Dr Kyosuke Nagata explains how the University of Tsukuba aims to be an open university with flexible education and research structure proactively helping the reform under way in Japan, with initiatives such as its new “campus-in-campus” scheme that changes the student exchange concept.
Could you provide some background to the university and what sets it apart?
Our school was established 42 years ago. At the time, Japanese universities were very classical and we needed something new in the higher education. We had to improve our higher education in the Tokyo area and establish a comprehensive university. The idea was to found another national university as in Tokyo universities are very specialized, such as the Marine University, the Foreign Language University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo Medical Dental University, etc. There were no comprehensive universities in the Tokyo area other than the University of Tokyo, so the government thought that some new type university, a comprehensive university, was needed to discuss with, to complement, or to compete with the University of Tokyo.
The University of Tokyo is a very classical university, a typical Japanese national university, therefore we started our high education in Tsukuba, which is very near to Tokyo. Kyoto University is a very typical Japanese classical university regarding their philosophy, but 25-30km south you have Osaka University whose principle is completely different. Osaka University’s principle is about justice for society, so it is very different from Kyoto University and it is mainly about research and giving something new to society. In our case, the University of Tokyo is very classical and University of Tsukuba is completely different from their structure and style of management. That is probably the most important principle.
At the time we started with a very important principle which is that of an open university – open in any sense to any kind of area and to foreign countries and different sectors. So we always transcended in any sense. One more very important principle is that of ceaseless change or steady innovation of education and the research system. These two principles are always very important and of course the University of Tokyo thinks the same but their structure is very old and its style of management is very complicated.
Originally the Tokyo University of Education, from which the University of Tsukuba emerged 42 years ago, had only two or three disciplines but when we moved into Tsukuba we established every department: engineering, medicine, sports, arts etc. in addition to humanity and social sciences, natural sciences, etc. Actually arts and sports are not a department in the University of Tokyo, while we do have the Department of Arts and the Department of Sports and Science.
Our original school was actually initiated in the 1872 as the first higher education organization in Japan established by the Meiji government. The Meiji government started with us because our school intended to educate the professors as at the time we were trying to expand higher education but there were no professors. Therefore they started by training them. So as you see this university has a very old history.
Forty years ago we had to think of something new from the management system of the authentic national universities and we decided we would try to open our university to anything. That is fundamental. If you go back to the previous century you had just mathematics and astronomy but there was not physics. We started interdisciplinary mixtures, discussions and exchanges to make something new. Therefore we tried to mix our faculties or disciplines in terms of research and education. 40 years ago we started with the three-cluster system. The first cluster includes philosophy, mathematics, physics and other basic sciences. The second cluster includes biology, chemistry, and social sciences. The third cluster consists of computer science and technology and comparative international relations. Imagine that 40 years ago we started with computer science and information technology because at the time we mixed together science, mathematics, physics and the engineering department into the one cluster, so they made a new one which is not new anymore, so we had to make something new again. We make everything open which means that all disciplines are open and mix together to create something new.
The education sector itself is going through a dramatic transformation in Japan in order to respond to globalization in three main areas. Central to this transformation is foreign language education, the internationalization of Japanese universities and the strengthening of Japan’s identity and understanding for its youth. What would you say is the biggest challenge your university is facing?
These three points are very important. The science and research area mixed together to create something new. One more important point was the internationalization that started 40 years ago. We already had a long history as an open university as Jigoro Kano opened our doors to the world around 1900. He did have more than 8,000 foreign students already in our school and one of them was the famous Lu Xun, a Chinese philosopher who was a student of Kano. We were opened already but 40 years ago this we re-confirmed and we opened to international society. We tried internationalization by promoting foreign students to come in or our students to go out and currently we have around 3,300 international students among about 17,000 students in total. Our tradition has arrived again and international students are increasing as we have opened our door.
Japanese students however are staying inside and not going out. I understand that because Japan is so rich that he or she can do anything inside Japan. However, I disagree with this idea. Probably the experience outside Japan is more critical because here we cannot interact. I can speak English but I am not interacting in the language, which is a very independent personal triumph. This is probably the important key to open your mind so therefore we want to send our students out. To this end we need an education system for foreign languages or communication skills which we are already setting up. Another important thing is that we have to educate international students in terms of the Japanese culture and the Japanese language. This also facilitates the students’ interaction in the campus. We have a residence and will start constructing another residence where foreign students and Japanese students live together and this is also a facilitator. This is fine but we need another tool to promote these exchanges and communication.
And what tool is that?
We call it the “campus-in-campus” initiative. It is simple: we try to take our campus to another one outside such as foreign universities or even companies and vice versa. One of them is starting this coming September with the University of Bordeaux (France). The foreign students would have the same student card as local students and they can use the same exact facilities like the library or the restaurant. The same goes for the professors and staff members, who come to our campus and work here. The idea is to have no barriers at all. Students can take the subject they would take in their university here with the exact same syllabus. If they want to take five or six subjects here, they can do it and their credits are transferred to their studies in Bordeaux.
