Tohoku University’s systemic massacre of 3,243 jobs

Exactly 50 years back, the streets of Japan boiled in revolution. The protests against the Narita airport and alleged collusion of then Prime Minister Eisako Sato with the United States in the Vietnam war brought the cities to a halt. Tear gas, water cannons and the occupation of University of Tokyo’s infamous Yasuda auditorium have been etched as vivid memories amongst people of that generation.

50 years later, the streets are silent or at least, the mainstream Japanese media projects it to be. Japan’s largest media corporations came under fire for deliberately not reporting protests and people’s opinions after the 2011 Great Eastern Earthquake and Tsunami. Not very long after that, in 2012, the Japanese government amended the labour contract law.

The amendment in the labour contract law implied that all fixed-term employees can give themselves a permanent status if they have been employed for over five years. The lawmakers have claimed that it is for enhancement of job security and were challenging the rising fixed-term employees at various institutions. As of 2015, Tohoku University has 5,771 irregular employees as opposed to 4,686 regular employees. Yet, institutions have found a way to exploit the loophole: To not renew a fixed-term employee beyond five years.

Since the implementation of the law starting from April 01, 2013, five years have been completed on March 31, 2018. This implies that institutions can officially decline to renew any fixed term contracts and prevent the irregular employees from becoming regular. Tohoku University, like many others in the country, has decided to do so.

With very little reporting about the same in the mainstream English media apart from the exception of Hifumi Okunuki’s op-ed article in ‘The Japan Times’ in 2016, the issue remains unclear and unknown, to the student community and the outsiders. The regular protests by Tohoku University Kumiai on the Katahira campus have attracted very little attention from the students. “We really want the students to know about it,” said one of the Kumiai members to the Sentinel who has decided to remain anonymous.


Protests against the administrative decision near Kawauchi station


The university has already initiated the process of terminating the contracts of the fixed-term employees by not renewing them. It has substituted them with new employees who may face the same fate 5 years from now. “The university says that it doesn’t have any money to guarantee our employment in the future but they have been constructing buildings after buildings and a lot of them have also been for the sheer symbolism of reconstruction and revival post-2011,” the Kumiai member said. “The lawyer representing the university is from Tokyo. Appointing someone all the way from Tokyo costs a lot of money,” the member added.

Last year, the university put in place an examination for the irregular employees, some of whom who have worked for nearly a decade at the university. The set terms were clear: The ones who fail to clear it, would be terminated immediately. In a somewhat expected move, only 30% of the test-takers cleared the examination. “Everyone from the Ryugakuseika department cleared the test which could probably be reasoned for their ability to communicate in English,” said the Kumiai member.

This year also saw the shift in leadership as President Hideo Ohno stepped into the shoes of presidency, succeeding President Susumu Satomi. “There has been no change due to President Ohno stepping in. It is all the same,” the Kumiai member said. “He said he requires time for studying the topic deeply,” the member added. President Ohno replied the same when ‘The Sentinel’ asked him about this issue in an interview back in January 2017, few weeks after he was announced as the President-elect. ‘The Sentinel’ also tried asking this to President Satomi in an interview but the secreteriat refused to give us permission to ask him anything about the issue.

It is also surprising to note that most of these 3,243 employees are female employees. Since most of them have a family to take care of and the household expense is majorly supported by the husband’s income, they choose to take an irregular job. With Prof. Noriko Osumi stepping in as the new Vice President for Public Relations and Promotion of Diversity, it is expected that the gender imbalance will be seen with greater importance in administrative decisions. She is the first female professor at the School of Medicine and is also the Director of TUMUG (Tohoku University Centre for Gender Equality Promotion). Yet, the Kumiai member thinks otherwise. “She has focussed only on researchers and regular workers. She has not addressed any of the gender issues that the 3,243 employees who are on the brink of losing their jobs are facing.”

