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Universities at the Forefront of Japan's Path to Progress

Interview - May 9, 2024

Tokushima University focus on interdisciplinary approaches, leveraging technology, and fostering innovation to attract talent and drive impactful research. As Japan seeks to navigate its future, embracing foreign ideas and promoting regional advantages emerge as vital strategies for universities and the nation as a whole.

YASUHIKO KAWAMURA, PRESIDENT OF TOKUSHIMA UNIVERSITY
YASUHIKO KAWAMURA | PRESIDENT OF TOKUSHIMA UNIVERSITY

Japan faces a series of challenges. On top of a lack of globalization relative to other countries, the nation’s demographic shift anticipates a shortfall of 11 million workers by 2040. To address this situation, the government has decided to revamp its education system with the ambitious target of achieving 400,000 foreign students. What role can universities play in addressing Japan’s challenges, including the need to globalize and the shortage of labor?

Japan is grappling with a severe demographic crisis marked by a declining and aging population, presenting a challenging scenario for the entire society. While universities can't address all societal issues, they can play a role in contributing to solutions, particularly from an educational standpoint.

As an island nation, Japan faces a scarcity of raw materials and resources. Here, resources include more than just precious metals; they also include human resources as invaluable as any raw materials. Humans are essential for creating a conducive work environment, generating innovative ideas, advancing research and development, and implementing new manufacturing methods.

Japanese universities play a pivotal role in addressing social inequality and domestic market challenges through collaborative efforts. With approximately 800 universities, both global and local, each institution, regardless of size, must develop innovative educational systems and approaches to ensure quality education. For instance, adopting elements of the American educational system can be beneficial, creating an umbrella educational system that fosters an open campus environment where individuals can freely express their ideas.

To achieve these goals, there is a need to enhance research capabilities, a critical aspect for universities. Elevating international reputation and fostering collaborations with foreign entities are also key components. By collectively addressing these aspects, we can work toward alleviating Japan's demographic challenges and creating a scenario that benefits the nation.

 

Due to the decreasing population, some educational institutions are going to suffer. For example, it's becoming increasingly difficult for women-only universities to have the number of students necessary. Many experts predict the consolidation of the market, where certain universities are going to either disappear or get absorbed by larger institutions. Do you share this point of view? What opportunities do you see in the consolidation of Japanese universities for your institution?

We see that as a possible outcome. There will be an increasing number of local universities undergoing consolidation to enhance collaboration in fostering the creation of innovative ideas and making the educational process more efficient, attractive, and affordable for students. This consolidation aims to improve the overall quality of education and streamline resources.

The proliferation of universities in Japan has historical roots, with each region or prefecture having its national university, supplemented by numerous local universities across the country. As a leading regional university, we actively collaborate with other universities within Shikoku. Currently, we are in the process of developing an online platform that brings together local universities to facilitate cooperation. This network aims to make affordable education accessible to those interested in studying, providing a broader curriculum and services that can offer numerous benefits.

The Ministry of Education is actively involved in structuralizing the large number of universities in Japan. In instances where a local university or college falls below the enrollment capacity for several years, the Ministry offers recommendations, which may include student transfers to other universities, etc. We take into account these recommendations because we understand the economic considerations behind them. Supporting local universities is not just an economic measure but a strategic approach to nurturing talented individuals who can contribute to local companies, creating a stable supply of human resources in the area. 

Our university actively implements strategic methods to attract domestic and foreign students, resulting in considerable success. Notable strengths include having a Nobel Prize recipient in Physics and excellent facilities in Biopharma, Physics, and various fields. These assets contribute to our commitment to providing a high-quality educational experience.

 

One of the criticisms that Japanese universities have suffered from is the perception of how difficult it is for international students to secure employment post-graduation. These concerns are fuelled by the perceived lack of university support in Japan's complex job market and the low number of foreign workers in Japanese companies. This trend has seen a shift as many companies have doubled the number of foreign workers hired in five years. What framework do you provide to help the gap between school and employment?

Foreign students often encounter challenges when seeking employment in local companies due to cultural gaps and language barriers. To address this issue, we have implemented measures to bridge the divide created by Japan's intricate employment system. One significant initiative is to offer seminars on a new subject called "Business Manners." This addition aims to prepare students with the cultural and professional knowledge necessary for seamless integration into the local work environment. Furthermore, we actively offer internship opportunities to our students.

By collaborating closely with local companies, we introduce our students as potential human capital, emphasizing their preparedness and suitability for the workforce. In essence, our role is that of a mediator, ensuring a smooth transition from education to employment.

Our goal is to prepare students for successful employment and life after university in Japan. We prioritize educating them on business ethics and instilling the right mindset to thrive in the professional realm.

 

As a university famous for science and medicine fields with graduate schools for Ph.D. and Master's students, what are your initiatives to attract higher education and faculty member students? What unique selling features can Tokushima offer to these high-level Ph.D. students or researchers who could come and work here?

