Houston Fulbright Blog – 181004

Konnichiwa CHMEs!

Genki desu ka?  [How are you?]

Here in Japan the weather is cooling and the fall term just started at Saitama University. Many more students are walking around campus and going back and forth to classes and activities. The first day of the third term was October 1. The four terms are roughly: April – June; June – Aug; Oct – Dec; and Dec – Feb.

When we began living on campus, the second term was ending and shortly thereafter we noticed that the student traffic on campus decreased substantially. Between terms, most faculty members and students participate in outreach activities with high school student visitors and other orientation sessions. Slowly, campus became busier and now we are seeing a surge of students. We have especially noticed that students around campus are incredibly active. The students are all involved in activities like track, tennis, archery, soccer, American football, basketball, and more. We see this participation because all of the gyms, courts, fields, and parks are next to the campus buildings, and we see them practicing from our campus apartment. From early in the morning until late at night, students are always using these facilities and playing team sports.

Sporting activities are actually quite popular and integrated into the way of life in Japan. I would estimate that every single student on campus is part of some sort of sporting club or team. In fact, this coming Monday, Oct 8th, there is a national Japanese holiday known as the “sports holiday.” The elementary schools do not have class that day and many businesses are closed. I’ve asked around about this holiday and most people just told me that it’s a day to celebrate sports. I then checked Google which said it is a health & sports day that commemorates the start of the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo. The country therefore celebrates this day to emphasize an active lifestyle.  This is not surprising!

I like to jog and swim and I’ve been going to a jogging/walking/cycling trail near our apartment. Every morning, there are numerous people using the trail—young to elderly. The trail follows a river and is long—at least 40-km. I have not checked the exact length of the trail, but I think it is longer from what I can tell by the “mileage markers.”

We also found out that being active is emphasized greatly at a young age. Our kids were lucky to experience this when they participated in a traditional sports festival at their elementary school. Primary school ‘Sports Festivals’ are very traditional and serious in Japan. This activity is an amazing site to behold! Students take weeks to prepare for the festival. It is an all-day event with organized competitions running from 9AM until 4PM.

The festival was a huge production with the entire school of at least 2000 1stthrough 6thgraders participating in track, dancing, gymnastics and traditional competitions like tug-of-war. The amazing part about it was that it was entirely choreographed by the teachers with an opening ceremony, band, awards ceremony, and special performances by each grade. We almost decided not to attend because of plans to stay the night in Yokohama (a fun city south of Tokyo). However the school principal told us that it was important to attend because of the role that our children were tasked with in the production. He also said it would be difficult for the other children if they were absent. So, we did attend and were so grateful for it. I realized how important it was for every single student to be there! Every student had a key role to play in the performance. Not only that, in the competitive events such as running, it was expected that all students participate, even those with disabilities. I think in the U.S. there would be so many excuses for missing (e.g. travel, parents working, church, other obligations, etc). Yet here it was just expected that everyone attend—and everyone did!

So, we arrived on a Sunday and the school yard was decorated and chalked off for the activities. The parents set up tarps around the roped-off field and all of the students sat in chairs around the edge of the field to wait their turn for their next event. Our kids that day performed in more independent dancing, gymnastics, running, and competing than I’ve ever seen them do (and they actively swim, play baseball and do ballet at home in Las Cruces)!  I am not surprised that Japan has a nation-wide sports holiday. You may know that the 2020 Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo. People are so proud and excited about this already.

In addition to focusing on physical health, I’ve been trying to keep up with the science and some normal to-do items like grant writing, reading, and working in the lab of Dr. Miho Suzuki. On Tuesday I attended an all-day group meeting Miho held with her students and the other biochemistry faculty on this floor—Professor Nemoto and his students. Both labs had all of their graduate and undergraduate students present their research and field questions related to the results and progress. While they spoke in Japanese, their slides were in English so I got the gist of what they do. Plus it helps that all of their research is in my immediate field of fluorescence, microscopy, and optical reporters for therapeutics and drug delivery. Miho said she has these meetings about once a term and each student speaks for about 15 minutes. Then after they speak, both Dr. Suzuki and Prof. Nemoto take turns asking questions, taking the time to discuss the project. Others also ask questions. Everyone is expected to be there the entire time—there is no excuse for not attending from 9AM-6PM. The presentations ranged in complexity depending on if it was from a graduate student or undergraduate. Actually, all undergraduates here are required to work in a research lab. It is part of their undergraduate education. I found each presented fairly well and the projects were interesting. Many of them were taking fluorescent proteins or organic fluorophores and either enhancing their fluorescence properties, or using them to optically detect intracellular enzymes, biomarkers, or in strategies to sensitively report intracellular events.

Research is challenging anywhere; not that I expected it to be different here. It was simply a reminder for me that sometimes experiments work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes students have great ideas and sometimes they are unable to figure out the next thing to try. It is the creativity and innovative thinking that is important in research. This week the 2018 Nobel awardees in science were announced. I was especially interested in learning about this year’s awardees because three of my cytometry and optics colleagues (good friends, too) happen to know a few of the new laureates quite well (Dr. Jim Allison, Dr. Greg Winter, and Dr. Arthur Ashkin; for medicine, chemistry, and physics, respectively). Although, still a degree of separation from me, I think this attests to how much science is a fusion of disciplines; my research lab could potentially exploit any of the techniques invented (cancer immunotherapy, laser tweezers, and phage display). Thus, it is important in science to have diversity, creativity, and cross disciplinary work.

I am glad to be in Japan, drawing on the diversity here and expanding my global network. Therefore in the few more months we have here, I will continue to stay physically active, and appreciate just being in a new science environment, observing students work, and watching Miho mentor.

Arrigato gozaimashita.

Jessica P. Houston, Ph.D.

Saitama University


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