Postdoctoral funding often comes with mobility as a precondition, so that a lot of new postdoctoral fellows get a ticket abroad with their stipend. For most Europeans, ‘abroad’ means the USA, with its highly competitive scientific environment. Japan offers a significant alternative, allowing one to try to combine science with a sort of tourism, although the country is not renowned for its short, stress‐free working days. In addition, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (http://www.jsps.go.jp) offers generous support—current stipends are ¥270 000 (2535 Euro) tax‐free per month, with various allowances. Their application procedure is relatively straightforward. I had a productive and enjoyable time there, so I would like to give some impressions of working as a foreign postdoctoral fellow in Japan and some advice for those who might consider doing scientific research there.
External review is not a particular feature of Japanese research, so each laboratory has a great deal of autonomy in terms of resources and of ideas
The ‘normal’ laboratory has many students, a few technicians or postdoctoral fellows, a sprinkling of assistant professors and one all‐powerful professor. Of these more senior positions, very few are filled by women. This imbalance is evident even at postgraduate and postdoctoral levels, although the government is trying to redress it. Each laboratory has a great deal of autonomy in terms of resources and of ideas—external review is not a particular feature of Japanese research. Since this can translate into isolation, anyone interested in Japanese laboratories should pick the host carefully to ensure that the furrow you plan to plough will not become a rut. The lab I chose was a little unusual by Japanese standards. The chair was partly funded by industry and was only for a limited period, in contrast to the usually tenured chairs. As a consequence, there were only a few students, although the laboratory did have technical support—a rarity due to the lifelong contracts that are usual for university staff in Japan. The government is reluctant to fund new permanent positions, and because of that financial support for technicians is difficult to obtain. Funding for consumables and machines is good, although the Byzantine bureaucracy governing Japanese research makes November's grant‐writing period rather stressful.
Even at an internationally well‐known university such as Kyoto, the Cambridge to Tokyo's Oxford or vice versa, there are very few foreign scientists. Of great importance to me was, therefore, the fact that all the scientists in the lab had worked abroad and spoke excellent English. This was vital for answering my frequent questions regarding daily life in Japan and for helping me with the many bureaucratic challenges encountered whilst settling in. Renting accommodation, setting up a bank account and various registration procedures will be dependent on your host professor's guarantee, which can be a bit disconcerting. Also, while most reagents are labelled in English and Japanese, machines produced for the Japanese market occasionally neglect English instructions. The odd computer program was in Japanese—Photoshop was quite a challenge—and hazard warnings were frequently only in Japanese. Japanese is a difficult language to learn, harder than I had hoped and expected. Language difficulties, therefore, made discussions with my colleagues harder, but my bumbling in Japanese just as often relaxed people's shyness with their English and let us get on with things.
There remains a strong formal element, even in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of university research
A Japanese molecular biology laboratory looks much like its counterpart in Europe or the USA. Apart from a pile of little plastic slippers outside tissue culture or radioactivity laboratories and green tea instead of coffee, one would be hard put to tell the difference. Some of the reagent‐supplying companies were unfamiliar and the organisation of the chemicals suffered from the use of English, German and/or Japanese versions of both. More striking are the contrasts in working style. There remains a strong formal element, even in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of university research. Although bows were notable by their rarity, people still addressed one another by their titles. Japanese manners demand polite attention to questions, so that I was continually amazed at how people would interrupt their work to answer me. Discussions were always carried on in remarkably measured terms, even when people were having an argument. Contrary to Western cliché, this happens as often as in Europe. However, it was difficult for me to get strong criticism of even a stupid idea from my Japanese colleagues, because this might have been impolite. In terms of data‐generating capacity, the threat of competition from a large Japanese group may be a kind of bogeyman to scare recalcitrant postdocs back to the bench, but with good reason. An average scientific working day is ten to eleven hours, with Saturday being a fairly normal weekday. The extent to which a foreigner is expected to adopt Japanese working hours varies from lab to lab, so that it may be worth consulting previous lab members when deciding.
An average scientific working day is ten to eleven hours, with Saturday being a fairly normal weekday
External seminars are a good indication of how well‐connected a laboratory is with the rest of the scientific world. Impromptu seminars by visiting foreign speakers were rather rare, but I was fortunate in Kyoto in having access to surprisingly frequent symposia featuring well‐established researchers. Japanese labs are very willing to enter into collaborations; for practical reasons, these are usually within Japan. Even with this large amount of internal contact and collaboration, I was struck by the extent to which Japanese scientists were familiar with one another's work, regardless of where this work was being done. This may reflect to some extent the politics of Japanese research funding and the competition for tenured positions, but these are deep waters from which I stayed well away.
During interviews, I was struck by the enthusiasm of potential Japanese host labs for having a European come and work. I visited a number of labs before making a choice and they were all very encouraging and receptive. Being an English speaker was an advantage, as proof‐reading skills are often in demand. I would urge anyone considering applying to a Japanese laboratory to visit beforehand. Working practices and conditions vary enormously between labs, even within the same university, but the funding advantages enjoyed by the top five or so universities (ask a Japanese colleague for this list) and the National Institutes make them the places that are most likely to be attractive for a foreign researcher. A lab visit, seminar and the accompanying discussions will give a far better picture of a potential host laboratory than any tabulation of papers. Furthermore, only a visit to the country can let anyone decide whether he or she would like to spend two or more years living there. However, I met no foreign scientist who holds any sort of long‐term position at a Japanese university. That level of internationalisation will take a while and, perhaps, a different sort of research institution.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization
The author is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK and was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellow from 1997 to 1999 with Professor S Takeda of the Bayer‐Chair Department of Molecular Immunology and Allergology in Kyoto University's Medical Faculty. E‐mail: