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Promoting Cross-Cultural Exchange

Shigeaki Harayama
Professor, Chuo University Research and Development Initiative
Area of Specialization: Microbiology

Special feature for commemorating the 20th anniversary of establishment of Research and Development Initiative, Chuo University

This year, Research and Development Initiative, Chuo University commemorates the 20th anniversary of establishment. Since it was established in July 1999, it has been tackling problems with the actual society, for the purpose of developing a sustainable society, as a research center with the mission to achieve collaboration among industry, government, and academia and deepen exchanges for research. Over the past two decades, more than 100 research units have been organized, and many research outcomes that are influential academically and socially have been produced thanks to the efforts of a lot of participating researchers.

This special feature is focused on researchers participating in ongoing research units, and describes their research activities, to introduce some of research outcomes at Research and Development Initiative.

After retiring from the Chuo University Faculty of Science and Engineering in March 2016, I have continued my research at the university's Research and Development Initiative. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Research and Development Initiative, a special collection of articles is being posted on Chuo Online. I was asked to write an article on my research for this special project. I have been studying the various functions of microorganisms for nearly half a century and have written a variety of academic papers ( However, I had a hard time choosing which research theme I wanted to introduce in my article. Ultimately, instead of discussing my own research, I decided to write an article giving advice to students who aim to become researchers.

My encounter with biology

When I was 10 years old, my father took me to an exhibition on the peaceful use of nuclear power. I already loved science back then and I can still remember some of the exhibits. Later on, I read Hatsumei Hakken Monogatari (Story of Invention and Discovery), a book written for children, and I was impressed by the story of how Ernest Rutherford created the atomic model. My interests continued to grow. By the time when I entered university, I was interested in polymer chemistry but not in biology as I did not take biology in high school. In junior high school biology classes, I spent all of my time memorizing the differences between animal cells and plant cells as shown in Figure A, which did not spark any of my interests. After entering university, I read several books on biology from the university library to prepare for the biology course. One of those books contained an electronmicrograph of cells printed on art paper as shown in Figure B. Upon seeing this electronmicrograph, I felt the dynamism in the activities of living organisms, something I never imagined upon viewing Figure A. From that point onward, I began to read books on biology proactively. At that time, molecular biology focusing on Escherichia coli and its viruses (bacteriophages) developed quickly in Europe and the United States. Even so, I had not heard much about DNA and RNA during my freshmen and sophomore classes in the College of Arts and Sciences. On the other hand, I heard from my younger brother that DNA and RNA were introduced in high school biology textbooks, and students were instructed to simply memorize the full names of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. I purchased a new book on molecular biology written by an instructor at Kyushu University and studied by myself. During my junior year at university, I enrolled at the biology department; however, I found most of the lectures to be old-fashioned and boring. I took on the challenge of reading a paper by Francois Jacob, a pioneer in molecular biology, but it was totally over my head. I was able to understand a little of the paper thanks to an explanation from a graduate student who was an acquaintance of mine, but the experience taught me that I would never be able to comprehend academic papers unless I acquired a large amount of specialized knowledge.

Figure A: Cellular diagrams in junior high school textbooks. Figure B: Image of a green algal cell taken using an electron microscope. (courtesy of Professor Hideaki Miyashita of Kyoto University)

Going overseas

It seems that many students were dissatisfied with the antiquated form of education at universities. This dissatisfaction combined with protests against the Japan-US Security Treaty and the Vietnam War, resulted in the eruption of student movements symbolized by the incident at Yasuda Auditorium of the University of Tokyo. For a variety of reasons, I was not interested in joining such movements, and instead began to consider going overseas. In my senior year, my application for foreign study subsidized by the French government was accepted. Acting upon the recommendation of one of my biology professors, I took a leave of absence after entering graduate school and studied at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in the suburbs of Paris. I joined a laboratory where a 25-year-old Englishman worked; that man already had his PhD and had greater advantage over myself. I felt inferior and wanted to make up for lost time. However, I had never been trained to engage in such an intensive task. I found it difficult to wake up in the morning and get to the laboratory on time. After one year of my studying abroad, my supervisor died in an accident. I began to hear rumors that our laboratory would be dissolved, so I returned to the University of Tokyo. I then entered the PhD program and was employed as a research assistant (currently assistant professor) at the laboratory.

However, I was aware that my ability was far below the global level. Eventually, I left the University of Tokyo and spent 15 years living abroad in Sweden, the United States, and Switzerland. In Switzerland, I worked for ten years in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva, which is located in a French-speaking region. Fortunately, I was able to speak French, so I was provided with my own laboratory and engaged in my duties including teaching undergraduate students and providing research guidance for graduate students. My laboratory always had a few postdoctoral fellows, and also had some prominent professors conducting research while on sabbatical (research leave). I returned to Japan about 30 years ago. Looking back, I am proud of how hard I worked--but I also realize that I was blessed with much good fortune.

