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Breakthroughs & innovations distinguish global research leader

Interview - October 6, 2016

Japan’s top research institute RIKEN has a long-term approach to research and development and produced significant findings over the past century that have helped make it the number one in the world in several scientific disciplines. Featuring state-of-the-art facilities, including one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, the K computer, and SACLA, which produces some of the most advanced X-ray images possible, it is tasked with maximizing research output. President Hiroshi Matsumoto looks at some of the institute’s landmark moments, breakthroughs, and innovative avenues of research in progress, as well as plans to connect with academia and industry in the US.



RIKEN was founded in 1917 with innovation in its DNA. In 1922, one important decision was to set up a group of companies to commercialize RIKEN breakthroughs. Then, in 1958, after emerging from the difficulties following World War II, the institute was given a new status as a public organization. Within its long history, how do you assess RIKEN’s contribution to Japan’s socioeconomic development?

As you mentioned, RIKEN began doing research in 1917. In the years before 1958, RIKEN itself was a kind of private entity dedicated to research. However, most of the funding came from the government. It is important to highlight that in 1917, Japan was far behind the West in terms of science and technology. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government wanted to make the country stronger and wealthier. To that end, Japan imported a great deal of Western knowledge and techniques. However, some Japanese leaders realized that Japan would eventually have to conduct its own research and development rather than just import it from Western countries. Their strong calls prompted a group to establish RIKEN. At that time there were seven imperial universities in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Tohoku, Hokkaido, Nagoya, and Kyushu, but they had very little research capacity. Through its relationship with the universities, RIKEN was able to contribute to strengthening the research capacity of Japan. Influential professors from the imperial colleges in various fields also had laboratories in RIKEN, so they had two positions, one in the university and one in RIKEN. And they were able to bring the work done at RIKEN back to their universities, helping to strengthen their research.

Financing the research was a constant problem for RIKEN, and the institute’s young third president, Masatoshi Okochi, quickly realized that he had to find a way to have money circulate into society and then back to RIKEN, through companies. His brilliance was that he did not force scientists at RIKEN to become involved in the business world. He wanted the scientists to be scientists – engaged in pure science. So he gathered together some professional non-scientists who could understand science, and at the same time knew how to organize businesses. These professionals were very useful for RIKEN, and following these efforts, Okochi transformed RIKEN into a conglomerate, called the RIKEN Konzern, with 26 subsidiary companies. Okochi served as the president of those companies, so that they could interact more harmoniously. This system was very effective, and much funding came into RIKEN through these companies.

At that time, Japan had little domestic capacity for science and technology, but RIKEN was a place that companies could turn to. RIKEN developed many innovative products, such as vitamins from cod liver and new metal-based goods. Today, we take vitamins for granted, but at that time vitamins were a key ingredient of military success, since they could strengthen the legs of soldiers. In 1904, Japan surprised the world by defeating Russia.

In addition to vitamins, RIKEN also developed useful goods such as alumite—a form of aluminum with an oxidized coating—and magnetically resistant steel. At that time, RIKEN’s research was very much focused on practical products that people needed.

After WWII, however, the conglomerate was broken up and those companies left RIKEN. This was the beginning of a very difficult time for RIKEN, which lacked research resources and was nearly forced into bankruptcy. Then, in 1958, RIKEN was brought under the government’s roof opening a new era. Pure, fundamental research was encouraged as we moved away from business applications. Fundamental physics and chemistry became the core of the new RIKEN.

In later years, we began moving more into the life sciences. Currently 65% of our researchers are in the life sciences, which reflects the global shift that has labeled the 21st century as the “century of biology.”

In 2003, we experienced another change when RIKEN became an independent administrative institution. Due to Japan’s large national debt, our budget was gradually cut and our research capacity decreased.

Last year, we saw perhaps the beginning of a more hopeful situation as government-run research institutions like ours were given a new mission. Rather than streamlining operations, we are now tasked with maximizing research output. And, we have recently taken another step forward. As of October 1, RIKEN has been given the special status of “designated national research and development institute,” with two other organizations.


You are discussing the change of RIKEN’s status in April 2015 to a national research and development institute. At that same time, you became president of RIKEN. Then, last May, you announced the Initiative for Scientific Excellence to guide the new RIKEN towards its centennial. Could you elaborate on what are the main goals of this initiative, and what is the role of open innovation in it?

