Inspiring ‘Blueprints’ at TEDxTohokuUniversity 2018

“The cornerstone of everything that we do is part of the blueprint to build a better world,” President Hideo Ohno of Tohoku University remarked in his welcome address as he opened the 2018TEDxTohoku University on April 08 at the Qatar Science Hall, Aobayama Campus.

TEDxTohokuUniversity is the brainchild of Chanon Pornrungroj who is currently a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Science and his team who have breathed life into the event. It began in 2017 when the first TEDx was held at Tohoku University with the theme of ‘Opening Doors’ and with the aim of creating spaces for sharing ideas. This year, the team of 40 students who worked for over 6 months, chose ‘Blueprints’ as their theme.

“Blueprints of our communities, blueprints of the human minds and blueprints of technology is what we are going to present today. Let’s realise that for a better future for all of us,” said Pornrungroj in his remarks as the executive director and the licensee for the event. “You (the audience) are the main component to make this event a great success,” he added.

The event brought together 7 speakers and one performer from different walks of life with their blueprints in their hand. Jess Hallams, a former participant of the JET programme and currently a media producer for Sendai Television’s ‘Go! Go! Tohoku!!’ programme spoke how the Tohoku region made her realise a reverse Paris syndrome. “The media painted Fukushima as a nuclear wasteland but that just accounts for the evacuation zone which comprises of less than 3% of the area of Japan’s third largest prefecture,” she said. “ Fukushima is naturally beautiful and culturally rich. Therefore, to attract a potential tourist, we need a right blueprint,” she added as she emphasised on the overtly negative image of Fukushima which hides the reality.

The Go! Go! Tohoku!! Program has brought together 200 international students out of the 54,000 foreign nationals who call Tohoku their second home from 30 different countries in order to contribute to Tohoku tourism through social media, blogs, etc. “Tourism is perspective. What might look like as a point of interest to the locals might not be the same for foreigners,” she said. “Tourists look Tohoku as one and therefore it is more beneficial for all the prefectures in Tohoku to work together,” she suggested.

Kentaro Ono, on the other hand, had a different story to tell. His growing obsession with Kiribati reached a point of no-return when he was a high school student. “I used to watch a cartoon in my childhood which showed Kiribati. I loved it so much,” reminisced the founder and President of Japan Kiribati Association (JAKA). Yet, he made an impassioned plea asking everyone to cut down their carbon footprint. “Since 2000, the impact of global warming is serious. Look at these coconut trees! Their roots are exposed. This clearly shows the damaging effect of soil erosion,” he said. “Kiribati has no rivers and mountains and so, the only source of water is the rain. But with sea entering our homes, the ground water is becoming impotable,” he expressed his concern.

Ono believes that the problem is not political but human. “Do you really need fried chicken at 2 a.m? It costs so much carbon. What will we tell the children when they ask in the future why they had to become refugees?,” he questioned. He shaped the end by leaving something for everyone to ponder, “Opposite of love is not hate. It is the ignorance and indifference. If we cannot secure our children’s futures, how will they draw blueprints?”

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L-R (Stage) : Kentaro Ono, Marty Kuenhert, Kenichiro Nakamura, Rio Saito, Jess Hallams, Aya Takahashi, Yosuke Hara and Gregory Trencher

President Ohno had said in his opening address that for different goals, different blueprints are required. For Aya Takahashi, it was through managing share houses. A high school graduate, she now manages 5 houses in Sendai which she has been using as share houses. It was undoubtedly difficult in the beginning because no bank would treat her seriously. “Today’s generation faces stress due to isolation. Doesn’t it look good if the lights are on when you enter your house?,” she remarked. She believes that the idea of share houses fulfills the bottom three blocks of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and hence converted her love for a shared community to a sustainable business. With so many international students now staying in these houses, she says, “It is like travelling around the world while staying in Sendai.” She believes that having communities outside family can lead to a bountiful living.

The letter ‘E’ in TED stands for entertainment. This time, the organisers invited the 17-yr old child prodigy Rio Saito who plays Ukulele. Three years back, he picked up the Hoku award which is considered to be Hawaii’s equivalent to a Grammy. Before he started strumming and enchanting the jaw-dropped audience, he said, “My first blueprint was when I picked up my Ukulele.” The performance was a tribute and a celebration playing in the hands of Saito. He selected ‘Hana wa saku’ as his first piece as his remembrance for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and then cheered the audience with his energetic second selection ‘El Cumbanchero’. At times, he posed for the photographer Nguyen Chi Long and at times he also donned a modest style showing his maturity that he balances with fame and surely doesn’t let go of the honesty in his creativity.

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Aniko Karpati, Treasurer and Co-Founder of the event with members of the audience

The event had also organized for speaker’s café where the attendees could ask questions to the speakers directly and thereby facilitating a two-way conversation.

