Chasing Your Dreams in Chiba

I’ve been into ocean animals since I was a little kid and always known generally what I wanted to be when I grew up. Growing up in New England was probably an important influence on that since it’s famous for seafood. I used to love going to the beach, looking for animals, and teaching anyone who would listen about the animals I found. I carried that passion with me throughout my schooling. My high school had a particularly good ocean science program, so I took every single class that was offered and even joined the National Ocean Science Bowl team (which is like Mathletes for ocean-related knowledge).

Then in my junior year of high school, I got the opportunity to go to Japan for a ten-day trip with other kids in my school. We went all over the country, so the schedule was very hectic and only gave me a taste of what life is like in Japan. One thing I did notice was that no matter where I went, the environment (especially the ocean) had made its mark on local culture. Shrines and temples featured the natural elements of the area and people celebrated the food or scenery the environment provided for them. I felt that in that aspect, New England and Japan weren’t so different after all. By the end of the trip, I was convinced that I should study marine science in Japan.

Once I graduated from university with a degree in Marine Science, I started applying to different jobs and when I got my acceptance letter, I got my visa and moved to Tokyo.

I eventually gained the confidence to contact my professor after studying Japanese for a few years. When I met him, I told him about all the coursework in my field, my time working as an assistant lobster researcher for the state, and the time I presented research for the New England Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. Seeing that I had the passion to push through the grueling times that awaited me in graduate school, he decided to take me on, and I entered Tokyo University the following April.

This January, I had the opportunity to board the Hakuhomaru, a ship owned by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, to collect samples. It was both the most difficult and most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my life. I was seasick for roughly half the trip due to rough weather and using a microscope on a moving vessel. I did consider giving in to imposter syndrome and quitting my research at one point. It’s not uncommon for graduate students, especially those belonging to underrepresented groups, to get the feeling that they don’t belong in their laboratory because they are inadequate. But just looking out at the beautiful sea surrounding me, watching schools of mullet swimming by, cleared my head, and helped me push through. There’s something so peaceful and calming about the movement of the ocean, like returning to the days of being rocked to sleep by your parents. It’s that return home to where life began on earth that really energizes me.

*Picture obtained from Wikipedia

There’s no escaping this traditional idea of oneness with nature. Japanese people will often remind you that Japan has four seasons, but that’s because the seasons shape most of Japanese society. The school year and new work positions start during the cherry blossom season. The changing of seasons is celebrated, and with it comes a complete change in the offerings found in convenience stores and grocery stores. There are specific times where people go outside to look at flowers or trees, which is very uncommon in western cultures. Even the imperial family has published research on the environment. Heisei Emperor Akihito wrote several scientific papers on gobies and even had a goby named after him! I feel that Japanese society truly values research and education, particularly in the environment.

I gathered up the courage to keep fighting forward with my research while aboard the Hakuhomaru and things began to get easier. I was able to retain the family names of the fish I saw in both English and Japanese. The professors started to have more confidence in my abilities and began to view me as a younger colleague. I made some really important relationships with the people around me and got a taste of what my future as a larval fish ecologist will be like. Now, I’m hitting the ground running!

*This dragonfish is known for its nearly vantablack color, which makes it difficult to capture in a photo. I’ve adjusted the photo for you so it can be seen more clearly.

The longer I’m here studying, the more I realize that I came to the right place. The waters around Japan are teeming with unique and incredible wildlife. The Kuroshio Current creates this perfect zone where nutrients can rise to the surface, creating a nursery for developing fish. The biodiversity here is so great that despite Japan’s long history with the ocean, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the life and development of certain fish. There are also large trenches off the coast of Japan, reaching thousands of meters deep and housing terrifying and mysterious creatures. There’s the lanternfish, which are lined with lights along their underbellies with two big headlights beneath their eyes. There’s also the menacing dragonfish which, despite their massive jaws filled with razor-sharp teeth, are relatively harmless at less than 30cm in length. Stranger yet is Idiacanthidae, a fish with long eyestalks like those on a crab or a shrimp!

Idiacanthidae larva from my research trip to Okinawa

One big takeaway I hope you leave with is that your career in Japan doesn’t have to be limited to English teaching, translation, or IT if those careers aren’t for you. We’re often the unseen minority, but foreigners have been successful in all sorts of fields in Japan. As an American, I’ve found that my education here has not only been affordable but also includes a lot of hands-on experience and networking opportunities that I might not have had if I were in the US. The road is tough and requires some level of Japanese, but I have never been happier in my career than I am at this moment and I am fully confident in my decision to do my research in Japan.

This article is written by:

United States




Hey guys! I’m Sydney, your friendly neighborhood foreigner! I moved to Japan in 2014, but I came to Kashiwa in 2019. Despite my name, I’m American not Australian.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was so relieved to find articles written by other foreigners about how to make my way in my new country. Now that I’ve been here a while, I’d like to share what I’ve learned as well and pay it forward.