First proper #blogtober post and why not start by giving my life’s history… no don’t worry I’m not going to do that, but some people might be interested in how I ended up in Japan.
Let me start of by saying I was not a Japanophile. I think this is important to say because so many people seem to come to Japan because they have a strong love of the place—maybe they visited before, or they’re just admirers from afar—and they move here to satisfy that urge. Perhaps they studied Japanese at university (maybe as a minor) and when they arrive in the country they have some command of the language, some Japanese interests, be it manga/anime/music/film/literature/history, and so they’re set up to either be overjoyed or disappointed at the experience.
I had none of this. If I had any thoughts of visiting Asia it was Hong Kong or southern China that interested me because of my love of kung fu (that might be another post), but certainly not Japan. I could of course point it out on a map but like many Brits I didn’t know much about the place at all.
No, I moved here for love. And work. In equal measure.
You see, while studying for my PhD I’d met my partner at university in the UK who happened to be Japanese also doing their PhD. We decided we wanted to stay together long-term and we made a deal: whoever got a decent job first, that’s where we would live. The thinking being that I would find it easier to find work in the UK and they in Japan. I actually had a job pretty much lined up at a college in the UK but then a professor at my university who knew I had a Japanese partner introduced me to a Japanese professor who was visiting for a conference. That guy offered me a job interview for a post-doc position in Japan. One thing led to another and I ended up getting that job. So it was me, rather than my partner, who had a job lined up in Japan. And so, together we would move to Tokyo to live and work. I frankly didn’t expect to last. I knew that I would stay together with my partner, but living in a foreign country, well, let’s just say I expected to get a (better) job in the UK and we’d probably live there.
That was in 2003. And we’re still here.
The post-doc position was interesting, but frustrating. I’d expected (well, been given the impression) that I’d have plenty of time to learn Japanese while I settled in to research on science and society. The research centre was ahead of its time really, being one of a few Science, Technology and Society (STS) centres set up in the early noughties. My PhD had been an exploration of forms of community and I expected to continue research on that, though looking more at science and technology. As it turned out most of our early work was looking at science policy and policy making, doing comparative studies of Japan and other countries. It was, frankly, pretty messy. Perhaps I’ll write about that centre another time, although face-to-face over drinks might be more a more suitable setting…
I couldn’t speak Japanese. I’d taken a few night classes at university to try to pick up the language (using the dreaded Japanese for Busy People textbook), but really when I arrived I could say please and thank you and barely much else. The other researchers all spoke English. The meetings, some of which lasted five hours, were all conducted in Japanese. It was… awful. But I stuck it out until the centre itself was closed (again, that saga is for another time!).
After the STS centre closed I was fortunate enough to be offered another researcher position in the same institute, this time actually looking at community (phew!) and technology. I was the only sociologist in an institution of scientists and engineers. In 2005 we were working on building online social networks and linking them to real-world (offline) interaction. This was all well before Facebook of course and that work was pretty cutting edge and exciting. My colleagues were great.
While there I decided I wanted to get back into an academic environment and so I would need to find some work at universities. This being Japan I ended up teaching English part-time. I had wonderful students, I had little idea what I was doing (I am a sociologist, not an English teacher, but having a PhD in something seems to mean a lot here…) and since those days I don’t envy anyone who is an English teacher here. I also took a Teaching Assistant job on a philosophy and anthropology course and eventually was teaching my subject part time at some universities (STS, introductory sociology, sociological theory etc.). My favourite place was Sophia University; I loved the classroom environment and had wonderful students. I also taught at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) teaching science, technology and innovation. Then I landed a full time job at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), so I left the research institute where I’d been since coming to Japan, and the Tokyo Tech job eventually became tenured.
By this point of course my Japanese ability had improved substantially(!), but I haven’t taught in Japanese. I guess I found the niche of teaching sociology of science and technology, ethnographic methods and science communication in English. I started my own lab at Tokyo Tech and started receiving students.
And then, I had a breakdown. Everything had to come to a stop as I was unable to work. I was suicidal. And that… will have to be another post.
So much I didn’t know here! I knew some of the bits we’d talked about over lunch that one time, but there was a lot here that was new information. Isn’t it funny, we all talk on twitter every day and yet there’s so much that we don’t know…
Thank you! Yeah we should do lunch again after the pandemic to talk about all the juicy details!
Thanks a lot for opening up this wide, it sure wasn’t an easy thing to do! I admire you for both your courage to talk about your career in detail and your courage to talk about your mental health. Keep it up wonderful man. 🙂
Thank you! Going to be interesting to blog. I’ve tried before and failed but I’ve always felt a pressure to have a ‘professional’ appearance… I don’t think I have that anymore!
That’s why I struggled with a personal blog all the time. Felt under pressure to write something profound about the tech I’m working with. Meanwhile I think being more vocal about mental health issues in tech might be a better route to take.
Yeah I think so. It’s tiring to be putting on a professional persona all the time.
What a journey! Fascinated by this little peek at what brought you to Tokyo.
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