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16 Mar 2018 Matin Durrani
Taken from the March 2018 issue of Physics World

Japan is trying to boost its declining international competitiveness in science by attracting top foreign researchers. But as Matin Durrani finds out, working in Japan can be challenging to outsiders

In his office on the fourth floor of the Department of Earth and Space Science at Osaka University, Hikaru Kawamura, president of the Physical Society of Japan (JPS), hands me a brochure. It lists all 13 Japanese physicists who have won a Nobel prize, starting with Hideki Yukawa in 1949 for his theory of the nuclear force, and ending with Takaaki Kajita in 2015 for detecting atmospheric neutrino oscillations at the Super-Kamiokande underground lab. (Two of the physicists – Kenichi Fukui and Hideki Shirakawa – were awarded the chemistry Nobel prize.)

It is an impressive roster, but Kawamura, who leads a society with 17,000 members, admits he is “not optimistic” that Japan will be as prolific in terms of Nobel prizes in the future. As he points out, most Nobel laureates win their awards for work done 20 or 30 years ago. But with Japanese physics being – in his view – “not so popular as it used to be”, Kawamura is not sure how long the country will have to wait before another Japanese physicist wins a Nobel prize.

The way forward

The situation was different when Japan saw science as a way for it to revitalize after the devastation of the Second World War. Indeed, Kawamura, 63, recalls one of his school teachers who “used to talk about Yukawa like he was a god”. The country’s post-war investment in science and technology helped to turn Japan into one of the wealthiest nations in the world – it is either the third or fourth biggest economy on the planet (depending on which criterion you use) and home to numerous hi-tech giants.

Kawamura still thinks Japanese physics is strong, picking elementary particle physics, solid-state physics, astronomy and materials as fields where the country is world-leading. But he is worried about the declining output of Japanese physics and falling numbers of people doing PhDs in the subject. He is also troubled by the government cutting back on funds for “unconstrained” research at the expense of projects earmarked for specific targets. “There is a general concern in the community for fundamental science in future,” he warns.

One reason for the tightened research cash is Japan’s demographics. Plummeting birth rates and a steady rise in the average age at which Japanese people die have not only led to Japan’s population falling by just over 1% since 2010 to 126 million, but has also left the government facing rising social-security costs to support an ageing population. And with the number of 18-year-olds as a fraction of the total population halving over the last 30 years, it has left science – and science funding – on a slow but steady downward slide.

Writing in a statement when he was elected president of the Japan Society for Applied Physics (JSAP) for a two-year term in 2014, Satoshi Kawata – a photonics physicist from Osaka University – said that the cuts were creating “cutthroat competition between scientists”, who were being worn out “at the cost of freewheeling thinking”. Coupled with increasing administrative duties, endless meetings, a pressure to publish, and the constant writing of grant applications, many Japanese researchers lack time to be truly creative.

RIKEN’s president Hiroshi Matsumoto has called Japan’s plummeting international competitiveness a “crisis”

The difficulties were also highlighted in a Nature Index supplement published in March 2017, which noted that while the total number of publications indexed in the Web of Science across the world rose in all fields in the 10 years to 2015, Japan has not kept pace. In every scientific field, except mathematics and astronomy, the country produced fewer papers in 2015 than a decade earlier, with physics dropping by more than 20% during that time. Hiroshi Matsumoto, president of the RIKEN research institute, went so far in a recent issue of RIKEN Research as to call the plummeting international competitiveness a “crisis”.

Cultural issues

One way Japan is trying to boost science is to lure more overseas researchers to the country. In many regards, Japan is an attractive place for outsiders, especially if you are young, adventurous and have no family ties. People are warm and welcoming, crime is low and the country’s culture is unique. The food is great – if you like fish, that is – and transport is incredibly efficient. One Japanese rail firm had to apologize last year because one of its trains departed 20 seconds early. And with Japan strong in so much of physics, there is bound to be a lab or institute that matches your expertise.

But other factors make moving to Japan tricky for outsiders. The language is hard to learn, although if you are based at a research institute, you will find English is widely spoken in the lab. But if you have a partner and they are not a scientist, it won’t be easy for them to find a job outside academia unless they can already speak Japanese, potentially leaving them feeling isolated. Foreign researchers with children will also find that the Japanese school system is tough above kindergarten level, forcing most overseas scientists to send their children to expensive private, international schools. Tuition fees at the American School in Japan, for example, stand at ¥2.6m (about $23,000) per year.

Another challenge facing foreign researchers is that Japan’s research system is strongly hierarchical, with a lot of power placed in certain hands. To succeed, you need a supportive boss who will mentor and guide you. If someone higher up in your institute does not like you or sees you as a rival, they can easily turn off funding or side-line your work. “Powerful bureaucrats and power-brokers can destroy the research activities of competitors in a merciless manner,” says one foreign physicist who works in Japan but wishes to remain anonymous.

