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Posted on 2007.07.14 at 14:20
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Again, answering some questions:

1. People aren’t loud in lab, with the exception of spontaneous laughter. So, no one yells at anyone, even to joke around. People tend to discuss things quietly, in case someone nearby is concentrating, which, of course, they are. Music, however, is welcome, so long as the volume is not high enough that the bass interferes with the AFM tips. It’s funny how someone next to me will talk in scarcely more than a whisper to a fellow researcher so as not to distract me from my Applied Physics article, but then the same person will crank up some Asian Kung-fu Generation then next minute and drum along on the desk as they head bob. This begs the question: how deeply cultural is the quiet voice thing? I mean, if people were consciously preoccupied with not disturbing others, then the music thing would settle down, so that can’t be the cause. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to them not to speak quietly. Perhaps, like wearing clothing is a natural and obvious thing for me to do in society, speaking quietly in a work environment is an ingrained and subconscious cultural disposition of the Japanese. Either that or Asian Kung-fu Generation is so outrageously hip that people can, without the slightest fear of suffering reprimand or of losing face, use them to break any unwritten rules. There are countless other possibilities, but I can’t help but generalize a bit in my speculations. It’s fun.
(ア) In Itoh-sensei’s lab, people don’t call each other such-and-such-san or use words like ごめんえさい. They are very informal with grammar and pronoun choices.
(イ) When it comes to work, people aren’t so indirect when they disagree as I had thought. Remembering the meaningless or seemingly unrelated responses, full of subtle hints and vibes and body language, that I tend to get when I make offers to friends or potential friends, I came to accept the Japanese “no” that I had read about back in the States. I ask a girl on a date, and her head cocks sideways and she hums abruptly, as if thinking, but then makes no further movements. This means no. I ask whether the team can play soccer in the morning, as I need to get to my landlord’s office to pay rent, and the players smile and nod at me before changing the subject. This means no. However, in lab, when someone states an objective fact, and someone else is in disagreement, they pipe right up, often beginning with something as bold as “that’s wrong, because …”. I think that it’s precisely because we’re all dealing with science that such directness is warranted. No one’s personal preferences or plans are being handled, and we all bow before the dictator that is the objectively right answer. I suspect that the combined affect of the two sister tendencies, that to shy away from personal conflict and that to maintain an unmistakable air of objectivity in the work place, is a contributing factor to the productivity and smoothness of the lab. Notice that I quote “That’s wrong” and not “You’re wrong”. I think that there’s a big difference in the lab between these two interjections.

2. My lab has four women in it, out of 16. This is much better than I had feared. My lab is much more informal than I had worried, perhaps because we are functioning at a university rather than as a branch of some ancient monster company. My lab is not reflective of the typical Japanese work environment. Itoh-sensei is a serious, motivated, respectable overseer, but he teases students in the hallway and has entered us in a softball league. I think we’re fairly relaxed and liberal in here, but that we collectively rise to whatever occasion. I have developed the sense that ordinary Japanese work environments are far more rigid and involve far more extensive bureaucracy and social organization than I am immersed in. Weee.

3. 4. 5. Hard work, long hours, and team spirit are indeed highly valued. Actually, I might even go as far as to say that they are assumed prerequisites and only noticed when they are absent. In other words, everyone works hard for a long time for the sake of the team, and when someone deviates from that norm it is noticeable and may require some explanation. For more on this and how it relates to my experiences in the US, I’ll attach an essay I wrote to an online periodical. The essay describes a particular experience I had playing softball with the group.

Softball with a Japanese University research group.
We formed a circle on the dirt field and stretched before proceeding to jog around the perimeter. “Alright, good running Miki! You can do it!” shouted Goh to the most timid and petite of the group. “Hiroki is such a monkey, look at the way he swings his arms!” chimed in another player. Everyone began to trade both taunts and encouragement, where appropriate, and this balancing of group dynamics did not cease and still hasn’t. We threw catches in small groups after the jogging, and then we scattered to different positions and began a wild, swirling, and very noisy game. Some players were experienced and could throw and hit. Others, myself included, were novice and could barely connect the bat to the soft, arching, underhand tosses that the pitchers deliberately presented us with. One novice team member dove for and managed to snatch a fast punt on its way to right field, but, rather than gunning the ball to third base for a double play, sat there in the dirt, laughing and holding the ball until the whole team followed suit. This is a typical Wednesday morning for the quantum computation research team at Keio University that I have joined recently and have found to be so enchanting, down to earth, and yet so remarkably productive.
To my fresh American eyes, accepting into a norm that promoted the sharing of such recreational activities among colleagues was confusing and challenging. While good fun is never hard to turn down, I was worried that we were sacrificing productivity as a result. Not only did I reason that we could have spent the time used to play ball in the lab working, but I also feared that the relaxed comrodory we seemed so prone to develop on the field would inhibit our ability to work together productively after we did return and attempt to buckle down. I was wrong on both counts.
I am an American undergraduate student, and I have worked for two years in three different research laboratories in the States. One of them was at UC Berkeley, and the other two were at Rice University in Houston, Texas. One might expect that research labs at different universities be run in different ways or hold different expectations for their employees. One might also expect that, within the same university, life in a research lab in the one department varies from that in another department. The laboratories that I worked for in the States were all different from one another, but comparing them to each other is not nearly as interesting as comparing them as a group to the Japanese research laboratory in which I am now employed. This is by no means a just comparison of American and Japanese culture in general, and the conclusions that I draw from my own limited personal experiences can serve only to clarify those experiences, and are not applicable to what writers call the American or the Japanese experience. Hopefully, the conclusions do, however, make for interesting reading to others besides myself.
I currently work at a lab in Yagami campus of Keio University, in a team of seventeen graduate students, post doctorates, and tenured professors. The group is, of course, made up of individuals with unique beliefs, attitudes, styles, and backgrounds, but I was struck immediately with how well they function together as a unit. Everyone works very hard, and deadlines are generally met with time to spare. The whole atmosphere exudes a sense of acceleration, as the skills and knowledge of each team mate increase and as the time for which each task takes is reduced. This successful standard is accomplished in part because the group members know each other so well and are so devoted to each other. I feel as though I have been adopted into a large and dynamic family. This is as much a home as a work place, and, though such a combination would have sounded awkward and rather absurd if I had heard about it in America, it is a natural and fitting combination to these people, and I cannot deny the evidence of its overall utility. This is, hands down, the most productive lab that I have ever worked for.
My lab mates are all very respectful of one another, but the tatemae (建前) style relationships that I had expected to find while working in Japan are non-existent here. Instead, I have been witnessing firsthand what Japanese people call honne (本音) relationships. Personal quirks, hobbies, and love lives are open topics of conversation and are often the source of numerous jokes. For example, my primary mentor, a long-haired, darkly clad graduate student who occasionally wears safety-pins stuck through his shirts, pants, and even his watch, is not merely recognized as being artistically inclined but is thoroughly understood by all members of the lab to be an avid figurine carver. My lab mates know the various awards that he has won and the fairs in which he has participated.
It seems inescapable in capitalist societies that details concerning such personal habits are shared only during times spent with one’s friends and family, as they are unrelated to work and hence would impede productivity. In my experience in labs in America, this amounts to a work environment filled with people who know little or nothing about each other, and who prefer it that way. These American scientific researchers are not necessarily lonely people, as they may share themselves more freely with friends and family when not working. At work, however, they feel the need to be productive, and so they isolate themselves from the playful, idle, or indulgent parts of themselves.
For a colleague of mine at an American lab to understand in such detail and depth the interests of another colleague would be an exceptional thing. I have grown to recognize the value of such a link between colleagues, not merely as it pertains to the personal satisfaction of mutual understanding and familiarity, but now as it also pertains to the development of a functioning team. Socializing with colleagues, as I have experienced it in Japan, is a fruitful thing for capitalist institutions to promote.
In the mindset of the members of the lab group at Keio that I work for now, fellow researchers are certainly friends and may as well be family. They have a heightened sense for each other’s strengths and weaknesses that was lacking from the labs I worked at in America and that contributes to the smoothness of the lab’s daily operation and overall productivity. The mechanism that makes this possible is the distinct mix of social and formal gatherings that make up the work week. Monday and Tuesday both begin promptly at 8:30 with student research presentations, while Wednesday begins at the same time with a lab softball game, as described above.
Monday and Tuesday’s student presenters have undoubtedly spent the two nights prior to their presentation polishing speech details, touching up their PowerPoint slides, and even preparing answers to possible questions. During the months that precede this, the students read publications exhaustively and perform their experiments meticulously. I have been awestruck by the caliber of their presentations. The professors and post doctorates are very tough on them, however, during the presentations. They ask numerous questions, always pushing the students beyond the limits of their knowledge. This is a difficult but powerful way to motivate the students. Rather than develop subtle antagonisms, however, the students seem to appreciate the efforts of their superiors even as they are grilled with difficult questions in front of everyone. They get nervous and confused, but they never act defeated or even defensive. It is experiences like the morning softball games that allow for this promotion of team spirit and individual sacrifice. The students’ personal feelings are not cast aside by an unconcerned and detached collection of self-promoters; instead they are understood by a circle of friends to such a degree that an unspoken consensus tracks their sacrifice and plans their recovery. The students are stronger, more resilient, and more open as a result of this atmosphere. It’s an adventure and a joy to work here.

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