A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge

Structure of Academic Institutions

(a very basic summary)

State universities

By far the majority of large universities are state-run. They are not quasi-autonomous organisations as in the West, but are run a little like subsidiaries of a major corporation, although the Ministry of Education (Monbusho) would be the first to say that the state universities are very independent. Many directives come from Monbusho in Tokyo. All courses are approved by Monbusho, and once the teaching structure is set, it is very difficult to change. I once had some rather large tutorial groups and asked my Dean if I could split some of them into two to give the students a fairer deal. He sighed and said in a rather resigned manner that it would need approval from Monbusho and would take around three years! In other words, kindly forget about it and battle on. Thus, the regulations are very rigid, and no matter how silly they often seem, there is little that can be done in the short term. Be reassured that Japanese academics hate this system too. However, Monbusho's rationale in all this is that it maintains standards, which are very high. I have heard that from 1991 the role of Monbusho started to change, as they are gradually transferring the responsibility for curriculum planning to individual universities. This has apparently already occurred in Tokyo and Kyoto Universities (Japanese equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge).

The head of the university is the President (gakucho) and there are often several Vice-Presidents responsible for different areas of university administration. Otherwise, administrative staff are non-academic, as one would expect. There is a very high ratio of administrative staff to academics; at Tsukuba it was close to 1:1. This reflects the large number of students there and consequent enormous amount of paper work generated. In the state system, staff are rotated frequently, often being sent to another university altogether. The two secretarial staff at our department were rotated every two years alternately, so that we had one new staff member every year. This can be refreshing but also frustrating, especially with the main administration area, where you have staff constantly learning the job. Some professors complain that they have to explain the same problem to a new person every year and usually end up knowing more about that bit of administration than anyone else. Otherwise, the structure of the various departments can be quite similar to Western style, with a Head of Department, Dean of Students, Dean of Postgraduates and so on. These leaders are also rotated often, usually having only a two-year tenure.

Funding of state universities is a disgrace, especially for research. Although many laboratory facilities are average, I was deeply shocked when I visited Tokyo University in 1987. The biology laboratories were filthy, under-lit, cramped, and students had postage stamp-sized areas on the bench to work on. The corridors were full of old equipment that was not allowed to be thrown out (the power of the administration). Academics appeared to be resigned to the situation, and the morale of the students seemed to be especially low. Many students were planning to leave the university system immediately on graduation and join industry. I should say that although Tokyo University has an incredible reputation for undergraduate teaching, the reverse is true for postgraduates. Very recently, the biology department was moved into new buildings, but I know that there are many other laboratories in Tokyo and other universities suffering from poor facilities. This was the subject of a TV report in Australia in 1991.

Other universities are as bad, and suffer from poor infrastructure and lack of modern equipment. A colleague on visiting the University of Nagoya and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, as well as universities in Osaka, reported appalling conditions. It is a sad comment that much of the content of university research in Japan is dictated by the equipment available, rather than by academic ideas and the search for knowledge.

In the state system at least, each professor gets a small amount of support for research running money every year, around Y800,000, from the university (but this varies widely as, for example, Tokyo University professors get much more). Otherwise they can apply for research grants directly from Monbusho. This is set out more fully later.

In all universities, and many other buildings for that matter, you will find that internal maintenance is minimal or zero. Thus the walls were painted when the building was built, and not since then. No-one seems to notice that much except foreigners. A Japanese anthropologist explained that it is a residual `wooden house mentality', left over from the days when wood didn't need much treatment anyway, and houses burned down often. This constant replacement of buildings is still going on, and in Tokyo houses are designed to last around 25 years, though often they are pulled down before then.

In 1992 the Japanese government finally decided to spend US$800 million on refurbishing the state universities, starting with new buildings for Tokyo University in 1992, Kyoto University in 1993 and then Tohoku University and others later. They will also increase research funding. In the Hanshin area (Kobe and Osaka) the government has recently set aside large funds to replace university and research facilities damaged by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. However, as at late 1995, there is still no completed new building for my colleagues' section at the University ofTokyo.

Private universities

These universities, of which there are a large number of greatly varying quality, have a basic structure similar to state universities. Although they are under Monbusho when it comes to how students are taught, they are far more autonomous than state universities, at least in the way the professors and lecturers are treated. There are many excellent and famous private universities, Waseda and Keio for example. Another, the International Christian University (ICU), is famous for teaching literature, has the best university library in Japan (according to a newpaper survey it is streaks ahead of anywhere else), and is perhaps the foremost in Japan for learning both Japanese and English. There is a high foreign student level at ICU. Academics apply for research money the same as in the state universities.

