One of the BEST ways I love spending my time abroad is to be locked up within a 100 ft. x 100 ft. square laboratory looking through a microscope all day, not going outside at all except for lunch at 12. Of course, I’m acting grumpy, but I really can’t complain. As much as I would love to spend my free time exploring and hanging out with friends instead of research, this is what I signed up for. I’ll end my rant here; let me explain what I’ve noticed in terms of the difference in Japanese work ethics as well as what I’m doing for my research!
One of the very first differences you’ll notice once entering the lab is that there are shoe racks all near the entrance. Accompanying these shoe racks are green slippers to be worn inside the lab. Many Japanese buildings regulate an “indoor and outdoor shoe” rule–basically, if you’ve worn shoes outside, you cannot wear those same shoes inside the building. My lab is no exception. It’s somewhat easy to forget to do it at first, but it soon just becomes habit. Plus, having slippers on feels so much more comfortable if I have to admit!
My laboratory is one of the smaller ones Tohoku University has to offer. Under the department of Biological Flow Studies, the lab focuses on biological fluid mechanics and anything related to it; blood flow, worm digestion, and fish swimming, you name it! My project specifically focuses on sponge (yes, like Spongebob) flow and their natural filtration system. Here’s a picture of a dead Ephydatia Muelleri sponge!
Moving onto Japanese lab ethic and work culture, I’ve found that most (if not all) of my labmates stay late for research, staying past 5, 6, 7, dare I say even 10 PM! If I were to be really nit-picky, the professors in the lab are some of the hardest working! I’ve been told that the professors sometimes stay in the lab until 2 AM and some have actually slept in the lab to continue working the next day! I realize that this observation is extremely biased since Tohoku University is ranked the #3 university in Japan, but it absolutely blows my mind how dedicated these students and professors are to their research. Most of the time is not even spent on chitchat; outside of the laboratory, the students are extremely talkative and social, but once inside the laboratory, they focus so much on their work that sometimes I feel rather inadequate leaving at 5-6PM every day.
Of course, work is not the only thing that defines these students. Each and every one have their own passions and hobbies. Takahashi loves to use his motorcycle, Oda goes camping all the time. Even my professors love to have fun; Kikuchi-sensei used to skateboard all the time and Ishikawa-sensei loves to play basketball on Friday nights! As isolated as it may feel to be working in a lab that speaks a different language and researches material remotely related to your field, it is reassuring to find that each one of these people have lives and interests that reminds me that they, too, are human and, given enough time, will be people I can connect and grow with as I sit in this cramped lab for the next 10 months!