First of all, the majority of our Ph.D. students benefit from government-supported scholarships, creating a financially stable environment conducive to focused and productive study. This scholarship program significantly enhances the overall study experience by alleviating financial concerns.

In addition to financial support, our university adopts an interdisciplinary approach that integrates knowledge from various fields. Rather than exclusively concentrating on our strengths, such as medicine, dentistry, pharmaceutical science, bioscience, science and technology, and social sciences, we have cultivated a diverse educational platform and cluster. This inclusive approach allows individuals from various backgrounds to enhance their knowledge and pursue their desired Ph.D. degrees within our institution.

Our comprehensive education equips our students to address complex challenges across multiple fields. By establishing a conducive environment and learning platform, we optimize the educational experience for our students. Furthermore, we are implementing strategic methods to attract more students interested in obtaining Master's or PhD degrees.

 

DX and the integration of IT technologies, such as generative AI, have significantly impacted education worldwide. On top of influencing the current syllabus, these technologies promote lifelong learning, as professionals must often learn novel solutions. How do you see DX and ICT shaping the future of education, and how is your university crafting the demand for lifelong learning?

In our offices, we leverage Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to handle tasks like paperwork, effectively reducing human workload and improving cost performance. Simultaneously, we implement AI generative systems to diminish bureaucratic hurdles, aiming for increased efficiency.

However, despite the integration of cutting-edge technologies such as AI and DX, there remains some controversy. Particularly, reliance on prediction-based systems, like ChatGPT, may lead to inaccuracies in certain cases. Tokushima University has adopted a guideline to systematically double-check outcomes to address this. While we utilize ChatGPT, it is not considered the sole authority, and its responses undergo thorough verification before dissemination. This additional step is crucial for ensuring the reliability of the information we share with the world.

Since AI is a dynamic entity like a living organism, many universities, companies, and legal entities still grapple with understanding its potential growth and optimal utilization. We emphasize the need to structure AI comprehensively before its integration into our processes to achieve accuracy. This structured approach ensures that we guide and leverage AI to its fullest potential.

At Tokushima University, we maintain a policy prohibiting AI from substituting for our students, particularly in the critical tasks of thesis writing for Master's or PhD degrees. As the president, I strongly advocate for promoting handwriting over complete reliance on ICT and computer-based programs. The act of writing, I believe, not only stimulates but also fosters creativity, engaging a significant portion of an individual's brain.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a game-changer, compelling us to adapt and integrate online learning into our educational framework.  During this period, Tokushima University developed a diverse range of online curricula. While online learning has been established in the US and Europe, Japan has traditionally lagged in this aspect.

Despite its adverse effects, the pandemic has brought about positive shifts in educational approaches. It demonstrated that remote learning is not only feasible but also effective, breaking free from the confines of traditional classrooms.  Many universities, including ours, are likely to incorporate more online courses.



Tokushima offers six major undergraduate programs: Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Dentistry, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology, and Faculty of Bioscience & Bio-industry. Are you looking to open new departments in the near future?

While establishing new faculties isn't currently under consideration, our focus is on fostering an interdisciplinary approach by combining several faculties. An illustrative example of this approach involves putting together the Faculty of Science and Technology, Faculty of Medicine, Institute of  Post-LED Photonics, and Institute of Advanced Medical Sciences to create a new type of discipline that unites various ideas.

In addition, ‘innovation’ is one of the keywords for students of Tokushima University who will contribute to the world in the future. By uniting experts and high-performing students from different departments, we aim to cultivate an environment where various contributions and ideas from each department significantly enhance the implementation process, leading to the development of impactful products.

For instance, Tokushima has only diesel-powered trains, but the students of the university have taken the initiative in a project to build their electrified train.

We are actively promoting entrepreneurship through our initiative known as ‘i.school’, where 'i' represents innovation. Our objective goes beyond theoretical study; we aspire to encourage the practical realization of ideas outlined on paper. The i.school will develop human resources in Tokushima who can design and implement innovation creation processes.

Additionally, the Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences will integrate two courses, the Public Policy Studies Course and the Community and Regional Studies Course, and establish a new course, the Regional Design Course, in April 2024.

Tokushima University Industry-University R&D Startup Leading Institute, established in April 2018, is an organization under the direct control of the President to implement the University's research results in society. Modeled after the University Hospital, it is "an organization of education, research, and industry to solve global problems," and operates as a specially designated area within the University.

Our initiatives are largely influenced by the collaborative efforts of students from various departments, fostering an environment where innovative products and novel industry approaches can be mutually made.

 

One of your graduates, Professor Shuji Nakamura, won the Nobel Prize in 2014 with his research in blue LED. Your Post-LED Photonics Lab was opened in 2019 and stands as a unique feature of Tokushima University. What would you say are some of the key successes that the Institute has reached in its four years of operation?