As I now work at ICU, let me explain a little about how it is here compared to state universities (although I should say at the outset that all private universities are different). There are a lot of pluses (and minuses) in comparison to state universities. My only obligations here are for teaching during term time and meetings. Other than that I can do what I wish. This means I can spend all summer (late June to early September) on holiday overseas if I wish, and there is a long Spring break too. At state universities an annual four weeks of holiday is maintained (with public holidays as an addition) and if one wants to go overseas for a longer time it is rather impossible unless you persuade them it is for academic purposes. However even that has its minuses because academic leave is not allowed to be mixed with recreation leave, and academic leave schedule has to be set out very firmly with no deviation and there must be supporting documents such as letters of invitation. In other words it is very troublesome and inflexible. Not so at private universities, or at least ICU, in which academics are free to do as they wish and can happily mix academic pursuits (such as a conference) with a holiday. In addition at ICU there is a sabbatical system (no such system in state universities) in which staff can take a year's leave from all duties after every seven year's teaching, and still get normal salary and bonuses. Foreigners can take two terms of sabbatical after every four years of duty, and when combined with a summer break can add up to a nine month sabbatical. At ICU, foreigner's have the additional privilege of their return airfares being paid for their complete family when they go on sabbatical, a privilege unfortunately not extended to the Japanese faculty, who get no support at all. This is because foreigner's sabbatical was originally designed as home leave as well.

At ICU some staff have the additional chance to live on the campus, which is a green haven in western Tokyo, and the salaries and other conditions are generally better than at state universities - senior professors are usually paid around 15 million yen per annum. I have heard that salaries at Keio, for example, can be much higher.

On the minus side, teaching loads at private universities are generally much, much higher, and there is usually no term free of teaching as there is at state universities. At ICU, at least in science, research facilities are miserably poor compared to many state universities, and the general attitude of staff, particularly older staff, is one where they do the minimum required (ie just teaching) and little or no research. Worse than the teaching loads are the meetings, which are inumerable and frustratingly indecisive - they take far more time and cause much more stress than teaching. As in many universities in Japan, ICU suffers from a gerontocracy that won't go away - literally! There are many people here approaching their seventies, and yet when people do finally retire they are often replaced by retired professors from Tokyo University (who retire at 60) or elsewhere, thus maintaining our current average age of academic staff at 63. And, despite the newspaper reports, the library may be excellent by Japanese standards, but is certainly rather poor in the range of scientific journals it holds. In addition, ICU has the world's worst university bookshop, which seems far more interested in making profit from selling cigarettes and sandwiches than in providing books for student courses.

State research institutes

These institutes, funded separately by different Ministries, are now almost all located in Tsukuba Science City. They are much, much better funded than the state universities and are positively luxurious in comparison. In addition, the researchers have no teaching responsibilities apart from PhD students, and need not spend as much time writing for research grants. If you want to get lots of good research done, these are the kinds of places to go.

One interesting state research institute is the large one at Okazaki, which is in a small town just off the Shinkansen line fairly close to Nagoya. I visited there in 1986. The biology building is very, very impressive indeed and the equipment second to none. However, I noticed that the corridors and laboratories seemed rather sparse on human beings. My guide explained that although the government is very happy to buy machines, they aren't happy about committing funds to long term employment of people. Thus, Okazaki has probably the most superbly equipped set of laboratories in Japan, but little work seems to be done there. I also asked about the location of the laboratories, because it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. My guide said that the top administrators in Monbusho decided they wanted a central facility in Japan. So they got out their compasses and found the exact centre of the main islands of Japan. The compass landed on Okazaki and that was that. A great comment on the mindlessness of some bureaucrats.


There are some semi-public research institutes, such as the Protein Engineering Research Institute (PERI) and the Osaka Bioscience Institute (OBI) that are very well equipped and funded.

PERI is financed by the Japan Key Technology Center (which is in turn financed by MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) and fourteen private companies (two of which are subsidiaries of overseas companies). Given this source of funds, PERI research is mostly application oriented, although some basic work on improving techniques for looking at protein structure is being conducted. There is also research concerning new methods to analyse data bases and the production of new computer software for protein analysis. PERI aims to "...endeavour to be an international research organisation breaking through national and disciplinary boundaries".

Next door to PERI is the very prestigious OBI, which was built and is run by the City of Osaka. There are four departments: molecular biology, enzyme and metabolism, neuroscience and cell biology. Department heads are encouraged to apply for grants from both the public and private sector. Suntory (a large beer brewing company) for example, funds visits by staff to overseas laboratories. OBI, like PERI, also declares its international commitments. However, both institutes apparently have yet to mature, as there are few signs that English is used in any part of institute life, even though foreigners are working there. The organisation of the institutes follows the same strong heirarchy that is a facet of Japanese life, and although criticisms are `encouraged' I am told they are not welcome.

