Alone in a Crowd


Getting My Feet Wet...

On the afternoon of my first full day in Japan, a group of us decided to explore the world of the Japanese public bath. We had been advised to make sure we were thoroughly clean before entering the baths. To be certain we had achieved the necessary level of cleanliness, it was suggested we watch other bathers to determine when we had washed long enough. While trying to be subtle about looking in the mirror, we noticed the people behind us washing each other's backs. Not wanting to offend, we commenced washing our neighbors' backs. In retrospect we concluded the Japanese back-washers were related, and that mutual back-washing is not expected among casual acquaintances. Thankfully, no one laughed openly at the five foreigners in the corner washing each other with the tentativeness that comes from being in a room full of naked men. I realized that being in Japan would involve lots of mistakes, require lots of flexibility, and that it would be absolutely essential that I not take myself too seriously.

It has been my good fortune to have two opportunities to come to Japan. The first, which encompassed the experience above, was for the 1999 National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Institute in Japan. The program supported the work of about 60 graduate students--even more are supported now--working in various fields at laboratories throughout Japan. The program also paid the costs of travel, housing, and language and cultural lessons. It even provided spending money.

I had been searching for a method that could combine experience of another culture with scientific training. Scientifically, my primary objective was to work in a pharmaceutical company and begin to explore that industry as a career option. My wife is one-half, third-generation Japanese-American, and we were both eager to learn more about that part of her cultural heritage. So when an opportunity to work in Japan arose, I took it.

I had read as much as I could about Japanese culture and had studied the language for a few months. In retrospect, I wish I had studied harder; the only truly frustrating aspect of my visit was my inability to communicate. I went with the expectation that the ability to understand spoken English would be widespread; it wasn't, so I was thankful for the little Japanese that I knew.

My host laboratory during that summer was great. The members of the lab were very interested in learning more English because they had weekly teleconferences with other, international sections of the company, so I was able to contribute something to the lab culture, apart from my scientific contributions. In return, the members of the lab helped me arrange everything from the lab uniform to bullet train tickets and provided many opportunities for social interaction and cultural study.

My Second Japanese Experience

I found my current job by networking. I utilized connections at my summer intern company, the NSF office in Tokyo, and all the Japanese researchers I knew. I wrote to members of a professional society (the Society for Neuroscience) because I felt having membership gave me at least a partial introduction; I also arranged meetings with company scientists at international conferences. I sent out about 200 letters and received about eight neutral-to-affirmative replies. I narrowed it down to two companies, had informal interviews at professional meetings, came to Japan for one formal interview and went to Chicago for the other, and decided on my current employer because they seemed more accustomed to dealing with foreigners. For example, they offered me a detailed employment contract whereas the other company, in traditional Japanese trust-the-company style, sent only an e-mail with a salary and few details. Despite my employer's experience, however, I'm one of only three non-Asian foreigners on this campus, out of about 2000 employees.

Interestingly, in both formal and informal interviews, I wasn't really asked about my science, per se; I never did give a "job talk." Instead, interviews tended to focus on personality, interests, response to conflict, etc. For example, at my Tokyo interview, the executive VP and I discussed my interest in jazz and my musical background. In a country where wa (group harmony) is paramount, your ability to resolve conflicts peacefully and to get along with others is seen as more critical, even, than the need to be correct.

It is also important to note that, in my experience, available positions were not necessarily broadly advertised. Having a strong network was critical to being "introduced," then considered, for positions that you might not otherwise know about.

Alone in a Crowd

My title here is simply "Scientist," although my current 2-year renewable contract is in some ways more like a postdoc. Japan does not have a training system, per se, except in the hiring of foreigners. After two contract terms (i.e., 4 years), my company has offered the option of an indefinite appointment. Such an indefinite offer is atypical, both due to company reluctance (it is a much greater risk to hire someone permanently) and to somewhat restrictive immigration laws; until recently, work visas were generally issued only for 1-year terms, meaning you had to reapply every year.

