu” (“Not yet”).

The words just tumbled out, surprising even myself.

The officer warned me not to cycle across the road without indicating, and let me go on my way.

A few weeks later, the Professor of Cultural Studies from the opposite side of the corridor turned up at my office and asked me whether I would like to be promoted to Professor. I looked at the floor for several seconds trying to take in the import of this question. I did not see myself as someone who would become a Professor, but my dignity would not allow me to deny myself this opportunity. I looked up to meet his eyes and confirmed that I would indeed accept his offer.

“You will have to ask the Head of English to start the promotion process. I can’t do it because I am Head of Cultural Studies. Can you ask him? If not, I will.”

He knew that I would be perceived as an unlikely choice for a Professor position, and that his senior status would ease this transition.

“If you would ask him for me I would be very grateful,” I replied.

The Professor asked the Head of English to start the promotion process. A selection committee was formed. I submitted a resume.

During the selection process there was a departmental meeting. I sat next to my European colleague. I told him that I had been nominated to become a Professor.

“We will see,” he responded.

A shudder went through me as I heard his response. He was to be on the selection committee and I had anticipated his support. Perhaps he was dismayed that my professional rank would match his.

I had to give a presentation before the vote at the faculty meeting. I met the gaze of my European colleague as I was talking. He was looking at me approvingly. At the faculty meeting I was voted in and promoted to Professor.

I worked for a few years as a Professor before the pandemic set in. I was back in Tasmania at the outbreak of the pandemic and taught from there on Zoom for the duration. As it turns out, working remotely also provided me with extra time to maintain my academic output.

A turn in my family situation in Tasmania meant that I could no longer return to Japan. I sent a thank you email to my colleagues at the university.

“Dear colleagues. I am immensely saddened to be retiring early. I have greatly appreciated working with you and will always treasure my time in Wakayama.”

The next day my European colleague replied to me in a personal email.

“I never thought you should have been promoted. You betrayed the university. You took the title and left.”

I am not alone in the experience of the mismatch between what I actually do for a living and others’ perceptions of me. It reminds me of the British couple I met in Tasmania who explained to me that they were “shift-workers”. After a few conversational turns I realized that they were trying not to reveal too quickly that they were both doctors working in the Emergency Department.

I never expected to become a Professor. Evidently, neither did the guard, the police officers, nor a few disgruntled colleagues. I’m grateful for the support of those that believed in me though, expressed in the act of giving me an unexpected promotion.