RIKEN was put into a very difficult situation about three years ago due to a pair of fraudulent research papers that were subsequently retracted. As a result, RIKEN’s image suffered considerably. When I assumed the presidency, my mission was to restore our image by getting people see how excellent RIKEN is and how many important contributions we give to society through science and technology. Therefore, I issued a plan with five pillars, or priorities, that focuses on the excellence of RIKEN researchers. Now, I am trying to encourage our researchers to help restore our prestige. We are number one in the world in several areas, but we need to improve how we communicate these successes to the rest of the world.


Indeed, you are known for having one of the fastest computers in the world, the K computer, and also for the world-leading SPring-8 synchrotron radiation facility. So you have many good things to announce. How are these state-of-the-art facilities enhancing your research efforts?

Well before discussing this point, I would like to point out some facts about the Japanese government regarding research and technology. The government hopes to pull Japan out of its deflation and also reduce our huge national debt. Because of this, it has been impossible to strengthen the budget in general. Until 10 years ago, research was an exception to budget cuts: the budget for science and technology was a sacred area.

However, 10 years ago the government started to cut everything, including science and technology. So our budget has been cut, and the universities unfortunately have seen even bigger cuts. Of course, places like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University still have many scientists and put out many good papers.

Despite the cuts, RIKEN remains Japan’s top research institute in terms of quality. I have been making the argument to the government that with a little bit more budget, we could achieve even more.


An important part of RIKEN’s structure is the RIKEN Science Council, an internal advice body of leading scientists reporting to you. They have a large voice in determining the direction of the research. Could you tell us more about their role, and why it is crucial for achievements such as the discovery of element 113, the first element of the periodic table found in Asia?

The Science Council meets every month to discuss our research direction, and they advise me on current trends in science. At the meetings, we discuss proposals and make decisions to invest money or assign funding to a specific project if it seems that it could pioneer results in a new field. It allows us to manage our efforts with a long-term perspective, and it has already led to excellent achievements. For example, the discovery of element 113 was the fruit of a long-term effort of over 20 years.

This kind of long-term research cannot be done at universities in Japan because of budgetary problems. Plus, universities typically do not renew researchers’ contracts if they are unable to publish any papers over a period of three years. In fact, this is common among universities around the world.

At RIKEN we have a system where we can hire a scientist for 30 or 40 years so that they carry out research that they believe is valuable. This model is one of RIKEN’s main strengths.

Plus, we have excellent facilities such as the K computer, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and SACLA, which produces some of the world’s best X-ray images, the most advanced in the world. We also have the RIBF, which was used to synthesize element 113. RIKEN has the capability to manage these advanced large-scale facilities.


Yes, the discovery of element 113 made headlines around the world. Could you tell me about some other recent achievements?

I think a good example is the work of Masayo Takahashi in Kobe. She has developed a way to use iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration, an important cause of vision loss around the world. Her study was actually the first clinical work using iPS cells in humans.

Another innovative avenue of research is clearing technology, which can make tissue transparent so that researchers can see inside organs, and even observe structural abnormalities at the cellular level by tagging important structures with florescent proteins. While this technology cannot be applied to living tissue, the knowledge we gain from it can help us understand illnesses and develop treatments for the living.


As you mentioned proteins, it seems that everybody is focused on that field. We met with a company named Spiber that is working with proteins from spiders to make new materials and with Nicca Chemical, which is also using proteins to improve cosmetics products. The use of synthetic proteins seems to be the future.

I agree. In another area, we have a strong research center studying the brain led by Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa. One of their key areas of research focuses on memory, which we still do not fully understand. At our Brain Science Institute, we are using mice to learn more about memory circuits. Tonegawa’s group uses optogenetics, a relatively new technique, to manipulate memories in animal models. His group has discovered that depression-like symptoms in mice can be alleviated by optogenetic activation of positive memories, and that “forgotten” memories in mice with Alzheimer disease symptoms, are actually still in the brain, and can be “remembered” when the correct circuit is activated.

For us, the most important goal is to learn about the brain—how different types of memories are created, stored, and lost. This is very difficult but exciting research, and we hope that someday it will bring hope to the many people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases that cause memory loss.


Since 2003, you have accelerated your efforts to promote innovation through cross-border and cross-disciplinary collaboration. You are working hard to attract talented students from overseas to Japan. Could you elaborate on your strategies for attracting talented international researchers?

First, the key to attracting outstanding people is the quality of our research. It has to be number one. Otherwise, it is hard to attract people to Japan. And it is because our research is excellent that we are able to get people from around the world. Therefore, a key part of our strategy is to continue to raise the quality of our research.