I think my experience in various aspects of the drug-discovery process--everything from market research to preparing investigator brochures, plus bench work--has been much broader than someone in a comparable position in the United States, both because it is a smaller company and because of my English fluency.

Japan can feel a little isolated--isolated, at least, from Western, English-speaking researchers. Even though everyone in my lab speaks some English, it takes more time to communicate, and Japanese communication is much less expressive than typical Western style. Thus, it is difficult to recognize someone?s reaction to a failed experiment or a new discovery because their visible emotional response seems quite subdued. Opportunities for "passionate" communication outside the lab are also more limited: It's more expensive (and further!) to travel to international meetings abroad, and, at least in my field, meeting and seminar opportunities in Japan are limited, especially for someone, like me, with limited Japanese fluency. I miss the enthusiasm about work that can only be communicated in person, both because of the differences in expression and my own limited communication skills. It's easy for science to become lifeless and dry if you are limited to reading the literature and not hearing the story behind those discoveries. Holidays and the annual seasonal rhythm are quite different, too. For example, I had to work on Christmas this year because it's not a holiday--and they didn't even have anything special to eat in the cafeteria.


We have weekly data/journal club meetings, all in Japanese, although for the first 6 months we spoke in English, and even now data slides are usually written in English. I also spend a substantial amount of time editing manuscripts, letters, reports, and other documents, as well as "translating" colloquial English from other sources or trying to explain the myriad inconsistencies of the English language, most of which have no explanation. But even more difficult than issues of language are differences in mindset and assumptions in communication.

For example, Americans value directness in verbal communication (c.f., "line of reasoning," "to the point," "don?t beat around the bush"), whereas Japanese scientists--and, presumably, other Japanese people--utilize a much more complicated system of nonverbal communication and avoid direct confrontation. It can take more effort, and time, than you expect to extract your colleague's opinion about your proposal, to soften potentially offensive questions, or to arrive at a consensus about the direction your group should go.

Another example of differences in communication styles arises in the presentation of ideas. Japanese people tend to build a story on its details, rather than giving a framework first and then filling in with examples. It is more common to imply a relationship than to state it explicitly. So, for example, a Discussion section of a manuscript might focus on the details of an animal model (e.g., exact times of disease onset and duration), but the relationship of those details to other models would be less clear, prompting me to comment, in my direct American fashion, "So what?" Of course, I've also gained new insight into my home culture: how it is viewed by others, the problems with its structures, etc. Thankfully, patience and perseverance are highly revered qualities in Japan, and these qualities of my hosts have, I am sure, prevented me from detonating an untold number of cultural landmines.

I have also had to change my expectations of privacy, in part out of necessity. It is quite humbling (but easy, thanks to the patience and helpfulness of my hosts) to need to have someone translate your daily mail, salary information, appliance manuals, utility bills, or medical records. A question or a problem (e.g., advice on where I should go to dinner with my wife, what does this line of my paycheck mean, what should I do about this medical condition) presented to one person often ends up involving the whole lab.

Final Advice

Explore possibilities for language study now; it will improve your experience immensely. You could explore auditing, private lessons, language exchange with an international student, or attend a US/Japan "friendship" group. Also, you might need to check other departments--for example, our school of engineering had a number of good connections with Japanese researchers and programs, as well as offering a free Japanese class for summer interns. You stand a much better chance of acceptance to those programs if you can show you are serious about exploring research life in Japan and not just intent on taking a vacation. Previous language experience and training is a big help in demonstrating your seriousness. I might also recommend learning the proper way to take a bath.

Resources: Lists info on Japanese professional societies and universities in Japan. The Asian Technology Information Program is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing objective and high-quality information about technology developments in Asia. Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan. The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (the current Japan-side sponsors of the program) have an English-language Web site with specific program information, including things like daily schedule and potential host institutes. Official program announcement for the NSF East Asia Summer Institutes--Japan is one of the participating host economies. NSF Tokyo home page. I participated in the summer program they sponsored and HIGHLY recommend it. They pay for everything and even give you spending money. They list a number of researchers who have agreed to host students

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