JSPS Quarterly
No.24 2008 Summer Topics
Siries Message

Message from Former JSPS Fellow (11)

The Japan-Sweden Connection: From Thunberg to the 21st Century

Dr. Göran Thor
Dr. Göran Thor
Professor, Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, 1994-1995

Holding a postdoctoral position is an interesting experience; you are in a different culture, in a country where your native language is not spoken, but at the same time you feel completely at home at your host university. My colleagues in Japan had read the same literature, they were using more or less the same technical equipment, and the topical questions were roughly the same. Although I had never been in Japan before arriving at Narita Airport in April 1994, I immediately felt at home at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tsukuba, Ibaraki. The warm welcome and help extended by my host Dr. Hiroyuki Kashiwadani and his colleagues also contributed to this feeling. JSPS's financial support to take Japanese lessons was also very much appreciated as it gave me the ability to discover Japan on my own.

My research field during my stay in Japan was lichen taxonomy. A lichen is a symbiosis involving a fungus and at least one species of algae or cyanobacteria. Lichens are therefore defined by their biology, i.e. the relationship between the photosynthetic green alga and/or cyanobacterium and the fungus. Taxonomy deals with how to classify living organisms, i.e. with elucidating what names they should have and with describing how different species may be recognized. My stay in Tsukuba has so far resulted in publications in which 12 species from Japan have been reported as new to science and 101 species as new to Japan.

The botany connection between Japan and Sweden has a very long tradition. The first and certainly most well-known visitor to Japan was Carl Peter Thunberg, a student of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. In 1879, the first Swedish lichenologist, Eric Almquist, visited Japan and collected lichens in Yokohama, Hakone and Hiroshima, and he also climbed Mount Fuji. His collections were published in the book "Lichenes Japoniae," which was the first comprehensive work on the lichen flora of Japan. In Almquist's footsteps, several Swedish lichenologists have made visits to Japan.

Thanks to Dr. Kashiwadani, I got the opportunity to perform several field trips, e.g. to northern Hokkaido, Aomori and Toyama Prefectures as well as to the islands Miya-jima, Shikoku, Amami-Oshima, Ishigaki-jima and Iriomote-jima. I also had the unique experience of participating in a lichen inventory on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo. We found a total of 57 lichen species, five of which were new to Japan, revealing a remarkably rich lichen flora despite the palace being located in the middle of the Tokyo metropolis. We were given free access and collecting permission throughout the entire palace area, also around the private house of the Emperor. Among the botanists and zoologists conducting the fieldwork, I was the only non-Japanese, which was a great honour.

After returning to Sweden in March 1996, I have visited Japan several times to conduct research at the National Museum of Nature and Science and to make private visits, as I married a Japanese with whom I now have two children. During my stay in Tsukuba, one of my colleagues was Ms. Kwang Hee Moon, a Ph.D. student from Korea. After returning home, she arranged joint Korean-Japanese- Swedish lichen expeditions in Korea in 2001 and 2006. These field trips yielded a highly interesting material, which has already resulted in some joint papers and will continue to do so in the future. Dr. Kashiwadani has recently retired. In 2008, he was replaced by Dr. Yoshihito Ohmura, who was a Ph.D. student during my postdoctoral stay in Tsukuba. I therefore feel confident that the close cooperation between Japanese and Swedish lichenologists will continue.

I was lucky enough to obtain a university position when I came back to Sweden after my tenure in Japan. Not everybody in my field is so fortunate. I encourage young colleagues to apply for postdoctoral positions abroad, as I believe that this valuable experience will improve their prospects when returning home.

Korean-Japanese-Swedish lichen expedition to northern South Korea in 2006
Korean-Japanese-Swedish lichen expedition to northern South Korea in 2006

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JSPS Quarterly No.24 2008