A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge

Working in the Laboratory

Welcome party

My guess is that fairly soon after you arrive your colleagues will give you a welcome party, which may even be in the laboratory. In Japan, people tend to keep work and family separate, so your family may not be invited. However, many academics in Japan have spent time overseas and have a good idea of how foreigners think. All the same they may ask your family to come. You will just have to play it by ear. I should say that if your family came to such a party and they weren't expected, no-one would be put out by it. They seem to be a flexible lot. I think Japanese parties are great, with lots of little interesting things that I'll let you discover for yourself.

Interactions with colleagues

In the end, living in Japan is just like living anywhere, there are daily routines and obligations that are the norm of human life. In this respect, working with Japanese academics and students is much the same as anywhere, taking into account their special way of politeness and deference to elders and teachers. As an academic in Japan you will be highly respected. Academics have high status in Japan, and everyone who knows you are so will call you Smith-sensei (teacher) rather than Smith-san, as a sign of respect.

In the laboratory there will be probably be tea-time, at least in the afternoon. Everyone is usually very relaxed, kind and helpful. They will appreciate your attempts at the Japanese language and won't mind at all if you make a terrible mistake. I said to a pretty young lady once "sawatte kudasai" instead of "suwatte kudasai". The difference is very small in speech but I said please touch me instead of please sit down! Of course, everyone laughed. The Japanese don't really tell jokes but like to play on words a lot, so they enjoy this sort of mistake. They definitely aren't laughing at you and I hope you can tease them back when they attempt English.

You will find that most professors can speak very good English. It is likely many of them have spent periods overseas, perhaps as post-doctoral fellows, so they know the system well and will know what you expect. I can virtually guarantee that they will try their best, even if it may not seem like it sometimes.

Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with Japanese academics is that, as in most of Japan, almost all decisions are made on a consensus basis. For example in Australia or the UK the simple matter of authorising a change of course for a student would be dealt with in minutes by the Dean. In Japan, this decision would be made by committee, and although the committee would always vote according to the Dean's advice (and therefore in reality not requiring the committee at all) a consensus must be seen to have been made. This is a very important part of the process of Japanese administration, and frustrating as it can be for a foreigner, it will not change. The professors often complain bitterly about too many meetings, but in many respects they are also the propagators of the system.

There are perhaps three points to keep in mind.

1. Japanese people can be very shy, especially students, who seem particularly frightened of foreigners. They will rarely come to ask you for help or if they can offer you help in any way. Only those scientists who have had extended periods overseas will come forward and communicate directly with you. This means you must go to them. Never hesitate to ask questions - you will be astounded at how they will bend over backwards to help you once you ask. Please don't sit and wait for them to come to you. You have to be the initiating partner in this relationship.

2. Japanese may specifically answer questions that you ask, without thinking about giving you extra information that you may take for granted in your own culture. For example, a colleague asked if there was a spectrophoto-meter with a temperature-controlled chamber for cuvettes, and was told there was. When fronting up the next day with all the reagents ready to go he was told that it was not possible to use the machine because it was reserved for students for the ensuing two weeks. Thus the question before had been if such a machine existed, not that it was wanted for use. In English speaking culture it is implicit that the enquirer is considering using the machine and the answer would be that yes it exists but if you want to use it then ... etc. Clearly in some Japanese minds there is no link to these separate ideas of possession and intended use.

3. If you have a strong English accent then you may not be well understood. Speak slowly and carry a notepad to write down keywords. Japanese can usually read much better than they can hear. I have a southern British accent and was fortunately well understood, but some American friends and a Scottish friend had great difficulty at times. In understanding Japanese pronunciation of English, see the section on Japanese Language.

Joining in

Japanese are a very fun-loving and social lot, and do lots of things together. Even though it is tough at times when you can't understand what is going on, please grin and bear it, and join in. Force people to speak to you in English. In my laboratory we had Japanese days, to help improve my ability, and English days to help theirs. Sometimes you may have to be a bit pushy, but if you do it with a smile on your face, it works! There will doubtless be many parties. Usually the students do the organising and clearing up, but you will be asked to contribute according to your status. Professors usually pay around five times as much as a student. A post-doctoral fellow around twice. Students usually have a very low income.


