Dr Donna Weeks is an international relations academic specialising in Japan-Australia relations, Japanese and Australian politics and society and related areas.
In April 2016, Donna relocated to Tokyo to take up a position in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law at Musashino University.
She blogs at Psephy’s ~ologies and tweets from @psephy. Donna is also on Instagram as @psephyspix, where she documents everyday #tokyolyf.
When your first degree was in Asian Studies and your first overseas trip was as an undergraduate exchange student to Japan, in some ways it shouldn’t be surprising that you end up in a teaching / research position in a university in Tokyo.
But when people here learn that the lecturer in Japanese politics and security is in fact an Anglo / Australian and the course will be taught in Japanese (with an occasional English flourish), there is inevitably a little bit of explaining to do.
This post addresses a question I’m often asked: What factors contributed to a mid-to-late career decision to leave your home city, family, community, friends and the familiar and take up a position overseas?
It speaks to the question of how mobile should we be expected to be in pursuing our careers in academia.
While the weighing up of the factors in any decision ‘to go’ will be many and varied, at the other end, the decision ‘to return’ might be equally vexing. In my case, the opportunity to pursue my research in a way not afforded to me in Australia was, in the first instance, my main motivator in ‘returning’ to Japan to work. But as I enter my fifth year here, with a visa requiring renewal, I find myself setting a different set of parameters that have more to do with questions about ‘What next?’.
There are several reasons why I chose this stage of my career to move to Japan, not the least being the current political environment in Japan and Australia (that’s not a political comment – that is my field of research).
In addition to my annual trips for 10-14 days at a time (never long enough to ‘feel the vibe’) in the wake of the Tohoku triple disaster of 2011, while living in Australia I noticed increased social media activity – indeed activism – that was not reflected in more usual channels of information. While I could pick up some of this firsthand with visits to the Parliamentary precinct in Nagatacho and other sites of politics and protest, a tourist visa was restrictive in terms of what I might conceivably do. If ever there was a critical time for a politics researcher to be in Japan, it was around that time.
I did not actively seek an academic position in Japan even though I was beginning to explore non-academic options, circa 2015, during a period of long-service leave. ‘Freelance researching’ (a.k.a. ‘working at anything to afford some time and space to write what I needed to write’) became a priority. Years of self-funded travel to Japan had given me rich layers of material to work with (and a large debt); however structures and workplace demands within the university system deprived me of the time needed to make deep sense of it all.
In mid-2015, following a few more visits to Japan, new research inquiries, and a realisation that my career path was not heading where it might have otherwise feared to tread, two things happened:
- I made the conscious ‘career-ending’ decision to end the constant battle to ‘publish and perish anyway’ and pursue unsuccessful grants, and to publish in my own time, at my own pace; and
- an intriguing offer from a partner university in Japan landed in my Inbox. I flew to Tokyo for a meeting with the University and Faculty staff, and the position commenced in April 2016, the start of the Japanese academic year.
First thing to note in this role (apart from a fully-fitted out office with a stunning view across the ports of Tokyo Bay) was a generous research account for domestic travel, conferences and research materials. In addition to a personal research fund, the University is very keen that we apply for national and external funding. It took me a year to adjust to having access to enough research funding to cover my needs, but as the scars faded from previous Australian experiences, I put myself back on the research funding roundabout. Within two years, I had success with major internal grant schemes and, as I write, I am in the process of having another go at Kaken, the Japanese government national competitive scheme. I tried last year and didn’t quite make it but a major difference has been the support from the University as opposed to the gate-keeping I encountered at my previous institution.
I am past the halfway mark of my planned five-year sojourn here in Japan. My ‘imagined’ engagement in research and writing, however, has not quite proceeded as one hoped. I have four book manuscripts in train, as well as a few more articles to complete. Not unhappily, as my work in the University began to be recognised, I was promoted (something I was unaccustomed to in the Australian environment) in quick succession, holding down a senior executive position as Director of International Relations and Chair of the Department of Political Science, simultaneously. In 2019, I also joined the professoriate in the Graduate School. The teaching load remains largely unchanged as there are no concessions for administration responsibilities (nor for the fact that I am working in my second language).
I am gaining enormous career satisfaction, enjoying the fact that my teaching and research environment is my everyday environment and grateful for the chance to be in deep. But at the same time, as the barely-disguised imposter syndrome tickles a long-dormant nerve-ending, I find myself re-adjusting my goals and ambitions and wondering just what is reasonable to expect in terms of personal publication commitments. But what is an academic career if not a working life of readjustments along the way? I remain undecided about a visa extension.
Nationally, Japan and Japanese universities continue to look for ways to ‘internationalise’ the academic and administrative workforce, as well as the student body. Some institutions do offer an English language working environment, which may suit some people looking for different fields to explore. While my experience is a positive one, I am also aware that the environment has its hazards and I would not want to encourage people under false pretence. Prior to moving here in 2016, my engagement with Japan has spanned over three decades, and I have language skills which surmount most communication barriers. It has certainly helped me settle quickly in my present circumstances. I didn’t come here for the salary. Pay scales vary and are lower than equivalent positions in Australia, but also vary between universities.
It was not so much as taking a brave step in 2016, but seeing an opportunity that presented itself and that, for my situation at that time, seemed like the right one. I would recommend a little more academic mobility, where the circumstances allow.
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Very honest and objective look at ex-pat academic life, interesting.