The fine prints and implications of this new law which was supposed to guarantee more jobs bring in new details. “After completion of 5 years, the fired employee can re-join the institution after a break of 6 months for another 5 years. So, some of the employees who left the university in March this year may be able to re-join in October. This is absolutely incomprehensible. I cannot do without 6 months’ pay,” said the Kumiai member. Questions like what would happen if the university hires new employees in the period between April and October remain ambiguous and no clear answers were found.

Like Tohoku University, Hokkaido  University and Osaka University are also amongst other centres for higher education who have decided to axe the jobs. On the other hand, the negotiations between the labour union at University of Tokyo and the administration has been somewhat successful and irregular employees are still holding on to their jobs. The union at Tohoku University is always in constant discussion with administration about important issues but the number of members have fallen over the years. “Many are not concerned unless their jobs are affected,” the Kumiai member said.

A part of this problem can also be traced back to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision in 2003 to turn all Japanese national universities into institutions with corporate status or, ‘national university corporation’, as they are now known as. This has pressured the universities to look out for their own funds. With MEXT reducing its subsidies to the national universities by 1% each year, the universities have responded by hiring more irregular staff and axing clerical jobs. United Kingdom adopted similar idea back in 1988 under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but responses from citizens have been mixed.

Back in July 1974, the Supreme Court delivered a historic verdict in the Toshiba Yanagi-cho Factory case where seven plaintiffs worked on revolving 2 month-contracts and one of them was renewed 23 times. The Supreme Court upheld it as jotai-setsu (Legal principle of abuse of the right to dismiss applies if circumstances suggest that employment is in effect permanent, even if written contract indicates a fixed term).

The court case between Tohoku University and the 3,243 workers shall witness its first hearing on August 22 this year. The workers are represented by a voluntary lawyer from Sendai city. “Well, the court case will take a long time,” the Kumiai member said.

Article 02 of Japanese Labour Standards Act says, “Working conditions should be determined by the workers and employers on an equal basis.” When asked if the goal of attaining this equality near, the Kumiai member responded, “There is a long way to go.”

For updates about the court case, visit the website of Tohoku University Kumiai :

The Sentinel shall also publish the official statement from the university once it receives. 

As reported by The Sentinel Bureau.

Photos Courtsey : Tohoku University Kumiai Facebook Page (Public)

References :

  1. No legal cure-all for fixed-term job insecurity (April 24, 2012):
  2. Labour Standards Act :
  3. ‘Five-year rule’ triggers ‘Tohoku college massacre’ of jobs :
  4. 1968 : The year Japan truly raised its voice :
  5. Japan’s universities struggling under corporate status :
  6. Tohoku University Kumiai :


Discovering the real Japan

“Learning from the past to give to the future” is the image with which “BOUNDLESS” pursuits not only the revitalization of Japan but also the creation of a sustainable world bound strongly to its culture and traditions. This ambitious project goes by the name of “Sosei Partners” and it is ready to welcome participants from all over the world, on a trip to real Japan; a place that is often blurred by its stereotypical image, and whose real treasures lie on its ancestral folklore.

Dennis Chia, the founder of “BOUNDLESS”, has managed to design a portfolio of workshops and activities that teach foreigners the local traditions, and simultaneously bring them closer to the community that has subsisted for generations thanks to them. Furthermore, this project also brings out to the public the innovative new plans that are reshaping the future of some of the rural areas of Japan. Particularly those taking place in Ishinomaki, a city that is bouncing back from the devastating tsunami of 2011, by using the creativity of its citizens as foci of success.


During a walking tour of Ishinomaki city


One of the workshops, “Ishinomaki Learning Program”, focuses on promoting the customs of this coastal city, located in the northeast part of Japan. The trip starts by teaching the visitors how the 3.11 disaster affected the life of the locals, with real testimonies, anecdotes, and with a short hike to a famous hill where the scenic view tells an ineffable story.