I have heard many people say that it is hard to make friends with Japanese people, and that of course they are polite, but they are very reserved and never make deep friendships with foreigners. In other words, they are somewhat xenophobic. This is all rot. Japanese put on the same manners equally to all strangers, be they other Japanese or foreigners. Its just that most foreigners don't notice this and also don't stay long enough for deep friendships to develop. Japanese friendships are usually kindled in long term togetherness, such as at school and at university. Thus deep friendships come only over long periods of working or studying together, and usually only with peers. Again, the sense of respect to elders precludes the use of familiar speech with them, and it is hard to make deep friendships with people out of your age group. It is very complex and I don't pretend to fully understand. In Tsukuba it was easily one year before I could say that I had made one or two good friends, but after three years I knew and felt that I had friends for life. It grows slowly but very surely indeed.


One of the problems with the national university system is that it divides research into small, strongly heirarchical, independent groups called koza, based on an old German system. These are usually headed by a professor, with an assistant professor, one or two research assistants, and a following of research students. Each koza has its own budget for research, and there is often very little communication or interaction between koza. Some professors can be very dominant in this situation, though often they take on a very fatherly figure. In respect of the latter I noticed how very concerned the professors were for the welfare of their students. However, it can be very frustrating for bright young researchers who are stuck under the dictatorial (even if outwardly benevolent) leader of their group. Many scientists are in their forties before reaching independence.

I was surprised to see staff in their early forties only just taking on the responsibilities of lecturing. This has pluses and minuses. The younger staff have more time for research, but the students only get the older professors for their lectures. I feel that the enthusiasm of youth would spill over onto undergraduates if the younger academics were allowed to lecture. At Tsukuba I was the youngest lecturer in the Institute at age 36 when I started there. I really felt that the students appreciated a younger lecturer, and they told me that they could communicate with me more easily because of my age.

How do Japanese scientists think?

You may work with Japanese people for many years and still not really understand the underlying philosophy that motivates them and structures their way of thinking. I can say for certain that it is different to the West. Perhaps the enigma can be neatly summarised in part of a letter I received from Dr Maurice Venning of Invetech Operations Pty Ltd, Victoria, Australia: "...the perspectives of Japanese scientists are quite different from the approach ofWestern scientists. The Westerners, in studying a problem, tend to reduce it to its simplest factors and model this. The problems of this approach are clearly seen in our approach to economics today. The Japanese treat the problem as a black box which cannot be reduced to individual factors. Rather, they study the inputs to and the outputs from the black box, and over time become one with the black box so that they understand its reactions to inputs in an intuitive sense. This understanding is the fruit of a long term approach and cannot be taught through lectures or talks."

Please read the article by Dr Motokawa mentioned in the Prologue, it offers one view of the differences between Us and Them.

Students learn passively, not actively

From my observations of university teaching in Japan, students are generally not expected to think, but just regurgitate their notes. They are not necessarily encouraged to go to the library and read. One professor I shared a course with said that he knew he should recommend that the students buy an important text, but didn't mention it because he thought it was too expensive for them. I recommended it to them the next lecture and they all had a copy within a week. Quite a few of them said they had actually spent some time reading and could now understand the lectures.

This attitude extends to postgraduate training, where students seem to be expected to learn merely by watching rather than being actively taught. Thus, honours students and early postgraduates can be quite incompetent. It isn't that they are stupid, they certainly aren't, its just that they haven't been made to think for themselves. Perhaps this is why it seems that they waste an enormous amount of time in the laboratory and work very inefficiently, they are just quite at a loss as to what to do. Perhaps I'm generalising too much, but I'm sure you will observe this `effect' in some laboratories.

Women in science

Much as I prefer to think of the scientist as neuter, women can encounter special problems in Japan because of the strong male dominance. As in all countries, women are in a minority in science and academic life in general. However there is about an equal ratio of men and women students. In my department at Tsukuba, there were two women academics out of about thirty, but forty percent of PhD students were women. Let us hope that the future brings more equal opportunity for women academics. There are a number of very highly respected women scientists in Japan.

I met only two foreign women scientists in Japan. One an Iranian just finishing her PhD at Tsukuba, and the other a post-doctoral fellow from India, who was working in Hokkaido and loving it. Both had taken a lot of trouble to learn Japanese and this had helped tremendously. From feedback given by two Australian women who have gone to Japan, it seems that the `foreign-ness' overshadowed the `female-ness' and they were treated as equals to the men. Both these scientists reported that the treatment of Japanese women scientists was not on an equality basis. I have heard that foreign women who are fluent in Japanese are treated as Japanese women, and expected to make tea and do the clearing up. However, in my laboratory at Tsukuba, the male and female students equally shared the tasks of tea-making and party preparation, and the clearing up afterwards. Sometimes even the male junior professors would make tea for all. I never had the feeling of female inequality in this respect, but perhaps I couldn't see it, being a male. I would very much appreciate more details from women scientists who have travelled to Japan to include in future editions of this booklet.

