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.

18 Responses

  1. Serge says:

    I would recommend you to quit academia as soon as possible. Academia nowadays is simply precariat.

  2. Mattia Dongili says:

    What a coincidence, today is my first working day in sunny (at least so they call it) California.
    After 8 years and a little, 2 kids, 3 different companies (but 6 different working contracts), and many other things, I left Japan.

    With that said, if you’re interested in a job, my previous employer is looking for developers. Send me an email if interested and I can give you more details. It’s in Tokyo though, a different lifestyle than that you’re used to around there.


    • Mattia, you left Japan … that is a shock! I thought that in case I move to Tokyo, we can hang out … well, California, not bad. Enjoy the change from Japan, but I guess yo will soon miss a few things 😉

      All the best for your new job, happy for you!!!


  3. christina says:

    Dear norbert, difficult decisions to take for you, and lots of considerations…ı am sure though that you will find something that you wil enjoy and in which you will be brilliant. Maybe something will turn up from an unexpected corner. I can only say for my life: leaving the university was the best decision for me and suddenly there was a whole new world, which turned out to be way better than I expected it to be. So, just step out of this “tunnel” and see what happens… Lots of luck for you!!!

  4. Charles Plessy says:

    Indeed, the job market looks very closed. Few positions are advertised in English, and regardless of the language, “open” positions are often just a joke because the person to be recruited has already been chosen, but the rules governing research centers force us to pretend that it is an open recruitment… what a waste of time.

    • Hi Charles,
      yes indeed, you touched the core problem – that practically all decisions are already made when the call is going out. I have applied to many places, in Japanese and English, but to no avail. One job had my name on it – mathematician who has experience in programming, and can teach in both Japanese and English. And the university even forgot to contact me, not to speak of inviting me to an interview. All already decided, what a shame.

  5. Florian says:

    Dear Norbert,

    You are talented in so many ways that there is not the slightest doubt that you will find an interesting and fulfulling job within a very short time, especially when you are open to go anywhere on this planet. In any case we would be more than happy to have you back in Wien.

    Good luck, wherever your journey will lead you to.

  6. Jason Lewis says:

    Dear Norbert, I read your blog post with interest. I hope you find a path that works for you.

    Recently there was an interesting piece on the ABC (Australia) Science Show about this issue with academics working in Japan. Link: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/australian-post-docs-in-asia—part-1/6384108 in case you want to hear someone else’s similar findings to your own

  7. umij says:

    I would like to shamelessly promote my (unfortunately now defunct) blog, where I wrote about my impressions about Japan and job prospects; especially in academia:


    Granted, I quit after my PhD and approx. 4.5 years in Japan; 4 of them spent at our favorite small university in the middle of nowhere. Also, I was never made for academia, and in fact just barely got my PhD (I have to say though I am still proud I made it, given that another lab-member was more or less forced to quit).

    After that, I specifically looked for jobs outside of Japan, and I now found a stable position outside academia (even though research-related). My (Japanese) wife is also quite happy here. I make decent money, and I rarely work more than 50h / week. I can say with full confidence that, despite all the great things in Japan that I really enjoyed, I was glad that I left.

    Work for me is just more than earning money, and given that there are simply no great _long-term_ prospects in Japan for foreigners… talking with friends that also left due to graduating or finishing their contracts, all seem to be much happier now.

    I’m absolutely sure though that you’ll find your way.

    • Hi umij,
      thanks for the link to blog post, very good reading. I agree from start to end. I could tell many stories about JSPS applications and how they are mistreated. But most important, thinking about the foreigners around me, there are very few that not are living in their special niche. And although I know some who got tenured, that was mostly due to the regulations of 5-years-need-to-get-tenured that were installed 2 years or so ago. Of course, my university did the trick of not extending my contract, but giving me a new one – so it doesn’t count up to the 5 years. Well done.