The tour continues to the multi-purpose café “Irori”, a space that has become a trendy spot amongst young and veterans. This former garage has a conspicuous chimeric floor that blends with the cozy rustic appearance of the venue, and is where visitors and locals sit as family to enjoy international dishes, voluntarily prepared by the participants of the workshops.  Irori usually hosts the meetings of “Ishinomaki 2.0”, a group created shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake and intends to transform Ishinomaki into an inspiring city, even beyond its former self.


At Ishinomaki Laboratory


A couple of kilometers away from the center of the city, “Ishinomaki Lab” gives every visitor a solid proof that innovation transcends any barrier, what started as a solution for a local problem has transcended into a multinational business with shipping to Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany and the U.S. This is the world’s first DIY furniture label, and its roots are embedded in the history of Ishinomaki.

Even further from city, “Fisherman Japan” takes on the task of teaching not only foreigners but also the new generations of locals that the fishing industry is not the “dirty, dangerous, and demanding” business it is commonly portrayed as. Their mission is to include fishermen into the modern society and promote a sustainable industry with fresh seafood products as their banner.

These are merely a glance of all the activities that form the “Ishinomaki Learning Program”. Moreover, this workshop is just one of the options that “Sosei partners” has to offer you. So if you want to experience the real Japan, be in contact with the ancestral traditions of the wonderful melting pot of customs that is this country, and have a first-hand insight of these rural communities, do not miss out on this opportunity.

As reported by Manuel Campos. Manuel is currently a student in the Graduate School of Medicine and serves as the Managing Editor of ‘The Sentinel’. 

Sosei Partners have held an orientation at Tohoku University last year. The founder of IRORI is an alumnus of Tohoku University.

One Professor’s Rediscovery of India

Dr. Hiroshi Yamashita undoubtedly loves his kurtas, a traditional garment from India. If you ever meet him, there is also a chance where you can see him flashing his shirt with caricature of Rajnikanth (a famous film actor from south India) printed on it. Over the years, he has become a fascination for people in the state of Tamil Nadu back in India. A professor at Tohoku University, his undying romance with Sanskrit, Tamil and oriental culture takes him down the memory lane.

“It was at school when I got interested in Indian philosophy. I had a teacher at Sendai Niko school who taught us philosophy and was from Kyoto,” he recollects. “Back then, I was very pessimistic about the world around me and certainly did not enjoy Japan’s increasing inclination towards the west.” His interest in Buddhist philosophy naturally led him to India. Those days, when he joined Tohoku University as a student, ‘Indology’ as a subject was offered which was based on Sanskrit and Pali languages. It was obligatory to master the Tibetan language as a part of it. After this, he began studying more about the Sanskritic philosophy in ancient India but soon decided to change his subject focus.

“Sanskrit focuses majorly on ancient Indian philosophy and not the modern aspects of it,” he says. In late 1970s, western and Japanese archaeologists assisted in the excavation of new sites belonging to the Indus valley civilisation. “Though divided but, archaeologists believe that probably the civilisation was Dravidian and not Aryan. It was then I decided to study the Dravidian religions, languages and cultures,” he says.

Dr. Yamashita sports an Indian kurta which is amongst his favourites.

Even though Dr. Yamashita took a major step in changing his focus, Japan at that time, did not have any department offering Dravidian languages. It was around that time he used to visit a family from the Tamil Brahmin community in Tokyo to learn the language. The family then introduced Dr. Yamashita to the Madras University’s department of philosophy which he believes had better academic standards than today. “With the caste movement, the majorly Brahmin professors were replaced even though Sanskrit has been traditionally a language spoken only by Brahmins, the upper caste community,” he reminisces.


After spending 6 years in Madras University, he was appointed as an associate professor at Yamagata University before he joined Nagoya University.