The checking of manuscripts

For post-doctoral and visiting fellows, there is very little expected of you that would be different from your home country. There is one exception, and that is the checking of manuscripts. Nowadays, most serious researchers in Japan publish in English, preferably in an international journal. You can appreciate that having a native speaker of English present in the department is too tempting, and you will receive many requests for English correction of manuscripts.

My experience has been that papers written by professors are good in both science and English, and you will not need to do too much. But look out for manuscripts from postgraduates or inexperienced post-doctoral researchers. And especially with postgraduates, make very sure that their professor has already read and corrected the manuscript, especially for the science. Don't rely on the word of the student, go and ask the professor. This may seem untrusting but some students can be a little devious. This should save you a lot of time (I wasted a lot of mine). I eventually refused papers from students unless their professor had signed the front of the manuscript saying he or she had read it.

Generally, postgraduates papers will have mistakes in the science and you are morally obliged to point these out. Major points to look out for are lack of controls and misuse of statistics (and connected with this, few if any replicates). If these are particularly bad go and see the student and professor together without wasting too much time on the English. You will get a feel for this after a few papers. I was averaging around three or four papers per month because I belonged to the largest state university biology department in Japan. I hope you get far fewer than that. What I do recommend is that you rarely refuse to look at a paper. It may seem a waste of time (it often is) but you can gain a lot of Brownie points. You can also get a good idea of the research going on in your department and meet other researchers you may not have done any other way. It is a very good way of becoming known in the department. Of course you have the right to refuse, but in the long run you will gain, because there are going to be many occasions when you need someone to help you with the administration or for translating your research grant application into Japanese. Another nicety is that you will get a present for doing it. I got so much whisky and cognac that I had to give it away to the students in my laboratory (earning many Brownie points!). At one stage the papers were getting to be too much and I decided to charge Y1,000 per page, not because I wanted the money but just to put them off. It didn't work but I made a lot of yen. However, I never dreamed of charging anyone in my laboratory group for such a favour. Believe me they will do you many more favours.

One possible problem you will find with papers is that the authors don't attempt to explain the phenomenon they present, they don't really put the research into context, and they don't attempt to make hypotheses on the basis of the research. This is very much to do with the Eastern philosophy of life, and is explained very comprehensively by Tatsuo Motokawa in his article `Sushi Science and Hamburger Science' (see Prologue).

There is no such thing as technical support

Unfortunately, there is no technician system in Japan. Professors use students and young post-doctoral equivalents as "slaves" to keep the laboratories going (I'm not joking). You must do all the work yourself. It means that your research may very well take two or three times longer than in your home country. Please allow for this. Let me give you an example. I do a lot of electron microscopy, and in Australia I use well-run and serviced microscopes, which are always ready when I arrive. After I have taken my pictures I walk away and return the next day for my negatives and proof prints. In Japan my first job in the morning was to go down to the microscope room and turn on the machines, turn on the cooling water, prepare the darkrooms, make sure I had enough film and load that into cassettes and put these into the machine and pump it down. Then off for a cup of tea and wait for the vacuum. If I was lucky, within 30 minutes or so there was enough vacuum for an electron beam, providing there was still enough liquid nitrogen for the cold finger. If not, then it was another hour or so getting that. After viewing and photographing my samples it was another hour or so developing the negatives and loading up more film into the desiccator to pump down overnight. Later that day I could print the negatives in our group's darkroom. It thus took the whole day for something that takes me only one hour at the Australian National University because of the excellent technical support. Although the facilities I am able to use in Australia are perhaps exceptional even by `normal' standards, I give you this example as a way of explaining how much more time may be needed to do things in Japan.

The lack of technicians is in most part the result of poor funding and the unwillingness of grant-giving bodies to fund for personnel. In addition, as grants are generally given within the financial year, money is available for use for only part of the year, and it is difficult to employ anyone under such conditions, especially in Japan where people are used to the concept of permanent employment. More details are given in the section on getting a research grant.

Conferences and travel money

You should be able to get support for a conference and there should be special funds for travel expenses; it depends a great deal on your situation. Again your professor can help.