So this would change the whole student exchange program concept.
Yes. We actually have a memorandum of understanding about the student exchange but this campus-in-campus system is above it. You can come down here and try everything.
Do you have any intentions or aspirations to increase this or hold agreements with American universities?
Yes. Right now we are actually preparing this campus-in-campus system with the University of California at Irvine because Irvine is sister city of Tsukuba. We are now also preparing an agreement with National Taiwan University. They are working very actively on this and we appreciate that. In fact we have sent a professor already and we have opened an office and sent two staff members to the University of Bordeaux.
Is this part of the ministry’s Top Global University Project which the University of Tsukuba has been selected for?
For the Tsukuba Global University System this is just a tool. We also do the same thing with companies so we can do campus-in-campus with some of them. We are now trying to find a new partner in the US such as Albany or Silicon Valley and if we succeed in that we will send our students.
This system is now expanding so even for research we actually have collaborative laboratories. For example, one of the labs is from the Netherlands; we hired a Principal Investigator from Leiden University who is a leading-edge scientist in cancer research. So in the Netherlands he has of course a laboratory as a PI but he also one here and we have hired a sub-PI for him. The graduate students are now trying to study in his laboratory. Everything is seamless and of course we need more money and we have to carefully consider the design or how much we can do but there are fundamental ideals shared with these partners.
The University of Tsukuba continues to give tangible benefits to Japan with your groundbreaking work in cybernetics and turning algae into fuel for example. What is next? What other exciting breakthroughs can we expect from Tsukuba?
We have a very strong basis in science; we even have three Nobel Laureates in the physics and chemistry fields. However, we always develop a new discipline or study area and that is how ‘Cybernics’ was studied. There was Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai working in intelligent interaction technologies and we promoted him to collaborate with the medical department. He took medical science and neurobiology to combine it with machinery finally and he made cybernetic robotics. He opened a new area so now robots can be part of medical treatment too through robotic suits. A very conclusive example is one of a man who was infected with the poliovirus and could never move his legs. However, with these robotic suits he trained six months and now finally he can move because another nervous system is growing and connecting to his brain. The signals were coming from the brain but the nervous system was not working here but through the robotic suit now this system is finally connected. Medical scientists could not believe that because the nervous system was clutched but this robotic device changed that and therefore a new study area was born.
If you think something new even in very basic science you can reactivate it and a new study area is born. Therefore interdisciplinary research combination is very hopeful to make something new. We always push towards interdisciplinary research and education. This is amazing and right now a new area is growing which is called roboethics. We had this year a symposium of roboethics led by social scientists who invited robotics engineers, mathematicians and social scientists. President Nagata told about pet robots for example.
Are all these investigations coming from students together with scientists?
There are no barriers at all between scientists and students. Roboethics is another example where we try to do new things. This is our fundamental thinking for the international vision. We see that we are all very different people but we still try to communicate and sometimes we can have serious discrepancies but this means we have to be brave sometimes, we have to open our doors so that education includes the internationalization of the mindset.
You are a science hub and this plays an integral part in all these advanced studies and interdisciplinary work. This science hub is not only promoting international knowledge transfer but is also listed by the Japan National Tourism Association as one of the main must-sees in Tokyo. Can you tell us about this transformation hub and what is separating it from other science centers?
We are only one example but an accumulation of examples is what is making changes in Japan. Actually this morning I saw the Deputy Director of the ministry and we discussed how we could move towards the future in Japan’s science and education. We discussed these things and he said that there is something big. Once we think like that, what we have to do is for example campus-in-campus, set up communication classes, prepare mixed residences for the students and open workshops for students as well as scientists. So we try to make every barrier free. These are all tester examples, this is our trial, our adventure with just a 40 years history.
What is the best way to build bridges for you?
Our effort and our friends. Friends are very important and students are bridges among countries because they will be in the future. I am going to leave in maybe 10 or 15 years but the students can still be here 50 or 60 years later.
Japan and America are very close allies: trade was over $200 billion last year and the signing of the TPP should happen in the next six months. How critical do you think are cultural and educational exchanges like yours to economics returns?
With a friend I walked in the same lap and we faced the same scientific problem. We tried to overcome that and at the time we had new ideas to devise new things and that is good as our scientific field is expanding all over the world. Friendship is important as you can make together something massively different.
What if you have a problem with your friends and there are principles in the middle? Because this happens between countries. The US economy and society has prejudices about Japan and vice versa.
Recognizing something in common in terms of resolving the problem or overcoming it is one of the tools to set something up. So if we have the same problem and previous to that we have a friendship maybe we can help each other. If we can overcome something and experience success it makes it bigger. Difficulty gives us more chances.
In this world of globalization, the importance for the countries to brand themselves into communicating their strengths can never be overstated, so how would you like Americans to perceive Japan and its educational sector?
Right now the Japanese system and people have relatively lost their pride and their confidence due to the economic slowdown. Then we need friends of course including our American friends to encourage the Japanese mindset again. By cooperating together, can lead the world through the innovated higher education.