      A sad world from academic perspective – since you are from Germany (I suppose from your post) you probably know well how bad university quality here is in Japan – students are ridiculously bad – even at a post-graduate university. Most of our students would not even be able to *graduate* from my *high school* back in Austria. And I wonder how they managed to come into post-graduate studies …

      But now times are changing (hooh hooooh!) – we are going international! At least on the surface, because this of course does not involve employing foreigners or providing foreigners a stable option. No, it just means nice banners and ads and pamphlets etc. Substance – as usual – not existent.

      • umij says:

        > since you are from Germany (I suppose from your post)

        Hint: We know each other (briefly) from our favorite university in the middle of nowhere. I was that guy nagging that you prepare new TeXlive packages for debian…. 🙂

      • Charles Plessy says:

        In our institute (and perhaps nationwide?) the 5-years-need-to-get-tenured rule became a 10-years rule for researchers thanks to eminent old scientitsts who managed to convince the administration (and the ministry ?) that 5 years is really too short to figure out if one is worth staying. And the countdown is not applied retroactively (*), so for instance I have 9 years of work that count for nothing, and now only 2.5 years that passed since 2013 (where the original law was voted). So in 7.5 years (since for most peoople the Management’s plan is to wait as long as possible) I am supposed to be informed whether I am good enough to stay. And if I move somewhere else, the counter will be reset to zero. So bascially, the old tenured managers managed to turn a law voted to force long-term employment into a system that bars most people except a few minions from having long-term employment…

        (*) We had discussions among managers that it may be possible that if somebody would sue his employer, the years worked before 2013 would have to be counted. But Academia’s job market is strikingly similar to the XIXth century job market: a network of employers who require proofs of obedience (here, “letters of recommendation”) from peers in order to let workers apply for jobs. So somebody suing one empolyer is not likely to find a new job in Academia…

        • Ah, Riken, private institution, what a pain. I honestly believe it is time to sue in such cases. One can still get recommendation letters from enough peers without any problem. Extending the tenure period to 10 years is really nasty. Sorry to hear that.

        • Anonymous says:

          I have to moderate what I wrote above: there are places that not only do not require “recommendation from your current supervisor”, but also that the majority of the recommendations “should neither be close collaborators of the candidate nor have served as mentors of the candidate”. I have been blinded too much by our local practices.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Nobert, du bist einer der tollsten Menschen, die ich kenne und bin stolz, so einen Bruder zu haben! Du hast so viel mehr drauf als Japanisch, Mathematik, Logik,… Klar, ist es hart, wenn man ein Ziel nicht erreicht, wofür man gekämpft hat. Probier doch einen anderen Weg – vielleicht landest du am Ende doch auch dort, wo du hin wolltest!!! So wie am Berg!!! Nimm nicht die härtesten und schwierigsten und momentan aussichtslosesten Wege – das Leben ist noch lange nicht zu Ende. Es gibt Chancen, von denen du niemals dachtest, dass genau diese dich zum Ziel bringen! Versuch dich dem Fluss des Lebens anzupassen, ergreif die Chancen, die sich dir bieten, vertraue ein wenig mehr darauf, dass es GUT sein wird und rudere nicht mit aller Gewalt und größtem Einsatz gegen die Lebensströmung – das kostet dich zu viel Energie!!! Das heißt nicht, dass man nicht kämpfen soll (du weißt, für mich sind Männer, die kämpfen können äußerst attraktiv :-)) – es heißt aber, nur dort zu kämpfen, wo es sich lohnt, wo Aussicht auf Erfolg besteht!
    Freu dich an den guten Dingen, die dir das Leben in en letzten Jahren beschert hat und öffne deinen “Geist” für Anderes!!!
    Ich drück dich ganz fest und wünsch dir aus ganzem Herzen, dass du Frieden mit der Situation finden kannst.
    Und ganz nebenbei freu ich mich auch, wenn du mal wieder näher bei mir wohnen möchtest…
    Bussl die Schwester

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