I found that national conferences are a bit meek, but they are great venues for making contact with people in your field, of course. The whole thing is generally treated as a bit of a holiday by many, though they are very conscientious about turning up to the lectures and dressing smartly.

For some reason, posters are not taken very seriously, and although quite a few people make the effort, very few academics come and read them. This is a shame, as poster sessions are of great value at conferences.

Although most if not all of the lectures at a local conference will be in Japanese, the slides are usually in English, and it is quite possible to grasp the general gist of what is going on. If you are to give a talk, remember to speak much more slowly than usual because often their English listening skills are much worse than their written, and allow for that in your time slot.

There is always a great banquet after, and try to get one of those square wooden saké bowls as a souvenir.

Laboratory supplies and central services

In your home country, you may be quite accustomed to popping down to your department store for something like Petri dishes, purchased on a chit, or using stores from other parts of the university for all kinds of items. In Japan, the stores system doesn't exist. Usually, laboratory supply company sales people regularly visit your laboratory and ask if you have any needs. You can call them, or someone from your laboratory will for you, and the item can be there very quickly if you need it to be. It is very unlikely that the sales people will be able to speak English. There is quite fierce competition so they can offer a good service, except price. Research items in Japan are inordinately expensive, and you must go through an agent for your purchase. You are not able to purchase directly from overseas. Some items may be three or four times the price you pay for them in your home country. Research items are also taxed, unlike many other countries, although the tax is quite low. The reason for the high prices is the inordinate number of middle-men in the Japanese wholesale system. This is what keeps all prices high in Japan. The actual payment of the goods is handled by administrative personnel at the university, so you won't actually have to hand over the cash! You will also be given regular updates of your account balance.

At your home country department you may also be accustomed to using professionally-run central facilities such as a photographic department, a car pool that may include off-road vehicles for field trips, a workshop where ad hoc equipment may be made, well-run greenhouse facilities that may include managed growth cabinets, and so on. Very few or none of these things exist in Japanese universities and research institutes. At Tsukuba University, they did at least have a central liquid nitrogen and helium facility, though they had no delivery service. Many were the times I had to push our liquid nitrogen containers the half kilometre round trip over bumpy pathways and roads to get a refill! Thus, in research Japanese-style, you must be prepared to do everything for yourself.

Health and Safety

It may be fine where you go, but it is very likely that you may find disregard for even completely obvious do's and don't's. Recently I wrote a short ditty about my experiences for my Research School Newsletter. I reproduce it here for your interest and (I hope) amusement.

Mini Essay: Cake and Cockroaches in a Japanese Laboratory

Do you remember the good old days when you could sit with a nice hot, steaming cup of tea on the bench next to the tubes, when you could work uncramped by ill-fitting, grubby labcoats, when you could tackle a problem with your buddies over lunch with your feet up on the centrifuge? Thought that sort of life was over since the `Health & Safety' came along? Well, if you miss those relaxing things in life, go and work in a university in Japan.

As we all know, in British and Australian laboratories nowadays, to even think of a sandwich in the laboratory could earn the wrath of the Health and Safety Executive, but in Japan there are tea breaks (called O-san-ji, or literally: honourable three o'clock), frequent parties, and the postgraduates shove over all the nasties in the fume cupboard and cook their dinner there when they work late. All this and no need to look over your shoulder in case someone sees you without your laboratory coat on. In the laboratory next to mine where I worked, staff and students were quite happy to stand next to the ultrasonic cleaner without ear protection: perhaps it shook the wax out of their ears! And many didn't wear gloves, it seemed more obvious for them just to wash afterwards. Even those who did use gloves seemed to wear them all day, so that the chemicals they were `protecting' themselves from were quite happily spread over door knobs, drawer handles and light switches.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I saw was a student weighing out the yellow radioactive powder uranyl acetate on an open bench. If this fine powder becomes suspended in the air and subsequently breathed in, the results would almost certainly be cancerous.

I did manage to get all the people in my group to weigh out the nasties in the fume cupboard (they call it the `drafto') but was unable to convince them to stop cooking or boiling the kettle in the fume cupboard next to the open osmium waste bottle, or get them to wear laboratory coats. I also managed another small success: catching all the cockroaches with those magic little sticky boxes (they call them cockroach hotels) that use no insecticide, just a beefy-smelling bait in the middle of a sticky pad. We filled three boxes in three nights. After that I worried less about the cockroaches that may have crawled over the plates and cups, having previously crawled over all the dusty parts in the laboratory or maybe even through the fume cupboard and then on through the biscuit box . . . need I go on? Another concession was to get the smokers to stand next to the fume cupboard so that some of those noxious fumes left the room.

