6 years in Japan
Exactly 6 years ago, on October 1, 2009, I started my work at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST), arriving the previous day in a place not completely unknown, but with a completely different outlook: I had a position as Associate Professor, and somehow was looking forward to an interesting and challenging time.
6 years later I am still here at the JAIST, but things have changed considerably, and my future is even less clear than 6 years ago. So it is time to reflect a bit about the last years.
The biggest achievement
My biggest achievement in these 6 years is probably that I managed to learn Japanese to a degree that I can teach in Japanese (math, logic, etc), can read Japanese books to a certain degree, and have generally no problem communicating in daily life. Said that, there is still a long way to go. Reading, and much more writing, is still requiring concentration and power, far from the natural flow in my other languages. While talking feels rather natural, the complexity of the written language is a huge hurdle. But this is probably the good, the high point of the 6 years, a great challenge, that keeps my mind busy and working and challenged over long time, with still more to do.
The happiest thing
Many events here in Japan were of great fun and enjoyment for me. The rich culture, paired with a spectacular love for traditional handicraft I haven’t seen anywhere else, is a guarantee for enjoyable and intellectually stimulating activities. But the biggest joy of my time here of course was that I found a lovely, beautiful, and caring wife. Not knowing the challenges of an international marriage, I was caught without preparation, and so we had (and still have) rough times due to the cultural differences, and different expectations. But this is what makes life interesting, and so I am always grateful for this chance. Whatever happens in the future, she will be part of my decisions and the center of my life.
The biggest disappointment
Of course, when you live in a country for some time, you learn to know the highs and lows. As someone interested in politics and social systems, Japan is a pain in the butt in many respects. But the biggest disappointment was in a different area: Working environment. While I love my work and had great surroundings, there is something that always is present in the background: Foreigners here are not considered assets, but embellishment. Meaning that they are the first ones to loose their jobs when times are difficult, meaning that they are not considered as full members. After many years at a university here, and with no outlook on a job after March, I can only say, Japan is a country of “Japanese first”, especially when it comes to jobs. Of course, other countries are not that different, but looking at the average mixture of nationalities at universities in Europe or the US, and comparing them to Japanese universities, a bleak image is arising. I enjoyed my time here, I worked hard and did a lot for my university, but the economically hard times make it necessary to change things, and that means getting rid of foreigners.
That is the reason why the work environment is the biggest disappointment in these years.
The future is unclear, as it always was. The dire fate of many researchers. Being in my 40ies without a permanent position and a family, I am forced to think hard what my next options are. The hide-and-seek games of Japanese (and other) universities seem to me less and less an option. Sad as it is, after having worked 20+ years in academics, having done some interesting (for me) research and having managed to secure a name in our community, I am not sure where my future is. Continuing on definite contracts does not sound like a great option for me. Several things for the future come to my mind: starting my own business, work as programmer (maybe Google still wants me after I rejected them 2 years ago), work as mountain guide (have done that for some years before going to Japan). All of that is possible, but my loosing the time to research will always be a pain, since I enjoy cracking my brain on some complicated and deep logical problems.
Whatever comes, I will take it as a chance to learn new things. And in one way or another it will work out, I hope.