Jonathan Djietror has been in Japan for several years in a research position. His insider-knowledge of the Japanese higher-education system, and detailed understanding of life in the Far East will be invaluable to anyone considering a career move.
Please tell us about your current situation.
I am currently carrying out laboratory experiments at the facilities of a prestigious university in Japan. My work involves genetic research into the spread of invasive species in Queensland, Australia. I find it very interesting and the challenge is exciting to be working alongside a Japanese supervisor in this current role.
Although I have not worked as a lecturer or professor for a university in Japan, I have been serving as a Teaching Assistant and Researcher at a graduate school.
What are your experiences of university life in Japan?
Japanese universities are well-equipped. The teaching-learning resources/materials are readily available, the infrastructure is excellent, the food is good and there is no harassment of students or researchers. Almost everything works according to plan!
The Challenges: University life is challenging, especially with respect to the difficulty of Japanese language (over 95% of textbooks in Japanese language). There are Japanese language courses which run for 3 – 4 months. These courses are designed to equip the foreign researcher or student with basic communication skills for daily life. However, these courses are usually not enough to empower the non-Japanese with the language skills required for a meaningful scientific discourse. Without a clear command of the Japanese language, a foreign student who naturally manages the bulk of his/her research planning and implementation is technically handicapped and can be misguided.
The majority of foreign students feel distant and, true to the sense of the word Gaijin (en: alien/foreigner), the average Japanese university lecture room or laboratory is dominated by Japanese language. This alienates the average foreign student or researcher. Campus life may not be as vibrant as could be on a typical western university campus. Of course, there are a few events like international food festivals which are exciting.
What are the characteristics of Japanese university students (particularly those in research roles)?
Japanese students, like Japanese society itself, are very practical (i.e., using the right tool for the right job). They seldom break the rules. Nonetheless, there are no “yes” and “no” responses to questions, suggestions or requests. The answer is always indirect, affirmative or otherwise.
From a western perspective, the Japanese way of doing things, may be seen as excessively meticulous, sometimes subtly contradictory, or real sentiments covertly expressed. The students work very hard, follow instructions perfectly without questioning the rationale or the basis, speak little English language and probably drink a lot of the rather famous local alcoholic beverage, o-sake, on the Friday party nights or during the end-of-year Bounenkai rendezvous!
A lot of hard work is done, but few research papers are published in standard English journals. Japanese students are willing and ready to help, assist or guide other students when advised by the supervisor professor to do so.
How did you find your position in Japan?
I saw an advert in a national newspaper and applied for a scholarship. The application process included an exam, interview and thorough health check. I submitted my research proposal to three universities.
My advice is that one should not only focus on the “big name” institutions in the big cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto etc. The competition, congestion and accommodation costs in these areas are challenging if you get the position.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in, or study at, a university in Japan?
Read a lot about Japan before getting your boarding pass onto that flight! Learning some basic Japanese before arriving here. Speak slowly and clearly if you have to communicate in English. Do not forget that many people you will meet will not understand you or speak to you in English.
I would also recommend designing your own research, collecting data and publishing something within the specified programme duration, as grants, scholarships or fellowships, or whatever financial assistance you have may not be extended beyond the stipulated time.
Japanese culture does not readily assimilate foreigners, so be prepared to cope with some isolation and many cultural shocks. Living outside the big cities reduces living costs and expenditure. In Japan, there is no significant difference between the countryside and the urban centres in terms of the quality of services and infrastructural facilities; people living on the remote mountain tops have access to, among other things, high speed internet, grocery, health care, and efficient transportation.
Be time conscious and punctual for all appointments. It is proper to apologise to everyone if you arrive late, and you should notify them (usually by phone) ahead of time if you cannot meet your appointment. You may have to come out of your cultural shell and adapt to life in the land of the rising sun. To borrow the old adage, “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do.”
What visa issues/other issues have you encountered while living in Japan?
Visa issues are relatively few. It is not overly-bureaucratic, and delays are rare. Just live by the immigration rules and you will be okay. In fact, Japan has recently improved its visa conditions and things are getting even easier.
Other Issues: Although this is not from my personal experience, be wise and smart enough not to mix study or research with any kind of pleasure seeking. Never challenge your academic superiors, no matter how “righteous” your opinion or case might sound or appear to be. Like the certainty of the law of gravity, you are bound to run into uncertain consequences.
How will this period in Japan benefit your career prospects?
My research experiences in Japan will surely enhance my career prospects. It can be challenging for foreign students to find work in Japan, but my research work here will be useful even if I look for work in other countries. Coming to Japan may also be useful in gaining another perspective of the world; a rewardingly unique experience that could be a useful tool for further self-development and the enhancement of one’s career.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed herein are from a personal perspective and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the persons or institution with which the interviewee is associated.