The RCIUMO (Research Centre for the Industrial Utilisation of Marine Organisms) is part of "The Project of Provision for Research Basis" (whatever that means) and is being established by funds from the national government, local governments and private industry (25 corporations at last count). Two laboratories are being built at Shimizu (facing a warm current) and Kamaishi City (facing a cold current). Research is to centre on marine biotechnology.

Comparison to industry

A lot of research in Japan is done in industry. Laboratory conditions are superb, there are many well-trained technical staff in permanent positions available to help researchers, and funding is amazing. It is said that the annual R & D bill for Hitachi alone equals the total amount administered by Monbusho to university research, and the `big three' (Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toyota) spend more on research than the total administered by the government to all the universities and national research institutes! Of course, most of the research has practical applications in mind, and it is not easy for researchers to publish. But there is still a lot of basic research done in industry. Industrial organisations also realise the value of the knowledge held by academics in institutions, and often consult with them. It is possible for academics to get funding from industry too, which has few of the complications of funding from Monbusho (see later). However, private industry doesn't communicate widely and the secrecy that surrounds the activities of the laboratories is symptomatic of industry. One exception may be the Mitsubishi Kasei Institute of Life Sciences where there is outstanding basic research carried on.

Students and the education system

As everyone in the whole world seems to know, Japanese students work very hard indeed to enter university. After all, the university degree is the passport to a better life. However, the competition to enter a good university is extremely intense. Many don't make it even after several attempts. Thus parents push their children to study, study and study. This has often resulted in a child very well versed in mathematics, but completely socially inept. They also seem to miss out on a lot of the childhood things that I think they shouldn't. I'm taking a rather extreme view, as many children manage quite well, but they do seem to study too much at such a young age. The study can start even before kindergarten, so that the child can enter the best kindergarten and therefore have a better chance to enter the best primary school and so on, up the ladder. The thing is, that once they enter university, many students are so relieved that they then do nothing. This is encouraged by professors who feel sorry for them after their gruelling childhood. I must admit I feel sorry for them too, but sometimes I wonder if the professors aren't just being a little lazy themselves. In my old department, it was quite apparent that most students learnt very little in their first two years, it was impossible for them to fail and they just had a good time. Most of them `majored' in their chosen extra-curricular activity!

Thus, at the junior level at least, it is possible that the Japanese standards at university can be below par, although of course medicine and other learning intensive subjects are of world standard. I was shocked one time to find that my second year students not only didn't have a textbook for their subjects, they also had no reading lists. Most of them used the library just for reading the newspaper. The professors expected them only to regurgitate their lectures. I once saw the academic record of one of my friends and was amazed to see a very long list of A's and one B. I asked how he managed to drop that one and he said he had been too busy to turn up to the course!

My first lot of students were so bad that I decided to fail around 35% of them and I gave only three A's out of 85 Students. I thought that some of them would faint when they saw the results, and my younger colleagues in the laboratory criticised me sternly. However, the Dean of Undergraduates encouraged me saying that it was good that someone had decided to make a stand. It turned out that many professors wanted to change the system but had no courage to be the first (the nail that sticks out gets hammered down). As I was a foreigner on a fixed term, I would not come to any promotion grief. In this respect, Japanese are quite the reverse to us, and again it is their sense of democracy and equality. They are not willing to stick their necks out and change the system. However, they are very willing to support someone quietly on the side. The Dean was really quite a bit of a politician, he was changing a lot of things at the university, and was very strongly supported by the hammered-down nails.

Students at the senior level find it a little harder, but in their fourth year, when they do a kind of honours project, it is very hard work indeed. This tends to come as a bit of a shock after their junior years, and is a little unfair really. One crazy aspect is the choosing of PhD candidates. Unlike Australia and Britain, for example, where it depends on how well students do in their honours year, students in Japan must sit for their PhD exams during their honours year. Students are given exams in their specialist discipline, English and another foreign language, and an interview by the professors. Those that take the PhD exam often do a poor honours dissertation because of the time spent in preparing for the PhD exam. The best dissertations thus seem to come from those not entering a PhD! The students have no chance to see if they have any ability in research before being tested for entry to a PhD course. I must say that this directive from Monbusho is one of the most brainless I have come across. Needless to say the professors also find it ludicrous and are actually trying to change it, but it could take ten years they said.

PhD training lasts five years and is similar to the USA, with a considerable amount of course work during the first two-year probationary period. A Master thesis must be written at the end of the second year. It is quite possible to do a PhD based on papers only, called a `paper-doc', in which I recall that of the required ten papers, half must be in international journals. At national universities PhD theses are examined `in-house', with the candidate's supervisor being the main examiner and having considerable sway. I cannot see that such a system can promote excellence in research, as supervisors are unlikely to fail their own students.