Research Cooperation Division,
International Program Department,
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)
5-3-1 Kojimachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-0083, JAPAN

Frontiers of Science Symposium

FoS Alumni Messages No.2

“Structured Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Exchanges”

Yuko Fujigaki
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,
The University of Tokyo

Past Participations in FoS:
6th JAFoS (participant) 
1st JFFoS (PGM)
2nd JFFoS (PGM)
JSPS FoS Symposium Advisory Board Member

My ten-year relationship with the FoS program started when I participated as a discussant in the 6th Japanese-American Frontiers of Science (JAFoS) symposium in 2003. Next, I took part in the 1st Japanese-French Frontiers of Science (JFFoS) symposium at the end of 2005 as a member of the Planning Group that launched the JFFoS program. Now, I am a member of JSPS’s FoS Advisory Board. The reason why I have so long been involved in FoS symposiums is simply because they are interesting. I will give you five reasons why I say so.

First and foremost, by participating in these symposiums one can enjoy interdisciplinary exchanges. “Structured Interdisciplinary Exchange” is the phrase coined by Prof. Iriki, the PGM Co-Chair of the 1st JFFoS symposium. They give you a unique opportunity to learn many diverse things. Take the 7th JFFoS symposium as an example: One day we heard and discussed a presentation on “RNA and Viruses” in the morning, on “Origins of Meteorite and the Solar System” in the early afternoon, and on “Biofuel Cells as Next-Generation Fuels” in the late afternoon. Just by siting there, one can catch the flow of research on the cutting edge of diverse fields, while enjoying the spectacle of young researchers on the frontlines of them receiving and returning blows in a clash of cerebral swords. Rarely do we have such an opportunity to engage in discussions aimed at forging an understanding of one’s field among researchers of other fields. This requires devising speeches in ways that make the content of your research easily understandable to others, whereas at the usual conference you would take for granted that people understand your technical language. This experience is very useful when it comes to explaining cutting-edge research topics to a general audience such as tax-payers. This feature what I think is most fascinating about FoS symposiums.

Second is the sense of fulfillment you can get from creating the sessions of a FoS symposium. When I played as PGM of the 1st JFFoS, the session topic of my responsible field, that is, social sciences/humanities was “Science and Democracy.” It embodied the latest themes in the area of Science, Technology and Society. I was involved in drawing up proposals, conducting the preliminary meeting with PGMs from Japan’s natural science community, and negotiating with the French side, all of which I found to be as rewarding as challenging. In a preparation meeting, a PGM in the natural sciences said “Let’s make this social sciences/humanities session appeal to all the participants in a way that makes them think as scientists of this field being their very own. While surprised by this challenge, the support I received in achieving it remains etched in my mind.

Furthermore, in the 2nd JFFoS symposium, the session topic of my field was “Music and Musical Invariants between Cultures,” which French PGM proposed. In it, the French speaker placed importance on “Musical invariants free from cultural influences” from a viewpoint of cognitive science, while the Japanese speaker focused on “cultural variation” in the light of ethnomusicology. In addition, the session chair bridged the gap between the two vantage points by explaining the diversity of academic approaches that underscore the field of music. Natural scientists in the audience spontaneously joined in the discussions: Asking heaps of interesting questions, they added a unique dimension to the impact of the session. Right after it ended, the PGM Co-Chairs and a chemistry PGM offered to shake my hand, saying, “Congratulations on the session’s great success!” The French PGM and I were so happy that not stopping at a handshake, we gave each other a big hug. Based on my experience as a PGM in the 1st JFFoS, I offered advice to my counterpart French PGM, who was to me like a younger brother, on everything from A to Z. As a result, the success achieved by the session gave me a greater sense of fulfillment than I had even anticipated.

Third is the cross-cultural experiences that FoS symposiums provide. For example, we went to Kamakura for a cultural tour on both the occasions of the JAFoS and JFFoS symposiums with their respective American and French participants. The behavior of the two was completely different. The American participants politely followed the local volunteer who guided them with a flag, while French participants ignored her, walking around in any way they pleased. The Americans didn’t complain about having lunch on the bus, while French exclaimed, “Something that can be eaten within 10 minutes on a bus cannot be called a lunch.” “I want to drink coffee.” So booing, they even criticized the itinerary drawn up meticulously on a per-minute basis, saying “Sightseeing should not be regimented; ample time must be given to leisurely peruse places of interest.”

Moreover, at a PGM meeting, the French PGMs declare, “We will go on strike because you [FoS Head Office and Advisory Board] complain too much! We are just putting into practice what we learned in the 1st PGM Meeting!” I was really surprised by the big difference that was manifest between the JAFoS and JFFoS participants, despite the fact that both symposiums were held in the same place and under the same format. From these differences, however, I learned some valuable lessons about cultural relativity, particularly with regard to the way Japanese think and act compared to people of other countries.

All said and done, I have enjoyed the many cross-cultural experiences that my participation in FoS symposiums has begifted me. Some of them have been very unique, ones you couldn’t experience anywhere but in a FoS symposium: I did Zen meditation with French participants of the 7th JFFoS symposium, and felt a theretofore unexperienced prickling when I explained to them the differences between Buddhism and Shintoism.

Touched by the beautiful tones of the French language spoken at the JFFoS’s signing ceremony during its 1st PGM meeting, I started taking a radio study course in the French language at age 44, and then passed Grade pre-2 of Diplôme d'Apptitude Pratique au Français at 47. Now, I have opportunities to give remarks in French as a member of JSPS’s FoS Advisory Board, and am gradually able to use more sophisticated expressions in my speech as I attain higher levels of proficiency in the language. I am grateful for the impetus that the FoS program gave me to study French, as it also helped me in translating a scholarly work titled “Trust in Numbers” (Theodore M. Porter, Misuzu Shobo), published in September 2013.

The fourth interesting aspect of the FoS program is the inter-personal networks one can build through attending its symposiums. Every time I come across people I got to know at various FoS symposiums, such as in government councils, the Science Council of Japan, or vice chancellor seminars at my university, it gives me an opportunity to sustain and deepen those friendships. It is my strong impression that FoS symposiums bring together and network the young researchers who will shoulder the future of science in Japan and its counterpart countries. Towards that end, an alumni association, called the “FoS Club” was established in 2009.

This fiscal year, I am in charge of carrying out a comprehensive educational reform as an advisor to the President of University of Tokyo, which I belong to. My experiences in FoS symposiums are helpful to me in planning liberal arts education in professional education program in this educational reform. At the same time, they also help me in discussing liberal arts education at symposiums in the Science Council of Japan. In other words, I reap advantages from my experiences in FoS symposiums in “administrative work” both in my university and in other institutes regarding to science policy. I have heard that when the National Academy of Sciences started the FoS program, that their idea was to promote a “Structured Interdisciplinary Exchange” aimed at fostering leaders who will drive forward future academic policies. You can have lots of fun in acquiring these techniques and skills, which, I believe, is the last, though hidden-below-the-surface, charming aspect of the FoS program.