For European scientists it seems natural to think "USA" first when it comes to a postdoc or collaboration. After all, the States tops all the scientific league tables, whether in terms of investment, publications, or citations. For Brits there is the added attraction that they speak (almost) the same language as us.

But there is another scientific powerhouse, one that has been creeping up on its chief competitors almost unnoticed, and where the government has been steadily investing more and more in basic research. Unless we start to think of building contacts with Japan we risk getting left behind in the global science race.

A meeting held in London in November last year aimed to demonstrate the range of opportunities that exist for British scientists who wish to meet and work with their Japanese counterparts. Jointly organised by the Royal Society, which administers a number of schemes that provide funding for exchanges between the UK and Japan, and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), the meeting brought together senior and junior scientists from both nations so that they could explore the opportunities for and barriers to exchange and co-operation.

"We have out-of-date views of Japanese capabilities and the opportunities that working with Japan offers," claims Christopher Stuart, First Secretary, Science and Technology at the British Embassy in Tokyo. He outlined the massive investment that has been poured into Japanese science over the past 5 years in the government's first basic plan for science and technology, which ended in 2000. This plan saw an increase in real terms of 12% in the science budget; a doubling of the number of postgraduate students--to 10,000; and a greater emphasis on basic science. Under the second basic plan, a further £144 billion (approximately 1% of GDP) has been earmarked for science, and despite the recession "the science minister is trying very hard to stick to his promises," says Professor Kunio Sato, director of the JSPS London office.

How is all this money being spent? Unlike many other governments the Japanese spend "almost nothing on defence research," according to Stuart. Instead he sees a number of priority areas that are particularly ripe for collaboration. These include environmental research, which is "given a higher priority" in Japan than it is in the UK. £350 million of the second basic plan budget is targeted toward nanotechnology research, and the budget for life sciences research, which has trebled over the past 10 years, is expected to continue to increase.

The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research ( RIKEN) is, according to Stuart, placing Japan firmly on the world stage in the life sciences. "Bioinformatics is currently high on the agenda," he says, and moreover, the similarity of regulatory frameworks between Japan and the UK "augurs particularly well" for the development of collaboration in the field of stem cell research.

So if the opportunities are there, why aren't more British researchers grabbing them? Many people, it seems, are put off by the difficulty of learning the language and adapting to a culture that is seen as very different from ours. For Jim McElwaine that difference was the appeal. He went to Japan on a postdoc fellowship immediately after finishing his PhD and spent a total of 4 years there. "It was a country where I could do first-rate research, like the U.S. or Europe, but within those countries it was the most different," he explains. Martyn Kingsbury, now at Imperial College, also did a postdoc in Japan. "I was probably expecting the worst," he says. "Certainly my Japanese hosts were expecting me to have difficulties." But in fact he believes that life in Japan is closer to the European experience than living and working in the U.S. "Within 2 weeks I'd completed my first successful experiment, found somewhere to live, and settled in," he says.

As for communication, McElwaine's first 2-year postdoc in Japan was funded by the EU and included a 4-month Japanese language course before the research funding proper began. Effectively it was an opportunity to "get paid to learn a foreign language," he explains. He was one of 50 European postdocs all taking the course in Tokyo. "If we'd just gone out as individuals it would have been tougher," he believes. But another former visiting fellow thinks that "sometimes hosts put too much emphasis on the need to learn Japanese," and in fact many British postdocs have found that they were encouraged to speak English at work. Their native tongue made them useful members of departments that were keen to see their postgraduate students communicating with foreigners!

If by now you're feeling a yen to spend some time in the land of the rising sun, there are plenty of funding schemes available to help you. Among the programmes administered by the Royal Society are short-term study visits, which are a great way to follow up a conference contact, according to Ruby Lam, manager for East and South East Asia programmes at the Royal Society. If you received your PhD within the last 6 years, you are eligible for a 1- or 2-year postdoc fellowship. And the latest addition to the programme is a 2+2 fellowship, which guarantees a post back in the UK for 2 years after 2 years in Japan. The Royal Society also has a relatively new scheme to support UK-Japan joint projects, which funds collaborative visits between labs over a period of 2 years.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has a similar programme, called Japan Partnering Awards, worth up to £50,000 over 3 years. Other fellowship programmes include one in the field of high-tech research run by Toshiba, and a whole list of possibilities can by found on the British Council Japan Web site.

For the PhD student interested in doing a postdoc in Japan, experience of an existing collaboration with Japanese researchers should be a real bonus, according to those with experience of heading East. Several delegates at the conference were keen that would-be postdocs should be able to take advantage of short visit schemes to check out Japanese labs and meet the people they'd be working with before committing to 1 or 2 years on the other side of the world. Fortunately for those whose supervisors don't have Japanese connections already, a couple of programmes run by the British Council might offer a solution. Research Experience Fellowships for Young Foreign Researchers and Research Experience for European Students are both targeted at PhD students and give the opportunity to spend a few weeks in the summer carrying out research in a Japanese laboratory.

So there are ample funding opportunities, and they tend to be less competitive than some other fellowship schemes, points out McElwaine. But still, surely a Japanese postdoc won't stand you in such good stead career-wise as a spell in the States? Well, it's certainly true that American groups are often better known than Japanese ones. But "multinational companies like Japanese experience," asserted one senior academic. Kingsbury agrees, although he sees the biggest benefit to his career as being less direct. In a stack of CVs, anybody who has done something different is going to stand out, he points out, and spending time in a place as different as Japan "says a lot about how you can fit into a new environment."