Work, work, work, work, work …

… in a Japanese lab.

My previous posts were all about how life is different here in Japan, so how about thing that are actually the same for a change?

It’s hugely satisfying to experience that you can fly half way across the world, and that everyday work in an (un-)structural biology lab is more or less the same. For once, hail globalisation, which results in the exact same machines being used for protein purification as those I’m already used used to from Zurich. And good thing I can use most of them in my sleep by now, because..

.. this is more or less exactly where the parallels end.

Now before I go in a bit more into why work in a Japanese lab is not always so easy for me after all, let me first emphasise again how amazingly nice I’ve been received and treated by the researchers in the Shirakawa lab! They are very patiently translating again and again, when I’m at my Japanese limits, … so basically all the time.

Because, guess what, almost everything in the lab, from manuals and software, to instructions, and even the chemical names are usually written in Japanese. So are the research presentations, reports and article of the students.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, because many scientifc terms are actually derived from English (or, funnily, German) and thus written in the syllable-based Katakana alphabet, which I can read in decent speed by now. Still, without patient translations from my lab mates I would be lost…

So chemistry apart, what does a regular day at work look like? Well, in this lab at least many people start their day rather late. This is something I did not only notice at university, but I feel like the Japanese in general are more night owls, than morning people. So for many it’s not uncommon that they start their working day just before lunch time. But wait, aren’t the Japanese supposed to be super workaholics? Well, yes, they are, and consequently the late-starters stay really really long hours, so it’s not uncommon to stay until midnight. While it’s not really my personally preferred schedule, this routine has the pleasant side effect that most days we have both lunch an dinner together as group, which tend to be very social, fun times. In general, the work ethics are clearly different, with a large focus put on working hours (in my opinion perhaps more than on output?). My impressions may also be slightly biased at the momement, because it was the semester break so far, which is the more relaxed time in the year without classes.

So now to address the elephant in the room, wasn’t there this issue of a deadly pandemic spreading around the world at the moment, so how is it that I am still working in the lab?

Honestly, I am surprised myself. I am not inclinded to give a personal statement here of what I think of the coronavirus counter measures both in Europe and here, because I feel that in the generally rather emotional international discussion, statements can be turned and twisted out of context in split seconds. Fact is, that public life in Japan is currently reduced, but far from the restriction levels that are seen in Europe. Last week Kyoto region declared an emergency state, which means that many shops are closed, but most regulations are guidelines, and the university is given quite a lot of independence to find autonomous and individual solutions for the different groups.

For me, this means that I was given the option to refrain from coming to the lab if I want to, but I am currently not forbidden to do so. However, I am strongly requested to refrain from using public transport when coming to work, which is fine for me, because I live in walking distance. Bachelor and Master students have been asked not to come to the lab. Everybody else wears masks, keeps their distance, and hand desinfection stations can be found every couple of meters (actually the mask and disinfection have been like this since I arrived in March, so no big change). Apart from that, life goes on.

But how long it is going to stay like this, nobody knows, next post might be from real quarantine after all…

Love to all my fellow, grounded scientists around the world, and have fun already thinking of ways to include virology in your future grant proposals, I know the thought has crossed not only my mind 😉


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