Now, another issue is that even if scientists are enthusiastic about joining RIKEN, they may have concerns about family and language issues. We understand that, and we are working to overcome those challenges. For example, regarding children’s education, there are a number of international schools in cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama, but they are not close to the RIKEN campuses and are fairly expensive. To deal with this challenge, we are working with communities near our campuses to try to establish new international schools for children of scientists coming to Japan from overseas.

There are also challenges due to differences in salaries. In the US and Europe, researchers have relatively high salaries. Salaries for scientists used to be very high in Japan too. But today, scientists’ salaries are basically equivalent or sometimes lower than the average salary of company employees. This does create headaches in hiring outstanding people. Fortunately, the Japanese government has finally come to realize that this is a problem, and has agreed that we should be able to pay higher salaries if necessary. The challenge now for us is to convince the government to allocate proper budgets to make this possible.

Another issue that may affect our ability to attract foreign researchers is the big difference between the US and Japan regarding age and seniority. In Japan, traditionally, people acquired seniority within an organization as they grew older. In Western countries you can acquire seniority even if you are relatively new, if you have the ability. In Japan, people used to expect that once they were hired, they would be in the company or institute for their whole working life. Being hired meant becoming become part of the family of that company. I plan to change the personal and budgetary system so that when anybody does an excellent job I can increase their salary without considering seniority alone.


As part of your globalization efforts, you have representative offices in Beijing and Singapore. Plus, you have two research centers overseas, one in the UK and one in the US. You also have 420 agreements with different institutions including the mentioned agreement with the MIT. To what extent are you seeking to establish new partnerships in your global expansion strategies with US institutions?

We have expanded our international presence over the past decade, and I think that we need to expand it further, in terms of both our international representative offices and research centers. At the present, our locations in Singapore and Beijing are simply offices, and are not staffed by researchers. Researchers occasionally visit those offices but only on their way to going somewhere else. We have joint research centers at Brookhaven National Laboratory and MIT in the US and at Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory in the UK, but most of the researchers there are local hires. There are few Japanese researchers sent from RIKEN.

So at present, we do not have any locations or groups outside Japan actually carrying out research. That is something I plan to change. We are planning to open a new research center on the West coast of the United States, either in Berkeley or Stanford. Some Japanese companies such as Toyota have offices on the West coast, which was one factor in choosing that location.


Regarding partnerships with the private sector, you recently announced that you are joining hands with Kyocera and a start-up firm called Organ Technologies, Inc. to develop a treatment for hair loss using regenerative medicine. These two companies are Japanese. Are you also seeking new partnerships with US companies?

Of course, we would love to form partnerships with companies outside Japan. We are not restricted in any way. Because of our location in Japan, it is obviously easier for us to identify potential partners here. But yes, my global strategy is to enhance our collaboration with partners around the world.


You mentioned that the bulk of your funding is from the Japanese government and that you also work to obtain competitive grants. You are also cooperating with industries and you obtain licensing fees from your product development. However, to cover your broad activities, donations seem to be invaluable. Could you describe to us the basic pillars driving your global communications efforts in attracting donations?

One thing we can do is travel around the world asking for donations for a certain purpose. At the same time, though, we are diversifying our strategies. First, as I said when discussing global researchers, the prestige of our research institute is based on the quality and quantity of output we present to the global scientific community. Using these achievements as a tailwind, I can go around and fundraise. But I only have one body, so we are also encouraging our scientists to cooperate with groups in other countries. Scientists in other countries often have contact with companies in their own region.

When I was at Kyoto University, I developed a concept of “I-U-U-I,” which means “Industry-University-University-Industry.” What it means is that universities, through their own collaborative relationships, can also reach out to industries in other regions through relationships with universities. At RIKEN as well, I plan to take advantage of our peer partnerships to go beyond and reach out to industries that are in contact with our overseas partners.

This is part of my reason for planning the US office. First, our researchers will go there and interact with nearby researchers at Berkeley and Stanford. Once they get to know them, they will make contact with nearby industries through their university network. We can gain access to them and they can gain access to us.

Today, Japanese companies do not provide very generous donations to RIKEN, but they do donate more to US universities. We have started to negotiate with industry leaders, asking them why this is so and impressing on them the importance of supporting Japanese research institutes like us. As a result, they agreed to triple their donations for domestic universities and research institutes. So although we are facing challenges, we are also making progress in this area.