Principles of research ethics, derived largely from Western philosophical thought, are spreading across the world of higher education. Since 2006 the Japanese Ministry of Education has required universities in Japan to establish codes of ethical conduct and ensure that procedures are in place to punish research misconduct. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 13 academics in a research-intensive university in Japan, this paper considers how research ethics is interpreted in relation to their own practice. Interviewees articulated a range of ethical issues connected with data gathering and interpretation, applying for and using research funds, relationships with peers and research subjects, and the dissemination of results. The paper also explores the effect of personal values and cultural norms on the Japanese interpretation of research ethics identifying the impact in terms of the treatment of graduate research students and decision-making processes. Copyright © 2008 Springer Science + Business Media B.V.