President Ohno had remarked that sharing, learning and growing is what defines education and university. Marty Kuenhert, who is a professor at Tohoku University and Sendai University is a prime example of the same. He is surely a sporting celebrity in Japan. “My love with Japan started in a bathroom,” the first foreign general manager of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles Pro-Baseball team opened his talk.

In what followed to be an edgy and a witty conversation with the audience, he spoke about his life at Stanford University. “I first came to Tokyo on a spring exchange program in the 1960s,” he reminisced. He spoke how important it is to have the wealth of friends which is an invaluable asset in the blueprint of success. He came in touch with the famous ‘Cappy’ Harada which later on benefitted him as Harada appointed Kuenhert as the general manager of Lodi (CA) Orions. “Laughing is the best way to get friends,” he remarked. “So, Learn abundantly, Adapt endlessly, Understand openly, Give ceaselessly and stay in Harmony with your hosts,” he said as he expanded the acronym LAUGH. He ended his talk as he threw some coins at the audience reminding them of an anecdote that he mentioned during his talk where he would say to the person on the other side of the counter, “Keep the change.”

On the other hand, for Kenichiro Nakamura, success came at a later stage. He wanted to make a career in music and dropped out of his university after entering it on his second attempt to play music in Tokyo, much to the dismay of his parents. “I came to Tokyo but couldn’t earn enough through music,” he recalled. It was during that time when he saw a Microsoft site and became excited about programming. “Many people didn’t believe that I can join Microsoft,” he said. Yet, through his perseverance in learning to program, he earned 17 Microsoft certificates and finally entered the company of his dreams. “Do you really know where will you be in the next 10 years?,” he asked. “I cared too much about what others thought about me but now, I pretend that I did not notice,” he remarked. If you ask him now what would he want to do in the next 10 years, he confidently says, “Street workout.”

The event was emceed in English by Pelonomi Moila, a South African student at Tohoku University and in Japanese by Eri Watanabe, an alumni of Tohoku University, Class of 2015 and also the curator of TEDx Nihonbashi. With ice-breaking events and constant interaction, they did not allow the audience to lose any interest.

It is rather remarkable to realise how far the idea of a ‘Blueprint’ can be stretched. For Yosuke Hara, an otorhinolaryngologist at Tohoku University, it is about taking the leap forward. “When the 2011 earthquake struck, I was performing a surgery. I thought I would not be able to make it,” he remembered. After this, he began questioning if it is ok to continue his lifestyle the way it is. He then joined Stanford University’s medical entrepreneur program and also worked in Silicon Valley. People started questioning if it is too risky for a doctor to enter business but he had a simple answer for all, “To do things outside of your work is what leads to innovative solutions.” “Have the courage to leave your comfort zone. Do what you really want to do,” he appealed.

One of the speakers Etan Ginsberg had to leave for Cambodia urgently on a business trip and hence his talk was cancelled. The event came to a close with Gregory Trencher, an associate professor at Tohoku University asking everyone to preserve the planet and achieve full human potential by upgrading to Homo Sapiens 2.0. He quoted research about individuals experiencing near-death situations and questioned the existence of soul. He also contrasted Rene Descartes’ idea that mind and body are separate by quoting researches and examples where we understand that both are interdependent on each other.

The curtains were pulled down with group photographs and visibly inspired crowd moving towards the after-party. Prof. Ryoichi Nagatomi, the Vice Dean of Biomedical Engineering department and the supervisor for the event, congratulated the organizing team for the event’s success. “This is a small event but definitely a melting pot,” he remarked.

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Prof. Ryoichi Nagatomi delivering the ‘Kampai’ address

This year, it was for the first time that live translation service was introduced for the audience. It is a rare service even across TEDx community in Japan. “I couldn’t participate last year but I realised that without translation, it is difficult for many to understand. I went up to Chanon and I said I want to do it. Our team had 18 meetings and though we had the speakers’ scripts with us, we were prepared for on-spot changes should the speaker make any on the day of the event. I am really satisfied and extremely proud of my team,” said Evdokiia Okhlopova, leader of the Translation team.

On asking about his thoughts about the event, Drew Borders, leader of the Speaker team said, “It is a very good experience. I learnt to organise people. It looks very easy but it is a tough job as you need to manage schedules and differing ideas. Next year, I am looking forward to an even more clarified theme. In the end, the audience should go home with open ended questions in their mind.”

The teams are already trying to conceptualise the next TEDx event in 2019. Before then, smiles and a small glass of limited ‘Blueprint’ labelled Nihonshu Sake shall keep the ideas spreading.

As reported by Trishit Banerjee. Born and brought up in Mumbai, he loves to chase words and Chemistry at the same time.

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