Shipping Out to Japan


Editor's note: Jeanine Smallwood of the United States relates her experiences as a graduate student in applied mathematics with a Japanese port and logistics agency, and later in a Japanese academic setting.

As a junior in high school I spent 3 weeks in Izumo, Japan, through a sister-cities exchange program with Santa Clara, California. I learned how to make gyouza and suffer through sashimi wrapped in seaweed.

About 10 years later I spent two very different summers doing research in Japan. In 1999 I participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Summer Institute in Japan Program, where I worked in Kurihama, about 30 miles south of Tokyo, at the Port and Harbour Research Institute (PHRI). The next summer I lived in Kobe and worked with a professor at Kobe University through the Monbusho Research Experience for Young Foreign Researchers. Both programs were designed for science and engineering graduate students to gain experience and establish working relationships with foreign researchers. This time I learned to speak a little Japanese, to sing karaoke, and to exchange business cards the proper way.

Following my second year of graduate school, my advisor and I mapped out a plan of study of logistics problems in port operations. I was interested in working at PHRI because I felt a government planning agency would be a good place to gain an overview of current Japanese port operations and policy issues. I had spent the year after I completed my bachelor's degree working at a government planning agency dealing with transport, air, and water quality issues for the Monterey Bay Area, and the general structure of PHRI was similar to the agency that I had worked for in the U.S. So I assumed that my work would prepare me well for the internship.

The coordinators of the internship program warned us that Japanese companies operated very differently from those in the U.S., that there was more of an emphasis on teamwork than on individual performance, and that it was impolite to depart from work earlier than the boss. I did not find these traits particularly evident at PHRI, though; while structurally it was similar to a U.S. agency, socially it was quite different. Most afternoons there was a break, and the secretary would come around and take tea or coffee orders and provide sweets. There were also many more occasions for going out to eat after work, and to karaoke.

My day-to-day activities consisted primarily of reading papers, meeting with a co-worker to discuss the models presented in the papers, and getting acquainted with aspects of PHRI outside of the planning division where I worked.

My Japanese supervisor seemed a little unsure what to do with me at first. I was a graduate student in applied mathematics, and he seemed to worry that I wasn't getting any rigorous mathematical training there; this was true enough, but it was unimportant, since my interest at PHRI was merely in learning about Japanese port operations and policy. My supervisor did manage to supply me with plenty of research papers to read, and about two-thirds of the way through my stay he organized a 4-day trip to the Kobe and Osaka ports and some other government agencies he thought would interest me. I was impressed by the amount of planning that my supervisor put into my experience at PHRI. I do not feel that the welcome and thoughtfulness showed for me would have been matched for a visit by a Japanese student to the U.S.

As my summer stay at PHRI was funded through NSF and the Japanese government, it did not require any out-of-pocket expenses from my supervisor. However, it was clear that he had put considerable time and effort into preparing for my 2-month stay, including, especially, the time he took out of his work schedule to take me on the field trip. While this was supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship between foreign researchers, I was at the point in my graduate career where I still needed quite a bit of guidance. My co-workers also put in time helping me get around, and the secretary took 2 days teaching me the words to a Japanese song for the Japanese speech contest at the end of the summer. All in all, I received more than I was able to pay back.

During that field trip I mentioned, my PHRI supervisor introduced me to a professor he had worked with at Kobe University. The next summer I was able to come back and work with this professor through the Monbusho program. Although I had come to the university expecting to work with this professor, it quickly became clear that I was expected to work with an associate professor who worked with and under him--who, I should add, was known for his temper. Other graduate students were fearful of this temper, but I managed to get along well with him, a fact that I should attribute less to my charming personality and brilliant research than to the fact that, as an American, I presented a little variety and less pressure than his full-time students, who were eager to finish their degrees. I developed a good working relationship with the associate professor; he spent the following year as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, so it was easy for us to stay in touch.

Working at the university was a more solitary experience than working at PHRI. While there were peers my own age in the research group, I was given a private office which, despite the advantages it offered, did not help me meet people. Trips to the cafeteria helped, as did the meetings with other students, in which we discussed our research, which the associate professor arranged. In July, the research group went on the annual student trip to the Sea of Japan, an event that was attended by almost all of the students. I detected more group loyalty, a stronger sense of research-group identity, in the Japanese university than I've noticed in the U.S. There seemed to be more of an expectation of students (and faculty) to go on organized outings, though, despite the implied obligation, everyone viewed them more as much-needed breaks and had a good time.

I enjoyed both summer experiences tremendously and still keep in contact with co-workers from both PHRI and Kobe University. While the short length of my visit made it difficult to feel like an integrated part of the office staff or an actual graduate student at Kobe University, it allowed me a great opportunity to experience working in different environments.

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