Insiders View: Japanese Research Culture


Editor's note: Katsuhiro Hanada and Masato Miyata are Japanese postdocs, currently working at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. They reflect on the different cultures in Japanese and Western laboratories.

The revolution in Japan at the end of 19th century put an end to 300 years of isolationist policy. At that time Japan was an extremely undeveloped country, and the government established a new education system and strongly promoted industrialization. All Japanese children were forced to go to school, and young students, scientists, engineers, and doctors were encouraged to study and work abroad in order to transfer the advanced technology and medicine they encountered back to Japan. Many students and researchers went abroad with a pioneer's attitude. Surely, the industrial revolution in Japan could never have been a success without these ambitious young people.

But recently this attitude is changing. Very many PhDs and equally skilled researchers still go to the United States to study or work every year. However, it is said that about half of the Japanese PhDs who go abroad do not return to Japan, but intend to find a (permanent) position in the U.S. And the same is true for those who travel to Europe. Japanese research pioneers used to give their life for the development of Japan, but now many Japanese researchers are going overseas for their own future.

Japanese Research Culture

Nonetheless, there are good reasons for Japanese researchers to spend some time in Europe or North America, not least of which is the chance to experience a very different research environment.

Laboratories in Japan are very independent from each other. Researchers in one group don't interact with people from other laboratories. They have their own funds and buy their own chemicals and equipment. So, in any one corridor you will find an array of small but fully equipped laboratories. Each Sensei (Japanese academic) is personally responsible for every aspect of the running of their laboratory; from writing grant proposals to registration of the laboratory's chemical waste.

Of course Sensei also have training and educational responsibilities on top of laboratory management. They organize courses, give weekly lectures, provide basic training--for example, how to use a pipette--prepare and mark examination papers, and sometimes fix up jobs for their students.

Another duty is administration. Every decision must be processed by the university board. And most Sensei are assigned some common duties essential for the running of the institution as a whole, such as running entrance examinations, facility organization, or maintaining the computer network. There are committee meetings for each assignment, and each group has weekly meetings to share information. There are an infinite number of meetings, and the lights in the building are switched on every night. They never stop working, even though there is no payment for overtime work. And because they stay till late, students are 'obliged' to keep working deep into the night because they would feel guilty if they went home earlier than the Sensei.

Experiencing the way things are done in a foreign country is not only refreshing, it also encourages reflection on desirable changes to one's own habits. Our experience as postdocs in the Netherlands is quite opposite to what we were used to in Japan.

The first thing that amazed us when we arrived here is that more than 50 computers on an entire the floor share only one printer. There are about 100 people per floor, but surprisingly, we noticed that just one printer is enough for all these people. In fact they share all the basic facilities.

Besides the very basic equipment, there are a lot of advanced and complicated devices, each with an experienced operator, and people can ask them for help without constraint, even though they are from another department. Postdocs and PhD students are assigned to make up basic reagents and other people can take as much as they want.

Also, unlike the Sensei who has to be a jack-of-all-trades, Western researchers and lab staff seem to be very specialized in their own professional roles. For example, in the Netherlands we have employees whose job it is to buy chemicals and technical equipment, computer network support specialists, people who clean the department, and so it goes on. In general, the academic staff has more time available for research (and teaching) than in Japan. There are few tenured academics compared to Japan, but all the faculty obligations are fulfilled without anyone being overburdened. Sharing devices and dividing tasks seems to be successful, because people are very productive, and yet almost everyone goes home before 7 p.m.

We are also impressed to see that senior postdocs can become group leaders by writing grant proposals themselves. People can take as much time as they want to study the background to their proposal and draw up their plan. There is no pressure, but you are still responsible for your own scientific productivity.

We can't go away without discussing the difference in mentality. Here, people seem to really enjoy their work. However, Japanese people seem to be more serious when they work. We don't know exactly why, but we think it may have to do with the social organization of the Japanese laboratory. Labs there are very conservative and most decisions are made top-down, so young people are not stimulated so much to come up with their own ideas.

Another difference between the Dutch and the Japanese attitude is when we have a serious problem and get stressed by our work. In such a situation, people in the Netherlands recommend that you take a holiday to refresh, and they do not hesitate to take a break. Whereas, in Japan, people suggest that when things are going badly you need to work harder. We never realized that giving holidays to recover would work better than working harder.

In conclusion, we can recommend to young researchers--no matter where they come from--to go abroad. In addition to the interesting insights into Western--and our own Japanese--research culture we have gained, we have also benefited from our growing scientific network and improved language skills. Although it is pity that neither of us understands Dutch after living here for more than 18 months, we've greatly improved our English instead!

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