But, with changing times, subject focus needed a shift. “Not just in Japan but all over the world, the emphasis on classical studies has fallen. Today, Greek and Latin philosophies are no longer popular. Research has become more pragmatic,” he says. He soon shifted his focus to contemporary India and in the process, he made many Indian friends. He finally wrote his thesis on pre-Bhakti literature in Tamil Nadu.

Though his research is India-centric but it took him to several places around the world. “My research then took me to places where Indians are settled to study about the Hindu diaspora and how it has transformed from the place of origin,” he says. “In south east Asia, Hinduism has been preserved in its original language and no record of influence from the local languages have been found,” he explained. “NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) are extremely strict about observing the rituals,” he added.

Like Dr. Yamashita, there are several researchers studying the southern Asia in depth. “Previously, the disciplines were divided but, with the establishment of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies (JASAS), these disciplines have come under one umbrella,” he explains. With JASAS, the interdisciplinary research approach was facilitated. Now, researchers in the field of south Asian economics and politics are also collaborating under this umbrella.

This year, JASAS completes 30 years since its founding in 1988. To commemorate this event, a symposium is being held on May 26 of this year at Tohoku University’s Kawauchi campus. People from different areas ranging from anthropology and musicology to yoga and media studies are expected to gather for the event. Dr. Yamashita is steering this ship to its destination.

When asked if the Japanese population is interested in knowing about south Asia, Dr. Yamashita said,” Traditionally, Japanese people have embraced Buddhism with about 98% people associating themselves with it. With India growing economically on the global platform, people are getting interested from various perspectives.” Yet, the interest levels amongst the population of majorly agricultural Tohoku region, about south Asia is low. “It has a pro-west inclination,” Dr. Yamashita notes. On the contrary, the interest about India is growing rapidly amongst the people in Nagoya.

In 2015, the then education minister of Japan, Hakubun Shimomura, had sent a letter to all the 86 national universities of Japan which asked them to take active steps for the abolishment of social science and humanities organisations or convert them to serve areas that better meet the society’s needs. Yet, Dr. Yamashita feels that it is still not difficult to get funds for research centred around India. “Japanese government provides funds for important regions of the world. It is third-easiest to obtain funds related to research in south Asia followed by middle eastern and Chinese studies,” he explains.

In the future, Dr. Yamashita would love to see enhanced interdisciplinary approach such as in areas combining business and philosophy. He is excited for the event this weekend and he definitely brings the flavour of fragrant spices both in his research and interaction.


Poster for 30th anniversary JASAS Symposium


Event : JASAS 30th Anniversary Symposium

Date : Saturday, May 26, 2018

Time : 13:00 – 17:00 Hrs

Location : Room 206 – Multimedia Hall, Multimedia Education and Research Complex, Kawauchi Campus

Map :

Program details (in English) :

Program details (in Japanese) :月26日開催-日本南アジア学会30周年記念連続シンポ/

As spoken to The Sentinel.


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?”

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.

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.

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.

Tête-à-tête with President Ohno

The new academic year is almost around the corner and Sentinel is excited for the new President. Arunava Acharyya, Manuel Campos and Trishit Banerjee asked some fun questions to the new president. 

  1. What are your hobbies?

I often mix my work with hobbies but I still enjoy skiing once or twice a year. I am not sure how good it is for my health though. I also like to go on a day-or-two driving trip with my wife to onsen or nearby places like Urabandai in Fukushima.

  1. Which is your favourite food?

I really like Inaniwa Udon of Akita. I also like steak. I remember visiting a restaurant in Switzerland where I had Argentinian beef and I am still trying to find it again. I also visit Sindur once in a while to have Indian curry. I prefer the mild ones though.

  1. Do you like J-Pop? Which is your favourite J-Pop Band?

I guess the J-Pop of the 1970s. My tastes haven’t evolved since then. Since my wife is a piano teacher, she has influenced me a lot and I take keen interest in classical music like the piano sonatas of Mozart and others.