Living overseas taught me many things

Living in the small European countries of Sweden and Switzerland opened my eyes to the backward aspects of Japan. In Sweden, I was initially surprised upon seeing so many disabled people around town. One day, while flying back to Japan from Sweden, I struck up a conversation on that subject with another Japanese passenger who had come to Sweden in order to survey Swedish welfare equipment. The passenger told me that it was because Japanese do not take disabled people outside. Upon learning this, I felt ashamed at my own ignorance. Forty years later, I feel that the situation in Japan has improved. Even so, few Japanese people are willing to give up their seats to the elderly on public transportation. I have also seen people who were using their smartphones while walking, causing them to bump into a blind person. Upon witnessing such behavior, I strongly feel that Japan is failing to teach basic morals. Virtue comes naturally in society that places a premium on taking care of disadvantaged people.

"Comparative research" is a research methodology that involves comparing different systems. Comparing two systems enables you to understand similarities and differences, to identify the factors driving the systems and their causal relationships, or to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each system. Similarly, when you start living abroad, you will feel the happiness of being born as a Japanese citizen. However, as you adjust to living abroad, you will notice how the country where you now live has positive aspects not found in Japan. Even if you live in Japan, you can still collect information on the strengths of other countries (in other words, the weakness of Japan). Nevertheless, you can achieve such realizations with much less effort by living abroad. For this reason, I recommend young people study abroad. While abroad, you may find it useful to apply the "Rule of 3"--a personal discovery of mine, I believe. For example, spending three days in a row in certain town will enable you to start noticing things that cannot be known on the first day. One week of overseas training may not be very useful, but three weeks will give a much higher-quality experience. (However, it is important to spend your time in an environment where absolutely no Japanese is spoken. Overseas training is a waste of money if you spend your dinners talking with your Japanese acquaintances.) Likewise, spending three months or three years abroad will give you even greater opportunities to move forward. However unfortunately, in the case of individuals who started living abroad after reaching a certain age (maybe over 20 years old or so), the speed of adaptation to other cultures (including language) will decrease dramatically once you no longer experience inconvenience in your daily life. This usually occurs after about three years. My children wonder why I do not possess better language skills after living abroad for 15 years.


In closing, I would like to summarize my advice as follows.

  1. There are many students who aspire to a career in research, but who cannot find a goal. My advice is to work harder to find your own goal; for example, read as many books as possible.
  2. Speed is important for research. If you are planning to proceed to earn PhD, do not aim to complete the program and obtain your PhD in five years; instead, strive to get your PhD in three years (refer to Article 17, Item 1 of Standards for Establishment of Graduate Schools; even when aspiring to obtain a PhD in three years, it may take five years in many cases). With that goal in mind, working a part-time job to earn spending money is unthinkable.
  3. Japan's "work style" reform bill is well and good; however, the ability to concentrate is essential for both learning and work. The idea that Japanese people work too hard is a lie. The truth is that Japanese people simply spend a long time physically present at their jobs. For the past 50 years, Japanese labor productivity has been left far behind that of Western countries. When I was in Switzerland 30 years ago, the average Swiss graduate students came to the lab before 8:00 AM and started conducting experiments immediately. Lunchtime and break time were treated with importance. Married people went home shortly after 6:00 PM. The work efficiency of foreign graduate students was much higher than that of Japanese students.
  4. Once you get tenure, you should work even harder. In particular, biology is advancing every single day. Continued study is essential; failure to do so will result in ridicule from students. In Switzerland, I lacked the breadth of knowledge possessed by other faculty members. However, upon returning to Japan, I was one of the more knowledgeable instructors. This experience gave me keen insight on the difference of the education level between Japan and Switzerland.
Shigeaki Harayama
Professor, Chuo University Research and Development Initiative
Area of Specialization: Microbiology
Shigeaki Harayama was born in Tokyo in 1946.
In 1970, he graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, the University of Tokyo.
In 1970, he studied abroad at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) (Gif -sur -Yvette).
In 1976, he obtained his PhD in science (the University of Tokyo).
He held positions including research assistant in the Faculty of Science, the University of Tokyo; visiting professor in the University of Illinois (USA); Maitre d’Enseignement et de Recherche in the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Geneva (Switzerland); director at the Marine Biotechnology Institute, Kamaishi Laboratories; and director of the Biological Resource Center, the National Institute of Technology and Evaluation. In 2007, he became Professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University, and in 2017, he became Professor in the Chuo University Research and Development Initiative. He has published more than 300 articles and reviews in international journals, and has submitted approximately 90 patents.