Interview with Dr. Michiru NAGATSU

Michiru is a researcher in practical philosophy currently based at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (TINT). His field, the philosophy of economics, is a sub-discipline of the philosophy of sciences that addresses questions ranging from causality in macroeconomics to the ethics of behavioral economic policy.

He is currently working on methodological problems that arise at the boundaries of economics where it overlaps with psychology and ecology. Addressed issues are therefore not only philosophical but practical as well.

He obtained a Master degree in public policy at the University of Tokyo in 2003 before moving to the University of London to follow a philosophy cursus. He then went on to a PhD in philosophy at the University of Exeter, UK; which he obtained in 2009. Since then his career as a researcher has brought him to several universities and research centres in the UK, Estonia and Finland.


- Michiru, you’re now a researcher at TINT, and you have a very long history of mobility outside of Japan and in Europe. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances led to your current employment?

In retrospect the most crucial professional choice was not to pursue a career in law and public policy, which I studied for six years in Tokyo. Instead of capitalising on that experience, I moved to London to study philosophy. The question of whether social science is a real science had been bothering me at that time, and the London School of Economics (LSE) was offering an MSc course for those with such interests. During my MSc, I met a person who was to become my PhD supervisor in Exeter. Studying with him and receiving his continuous support have been very important for my career. Right after my PhD I did a one-year postdoc at the University of Manchester, but then moved for private reasons to Estonia, where I eventually found a one-year research contract at Tallinn University of Technology. In 2013 TINT offered me a two-year postdoc position, which is actually only 80 km across a sea from Tallinn!

- Particularly, were there any grants or funding programmes you applied to at the different steps of your career? If yes, how difficult did you think they were, and what was their impact on your career?

I applied for a couple of Japanese grants to study abroad for my Master in London (from private foundations), but without success. I think part of the problem was that I couldn't really provide a convincing and coherent narrative as to the reasons of the radical change in my research direction ---I was 26 and already had an MA in public policy. To make ends meet I had to rely on odd jobs, working as a research assistant, and family support, for which I can't be more thankful. During my PhD in Exeter I received two mobility grants to study abroad, one from CIMO in Finland (for 4 months in Helsinki), and one from Archimedes in Estonia (for 10 months in Tartu) [see information on these schemes next page]. These stays not only gave me intellectual enlightenment, but also paved the network for my later career in these countries. I applied for Mobilitas (an EU-funded Estonian postdoc grant) for three times, and the confirmation for a 3-year position came only after I had accepted the offer from Helsinki. My contract with TINT got renewed twice, and this year [2016] I received a 5-year Research Fellowship from the Academy of Finland, which gives me the time to further develop my career.

- What can you say about the difference of research environment comparing the different countries you visited and Japan?

I can't make a fair comparison because I don’t have extensive research experience in Japan. But I’ve heard some of my Japanese colleagues complain about too much admininstrative work and too little time for research. International collaborations must also be difficult because of physical and linguistic distances from English-based research communities. In Finland and Estonia, in contrast, research environment is more international, partly because their linguistic communities and domestic markets are much smaller. The small sizes, however, mean fewer teaching positions, which make the career prospects of young researchers very uncertain. Like myself, many live on grants and fellowships, often well into their forties (I’m 38), without knowing whether and when they can get a tenured or tenure-track job. In contrast, Japan has a big market that provides more secure jobs, though many of them may not offer ideal international research environment.

- What are the challenges of doing research in Europe as a Japanese national?

One big challenge is to learn a new language as you move to another country within Europe. Even though many small European countries embrace English as the professional language, your life is both professionally and personally impoverished if you don’t understand the local language well.

The mobility programmes used by Michiru:

  • Start-up finance for young PhD students and researchers’ (Finland): This programme funds short research stays in Finland for young PhD students and researchers for a period from three months to an academic year (source).
  • Scholarships for international students, researchers and academic staff’ (Estonia): Long-term grants for Master and doctoral students in the frame of an exchange covering from 30 days to 10 months of living expenses (source).
  • Mobilitas 2008-2015 Researcher Mobility Programme (Estonia, now ‘Mobility Pluss’): Funds foreign postdoctoral researchers for performing research activities in Estonia, with a contract duration of 2 to 3 years (now 2 years maximum within Mobilitas Pluss) (source).
- What did/does this (continuing) mobility experience to Europe bring to you, in terms of skill or career development?

Europeans are a diverse bunch of people who speak slightly strange English (including Britons). Through interacting with them and becoming one of them (not officially but emotionally at least), I have developed the kind of communication skills that I wouldn’t have gained had I stayed in Japan. When people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds have to work together, their communication tend to become simpler and more straighforward. So you become more effecitve in communicating what really matters, spending less time worrying about idyosyncratic social norms and customs. Of course this also means that I’m losing basic skills to navigate Japanese society, such as a skill to ‘read the air’! [Japanese colloquialism for ‘grasping the situation, or atmosphere’ - 空気を読む]

The Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE) are designed to support such long-term international cooperation projects by funding secondment of staff members for one month to one year for up to 540 researcher/month for a period of 4 years. Not only researchers, but also PhD students or staff can benefit from this programme. The next RISE call will open on 1 December 2016. (source: MSCA)


- While being based in Europe, are you keeping ties with your former workplaces/labs/colleagues in Japan? If yes, how and to what end/objective?

Not much, because I changed my field and don’t know many philosophers in Japan. But recently I started to develop new connections with a few Japanese researchers I met at conferences in Europe. They are mostly economists who share my interests in the history and methodology of contemporary economics. I’d like to visit those like-minded colleagues for a longer period, should I find a suitable funding scheme, and collaborate with them for projects that will be novel in Japan. [see info on MSCA RISE]

- From your perspective, how can/should researchers mobility flows between Europe and Japan (both ways) be improved? Also, what would be the barriers for research cooperation?

One way to facilitate mobility from Japan to Europe is to give more support for those many Japanese postdocs who are already in Europe and want to remain in European academia. They struggle in a competitive environment, where the government’s support can make a difference. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs finances the UN positions for Japanese nationals, so why can’t the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) do the same for Japanese researchers in European universities? Even if they don’t come back to Japan, those “remainers” can be utilized as a hub for the mobility of the next generations, as informants, mentors, employers, etc. Regarding the mobility from Europe to Japan, it is relatively easy to go to Japan for a short research visit using e.g. JSPS grants, but many grantees don’t seem to find Japan as a good place to settle in. This has to do with the differences in research culture and environment that I mentioned earlier, but I’m sure many adventurous Europeans are willing to stay, if there is more support such as jointly-funded tenure-track system for Europeans in Japan. Those remainers in Japan will generate a sustainable cycle of mobility. I hope such mobility programs with a longer-term perspective will eventually lead to substantial and interesting reseach cooperation between Europe and Japan.

- A final, more personal question: how do you envisage your career and where?

I often entertain the idea of running a cafe inspired by Japanese mountains and Nordic forests. Fantacies aside, I want to become a rounded university lecturer rather than a full-time researcher, since interactions with students give me immediate (mostly positive) interpersonal experiences that my anonymous referees cannot give.

During my last 12 years in Europe there was a time when I considered more seriously going back to Japan, but now that I have a family here with a wife and two young daughters, I wouldn’t consider moving to a country where women are disadvantaged and education is expensive. I guess I’m quite happy in the Nordic-Baltic regions (I just need a bit more sunshine in winter)!


Thank you very much Michiru, and all the best for your career!