crimination appointments. There is a concern (heightened by the ever-present imposter syndrome) that those who take such a position will be seen as weaker than their contemporaries, due to being selected from a reduced pool of applicants. However, one year after taking up my position at Hokkaido University, I was in no doubt about the importance of such programs.
One of my first graduate students was initially so nervous about his English, he used an auto-translator to compose e-mails to me. Once he realized I cared nothing about broken grammar, and that a combination of charades and white-board Pictionary was an amazing way to communicate science, he relaxed. Two years later, he opted to present and write his Master’s thesis in English; a venture so successful he won the department award for best graduate presentation. Another of my students concluded his degree by engaging in a deep debate with me about the differences between American and British spelling (the point where I had to reach for a dictionary was when I decided my job was done). And a female graduate student in our group told me she would never have tried to become an astronomer if she had not met me. It was an emotional moment.
Of course, I could have advised students anywhere in the world, and I hope I would have made a positive impact on their careers. But being in Japan gave my skillset a boost: I was able to offer expertise that was not shared by all my colleagues and, sometimes, I simply represent a choice that not all students had considered.
Not everything was smooth sailing. In addition to amusing conundrums regarding the culturally correct way to address someone via e-mail, I found that language and cultural misunderstandings occasionally resulted in more serious issues. The textbooks for my class were not ordered until a month after I started teaching. The required syllabus was never clearly described, nor the knowledge expected of the students. In the end,
I started with a math test of successively harder questions and waited for the students to turn green (to my first set of students, I can only apologize).
Cultural differences also meant that I was frequently teaching on Christmas Day, and I once had to rearrange accommodation options for an international meeting after I realized it was assumed invited senior researchers would be happy sharing rooms of four (shared sleeping can be common in Japanese hotels). There was also a more serious incident when a misunderstanding concerning a research grant resulted in me having to inform my two newly hired postdoctoral researchers that I could only fund them for 18 months, not three years. That was the closest I ever came to quitting.
However, support for international faculty has noticeably improved over the years that I have lived in Japan. Hokkaido University created a dedicated support office for its international science researchers, which solved all my serious problems. There is slightly newer but similar support at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Tokyo, where I moved in 2017.
That I have moved here and stayed is testimony to the fact I find the advantages of Japan far in excess of the troubles, although it notably helps to have a slightly devil-may-care outlook! While Japan may still be struggling to find its place on today’s global stage, the fact it belongs there is unequivocally ref lected in the nine Japanese physicists who have been awarded a Nobel prize since 2000, not to mention the others in chemistry and medicine. To be part of this country’s future is undoubtedly an incredible opportunity.
Elizabeth Tasker is an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Aeronautical Sciences. She is also a science communicator and writer, and has penned a popular-science book, The Planet Factory
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