JSPS Quarterly
No.45 2013 Autumn

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (30)

Dr. Alena Neviarouskaya
Dr. Akos Kopper

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest, Hungary; Researcher, Hungarian Academy of Sciences; 2013-present
JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Faculty of Economics, Kanagawa University, Japan, 2011-2013
Part-Time Lecturer, Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, ELTE, Hungary, 2009-2011
Ph.D. (Political Science), Jacobs University Bremen, 2009
M.A. (International Relations and European Studies), Central European University, 2000
M.A. (Japanese Studies), ELTE, Hungary, 1999

Hailing from Hungary, Dr. Akos Kopper has been conducting research with his host, Prof. Masashi Izumo in the Faculty of Economics at Kanagawa University under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship since September 2011.

Please tell us about your career before you became a JSPS fellow.

The first degree I earned was in Japanese studies from a university in Hungary. I studied not only the Japanese language but also Japan’s culture and history. After that, I studied international relations for one year. Just after obtaining my master’s degree, I received a Monbusho Research Scholarship from MEXT. Under it, I came to Japan and studied economics, Asia-Pacific affairs and international relations at Hitotsubashi University over a period of three years. Departing Japan, I decided to go to Germany to do my PhD work. With the creation of the EU, the meaning of citizenship and borders had changed radically within Europe. This piqued my interest in studies that overarch borders and citizenship, so I focused my doctoral studies on questions of citizenship, sovereignty and people’s relationship to the state, while experimenting with various normative models on a good/just society.

What are you currently researching under your JSPS fellowship?

I’m working on questions of borders, what they mean, how their meaning changes. I’m also working on questions of citizenship, political rights, and political participation. Lately, I have turned my interest to islands, focusing on not only Japan but also Asian countries such as South Korea and Vietnam. Islands are special places: While being part of a political unit, they are also separated not only physically but also to a great extent in our imaginations.

How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

I met my host researcher some 20 years ago when he was doing research in Hungary. At that time, I was still an undergraduate student. My Hungarian professor asked me to show Prof. Izumo around the city of Budapest. We have been in contact ever since, meeting when possible almost every year. He has been very helpful with my research, and his network of friends in Japan and South Korea has afforded me valuable advice regarding matters in those countries.

Besides your relationship with Prof. Izumo, did you have any other reasons for choosing Japan to do your research?

I have stayed in Japan three times, as a tourist, student and researcher. The first time was 20 year ago; I was very young. In 1990, my father, who was doing cancer research, had a very good Japanese friend who invited him to Japan to collaborate. He brought me along with him. I became interested in Japan and liked the Japanese lifestyle, so I started studying Japanese in Hungary. The second time, I came to Japan as a student under the Monbusho Research Scholarship. This time, I am here in Japan as a JSPS postdoctoral researcher. On each of these three occasions, Japan showed me a different face: Once as a tourist having fun, then as a student going to classes and meeting with friends in izakaya (taverns serving small dishes for snacking while drinking), and now a researcher spending time in libraries, conducting interviews and attending conferences. Though each of these phases has been different, I have always had a great time in Japan; and after 5 years of living here, Japan feels a bit like my second home.

After a total of so many years, what do you think of life in Japan—its culture and customs?

What I like most about Japan is its mixture of the modern and traditional. In Tokyo, you find super-modern buildings. I really like the way their design incorporates the simplicity of Japanese architecture. Yet, in coexistence with the modern there is always the old, not as just relics of the past, but interwoven into people’s everyday lives.

What is your impression of your host institution?

I am completely satisfied with it. I have a very good relationship with my host researcher Prof. Izumo and his students. I frequently join his seminar for lunch or dinner and get to see life within a Japanese university from the inside.

What do you do outside your research work?

I regularly go swimming after lunch or after working. A nice thing about Kanagawa University is that it has a swimming pool, which is located right between my office and dormitory. I also like to travel around Japan. My favorite city is Kyoto, but I have also found Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be very exciting places. Especially the latter, as Nagasaki had long been the focal point for Japan’s contact with the West. In Tokyo, I like to go to “Korean town” (Shin-Okubo), as I am working on questions of immigration. There, I can advance my work by talking to people from Korea, and enjoy Korean food afterwards.