Our foray into research and development activities in pLED commenced in 2018, marking nearly five years of dedicated efforts. During this time, our department has successfully produced two significant outputs.

The first is Terahertz, an electrical communication tool designed to transmit information using the power of light. The second is an ultra-sensitive infrared sensor that uses a special structure called “meta-material” to detect trace molecules such as breath components. Both Terahertz and meta-material were identified as major directions for the pLED Department at its inception, and our team has been steadfastly focusing on advancing developments in these two areas.

 

What role do partnerships or MOUs play in your business model? Are you currently looking for new MOUs overseas?

The Indigo Declaration outlines the next vision of our university, emphasizing five pivotal principles: education, research, co-creation with society, medical care, and organizational management. These principles will serve as the foundation for our university's future direction.

In the realm of research, we recognize the value of collaboration with foreign and local universities for joint R&D endeavors. By pooling our resources and expertise, we aim to cultivate a richer educational environment and generate innovative solutions across various industries. As a university, we are looking for MOUs and partnerships with domestic and international universities. 

Our efforts have been particularly focused on strengthening ties with foreign universities, aiming to bolster our existing MOUs. Moving forward, we are eager to forge new collaborations with institutions in Europe and Asia.

I believe Japan not only suffers from a scarcity of raw materials and resources but also a scarcity of vision among new graduates and its inhabitants.

A crucial solution lies in breaking down these boundaries and embracing foreign approaches. Every international student who chooses Japan for their studies brings a unique perspective, offering a valuable opportunity to blend diverse visions with a global mindset.

Japan has to open its borders to foreign countries and the ideas they bring. We have already established a platform for students who come here to study, providing a space for the exchange of new ideas. This collaborative approach allows us to implement innovative concepts in our facilities, fostering a richer and more globally informed environment.

 

Why should people choose Shikoku as a studying destination?

Shikoku extends a warm welcome to everyone interested in studying or working in the region. Despite being an island with a remote location distinct from bustling metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka, Shikoku offers convenient access, with just about an hour's flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo and a two to three-hour bus ride from Osaka. Its geographical position makes commuting from these major cities remarkably accessible.

Shikoku, surrounded by natural wonders like mountains, and seas and flourishing agriculture and forestry, provides an idyllic escape from the hustle and bustle of larger urban centers. The island boasts a diverse range of attractions, including excellent cuisine. Additionally, the smaller population contributes to a high-quality lifestyle, making it an appealing place to live and work, particularly in Tokushima.

Moreover, with the surge in remote work prompted by the pandemic, it's worth noting that Tokushima takes pride in offering stable internet coverage and connections. This infrastructure ensures that individuals working or studying remotely can comfortably choose Tokushima as their base.

 

Imagine we come back to interview you again in five years. What goals or ambitions would you like to have achieved by then?

My goal or ambition is to showcase and promote our Ph.D. degree students and their groundbreaking research. It's essential to raise awareness about the exceptional researchers enrolled in our Ph.D. programs. Despite the common trend for university students to pursue broader employment opportunities, often leading them to discontinue their Ph.D. theses, we have a significant number of dedicated Ph.D. students.

By actively sharing information about the impactful research and focused themes our Ph.D. students are involved in, we aim to garner attention from various stakeholders. As a local university, our goal is to inspire more graduates to make significant social contributions within Tokushima and across Japan. Concurrently, we are dedicated to enhancing our brand awareness. We aspire to achieve a level of recognition where people acknowledge the indispensable role Tokushima University plays in fostering highly educated professionals and contributing to the development of Tokushima, the Shikoku region, and the entire nation.

In my role as a university president, I am committed to emphasizing our diverse studies and the multitude of social contributions we can make in the future.

Tokushima University's standout feature is its ability to produce Nobel Prize winners, a compelling point that motivates many students to study in the same prestigious facility that nurtured such remarkable talent. Tokushima University's Kuramoto Campus is one of the few campuses in Japan to have three medical schools: the Faculty of Medicine (Medicine, Medical Nutrition, and Health Sciences), the Faculty of Dentistry, and the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. It is also home to the Graduate Schools, the Institute of Advanced Medical Sciences, the University Hospital, and other related facilities, making it a major center for education and research in life science and medicine.

Our Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences adopts a unique and innovative approach. While pharmaceutical studies traditionally stem from medicine, we differentiate ourselves by being the sole university in Japan to base our Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences on engineering science. This unconventional perspective offers a fascinating angle to drug manufacturing, approaching it from a scientific and engineering standpoint, which distinguishes our faculty significantly.

The recent recognition of two scientists for their outstanding contributions to respiratory medicine rheumatology, and pediatric nephrology further underscores our commitment to scientific excellence.

All these things I’ve outlined serve as key strengths in not only inspiring current students to focus and persevere but also in attracting new students to choose Tokushima University for their academic pursuits.

 


For more details, explore their website at https://www.tokushima-u.ac.jp/english/ 

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