Photo/IllutrationRyo Nishimura’s room with research materials lining the bookshelves is now used as her father’s bedroom. (Ryoma Komiyama)

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  • Photo/Illustraion

Ryo Nishimura’s diary entry expressed her dream of leading a happy family life while fulfilling her career goals, but it then took a darker turn that reflected her inner turmoil.

“That would be dangerous more than anything else, and things would get worse,” she wrote. “So I’ll keep things as they are. I have to do it to live.”

The once-promising researcher was looking for a “miraculous solution” to her problems to “reset my life.”

But it never came.

Within three months of the diary entry written in November 2015, the 43-year-old with a Ph.D. in Japanese intellectual history was dead.

She killed herself after struggling to find work while dealing with financial insecurity and a broken marriage.

Her death epitomizes a morbid joke in Japan: All roads lead to destruction once you enter a doctorate program, especially in liberal arts.


Nishimura studied at Tohoku University. She earned a Ph.D. in 2004 with research on Buddhism focused on Fujaku, an important thinker and monk in the 18th century.

She moved back to her parents’ home in the Tama district of western Tokyo to dedicate herself to research.

The following year, she was awarded a superlative postdoctoral fellow (SPD) for young researchers by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). The fellowship provides monthly support of about 450,000 yen ($4,019) for three years.

“With this money, I can buy books in bulk for research,” an ecstatic Nishimura told her parents while promising herself to work even harder.

She decided that two research papers and four conference presentations a year would be worthy of the fellowship.

Nishimura brought a large number of Buddhist scriptures to her second-floor room and rarely left there, except to eat with her parents at the dining table.

But even during meals, she talked fast and nonstop about her research.

“I wish I could wrap a plastic sheet around my head so that things I remember will never leak out,” Nishimura once said, bringing giggles at the table.

Her first published book in 2008 was highly acclaimed. She won a JSPS prize for young researchers and another award from the Japan Academy in fiscal 2009.

Of the six recipients of Japan Academy award for that year, only two had an arts background. Nishimura was the first person to receive the award for research on religion.

“She led a group of young researchers by pioneering new academic ground and producing results one after another,” wrote Fumihiko Sueki, a Buddhism scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who mentored Nishimura. “She was almost unrivaled.”

However, her life went downhill after the SPD fellowship and monthly support ended.

Nishimura depended on her parents for clothing, food and housing. To cover her research expenses, Nishimura worked as a lecturer at a private university and took other part-time jobs at vocational schools and culture centers.

To borrow research materials from a university library, Nishimura enrolled as an auditing student by paying tuition fees.

One veteran academic, who couldn’t stand watching her struggle, passed her a job to check English translations of Buddhist literature in 2012.

Nishimura took the job and was thrilled to see her annual income exceeding 2 million yen.

But the job only lasted for a year.

Nishimura sent her resume to more than 20 universities, seeking an academic position.

One university asked her to submit six copies of her own literary work as part of the application process. Each copy cost several thousand yen. At a time when every yen counted, she decided to make the photocopies and send them to the university.

She received nothing in return except for one rejection letter after another.

Her application materials were returned with a letter that started, “We are sorry but we could not comply with your wishes ... .”

Nishimura suspected that some universities did not even look at her resume.

She used a paper clip to secure the application forms, but the returned materials showed little evidence that the clip had been removed.

She received no explanation from any of the universities on why she didn’t get the job.

The realities of her home life started to sink in. Her parents were getting older and she couldn’t find stable employment.

These circumstances led to a misguided decision: “I will get married.”

In spring 2014, Nishimura explained her marriage plan to her shocked parents at the dining table, saying it would “open an emergency door” to get out of the hole she found herself in.

Her fiance, whom she met on the Internet, was more than 12 years her senior. When they married, she did not know that he had serious personal issues.

In April 2015, Nishimura moved from her parents’ home and started her new life with her husband.

But the marriage quickly deteriorated. Nishimura blamed herself and developed a mental disorder.

On Nov. 6, 2015, she wrote in her diary: “I nearly became sick and decided to seek a divorce, but he refused. I admit that I was blinded with trying to find security in life, but it’s hard to really admit that.”

Nishimura’s diary entries showed emotional swings depending on the topic: her passion for research, her yearning to have a stable life with a husband and children, and her anguish over dealing with the realities in her life.

On Dec. 7, she wrote: “I was most happy when I had a meal and tea with my father and mother. But I myself ruined that happiness. Now it’s irretrievable.”

Her entry for Jan. 7, 2016, read: “To be honest, I want to live. But how? I want to live joyfully and lively and laugh with everybody one more time. But it appears I’d have to go through a lot of trouble to obtain that.”

She finally got her husband to sign the divorce papers, and she submitted them to city hall on Feb. 2.

That night, Nishimura killed herself.

In a suicide note addressed to her parents, she had written, “I don’t think I have a future,” and “I can’t keep working hard anymore.”

The parents had often taught their only child: “Find something you like and make more than your share of efforts. You may not become rich, but you can live life.”

Their daughter shared those values.

The mother and father were both editors, and they showered their daughter with books. At the age of 2, Nishimura already owned 50 books. She soon learned how to read and write and became a bookworm within a few years.