  1. Which is your favourite book?

I really enjoy the work of Shiono Nanami. She lives in Italy and she writes about the ancient Roman empire. I enjoy it because it is not scholarly dry and she is an amazing story-teller. You can get a grasp the life very well as if you are re-living the history. It’s imaginative too. I find it highly entertaining because it tells a story, not just information.

  1. Which club/circle/activity did you pursue when you were a university student?

I was involved in the automobile club rally as a navigator as I was not brave enough to be a driver. This was while I was at University of Tokyo.

  1. Lastly, where were you born and brought up?

I was born in Tokyo but brought up in Sapporo.

“Take full advantage of what Tohoku University provides”: The Dawn of President Ohno

In January this year, Arunava Acharyya, Manuel Campos and Trishit Banerjee of ‘The Sentinel’ sat down with Prof. Hideo Ohno, the newly appointed President of Tohoku University for an informal conversation about his research, his vision for the university and his favourite Udon from Akita. He shall succeed Prof. Susumu Satomi this April as the 22nd President of the university.
  1. First of all, heartiest congratulations on being appointed as the 22nd President of Tohoku University. Are there any changes expected in your term and where do you see Tohoku university in the future?

Thank you. I will follow on from my predecessors in continuing the work they have started.

As you may be aware, Tohoku University was one of three universities given the Designated National University status by Japan’s government last year. We are considered to be one of the top research universities in Japan. And in order to stay a top player in the global arena, we need to strengthen our research capabilities, shape education to make it in line with the globalized world, and increase social engagement including academic-industry collaboration. So a major role is to maintain the current framework, while building on what we have to adapt to society’s changing needs.

  1. What are your thoughts on english-language programs, the government’s G30 project and the overall internationalisation of Tohoku University ?

Well, I would like to see it enhanced further but I can’t tell you about any specific programs right now. We need English language courses to prepare our students as global citizens. Since the majority of the undergraduate students are Japanese speaking, a good portion of the undergraduate classes will still be continued in Japanese, however. On the internationalization front, President Satomi has worked hard and I will do the same to make the on-campus processes transparent to non-Japanese speaking students. I would also like to see a one-stop service established for providing such support in all administrative processes in my tenure as president.

  1. What are the major challenges that you feel the university needs to address?

Naturally, there are multiple challenges that we face. In terms of education, the challenge is to make sure that students are ready to contribute as global citizens following graduation. We also want to facilitate studies, which are not just curriculum-based, but that also nurture entrepreneurship and teach aspects such as those used by nonprofit organizations. In regards to research, although we have played a major role until now, we still need to strengthen our research base. Finally, in terms of social engagement, we have to improve our support for members of the faculty, students and staff who are keen to work on innovative projects with collaborators outside the university.

  1. The university implemented the labour contract law in 2012 and did not renew the fixed term contract of 3,243 workers as reported by The Japan Times in November 2016. What was the reason behind such a drastic step?

I am going to look into how it developed. My understanding is that the university is working very hard to ensure that the people who are working here are happy. We are striving to help our staff maintain a work-life balance too. If there is something that the private sector is able to do which we are not, I would like to learn from this and improve our policies where possible.

  1. You are an established researcher in the field of spintronics. Would you like to elaborate on the research you are currently involved with?

Electron has mass, charge and spin. In many cases, we utilize charge and mass. In other cases, we use spin but the basic idea of spintronics is to use charge and spin together. I started basic studies of spintronics in 1988. At that time, the study was curiosity-driven. We started doing experiments at 5 K or 50 K, which is much below the freezing temperature, but were able to show a proof-of-concept device that utilizes electric fields to manipulate magnetism, thereby using charge (electric field) to control spin (magnetism). I expanded my horizons during the course and we started to develop spintronics devices, which can be used in our modern integrated circuits. We developed material stacks which are now a de facto standard being used in the industry.

