As I walked to work, I couldn’t help but notice that it was raining. It was not the usual rain consisting of cold, wet droplets that would ricochet off my black umbrella. This time, I saw flashes of pink and white, dancing like feathers as they found their way to the pavement. I stood in the middle of this dance of nature and couldn’t help but feel mesmerized. The petals of the infamous sakura were even more beautiful than I had imagined.
As I flip another page on my monthly calendar, I realize that 8 months have passed since I first stepped foot in Japan. I do not recall time passing as swiftly as this before, but then again I do not remember a place as enchanting as Tokyo, Japan. I feel like I am caught in a dream of sorts – a perpetual journey through Disneyland, as one of my Fulbright friends says. I love this country, this culture, and the people. Though I am working hard, I feel like I am working relatively smart (I hope), and that my time and experience here is being completely maximized.
The American Medical Women's Association (www.amwa-doc.org) & Engeye (www.engeye.org). I am in a serious open-relationship with both of these non-profit organizations. They both consume me in the best of ways and I often find myself falling asleep at the computer with either a Skype headset on, or with a cup of coffee nearby. I wouldn't have it any other way. The amazing people I have met through both of these organizations INSPIRE me to push forward, especially when times are tough. These movers and shakers not only talk the talk and walk the walk, but they bring the heat like I have never seen in my life. Through the people I have met in these organizations, I can safely say that the world will be a better place. And that's just friggin' cool.
Work. The life of a basic researcher is not glamorous in any country or culture. Perhaps one of the greatest epiphanies I have had yet is that though the faces change along with the location, the nature of science remains static somehow, almost like some conserved sequence of DNA (ummmm). People work long hours, focus almost too hard on one specific question, and analyze from when the sun comes up to when it goes down. This is the culture of basic science research and a culture I have adapted to both in America and Japan. The main differences I have noticed in Japan are that it is absolutely essential to be present. I do not mean the presence that requires mental astuteness or even the phenotypic presentation of neurons firing, but more of a physical presence. You must show up early to work and leave late. What you do with this span of time is relatively up to you, though you must make yourself seen, though rarely heard. Interesting. Even if you do not have work to do in the laboratory, you are expected to sit in your chair and demonstrate your work ethic.
Needless to say, work has been fast and furious since I have arrived in Japan. I have been working an average of 8-12 hours a day and find that I love this part of the Japanese culture. Perhaps this is a major reason why I am drawn to this culture – for their strong belief in the importance of work. While there are times when people are not productive in the laboratory, the people still feel the need to be present and to eventually have something to show for each and every day that they work. It is an entity that has been sometimes absent in my experiences in American laboratories, and one that I have abided by since I picked up my first pipette. People often describe me as “intense” and a “workaholic” in America, but here they fondly refer to me as “superwoman.” I laugh at this! While I am definitely not superwoman, it demonstrates that the Japanese place extreme value on working hard, producing results (whether good or bad…in my case, more of the latter), and progressing up the long career ladder that every young scientist must do. Alas, I feel at home, even though I am indeed tired.
The research on my stigma study as well as my basic science research is progressing along nicely. We have established a way to distribute our questionnaires to thousands of patients in Japan, even though it is a bit pricey. In the end, we feel our large recruitment numbers will truly heighten the power of our study and ensure a solid finding that can be published in a reputable journal. We will see. We have all of the questionnaires translated into Japanese and back-translated again into English. Furthermore, we have passed all the Internal Review Board requirements established by our hospital. Now that all the potential logistical road blocks have been overcome, we are releasing our questionnaire to thousands of schizophrenic and depressed patients next week, in hopes of receiving at least 30% response (robust estimate in clinical research). With this information, it is our hope to draw significant conclusions about the level of stigma experienced by patients suffering from schizophrenia and depression in Japan. Once we compile and analyze this data, we will aim to perform the same or a similar process in America. The combined results of these studies represent the first cross-cultural study on this subject and between these two nations ever recorded. The results could be valuable in the mental health community, elucidating the effects of stigma on schizophrenia and depression diagnoses and treatment in two of the most developed countries in the world.
Regarding the basic science work – It has been the most labor-intensive aspect of my time in Japan yet. I am working on studying the effects of Olanzapine (an atypical antipsychotic) on the consequent transcription and translation of the Kruppel-like Factor 5 (KLF5) gene in the brain of female rats. The presenting phenotype of chronic treatment with Olanzapine is obesity, as this drug induces metabolic syndrome (manifesting as obesity) in humans. We are curious as to how this drug will affect KLF5, a gene of known importance in neural proliferation and differentiation, and will test this question once the treated rats become sufficiently obese. We hope this drug might increase the overall expression of KLF5, which would putatively stimulate proliferation and differentiation of neurons. Now that you are all asleep, let me turn back on the lights......
When I am not at work on the weekends, I do my best to venture into the heart of Tokyo or experience treasures of the Japanese culture. I try to capitalize on every waking moment, as I realize that my time here is coming to a rapid close. I think I realized this (or felt this way) the moment I stepped off the plane; like each second was precious and I needed to embrace each moment. Over the past two months, I have celebrated many birthdays, which has brought me to night “hot” spots in Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ueno. Here, my Japanese friends and I enjoy lounging and talking while enjoying views of the Tokyo skyline. Thus far, I have appreciated the Park Hyatt Hotel the most. Not only is the view absolutely incredible, but the ambience of it all is truly unparalleled. My friends and I sat there for a night, feeling like actors in the movie “Lost in Translation” and enjoying the glamour of it all.
Moreover, I have had a few friends come visit me in Japan from America. It has been lovely seeing them, even though I have little time to spend with them. Nonetheless, we have managed to visit many places, including Hakone (note to self: never bring your digital camera into a hot spring!), climbing Mt. Takao, Asakusa, various parks throughout Japan, and Kichijoji. The natural beauty of Hakone and Mt. Takao is in stark contrast to the bright lights and big city feel of Shinjuku and Shibuya. I found myself getting lost in the quiet of it all; entranced by sounds of running water, birds chirping, and the echoes of the wind whistling around trees that have been standing longer than any skyscraper. Instantly, I felt at ease with life and truly grasped one of the largest dichotomies I have yet to witness – the collision between concrete, bright lights, and crowded streets and mother earth, the elements, and serene silence. Strangely enough, I find that I appreciate both environments and that both bring me incredible joy. Japan is a wonder.
Finally, I have met many incredible artists in Japan. In a strange series of coincidences, all of these artists seem to know each other, demonstrating the close connection between people of the Tokyo art world. The lady that makes my Starbucks coffee every morning is a passionate doll artist. A worker at the Mori Museum just happens to be one of the most phenomenal Chinese chalk artists in all of Tokyo. The “hula hoop girl” performing at a trendy Shibuya lounge just happens to have revolutionized the art of “hooping” in Tokyo and is well-known through the community. Finally, one of my Fulbright friends just happens to be a graphic artist who captures Japanese culture through her art by exploring concepts such as “kawaii (cute)” and the Japanese obsession with attacking everything with jewels and stickers. I was able to see all four of these talented individuals at an art event in Roppongi recently called the “Super Deluxe,” where artists have the opportunity to display and discuss their work. It was a very special time, indeed. Surrounded by good friends, amazing art, and the beauty of Tokyo, I couldn’t help but smile. Tokyo is pure magic.