Generally speaking, what is your impression of Japan’s research environment?

It is nice, but maybe a bit ‘closed in,’ though that is difficult to judge. Living in Japan, I feel like doing more work in Japanese, reading more in Japanese, and writing more in Japanese. However, if I published my articles in Japanese, only a small community of experts will be able to read them in Europe. As I do comparative work, my aim is to reach a broad range of people who will themselves create exciting comparisons by putting their knowledge and experience—for example on immigration or border issues—into different contexts. Yet, this language problem is not necessarily specific to Japan: To a great extent it is due to Western arrogance or ignorance when it comes to mastering Asian languages. English may be the lingua franca of these times, which paradoxically can have the effect of cloistering Western people. So all in all, we are all ‘closed in,’ making globalization a myth in many ways. We are hardly living in a borderless world. Borders surround us just as before, the nature of them is however different: Their location is not so obvious nor clear-cut. They are frequently not tied to physical locations—i.e. they are not like a fence that one can see and locate from a distance.

That said, do you think the Japanese research environment should be more internationalized?

I think that doing so would be beneficial for the Japanese students. Today, there are some foreign students in Prof. Izumo’s seminar, nevertheless the language used is always Japanese. Perhaps more classes taught in English would help students become proficient in English and be more willing to go out and explore the world in ways that can benefit both themselves and Japan. It is only by viewing one’s country from a distance that a person can discern its goods and bads.

I’ve heard that it is hard to learn Japanese, please give some advice for researchers who are worried about language?

One thing that they can do is to spend time in big cities like Tokyo, Yokohama or Osaka, as they provide many alternatives for interesting things to do in either Japanese or English. I think it is important to try to learn at least a bit of Japanese. The research framework for JSPS fellows is well organized in a way that allows people who only speak English to do their professional work smoothly. Nevertheless, to really enjoy one’s daily life in Japan and to grasp what is happening around you it’s worth the effort to learn some Japanese.

What are your research achievements under the JSPS fellowship so far?

So far, I have published three academic articles in English and some other papers in Hungarian about citizenship and borders. I have also given talks in numerous conferences and presented my research results. Yet, even when I leave Japan my work here will not be completed: From the collection of data, conducting interviews, presenting preliminary results at conferences, it takes a long time to get one’s articles published in good journals.

What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?

I will continue my work in academia. I’m going to work at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from October. I will participate in a big research project, which started in July 2012 on crisis and social innovation.

Please give some advice to young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?

Have fun! Japan is a wonderful place to live. There are wonderful things to see, try, eat, etc. The only important thing is to leave your prejudices behind and be open to differences. It is important to have a good relationship with your host researcher and to listen to his/her advice. Japan is different in many ways, and sometimes puzzling; nevertheless, its systems are very reliable and the JSPS fellowship program is very well designed. I am really grateful that I have had the opportunity to spend two wonderful years doing research in Japan thanks to JSPS.

When we visited Dr. Kopper, he was in the midst of talking with a student. During our interview as well, we were impressed by his accomplishment in understanding the Japanese language and culture, in ways that enable him to communicate effectively with Prof. Izumo’s students. We were pleased to witness the excellent relationship that Dr. Kopper enjoys with his host researcher Prof. Izumo and his students. Today, Japanese universities are developing their own strategies to advance internationalization; unfortunately, there are still not many overseas professors and researchers on their campuses. Dr. Kopper’s stay at Kanagawa University has surely afforded Prof. Izumo’s students a meaningful experience and valuable opportunity to expand their horizons. We look forward to future JSPS fellows also communicating with Japanese students and young researchers. While contributing to the internationalization of the Japanese research environment, this should also enhance the fellows’ enjoyment of their life in Japan.

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JSPS Quarterly No.45 2013