Asian Tiger no more: Japan’s scientists set to leave

23 February 2023

Japanese scientists are leaving the country for the better prospects offered by Chinese universities.

China’s investment in research and development sets an example that other countries should follow as scientists are leaving Japan to escape restrictive work environments and lack of funding. For Japan to improve its international research standings, it will have to foster work environments that allow scientists’ free devotion to their work.

During the past two decades, Japanese scientists have adopted fatalistic attitudes, becoming resigned about their work and complaining of tiny budgets or a lack of time for proper research. By comparison, one Japanese scientist remembers seeing a group of Chinese students entranced by a professor from China, who convinced them to go to his research center while at a meeting in the US in winter 2019.

The scientist had been jobhunting for a few years, hoping to become an associate professor at a Japanese university, but there were no openings. Recalling the enthusiasm of the Chinese scientist in America, he got a job as an associate professor and moved to China in 2022. Scientists there were highly motivated, he said, rarely missing an opportunity to publish research articles.

Compared to Japan, Chinese society esteems science and academia to a greater degree. Another scientist says that the striking difference between Japanese and Chinese labs is communication. He had also gone through gruelling job searches, moving to China as a last resort but ultimately getting a salary five times higher than he earned five years before.

Japanese scientists say funding isn’t the only issue

Researchers in China seem to have connections with fellow labmates as well as supervisors, compared to Japan where a rigid hierarchy makes socialization difficult. It might be the sociability in Chinese labs that increases their output, more so than funding.

This is the suggestion of Atsushi Sunami, president of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and an expert on China’s approach to science, who said institutional arrangement is the key. China’s university reforms gave considerable discretion to university management. This allows for free research by even young scientists, who have the opportunity to win grants and promotions.

Whether the alliance with the US and the Netherlands will affect the rate of Japan-China transfers remains to be seen.

Over the last 20 years, China and Japan have swapped places in terms of scientific presence. China overtook the US to become the top publisher of research papers globally. Japan has dropped to 12th in terms of the number of top ten articles in the world, while China sits at the top of this ranking.

Supposedly, the Japanese decline is the result of “selection and concentration” policy that invests in only a few research fields due to limited funds. This means budgets focus on particular universities and scientists find it difficult to obtain grants. It’s very difficult to get a permanent post, as government subsidies for operating costs have either been cut, or left at insubstantial amounts.

Education ministry figures show the annual number of Ph.D.s obtained in Japan peaked at 17,860 in fiscal 2006 and has hovered around 15,000 in recent years. The number of Ph.D.s obtained in China skyrocketed from 26,506 in fiscal 2005 to 65,585 in fiscal 2020—an increase of about 150 percent.