Dubbed “power harassment”, this suffering at the hands of influential people is not confined to academia. The Japan Times last year reported that about one in three workers in Japan had experienced some form of it over the previous three years, up from one in four in a previous poll in 2012, according to a survey of 10,000 workers by the health, labour and welfare ministry. About 41% of those harassed failed to take action, with most saying that even if they did, nothing was likely to be done. Some did nothing because they feared speaking out would damage their career progression.

Power harassment is tolerated because the Japanese are by nature passive people who do not wish to rock the boat

Handling such difficulties is harder if you are not Japanese and the researcher who spoke to Physics World believes power harassment is tolerated because the Japanese are by nature passive people who do not wish to rock the boat. “They know that bosses here are very powerful and the employees do not have real protection. In the West, harassment is no longer tolerated the way it was decades ago. Such cases are openly discussed in the West, but they are hidden in Japan. The harassment that researchers receive in Japan is the elephant in the room. Power always corrupts. Huge power can be abused and it is often abused.”

Power imbalance

Most Japanese universities have few foreign scientists, who tend to be early-career postdocs or senior visitors who are either on sabbatical or retired. One exception is Oliver Wright, an applied physicist from the UK who has been a full professor at Hokkaido University for more than 20 years, having first moved to Japan in the 1980s. “I think power harassment is a problem, but not in my case,” he admits. “I was parachuted into a full professor position with lots of power, so I could fight my ground with impunity. But I hear stories from friends and acquaintances about their suffering under powerful people.”

However, Wright is wary of criticizing Japan out of context, pointing out that other countries and cultures have similar problems too. “I know professors in the UK who keep their PhD students or postdocs in limbo for years because of their perfectionist attitudes to finishing journal papers, so the researcher’s career is ruined,” he says. “That’s also power harassment.” Indeed, his university is trying to tackle the problem, with staff encouraged to report any problems, although Wright concedes that “hardly anyone usually will dare to complain”.

One initiative to make it easier for foreign scientists to forge long-term careers in Japan is the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI), administered by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. It began in 2007 with the creation of five institutes, with each being required to have at least 30% foreign scientists. Perhaps the best known of the nine current centres is the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), which aims to understand the origin, composition and fate of the cosmos. Located on the University of Tokyo’s Kashiwa campus, it marked its 10th anniversary last year.

Kavli IPMU has performed better than expected in terms of its international make-up, with about half of its 140 researchers coming from abroad. “I think that having an equal percentage of Japanese to non-Japanese also makes people from abroad feel more comfortable,” says its director Hitoshi Murayama. The strong international flavour at Kavli IPMU is reflected in the fact that 60% of the 450 papers its staff publish each year are written with international co-authors. Papers written by researchers at most other Japanese universities, in contrast, have barely 10% of foreign co-authors.

Another aim of the WPI centres, which include the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo (see “Opening doors” box), is to shake up the Japanese university system by being less rigid and more innovative. Those efforts seem to be paying off at the IPMU, where Murayama, who spends around half his time at the University of California, Berkeley, was initially the only person at the University of Tokyo to hold such a joint position with a foreign institution. Now there are 72 staff at Tokyo with a joint appointment. “I am no longer an anomaly,” he says.

Opening doors

Photo of the Earth-Life Science Institute

Another research centre under the World Premier International initiative (see main text) is the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI), located on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Set up in 2012, it has around 100 staff – in everything from astrophysics to microbiology – who want to understand how life began on Earth and apply that knowledge to the search for life on other planets.

The ELSI has made quick progress in boosting the visibility of foreign researchers in Japan. When John Hernlund – ELSI’s vice director – joined the institute in 2013 he was the first permanent foreign researcher to work at Tokyo Tech. Now, there are 43 other international researchers at ELSI.

Yet Hernlund, who works in astrobiology, is well aware of some of the practical frustrations of working in Japan. When the ELSI was founded, for example, it sought to recruit scientists by placing job adverts in the media. But Hernlund and colleagues quickly discovered there was no process at the university to do this as conventional advertising was not how universities in Japan traditionally brought people in.

He and other staff members were therefore forced to dip into their own pockets to pay for the advertisements and, although they eventually got reimbursed, it took nearly a year to sort the problems out and put in place a system should anyone else at the university want to follow suit. “This is why reform is so important,” says Hernlund, who hopes that such changes will “propagate outside ELSI”.

Given the institute’s funding is guaranteed only for another five years, ELSI is now trying to diversify its income to guarantee its future. Hernlund notes the temptation to even turn away from the WPI programme itself to help the institute become self-sustaining and have more flexibility than it would do if it stayed in the system. One avenue being explored to do this is by attracting more private funding.

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