Heather Lawrentz Week 1

Kon’nichiwa! Hello from Japan!


My name is Heather, and I have just completed my first year of the Human Evolutionary Biology (Anthropology) PhD program at Kent State.  A few months ago I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship through the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) for this summer. This program allows me to conduct research in Japan, working with Japanese colleagues at the world-renowned Kyoto University. Although there is much work to be done, part of the JSPS program is a week-long introduction to various aspects of Japanese culture. During this introductory period, fellows got to try a lot of traditional cuisine, attend lectures on political history, art, and sociocultural aspects, learn basic words and phrases to help us during our tenure, and participate in a brief stay with a Japanese family to directly experience their day-to-day life.  Also during the first week, fellows got to meet other researchers invited to the program from all over the world!


On Thursday we took a break from introductory classes and went sight-seeing in Kamakura. We learned the difference between a Shinto shrine (‘jinja’) and a Buddhist temple (‘tera’), and the types of behaviors that are appropriate at each. For example, at the ‘jinja’ it is customary to bow twice, clap twice, offer a prayer, and then bow once more. We visited the Great Buddha, which we were told is the second largest Buddha in Japan. It was certainly a sight! 

Friday morning the fellows participated in a poster session, to promote the research we’ll all be working on over the summer.  As a young scientist, this was very exciting! Not only are the other fellows from many different countries, but their research topics span a variety of disciplines in the sciences and humanities, including anthropology (of course!), biology, archaeology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and more. I loved learning about all the projects these eager researchers were pursuing.


I met my host family on Friday night, Shinobu and Masa Okamoto. Shinobu and a few other host families took a handful of fellows to a gathering called the Hippo Club. As I understand it, the Hippo Club is a group of people who meet weekly and celebrate all languages. They practice speaking and listening to a variety of languages, they play games, sing and dance, and share a meal. The weather prohibited us from traveling much on Saturday morning, so, after a delicious Japanese breakfast, Shinobu showed me photo albums of her children and grandchildren, emphasizing the Japanese matrimonial customs. Later I got to meet her oldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons.


They introduced me to ‘soba’ noodles, and how to eat them properly.  Despite all my American cultural instincts, I was meant to slurp the noodles! They also showed me how to make a vegetarian sushi roll – with rice, cucumber, avocado, soy beans, and tofu.  That night, Shinobu and her son-in-law took me shopping in Yokohama. The night skyline of the city is particularly beautiful. On the morning of my final day with the Okamoto family, Shinobu showed me her ‘yukata’ – kind of like a kimono, but less formal and made of cotton rather than silk – and showed me the proper way to wear it.  Then, we took the train into Tokyo, where we explored the Imperial Palace East Gardens.

After returning to our hotel, the fellows had another day of learning Japanese language and culture before we all set off to our particular destinations. For me, that destination is Kyoto University, where I’ll be working with Dr. Nakatsukasa and his students in the Graduate School of Science.  I’ll be studying comparative primate forearm anatomy and the underlying Hox genes. Stay tuned while I get settled in Dr. Nakatsukasa’s lab next week and then start data collection at the Primate Research Institute in Inuyama! Before I sign off, I’d like to thank Drs. Tosi, Raghanti, Lovejoy, and Meindl for inviting me to participate in this opportunity; Dr. Nakatsukasa of Kyoto University for accepting me as a summer intern; and to Drs. Eishi Hirasaki and Yuta Shintaku from the Primate Research Institute and Japan Monkey Center for permitting my access to their primate skeletal collections. Arigatogozaimas!


Until next time!




This research is funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science