The reason we could make such developments was due to what we learned from basic research mostly done at low temperatures. The spintronics technology we have developed will shortly be commercialized as big players in the semiconductor industry are all involved. The CIES (Centre for Innovative Integrated Electronic Systems) at our university in the Shin-Aobayama campus is capable of implementing our spintronics devices in semiconductors so that we can combine it with transistors and demonstrate functionality. We can design such circuits using our own material stacks that we have developed which can help in realising new integrated circuits based on Tohoku University’s novel design. As a matter of fact, Tohoku University is the only public-sector institution in the world where you can do this.

The development of new semiconductor integrated circuits is a huge area. I have asked colleagues on campus to participate in the effort. Together, we design the circuit, process magnetic materials among other things. We aim to show the world that this is the way to build the integrated circuits of tomorrow. These circuits are high-performing circuits and consume considerably less energy which makes it particularly suitable for IoT (Internet of Things) and artificial intelligence. This is something that I am still involved in and our university is leading the world in this field.

  1. Considering the current advancements in nanotronics, what possibilities do you see in the development of nano sensors for medical research?

So far, I have spoken only about the spintronics research I am involved. Other people like Prof. Ando of Applied Physics at our university are involved in developing highly sensitive magnetic spintronics sensor. Prof. Ando has succeeded in capturing magnetic fields generated by a heartbeat. He is now working in capturing magnetic field changes in the brain. Today, it is done by devices requiring liquid helium, but in the future, his device enables us to do the same at room temperature and therefore, without using liquid helium. His sensor is extremely inexpensive and highly sensitive at the same time. This could lead to branching out of this idea into different fields for other potential applications. After all, until we show our results to the world, we do not know the value of our research.

  1. Tohoku University has contributed extensively in the revival projects after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Are there any other steps the university plans to take?

People are continuing their work in rebuilding the region. We are working together in the process and at the same time hoping to take it one-step further. Living in Japan, we have to face disasters such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. Our society must always be disaster-ready. We have to recover and rehabilitate in a short period of time and take care of those who have suffered. We have to develop this in the form of a package to help our communities prepare. It is our responsibility and Tohoku University is committed to contributing its expertise in disaster management.

Also, in relation to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a center (Center for Fundamental Research on Nuclear Decommissioning) has been established, which is developing technology on how to shut down the Fukushima plant and other nuclear plants around the world. Such studies will be conducted on our campus too.

Green energy is essential in preparing us for a sustainable future and more research has to be conducted in this field. Tohoku University will definitely play an important role here as well.

  1. Any message for the students and our readers?

I would like to see our students take full advantage of what Tohoku University provides. We are here not just to disseminate knowledge but also to provide a ground to play and to use the knowledge gained so that students are fully ready for the next stage of life after university. The environment here is of a high standard for conducting research activities. While we are working very hard on this front, if you find any room for improvement, please let us know.

As spoken to Arunava Acharyya, Manuel Campos and Trishit Banerjee

5 years of President Satomi : A Grounded Approach

In August 2017, Team Sentinel interviewed President Susumu Satomi of Tohoku University. President Satomi’s presidency shall come to an end with this academic year. He speaks about his fondest memories, idea of internationalisation and the revival of Tohoku University post-2011.

Q1) You became the President of the university in 2012, the year following the Tohoku Disaster. What were some of the challenges that you faced then and how did you overcome them?

When I assumed Presidency, the campus was still damaged from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At that time, we were working on both restoration and reconstruction of the campus. We were also working on the location to set up the new campus for the School of Agriculture. Around the same time, I developed the Tohoku University Broad vision at that time which consisted of the Satomi vision and the Faculty vision. It was also necessary to inspire and motivate the students and the faculty who lost their positivity. So, I asked one of the alumni members, Kazumasa Oda, to write a new song for the university. This is how the song Midori no Oka came to being. This made students revive their positive spirit which subsequently translated into them winning the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 years consecutively and Tohoku University being honoured as an institution in the list of ‘Designated National Universities’.

