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Japanese research tackles global challenges

Interview - October 23, 2015

Dr. Susumu Satomi, President of Tohoku University and the Japan Association of National Universities (JANU), discusses how Tohoku University is leading the internationalization of the education sector by focusing on solving some of Japan’s and indeed the world’s most pressing issues, such as disaster preparedness, with a decidedly Japanese twist.


How important is the transformation of the education sector to Japan’s overhaul of its economy, and can Abenomics succeed without a more global Japanese educational sector?

Well, we are constantly thinking about the role of the university. We see it as our role to educate people and bring out their full potential. Looking back over Japan’s history, it seems to me that we have always followed Europe and the US, where the role of the university was to educate people so that they could properly function and do their jobs within a framework.

But the way things were before is different to the way things are now in Japan. We do not have that steadily increasing population anymore, and we do not have that steadily growing domestic demand anymore either. We need to go out and engage more with the rest of the world.

And so what we need now are people who can play an active role on the global front. We need people who will create new values.

What role does the Japan Association of National Universities (JANU) play in the transformation of the Japanese education sector, and how are you working with the government and your member universities to achieve it?

I think that university education is one of Japan’s weak points right now. The way of teaching English is very weak. The problem is our students are not taught from childhood to use English. That is one of the things we are trying to change now. We are introducing English education at the elementary school level.

At the university level, we are trying to teach more English classes, and teach more classes in English. And we are trying to have a system where students can do an entire course in English for a degree. Also, at the university level, we are trying to increase the number of Japanese students who want to study overseas and also the number of foreign students who choose to study in Japan. Last year the government started a new initiative to provide funding for young people who want to study overseas. In fact, universities are also providing scholarships from their own budgets for that. Until recently, many Japanese companies did not consider overseas study as an advantage for graduates and it was often difficult for students who had studied overseas to get jobs with Japanese companies. But now, with this new effort on the way between the corporate sector and the government, companies are beginning to encourage students who have had overseas experience to apply for jobs because they are seeing the advantages that those students can bring. And young Japanese students too are increasingly aware of that change in mindset. I think we are going to see more students willing to study overseas.

In terms of getting students from foreign countries to study in Japan, we do not yet have a lot of courses that are offered in English. But, we are laying the groundwork for that. And we are also opening offices overseas where we can introduce and promote Japanese universities to foreign students.

Another thing that we need to improve on is housing for non-local students. At Tohoku University we are trying to build more dormitories that can accommodate both Japanese and foreign students so they can share a common lifestyle. At the moment, we only have enough places to accommodate about 500 or 600 students, but that is something that we are working on. We are working hard to get students together and interacting with each other.

So a key role of JANU is to act as an intermediary between the needs of the students and the government’s will.

Yes, it is one of our overall roles to relate those needs to the government.

Do you feel the same passion as the government to have research be one of the key elements that allows Japan to remain a cutting-edge society?

I think the results produced from research by Japanese universities, the new discoveries and the new developments, are crucial to Japan’s economy. They are the future of Japan’s economy. Of course, the universities in the US and Europe are also conducting a lot of research. But one of the problems is that students from the US and Europe do not tend to come to Japan. I think this is mainly because of the language problem.

We see very few students coming from the US and Europe compared to Asia. And I think that Japanese universities are giving a lot of thought right now to the fact that we need to do something to make ourselves attractive to foreign students so that we are chosen by them.

Based on the realization that we need to do things to attract more foreign students, the ministry has created the Super Global 30 project.

We, at Tohoku University, are also planning to create seven graduate institutions to showcase our strengths not just in Japan but also in Europe and the U.S.

On a broader front, we need to be able to offer students the opportunity to learn subjects that are universally useful.

At Tohoku University you are roughly halfway through your ambitious five-year Satomi Vision strategy, which aspires to lead Japan and the world in solving problems that humanity will be facing in the coming years. Can you share some of the main topics or challenges that you are focusing on?

Well, you know that Japan was badly hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami a few years ago. That has given rise to the new field of disaster science, where we try to develop new systems to deal with disasters. So far, we have come up with eight new topics that we are working very hard on right now. We hope they will contribute to solutions in disaster areas and to affected communities. It has been four years since the disaster occurred and it has been three years since I took over at the university. Until now, a lot of my effort has gone into getting the eight projects off the ground and to getting the university functions back to where they were before the disaster. Now we are trying to see what new developments lie ahead of us, and what issues urgently need to be solved.

The seven graduate schools I talked about are just the starting point of this endeavor. I think, going forward, we are going to find solutions to many, many more issues that will come up. As I reach the midpoint of my term as head of the university, we are just beginning to understand where we need to go. We are just at the starting line.

So there are still many ambitious projects ahead. And indeed you just announced, on the four-year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, one of the first of its kind partnerships with the UNDP: the global center for disaster statistics. What are your aspirations for this center?

In Japan, having a lot of data is a given, a natural thing. For example, after the tsunami occurred, we had data showing that a larger percentage of elderly people died and a larger percentage of disabled people died. We thought that having that type of data was just obvious, and we assumed that everybody has that data. But we are realizing now that other countries might not compile as much data as we do. We had data on aged people, we had data on disabled people, and so that was why we were able to make that contribution immediately after the disaster. One function of the center will be to get that kind of data from other countries, which are now going to be working together with us to create a kind of data bank. We can give them stronger capabilities when disasters happen. This is one of the roles this center is going to be playing in the future.

Tohoku University was chosen because of your rich tradition in research. Albert Einstein, when he visited Japan, said that Tohoku University, even then, was leading Japan in research and innovation. What would you say are the characteristics, or competitive advantages, of Tohoku University students that separate them from other high level universities here in Japan?

Sendai City has a population of about a million people. It is not a huge urban center, but it is not a rural area either. Students in large cities, in big metropolises, get inundated with information, so their research is driven by the information than comes in.

In Sendai, however, because we deal with more moderate amounts of information, the students have more time to absorb things. They can absorb some of the information, and carefully think about where they want to go with their research.

Another thing is that here in Sendai, there are no sharply drawn lines between the city itself and the university. They blend together. There is easy access to the university, so residents of the city come to our university campuses whenever they want, and university students can go easily into the city. The residents kind of see Tohoku University as “our university.” We get a lot of support from the local population.

Another difference is that in big urban areas, once the classes are over, the students split up in all their different directions, they do not have a chance to really work with each other. But the students who live in our area live near each other. So, after class, they tend to get together, work on things together, enjoy student life together. And I think they have that camaraderie here that you do not find in big cities. That is the kind of environment I like being in.

How would you like American universities and even the public to perceive the Japanese education sector?

I do not know what kind of image Americans have of Japan right now, but I really would like to encourage Americans to come and spend some time in Japan. They should, maybe, live in a Japanese city for a while to experience a real Japanese lifestyle. This way, they can gain insight into the way we think, get to know our culture and customs, learn what is important to us and understand why.

I think if they come and interact with ordinary Japanese people, they are going to like what they find.