Being a student in Japan

Inge Kjærbølling, postdoc, Chr. Hansen,

As part of my PhD I had a two-months research stay in Japan. Here I will share some of my personal impressions and experiences with a Danish background and mind-set, coming to this fascinating country. 

First impressions – a country of contrast 
In the spring of 2018, I packed my bags and headed for uncharted territory, Japan or more precise Kanazawa. As part of my PhD studies I was going to visit a highly-regarded professor to collaborate on a project connected with the type of fungi used in soy sauce and sake production, a very important part of traditional Japanese cuisine and culture. I love travelling and have done so quite a lot, having lived in four other countries before. Japan, however, was completely new to me. To be honest, I had mainly thought of my project and not much of how different, it was going to be living there. 

My impression of the Japanese people is that they are extremely decent and polite. It can be illustrated with a few examples such as the fact that there are no public trash cans but the streets are clean. Everyone waits for the bus or train  in straight lines in the order people arrive – demonstrating an exemplary queuing culture. Everything and everyone has a place and follow it. As a whole, Japan is also full of contrasts – extremely modern and high tech but also with a rich history and a deep respect for tradition. Artful gardens with serene calmness and beauty are neighboured by gaming arcades with vibrant colours and deafening mix sounds visited by men in suits on their way home. It is deeply fascinating. 

The university setting – Being the odd one out
Many of the observations of the country and culture are also reflected in the Japanese way of doing research. I was at Kanazawa Institute of Technology at a campus build outside the city, surrounded by rice fields and with modern facilities similar to many European universities. However, one of the things I noticed with surprise was that there was no kitchen or coffee room where you could go for a break. The only thing I found was a vending machine where you could get coffee, but the set-up was not made for social interaction. Get your fuel and go back to work. I was placed in an office with four laboratory technicians who were very nice but spoke no English. Since I was only working computationally and there was no natural meeting place with other researchers, the only person I really talked with was my supervisor. I felt therefore quite isolated, and it was difficult to get an in-depth understanding of their way of working.

In general, I would say that it is a relatively closed research environment compaired to theother universities, I have been at. Here there was a mix a many different nationalities represented, but this was not my experience in Japan. I think, it to a large extend is due to the language barrier as manyJapanese people do not speak English, or they are too shy to try, and the information in many places is only in written in Japanese. A simple thing as going for lunch turned out to be my daily adventure. The first day my supervisor showed me how it worked, but thereafter I was on my own. Basically, there was a machine where you would buy a vaucher based on what you wanted to eat, and then you would go the canteen and exchange the vaucher to food. The only problem was that all the buttons on the machine were only in Japanese, so for me it worked more like a lottery ticket of the day. At that campus, I think, I was the only foreigner clearly sticking out everywhere. Some of the bigger universities might have more foreigners,but in general I think the language barrier is a large challenge. 

The art of communication
The daily work and interaction with my Japanese supervisor was productive and less formal than what I had expected. We had some very nice scientific discussions, but it took me a while to understand that when he said, ‘maybe you should consider…’ it actually meant ‘I disagree’ or ‘no I don’t think you should go in that direction’. Being used to a quite open and direct communication form it required a slight adjustment to develop a more sensitive radar in order to read the more subtle signs. I think this might be a result of the politeness that they would never say no directly but instead give you the opportunity to change direction yourself. 

Mindset at work
As I mentioned initially, living in Japan, you also get the sense that everything and everyone has a place and follow it. There are authorities and established hierarchies, and these are not challenged directly since you do not openly disagree or question them. This could be problematic for the development of science. However, since my interaction with other students was very limited, I am not sure how it applies in a research context, but it could be a point of attention. 

Last but not least, I have to comment on the impressive efficiency and high work ethics. I am not sure how they do it, but it seems like they go 100% all the time. People do their very best, if it is in research or as cleaning staff in the Shinkansen train. I have never seen such fast and efficient cleaning of a train, at the end stations there is only a few minutes reserved for cleaning, so the staff basically run in order to make it. I got the feeling that this is the same attitude and work moral for other jobs as well. 

In conclusion, I must say that I am deeply impressed by Japan. I believe, we can learn quite a lot on the work ethics and efficiency but the language barrier is quite inhibitory and needs to be addressed in order to open the research culture. Additionally, after returning, I have found a new appreciation of our open communication and more flat management structure commonly found in Denmark. I hope some of my experiences have shed light on this exciting country both opportunities and pitfalls.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s