Q2) In the aftermath of the Tohoku Disaster, the entire region has suffered immensely. How has the University given back to the Tohoku society in the recovery and stabilization of the region?

As the director of the School of Medicine at that time, I sent medical officers on the ground and accepted several patients affected by the disaster. Many students worked hard as volunteers to clean the debris. We also established the Tohoku University Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research in which we undertook 8 main projects and 100 other reconstruction project plans. One of the projects out of the 8 main was to establish the International Research Institute of Disaster Science for practical disaster mitigation. The other project was the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organisation under which we collected the genetic and medical data of 150,000 people to develop next-generation medical care system. Other projects like New Information Communication Systems helped extremely during the disaster. We are also very committed in the decommissioning of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and we have also put in place entrepreneurship training courses to enhance jobs. After the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai, Tohoku University has become a global centre for disaster statistics and creation of Tsunami early warning systems using high speed computers in collaboration with Osaka University.

Q3) Since you assumed the role of President in 2012, we understand you have made various changes with your leadership on the management of Tohoku University. What kind of changes have you made over the past 5 years?

In the field of education, I set up the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education to expand the Admission Office entrance exams in order to match the international standards. Course numbering, GPA and Quarter system were a result of this. Few years ago, the Tohoku Global Leadership Program was also established and student exchanges were promoted under the Study Abroad Program. I also established the International Joint Graduate program in Spintronics and Data Science and Tohoku Forum for Creativity where, world-renowned researchers visit and guide students and younger researchers. The Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences was established under my tenure to develop outstanding young researchers to whom we may also offer tenure positions.  I also established the Global Research Hub under which institutes like WPI-AIMR (Material Science), CIES (Spintronics), ToMMO (Medicine) and IRIDeS (Disaster Prevention) came into being.

Q4) Can you tell us about some of your fondest memories being President of the University in the past 5 years?

Some of my fondest memories include construction of several buildings on the campus and rebuilding of infrastructure affected in 2011. Students resumed their activities and won the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 consecutive years. Recently, Tohoku University was also selected as a designated national university. These memories remain very dear to me.

Q5) We know that Tohoku University has eagerly tried to promote internationalisation in each department.  We are here as a result of such a move.  Would you tell us your personal feelings and motivation for such a move? And what is your view on the internationalisation of education in Japan?

In 1967, I entered Tohoku University. At that time, Okinawa was still under the American occupation. I learnt many things during that period and I thought that I would like to offer these opportunities to other international students too. Therefore, I wanted to increase the number of international students and building the new university dormitory in Aobayama is one of the few steps towards taken in this direction.

Q6) While internationalization certainly begins with bringing in more foreign students to study in Japan, it does not end there. The entire system of education must be transformed to truly be called international. There have been some challenges in this aspect such as the language gap, the Japanese society’s inertia to Internationalization etc. How have you dealt with these challenges to improve a situation?

It is necessary to change the language education system in Japan. Japanese people have translated western science, ideology and philosophy to Japanese so that we can understand it in our own native language since the Meiji restoration. Therefore, I think that it is important for us to keep our identity and originality first. I do agree that English language courses are necessary in the graduate level but I have my own apprehensions about introducing them at the undergraduate level.

Q7) Where do you see Tohoku University in the next decade, in terms of research, education and it’s influence and engagement with society? 

Today, all the campuses are located within 9 minutes of travel time from Sendai Station. I would like to see many more companies building research centres on the campus. My dream is that Tohoku University becomes a leading research hub in Japan in the next 10 years.

Q8) What advice would you like to give based on your personal experience to the students, staff and all the members of the University especially with reference to how they can give back to society through their research or educational activities and strive to solve the problems in it?

Our duty is to give back to the society and strive to make a peaceful and just world. I think that it is difficult to do that today but there is definitely many possibilities. So, do your best and become a true member of the elite!


Interviewed by : Rohan Raj

Photograph and Video : Reyhan Daffa Athariq