When she didn’t have a book to read, Nishimura would read aloud things written in a newspaper advertisement or on a signboard in the town.

Her parents had felt very proud that such a childhood experience prepared Nishimura to become a researcher.

But now, her 75-year-old mother said, “With the benefit of hindsight, I can’t tell whether it was good or bad.”

The father, 81, said: “Universities these days are not looking for intellectuals. They are just looking for convenient labor. My daughter was aware of that.”


Alarmed by a lack of Japanese with doctorates compared with those in Europe and the United States, the Japanese government in the 1990s shifted its focus of higher education from four-year colleges to graduate schools.

The number of graduate students soared, but many universities were facing financial problems, and the number of teaching positions did not increase.

That created bleak prospects in the academic job market.

According to the education ministry’s data, the number of people who completed a doctorate program in 2007 was 16,801, 2.7 times the figure of 6,201 for 1991.

The number of people with doctorates who obtained a faculty position increased rather slowly, from 1,520 to 2,191, over the same period. The field became highly competitive, with the odds of landing a job jumping from 1:4.1 in 1991 to 1:7.7 in 2007.

Even gaining a position at a university does not guarantee long-term employment.

Under a policy encouraging universities to become self-reliant, the ministry started cutting subsidies for national universities in fiscal 2004, making the schools dependent on application-based competitive grant money.

Around the same time, universities started hiring more “non-regular” teachers with term limits as well as part-time lecturers, a position considered easy to fill.

About half of the lectures at universities nationwide today are given by part-timers, according to the Union of University Part-time Lecturers in the Tokyo Area.

In a 2017-18 survey conducted by the union and the Japan Association for the Improvement of Conditions of Women Scientists, 69 percent of the 711 part-time lecturers who responded said their annual income was less than 2 million yen. Eighty-nine percent said they made less than 3 million yen a year.

“A part-time lecturer position used to be at the bottom of the social strata in academia. Now, it’s difficult to get even that job,” said Noboru Shida, secretary-general of the union.

Furthermore, most of the full-time positions available come with time limits, making it quite difficult for Ph.D holders to make long-term plans.

“A doctorate course is a pathway to destruction,” Shida said. “Cultivated human talents have been thrown down the drain.”

The prospects for those in liberal arts, which some employers regard as a “useless” academic field, are even gloomier.

According to annual data collected by the education ministry, about 30 percent of those with doctorates in the humanities neither found a job nor entered further education in recent years. That percentage is 1.5 to 1.8 times higher than the average of those with a Ph.D. in all academic disciplines.

So what happens to those with doctorates in the humanities? Nearly 20 percent of them were listed as “dead” or “whereabouts unknown,” according to the ministry data. That rate is more than twice the average among doctors in all majors.

To provide a more secure research environment for young doctors, the ministry has operated a program to subsidize research institutes that hire young researchers.

However, most of the jobs have gone to science and technology majors.

Among the 72 researchers hired under the ministry’s “Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers” in fiscal 2017, only one person’s research could be identified as humanities.

A researcher in his 30s who specializes in Japanese intellectual history during the Heian Period (794-1185) completed his term as a lecturer at a private university at the end of March. He has not found a new job.

“I will keep looking for research jobs, but in the meantime, I will live on unemployment insurance,” he said. “I will then probably work as a part-timer or temporary worker.”

He added, “Every time I encounter a clerk aged 40 to 50 at a convenience store, I can’t help wonder if the person is also a researcher.”

Nishimura’s death does not appear to be an anomaly in academia.

In September 2018, a 46-year-old man was found dead from a fire on Kyushu University’s campus in Fukuoka.

He had studied constitutional law in a doctorate program there but dropped out in 2010 without the degree.

According to a professor emeritis who knew him, the former student struggled to make ends meet. He worked as a part-time lecturer and a manual laborer at a warehouse and a package delivery company.

Yet, he kept returning to the office where he had done research, even at night.

During a campus relocation plan, the university administration found out about the former student and asked him to vacate the office.

After a suspicious fire broke out in the office early on Sept. 7, the man’s body was found next to a portable gasoline can and a kerosene tank.


“I think many researchers were shocked by Nishimura’s story, thinking, ‘It could have been me,’” Eisuke Enoki, a pathologist, wrote in an article for The Asahi Shimbun.

Enoki, who has written about issues surrounding people with doctorates in Japan, explained the background of problems.

“First, regular academic positions at universities and research institutions are so scarce that even a researcher with a bright future (like Nishimura) is not accepted,” Enoki wrote.

He also questioned if the hiring process, particularly for female candidates, is fair and just.

The traditional uniform employment system centered on bulk hiring of new graduates is part of the systemic problem because “such companies are reluctant to hire people in their 30s or older with research experience,” Enoki wrote.

For graduate and postgraduate students, particularly those in the humanities and social science, opportunities to gain job information are limited, according to Enoki.

But researchers themselves need to change their mind-sets and should learn how to protect themselves outside of academia, he said.

“Many researchers think that ‘a person without an academic job is a loser.’ No wonder they feel desperate and doomed once they find themselves in that category,” he added.

(This article was compiled from reports by Ryoma Komiyama, Hisatoshi Kabata and other staff writers.)