In contrast to this somewhat cavalier attitude, in Japan virtually no chemicals are disposed of down the sink, but carefully stored and later removed by specialist companies. Even photographic chemicals are disposed of in this way. There are heavy metal detectors in all the main waste pipes. All chemicals are stored in closed cupboards; in fact just about everything is behind glass or metal doors. I hadn't thought much about this except that it was a bit awkward at times. Then we had a rather nasty earthquake and I discovered why. As an added precaution acids and valuable chemicals are kept in `pots' with magnetic bottoms that stick to the metal shelving.

Of course, as a highly responsible member of our health conscious scientific community, I was appalled by the attitude and practices that I saw, though I should say that some individuals were more conscientious than others. The point is that there appeared to be no official, or at least no enforced rules on safe laboratory practice there.

Apart from all this, my biggest problem was that all the benches in Japan are still made to a size meant for midgets. This may be alright for the cleaning ladies, who seemed to have a compulsory height limit of 1.5 metres for their profession, but no good for us lesser mortals brought up on fish and chips, and no good for the youth of Japan (brought up on sushi and seaweed) who all seem to be taller than me anyway. So I got backache. Now I would tell you about my experience with the Acupuncture and Moxi-combustionist, but that's another story that still brings tears to my eyes!

I must admit I got quite used to the idea of having tea and cake in the laboratory (the morsels were often delicious) and the students did all the tea-making and preparation to save us privileged teachers the effort. But one day, during a pause in the conversation, I chanced to glance up at the pipes overhead, and I swear I saw cockroach footprints in the yellow dust . . .


Omiyage (souvenir)

This is a very important aspect of Japanese life and culture. It has developed into an important and lucrative industry. When you visit another laboratory or someone at their house, it is very important to bring omiyage. If you are say, visiting a Tokyo laboratory from Kyoto, then it is customary to bring a local Kyoto delicacy, usually a sweet or small edible thing. For this kind of occasion (ie visiting another laboratory) you should always take a small packet of delicacies. They are available at stores and almost all railway stations and are very hard to miss. It doesn't matter what you bring, it is the bringing that is important. Japanese will very much appreciate this kind of thing from a foreigner, because they don't really expect it I guess. If you visit a professor's house, then take the usual kind of things we do here. I once took a huge bunch of flowers for the wife of a professor and she thought I was very wonderful indeed. Many Japanese have very romantic notions about Europeans, so a bunch of flowers works wonders.

Working hours

Unlike the stories one hears of Japanese `salarymen' working `til the wee hours every night, professional staff at universities seem to be much more sensible. In my old laboratory at Tsukuba, most of the professors turned up around 9.30 to 10.00 am, in time for morning coffee in the laboratory or common room. They would probably work until 7.00 pm, and usually turn up for Saturday mornings. My official hours were 8.30 - 5.00 and every second Saturday morning. In reality, as it seems everywhere, I worked the hours I wished. In my group at Tsukuba, students tended to work late, often to midnight, and all day Saturday until 6.00pm, but Sunday was rest day. However, I think they tended to put the hours in but didn't put much into the hours. They worked very inefficiently and weren't always very motivated. It was almost as if they knew they would get their degree just by being there.

There were one or two strong regulations for academics. The first was that all professors must be present on the first day of the academic year, and on the first day back after summer break, unless officially excused for a sabbatical. This means that for foreigners they must be back from vacation. There is no way of sneaking it, because the university receives your departure and arrival details from Immigration. You must be careful about this as it could mean nasty things.

University years are a bit odd, as the academic year starts in April, they have a short term, and then break for the summer, recommencing in early September.


If you are just working in the laboratory, then it is fine to wear whatever is appropriate. Japanese academics are not particularly formal on an everyday basis. Ask your colleagues or just see what they wear. If you teach you may like to dress a little more smartly, but I never wore a tie for classes and in a way this helped to communicate with the students by making classes seem less formal. No-one would have said anything if I had worn jeans, I'm sure, and in the laboratory jeans seem to be the best to wear.

At more formal occasions, like a party with the University President, then please dress well. You can never be overdressed in Japan, so if you are not sure then overdone is better than underdone.