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Foreign Scientists Pioneer in Japan's Labs

TOKYO—Physicist Ron Scott returned to the United States in 1980 after working in Japan on a one-year grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. But two years after going back to work for McDonnell-Douglas, he said with his easy Texas drawl, “I felt I hadn’t seen it all. So I returned to Sendai for six months to write a paper.” Six years later Scott is still in Japan, working in the northeastern city of Sendai as a research physicist for the Inaba Biophoton Proj

By | January 25, 1988

TOKYO—Physicist Ron Scott returned to the United States in 1980 after working in Japan on a one-year grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. But two years after going back to work for McDonnell-Douglas, he said with his easy Texas drawl, “I felt I hadn’t seen it all. So I returned to Sendai for six months to write a paper.”

Six years later Scott is still in Japan, working in the northeastern city of Sendai as a research physicist for the Inaba Biophoton Project of the Research Development Corporation of Japan (JRDC). He is one of a small but growing number of foreign scientists who have embraced the chance to work in a Japanese lab. “The idea that Japan is closed to foreign scientists is a myth,” said Scott. “Japan is easily pene- trable—if you are serious.”

Two U.S. universities are developing programs to prepare scientists for work in Japan.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is starting a three-year pilot program of intensive training in technical Japanese. The first eight week workshop, planned for this summer, is meant for computer scientists and electrical engineers. Applicants for the 20 slots are expected to have a working knowledge of Japanese, the equivalent of two or three years of college-level study.

“We hope that MIT will become the center in the U.S. for applied studies in Japanese,” said project coordinator Susan L. Sherwood. The program is open to researchers from government, academia or industry. It is run by MIT's Japan Science and Technology Program with grants from the Japan Foundation, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, the Hitachi Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Stanford University is also developing a program to help U.S. scientists and engineers who are headed for Japanese laboratories. Stanford is seeking support from NSF and industrial groups for the program, which would be offered as early as 1989 at Stanford’s Center for Technology and Innovation in Kyoto. The 30 to 35 participants would receive three months of language training and seminars on organizational and cultural differences in Japan’s science community before they begin work at various labs.

The U.S researchers would gather several times during the year to compare their experiences, said Thomas Heller the university’s director of overseas studies. Sessions held after their return to the United States would examine how they use and transfer skills they acquired in Japan.

—Stephen Greene

For more information contact Susan L Sherwood, Technical Japanese Language
Project Coordinator, MIT Japan Science and Technology Program, E38-6599.
Cambridge, MA 02139; 617.253-8096; or Thomas Heiler Director, Stanford
Overseas Studies. Box L. Stanford University, Stanford. CA 94305; 415-725-0237.

In recent years Japan has eased restrictions on hiring foreign scientists and professors and taken steps to make foreign researchers feel more welcome. Just last year, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Science and Technology Agency added foreigners to the staff of a couple of government labs. JRDC’s ERATO (Exploratory Research for Ad- vanced Technology) program has hired 37 foreigners for various five-year projects since 1981, and the Ministry of Education for years has arranged temporary, short-term appointments in cooperation with NSF. Yet concerns about language barriers and cultural differences and a reluctance to stray from traditional career paths continue to keep many scientists away. And the belief persists that Japan has little to offer U.S. scientists interested in basic research.

Some foreigners nonetheless find its laboratories attractive. Mehdi Fathizadeb, a former laboratory instructor at Kerman University in Iran, is studying in Tohoko University’s electrical engineering department under a Ministry of Education scholarship.

“I want to learn to use as many machines as I can,” said Fathizadeh, an Iranian trained in England. “But in Iran and Eng- land, you only learn theory. Research in Japan depends on practical and experimental techniques.”

Robert Lewis, an American who for the past two years has studied high surface-area Perovskite catalysts under ERATO’s Kuroda Solid Surface Project at the Tsukuba Research Consortium, formerly worked at Shell Development Co. in Houston. “Shell’s exploratory efforts were diminishing, and I wanted to continue basic research,” explained Lewis, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. “That, plus a growing interest in Japan kindled in graduate school, led me here.”

An interest in Japanese culture, independent of its science, seems to correlate closely with successful experiences by foreign researchers. For all its Western trappings, Japan retains a distinctive cultural core that. foreigners can find by turns perplexing, exasperating or appealing. “You might as well be on a different planet,” said Scott.

Language is the most obvious challenge. It’s not. true that everybody speaks English, said Stephen Masutani, an American who was the first of four foreigners to be hired as a regular employee by Hitachi Plant Construction and Engineering Co. “You can communicate [in English] at only a rudimentary level. It’s a hard blow to the ego." In addition, he noted, it’s frustrating to be “surrounded by materials you want to read but can’t.”

Scott advised foreign scientists to study the language before coming (see accompanying story). “You can become street-fluent in about three months,” he observed. “Everyday at-ease use in the laboratory takes about two years.”

Living conditions can also require substantial adjustments. Masutani reports that when he joined Hitachi, he was housed not in the regular employees’ dormitory but in a building reserved for guests and executives working away from their families. The only hot water in his apartment was for the bath. “Still,” he said, “when you realize that the vice director of Hitachi lives in the same building under the same conditions, it doesn’t bother you so much.”

Thanks to the dollar’s steady decline, the days when U.S. researchers going to work for Japanese employers had to take salary cuts of 20 to 40 percent are over. Nowadays, salaries in the two countries are roughly equivalent, and in some instances a bit higher in Japan, where a 35-year-old government researcher may earn more than $50,000.

The research group can dominate a scientist’s life, in and out of the lab. “There’s no private life,” complained one researcher. “During the week the group works, and on weekends they play tennis and baseball together"

Lewis described how his research group decided which car he should buy. “One researcher took the lead,” he said. “They listed each car and its attributes on the blackboard, and the entire group debated them. I just sat back and watched. It was a fascinating process.”

Lewis has also seen that approach applied to a suggestion that the Tsukuba lab study superconducting ceramics. “That first week, nothing happened,” he said. But the next week, an ad hoc group of six scientists was formed that included experts in various fields.

“They turned out their first article by the end of the fourth week,” Lewis noted. “That intensive group effort came about so naturally. I have never seen anything like it in the States.”

Japanese labs hope that foreigners will stimulate more creative research. For foreign scientists, in turn, one reward is to see their own society in a new light. “You see that there is more than one way to skin a cat,” said Scott. “You learn another language. And you help internationalism science.”

Engel was an ERATO researcher in Japan in 1984-86
and now represents the project as a consultant in Bryn Mawr, Pa.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.1, January 25, 1988)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)

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