Alumni Voices: Fernando Palacio

Fernando Palacio is an Argentinean MEXT alumnus, who is currently working as a senior lecturer at Kyoto University at the International Strategy Office. He shared his journey to Japan, his experience as a MEXT scholar and as an academic researcher focusing on human rights and internationalization of education.

*This article has been edited from the original interview for brevity and clarity.

Journey to Japan

Could you please share with us about your journey with MEXT, like how did you know about the scholarship, and how did you apply, what did you experience during researching with MEXT etc.

The first time I came to Japan is over 20 years ago, in 1998. I came here under the AIEJ Scholarship program, which later became JASSO, for 1 year at Sophia University.  Then again, in 2004, I came back to Japan under the MEXT scholarship to pursue my Master’s and PhD degrees in the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

I first heard about the MEXT scholarship the first time I came to Japan in 1998, and I was very lucky when I applied for MEXT back in 2004. Only very few MEXT scholarships were granted for applicants from Argentina, especially for the research scholarship. When I applied, there were about 51 or 52 applicants and only 4 or 5 were selected for the postgraduate level. I think one of the major reasons why I was selected was not only for my research project but also because of my Japanese language proficiency. I was able to speak some Japanese at that time, which probably gave me some advantage.

Journey after student life

During the second year of my PhD, I moved to the Thai-Myanmar border, and then I was engaged in a number of organizations working in the Tak Province in Thailand where I carried out educational, research and advocacy work in human rights. After I got my PhD degree, I moved to Thailand for a second time, I lived and worked there for two years for SEAMEO or Southeast Asia Ministries of Education Organization in the Center specialized in higher education, focusing on international mobility of students throughout Southeast Asia and eventually to Japan.

In 2012, I returned to Japan to work at the University of Tsukuba, where I worked for the TAG-AIMS program, a multilateral framework for student exchange with Southeast Asia. I worked for about three years at the University of Tsukuba as associate researcher doing the evaluation of the AIMS program. In 2016, I was recruited to work in my current position at the International Strategy Office in Kyoto University.

During my time at the University of Tsukuba, I was a lecturer for three classes: Human Rights Education, Social Research Methodology, and Technical English – a class on how to write research papers in English. All of these classes were conducted in English. As an interesting anecdote; I remember one of the most interesting activities I worked for was the organization and implementation of the ASEAN Cafe. A regular non-academic activity where the students from Southeast Asia and Japanese students gathered weekly to share and present about their own countries such as culture, cuisine and language. We organized the schedule in a way so that each country would be discussed for one day, and all the students who took part in it would learn about each other. The ASEAN Café was closely related to a formal class called Global Debate, where students were requested to formally prepare and debate on many important matters of their countries. The common language was English, but of course, there was a lot of room for Japanese, especially for those students who wanted to learn the language… It was a really interactive and fun activity, also a place for Japanese students to think, to talk, and to discuss in English. Unfortunately, not only the ASEAN Café but also the whole AIMS Program in Japan was discontinued.

Life experience in Japan

You came to Japan in 1998, and again in 2004. Was there any difference in your experience between the first time and second time coming to Japan?

Very much. In 1998 I was in Japan for the first time, and the plan was to stay for only one year. Therefore, I wanted to make the most of the stay and kept on looking for things to learn as much as possible. It was a very active and exciting time, a lot of academic learning but I also experienced many things as a young tourist. As for the second time, which was in 2004, I knew the country already and by then I could speak some of the language, I was very familiar with Tokyo, so it was more of “an adult kind of experience”. This time I focused much more on studying, researching and doing academic stuff as well as building a career.

Did you work a part time job when you were a student?

Yes, I did, and I must say it was a very enriching experience for me. For my first job, I handed out flyers in the Kanda area for a language school, and honestly, I hated it. However, after a while, I changed to teaching Tango, Spanish and English, which I enjoyed a lot, not only for the extra yen, but also mainly for the experience outside of school. From 2004, since I came to Japan for researching, I focused more on jobs that had more to do with my future career, so I did more teaching (Spanish and English), I had a part time job at the administration of the university and I was a Teacher Assistant for some undergraduate courses at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

All of these small jobs here and there were very useful. It helped me interact with Japanese society; life out there is very different from what you would experience in the bubble of the university. You know, if you are a foreign student, university seems like the only place where you would spend your time, but doing part time jobs will help you connect with people outside of university. Besides, doing part time jobs makes you learn more about yourself, how to organize yourself, how to manage your time, your money, your relations. One of the best things of part time job is, is that I managed to make many Japanese friends. I have more Japanese friends than foreign friends, thanks to the part time jobs that I did.

Towards an academic scholar path

From research student to working in the academic field, are there any difficulties that you faced?

There is a huge gap between studying and having graduated, especially in the way people treat you. There are differences between Japan and Western countries as well. In Japan, master students or PhD candidates are treated as just students. People do not give you credit for what you are doing. Meanwhile, in the US or in Europe for example, a PhD candidate is not a student anymore; a PhD candidate is perceived as a person who is already working for the university. This conception is the reason why people treat you the way they do and why their expectations about you in Japan is different as compared to other countries. In Japan, when I finished my PhD, people started calling me “Sensei”, and you can totally tell they had different expectations about you, the kind of respect that you get from society does change, the same also happens to the type of jobs you can apply to as well as having access to better payments and perks.

Are there any differences in research activities in Japan and other countries that you experienced?

Yes, there were significant differences. In Japan, academic research activities are strict and very well organized, which I prefer, although in many labs in Japan it can be very tough, lonely and you have to stay there for long long hours. My experiences doing research in other countries were that it was more difficult to do research outside of Japan because of the cultural differences, language, and maybe because of my field. For example, in Thailand, they have a common phrase, which is “Mai pen lai”. It means “No problem”, and people use it all the time, even when there are serious issues. Therefore, it is hard to know where you stand and to acknowledge the problems at work. However, my experience of researching in many countries in Southeast Asia has enriched me a lot. Human relations are different and you need to learn to navigate these differences, for example in places that are less practical, or more rule-driven, or places that are more informal among research fellows, or where hierarchies are very strict, so I had a good chance to learn about the different views from many perspectives.

One more thing why doing research in Japan is easier is that there are more resources and accessibility to technology and records. Access to resources is important when you do your fieldwork and they are not always easy or readily available. Another thing is that in my case what was important was the general situation of the country and the research topic. For example, doing research about human rights in Myanmar some ten years ago was very difficult, not only because of the 135 languages or so that are spoken in the country, which created a big language barrier. In addition, at the time Myanmar was still under military government, so it was particularly dangerous to do research or carrying out interviews about human rights, so the government used to prohibit access to people who wanted to enter certain parts of the country

Advice to young scholars pursuing an academic career:

  • DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Work in order and quickly towards your degree.
  • Be prepared to work alone and be strong. Research is a lonely path many times.
  • Do not give up when you hit a wall, doing research means you will come across many walls, you will bump into many walls. So be persistent and patient, find other ways.
  • Keep your eyes open and work on developing your networks. Having friends in many places is a very important part of research jobs.

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