Emailing Japanese organisations: four pieces of fieldwork advice for PhD and early-career researchers

Written by Christoph Schimkowsky and Dorothy Finan


We are two PhD students at the School of East Asian Studies, and in this blog post we will be taking you through some advice on getting in touch with Japanese companies and organisations for research purposes. Both of us found that we didn’t really know where to start when planning our fieldwork, so we wanted to create something to help others in the same position.

Covering Chris’ experiences of contacting railway companies for his research on ‘manner posters’ on public transport, and Dot’s experiences setting up email interviews with Japanese pop musicians, we have condensed what we have learned into four tips.

These tips assume a certain level of (non-native) Japanese language ability, but should be helpful to anyone who is wondering how to contact Japanese organisations for research purposes. We would welcome any thoughts or contributions to this list, and plan on expanding this into a more detailed resource in the future.

 

  1. Draw on existing references…

Asking a Japanese organisation for research access (e.g. interviews, documents, etc.) will likely require you to write several emails or other pieces of communication requesting their cooperation, explaining your research and scheduling meetings. These are formal documents, and as such getting the wording and format right is absolutely crucial: it will decide the impression you make, and sometimes even how (and if) your request will be processed. Rather than starting from scratch and drafting a letter based on your experience with everyday Japanese language, it is preferable to look for existing references. Business Japanese and other forms of official communication are tricky for native speakers too, so there are tons of websites that can advise you on keigo use (simply search for ‘[term/phrase] + 敬語’) or standard and example sentences for various situations such as scheduling a meeting or thanking somebody for their support (search for ‘[situation] + 定型文 or 例文’). It can be advisable to add メール (email) to any queries about standard phrasing to make sure the examples returned are suitable for written (rather than spoken) communication. Also, remember that guidance also exists for writing participant information sheets, consent forms and letters asking for research access and cooperation (try searching for ‘研究の説明文書’, ‘研究 (or 調査)へのご協力のお願い’, or ‘研究参加の同意書’). Finally, Dot found that researchers sometimes include letter templates in the appendix section of research monographs, so that can be another valuable reference!

 

  1. …but take them with a grain of salt

While these references provide a valuable starting point, it’s often not advisable to copy from them verbatim. Websites offering keigo or email advice are often written with business audiences in mind, and usually assume a professional relationship between sender and recipient that is quite different from an individual researcher trying to access a company (e.g. company representatives engaged in sales negotiation). Overuse of standard sentences (定型文) can also come across as overly stiff and robotic. Particularly when you’re engaged in a longer email exchange or are writing to someone you’ve already met, it might be recommendable to slightly relax the level of formality and add a bit of a human touch to your email. Furthermore, Dot has found that templates by non-native speakers can contain errors that would easily be picked up by the target organisation. If possible, it’s always recommended to ask a native speaker to take a look at templates or your email draft to ensure there aren’t any major problems. Ideally this should be someone who is familiar with the workings of Japanese organisations rather than an undergraduate student (who might be similarly clueless when it comes to business emails). Even better if they are familiar with the industry you’re trying to contact, as different industries can have different ways of communicating (e.g. different formality expectations). Also remember that while senior company representatives may respond to you very casually, as a researcher asking for research access you’re of course expected to maintain a certain level of politeness regardless.

 

  1. Do your research before reaching out

Large organisations are complex bureaucratic entities that consist of different departments and sections. The perhaps quickest way of gaining research access is to directly contact a relevant decision maker within the organisation. However, this is usually only an option if you can gain an introduction through strong personal contacts. In many cases, your only choice will be to write an email (or call) a generic point of contact listed on the organisation website or use an official inquiry form. In our experience, this significantly lowers the chances of a positive outcome, as whoever handles this initial request usually cannot unilaterally grant you whatever you’re asking for, and there is a high chance your request will be declined outright or ignored. One way to increase your chances of a positive response is to specify which section of the organisation (or individual) you’re trying to contact. Websites of Japanese organisations usually feature charts detailing the organisation’s structure  (組織図) that can be helpful in identifying the specific name of the section that’s likely to be in charge of the topic of your inquiry. Online press releases are also worth a closer look, as they can provide further insights into the section or persons involved in the subject of your study, and might sometimes even include contact information that is not listed on the website itself. In the case of the entertainment industry, where potential participants may be represented by multiple companies, the individual’s social media page or personal website usually has a section explaining the correct agent to get in touch with for different purposes.

 

  1. Be credible 

While you might encounter individuals who are interested in your research and are happy to support you, gaining the cooperation of organisations is often a struggle. Major companies in particular can be wary to divulge information (out of concern for their public image or intellectual property), and might not be willing to grant you any of their time if they don’t see a benefit for themselves. Furthermore, it is likely that the person who handles your request is unfamiliar with the nature and purpose of academic research, or what a PhD research project entails. Your email thus must convince them that you’re trustworthy and worth their time. If at all possible, your email should include a reference to someone or something the recipient is likely to be familiar with. Of course, the best case scenario is if you’re introduced by –  or are able to point to – a mutual contact or another organisation in the same sector. But there are other options too: If your research is funded by a Japanese organisation this should go into the opening line of your email. Pointing towards an affiliation with a Japanese university can also be helpful as the recipient of your email will likely only know the names of a very limited number of overseas universities. Another option is linking to an online profile (e.g. on a university website). Having a profile in Japanese in particular can be useful as it can provide helpful context to your request and allows whoever you’re in contact with to understand who you are. Also be prepared that in any stage of the access process your contact might request additional details before making the decision to grant your request or put you in touch with a potential research participant, so it is useful to have Japanese language information sheets (and sometimes a CV) ready whenever you reach out to an organisation.

Finally, be prepared to make mistakes in all of the above, and don’t be too hard on yourself when you do experience inevitable miscommunications. Most people will hopefully appreciate you taking the time to reach out to them, despite Japanese not being your native language, and will want to be as helpful as they can. Good luck!

Christoph Schimkowsky is a PhD researcher and University Prize Scholarship holder in the Department of Sociological Studies & School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. His current research examines manner improvement initiatives by Japanese railway companies.
https://twitter.com/ckowsk

Dorothy Finan is a PhD researcher and Daiwa Scholar in Japanese Studies at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. Her doctoral research focuses on portrayals of adolescence in Japanese idol music. More broadly, she is interested in the study of East Asian popular musics through sociological and political economy perspectives, especially through digital humanities methods.
https://twitter.com/dotfinan