Scientific Exchange With Japan: East Meets West


Efficiency-oriented, industrious, hard-working, incredibly organised--curiously these adjectives could all apply equally to both Japanese and German cultures. World-class science is another common denominator and indeed there is already significant co-operation, and numerous exchange programmes, between the two countries. But does cultural harmony really reign, or can you expect to experience a culture clash if you decide to head East or West?

Satoshi Tanaka arrived from the northern Japanese town of Sapporo to work as a postdoc at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg (DKFZ) in 1999. The opportunity arose thanks to existing contacts between a member of his institute and his host lab in Heidelberg. Funding and bureaucratic matters such as his visa application were all taken care of by his German hosts at the DKFZ and therefore were relatively painless, he says.

His prime motive for heading to Germany was to learn state-of the-art molecular biology and immunology. But the experience of working abroad will certainly be advantageous career-wise, remarks Tanaka, who will shortly return to Japan. In particular, the proven ability to work in an English-speaking environment is valued by Japanese employers. Although undoubtedly "the U.S. and U.K. are more popular choices for Japanese scientists" it is very possible to improve your English in the southwest of Germany too, as Tanaka notes: "In Europe, Germany is the second choice after the U.K. [for Japanese researchers] as English is indeed the working language in all international German labs." So despite admitting that the hardest part of living in Germany for him is dealing with two foreign languages, he has no regrets about coming to "the heart of Europe".

Natalio Garbi, a Spanish postdoc from the same department at DKFZ, travelled to Japan just after completing this PhD in Scotland and spent 3 months at the Tokyo University of Fisheries in 1999. Clearly 3 months is not long in which to pick up a new language, but fortunately, working and living in Tokyo, Garbi found that not speaking Japanese was not a problem. He would certainly consider going back; indeed many of his former lab colleagues from Scotland did so and several stayed longer than intended.

What really struck Garbi was the importance of comradeship in the Japanese environment, compared to working in a German or U.K. lab. "Teamwork was so important," Garbi says. "Everyone really wants to help each other, and not just in a nominal way". Of course this solidarity is especially appreciated when you find yourself in a foreign lab but it even extended beyond that. He experienced hospitality par excellence from his Japanese colleagues and "was constantly invited to social events with them," Garbi recalls.

He felt that people had a genuine interest in getting to know him and really made an effort to help him adjust to the new environment. In fact, sociability was a hallmark of his Japanese host lab, with regular after-work events, something that contrasts with his experience of Germany where work and private life tend to be kept more separate, he feels.

Don't expect the socialising to start early, though. Garbi warns that anyone heading for Japan should be prepared for a very long working day. Tanaka observes that in Europe researchers do have more free time at their disposal. Garbi puts the protracted Japanese working hours down to the fact that researchers are generally engaged in a lot of nonresearch duties.

And it is not just early-career scientists who appreciate generous Japanese hospitality. For more than 8 years DKFZ's Professor Günter Hämmerling, together with Professor Fritz Melchers of the former Basel Institute for Immunology, have been involved in organising joint German/Japanese seminars on behalf of the German Society for Immunology (DGfI). The annual symposia take place alternately in Germany and Japan and are supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Bilateral Programme.

Hämmerling finds the joint meetings "extremely fruitful," and with only about 10 participants from either side invited, intense discussion is possible. Meetings such as these are critical "to establish and maintain personal contacts" with some of the most brilliant Japanese scientists in the field, leading not just to "the exchange of scientific ideas, [but] also reagents," he highlights. The payback from such relationships is huge, he stresses, and their "importance cannot be overestimated, although it is not easily measurable on paper".

Hämmerling believes that many German scientists would truly benefit from a stint in Japan or indeed abroad in general, and that's certainly something that Dr. Gernot Gad would also like to encourage. Gad heads the DFG programme for scientific co-operation with Japan. The DFG are prepared to fund a variety of exchange scenarios, he notes, with no age restrictions in place, funding available to all scientists based in Germany (whether they are German nationals or not) and at various stages of their careers. The DFG Bilateral programme is in fact an umbrella title and, therefore, the majority of DFG funding programmes could theoretically be used to support a German/Japanese exchange in addition to exchanges with many other partner countries. Gad stressed that in general "the DFG would be delighted to see more German-based scientists going to Asia."

As for Tanaka, his final recommendation for prospective Japanese exchange scientists is that, as well as soaking up the culture, they should definitely pick up some Japanese computing power before they leave!

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers