Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (9)
Hailing from Belgium, Dr. Ruth Vanbaelen started her JSPS postdoctoral fellowship at University of Tsukuba in September 2004. Altogether, she has lived in Japan for 12 years. She participated in this interview using fluent Japanese. Including Japanese and her native tongue Dutch, Dr. Vanbaelen speaks five languages. The interviewer was surprised to learn that, depending on the situation or her mood at the time, she can switch her thinking between these languages.
What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?
I am working on a sociolinguistic comparative study between Dutch in the northern part of Belgium (=Flanders) and Japanese. In Flanders, a new variety of Dutch is emerging, positioning itself between the standard language and different dialects. I view the "informalization" of society as one of the factors influencing this tendency. My research aims at finding whether such a tendency is happening in Japan as well.
That's sound fascinating. How did you become interested in your research field, linguistics?
Belgium has three official languages, so I've always had contact with different languages since I was a child. Also, my personal interest tends to be toward languages rather than sciences. Graduating from high school, I decided to study a language different from the Romanic or Germanic languages I had learned so far.
As an undergraduate, I understand you studied Japanese.
At the time, China was still very much a closed society, whereas Japan was experiencing an economic bubble. I took up Japanese studies because it seemed to hold good future potential. As Japanese was different from any language I had learned before, I found studying it to be most interesting. I've never regretted my choice of majors.
However, majoring in Japanese studies without really knowing the country seemed like a contradiction. So after graduating from the university in Belgium, I applied for and received a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science, which enabled me to study linguistics in a postgraduate degree course at the University of Tsukuba. I did a sociolinguistic study on "gender differences in the Japanese language," which besides a literature survey entailed on-the-ground interviews and fieldwork.
Did you meet your host researcher when you were doing your doctoral studies at Tsukuba?
Yes, I met Prof. Ryuichi Washio when I was enrolled in the doctoral program there. He contacted me about being a research assistant. He was and is still doing comparative grammar research in Japanese, Dutch, Mongolian and Korean. He also gave me valuable comments on my doctoral dissertation; and after graduating, he agreed to be my host researcher under the JSPS postdoctoral fellowship. It was through my association with Prof. Washio that I became interested in pursuing my current research on comparing the Dutch and Japanese languages.
What's your impression of the University of Tsukuba?
I've known my host institution since the time I was a graduate student. I feel that over the years, the students' academic skills have improved along with their language abilities, which is important in today's global society. Tsukuba is a very international city, which makes life easier for foreign residents. I also like Tsukuba because of its rich natural environment. When I feel in need of some urban stimulus, I can always go to Tokyo. However, having lived in Tsukuba for many years, I've developed a fond attachment to it. In Belgium, Louvain is very much like Tsukuba in that it is a planned city with a strong academic environment.
What do you usually do outside of your research activities?
I bike to and from the university; besides that, I work out at the local gym. It is a perfect place to de-stress myself as well as to meet people, both Japanese and foreigners. The Japanese always introduce me to new aspects of their culture.
Speaking of culture, what do you think of life in Japan—its culture and customs?
I really enjoy my time in Japan. It is a safe society where people respect each other. The culture is very diverse, having everything from martial arts, to pottery, to public baths. Soon a friend will take me to spend the night at the Eiheiji Temple so that I can get a glimpse of how Buddhist monks live in Japan. The local matsuri make a hot and humid summer something to look forward to.
What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?
I have no concrete plans at this moment, though I would like to work at a Japanese university, teaching linguistics and languages while continue my research. As my initial research focus was on the Japanese language, Japan was THE place for me to be. Because I am still comparing Dutch and Japanese on a sociolinguistic level, it remains the best base of operation for me.
What advice would you give someone about to begin a JSPS fellowship?
Having Japanese language proficiency is not a must but basic Japanese skills will definitely aid you in communicating with colleagues as well as facilitating contacts with people in your daily life. For people like me who are in the humanities or social sciences and whose research involves Japan, it will make your work much easier if you study Japan's culture and to some degree its language before coming. I might suggest also that you be ready to spend some time helping Japanese colleagues and students with proofreading and other tasks. They too will be there for you when you need them! Remember, life in Japan is not all research—please take time to experience and enjoy the Japanese culture as well.
Interview by JSPS Fellows Plaza