Destination: Japan

When Stephanie Curnoe finished her doctorate in physics in 1997, she couldn't find a postdoc in Canada. So, like many other physics graduates, she extended her search worldwide, heading first to Israel and then Japan.

Financial support was a factor, but her 1-year fellowship in Japan, sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), was based entirely on the calibre of the science. "What's being done in the way of physics research in Japan is really the best in the world," says Curnoe. Since the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) started administering the JSPS postdoctoral fellowship in 1995, as many as 78 Canadians have taken the opportunity to live and work in Japan for a protracted period. JSPS provides full support for Canadian researchers to conduct high-quality research in national laboratories, public research corporations, and some nonprofit research institutes for a period of 1 to 2 years.

JSPS also runs similar fellowship programs in the United Kingdom and the United States, to ensure constant scientific exchange between these countries. The hope is that while foreign researchers are there, they will--in addition to doing their science--have the chance to learn more about Japan and its people.

NSERC receives only about 20 applications per year for the fellowship--well below the Canadian quota, according to Lynda Laforest of the NSERC's scholarships and fellowships division. The Council selects nominees from the applications it receives; JSPS makes the final decisions on suitable candidates. Postdoctoral candidates are able to circumvent the NSERC step by applying directly to JSPS, but Laforest says that their chances are better if they apply through NSERC. The whole process usually takes 2 to 3 months, but it can be as long as a year.

Getting a Jump-Start in Japan

Muhammad Shariq Vohra spent two very productive years at the National Institute of Materials and Chemical Research (NIMC) in Tokyo. He found the NIMC facilities to be excellent, and overall he thinks the experience made for a good start to his career. "Our results have been published in refereed journals of international repute. ... We have also filed for several patents," he tells Next Wave Canada.

Vohra has prepared this list of additional links to fellowship programs that ought to help kick off your research career in Japan:

Other useful links:

For most candidates, the hardest requirement of the application process is finding a lab to go to in advance. This is partly because the number of superb Japanese labs to choose from is enormous. "There are no laboratories in Canada that compare to the ne where I worked in Japan," says Curnoe. "The research facilities are far superior."

But it is not just the facilities that make Japanese labs attractive to physicists. "It's a much more cohesive network of research going on, especially in materials research, for example, where many labs around the country are given the opportunity to collaborate," says Curnoe. However, making initial contact with a lab was still a hurdle, she adds, and her inability to communicate in Japanese made the whole exercise "a little frustrating." Curnoe eventually relied on the recommendation of a Japanese acquaintance to find her host researcher. "In the end, it worked out well."

The ability to speak Japanese is not a prerequisite for a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship, but it certainly makes life there much less challenging, says navigation specialist Mami Ueno. Ueno moved to Canada from Japan 9 years ago. Now a Canadian citizen, she recently returned to Japan for 2 months as an invited JSPS fellow, working at the government's satellite navigation division of the Electronic Navigation Research Institute. Ueno admits that foreigners find it difficult to blend in when they first arrive in Japan. She also explains that although Japanese people may spend many years learning English in school, many of them have difficulty communicating what they have learned. Ueno suggests that learning some Japanese prior to your visit can "facilitate your day-to-day life in Japan, such as ordering food and asking for directions." And it is also considered polite to greet Japanese people in their native language.

Curnoe agrees: "I didn't speak a word of Japanese when I got there, and it would have made my stay much easier if I had."

Valued at approximately CA$60,000 per year, the JSPS fellowship is considerably more generous than the average postdoc salary in Canada is, even when you factor in one round-trip air ticket to Japan and relocation costs. But just how far that money will take you depends on where you live. Ueno says that the cost of living in downtown Tokyo is "frightful," and although cheaper housing is available in the suburbs, the commute can be very difficult. "Commuting on a train in Tokyo is terrible. It is beyond imagination," Ueno adds.

In contrast, Curnoe found that the stipend was more than enough to live comfortably while working just outside Tokyo at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Solid-State Physics in Kashiwa-even if it was a little less exciting.

What's the best piece of advice these scientists have to offer Canadians thinking of doing research in Japan? Choose your laboratory and host scientist very carefully, to ensure a smooth transition into Japanese society. Curnoe is grateful that, thanks to her Japanese supervisor, she was able to catch a rare glimpse of the complex sociology of the Japanese workplace. "I had a great supervisor, and I was included in a lot of social activities centred around his research group." This, says Curnoe, allowed her an inside view of the "structure of science" in Japan, one that would otherwise be impossible to get.

And the rewards, Ueno concurs, are plenty when you find the right host. "When you become friends with a Japanese person, he/she will be your lifelong friend."

New! JSPS Fellowship Update

In addition to the 1 to 2-year postdoctoral fellowships available through JSPS, the organisation recently created a short-term fellowship program for North American and European postdocs, which is designed to allow foreign researchers more flexibility in planning their research visits in Japanese institutions. The short-term fellowships are awarded to postdocs for a period of 15 days to 11 months. Visit the JSPS Web site for more details.

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