East Asian researchers can sometimes feel cut off from the merry-go-round of small but prestigious meetings that help to further the careers of their colleagues in Europe and North America. Now a series of conferences in Japan aims to give these scientists similar benefits.

On 25–30 January, at the First Okazaki Biology Conference, 70 researchers from 10 countries met in the coastal city of Okazaki on Japan's main island to discuss the biology of species extinction.

The conference's organizers hope that it is the first of what will become a significant series, modelled loosely on the Gordon Research Conferences held in the United States. “There's nothing like the Gordon Conferences in this region,” says Yoshitaka Nagahama, a developmental biologist at Okazaki's National Institute for Basic Biology, and chair of the series.

Motoya Katsuki, the institute's director, who thought up the idea of the conferences, says the plan is to bring together “many researchers who are climbing different sides of the same mountain and can't see one another”.

The extinction meeting brought together specialists in long-term climate modelling, the geographical distribution of animals, and the origin and evolution of species.

But getting Japanese researchers to join the international networks that serve to build new fields of research won't be easy: much of the meaningful exchange at small meetings goes on informally in conversations between sessions. The organizers say that Japanese researchers sometimes fade into the background at such times, mixing mainly with one another.

Yoh Iwasa, a theoretical biologist at Kyushu University who helped to organize the meeting, concedes that “Japanese researchers are not used to getting involved”. But he says that at the meeting they became more vocal as the week progressed, and he is optimistic about the future. “This was only the first one,” he says.

A second meeting on species extinction is set for 2006, and Okazaki meetings are also planned for September to discuss organisms living in extreme conditions, and for March next year on reproduction. Many more could follow, the organizers say, if the model proves successful.