Tohoku University sweeps top honours at BIOMOD 2017

When Richard Feynman infamously remarked, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” during an APS meeting at Caltech back in 1959, the world of nanotechnology was on the brink of discovery. 58 years later, Murata-Kawamata/Nomura laboratory at Tohoku University celebrated its stunning streak of winning awards at the BIOMOD competition yet again.

BIOMOD is an annual bimolecular design competition curated at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Established in 2011, each year, teams from all across the globe participate in making biomolecular nanorobots, DNA computing, bimolecular self-assembly amongst many others.

The Murata-Kawamata/Nomura Lab first participated in the BIOMOD competition in 2011. Since 2012, the projects by the undergraduate students (mentored by graduate students) have secured one of the top 3 places each year. This year, the team developed the idea of an autonomous self-healing DNA hydrogel using branched hybridisation chain reaction.

The team used the principle of complementary bases in DNA to develop a DNA gel-structure. With conventional HCR (Hybridisation Chain Reaction), it was possible to form a long linear DNA strand but, in order to form a DNA hydrogel, it was necessary to form a cross-linked structure. Therefore, the team designed a gel formation method based on conventional HCR, calling it Branched HCR (BHCR) to differentiate between the two. Such a material can be used to synthesise self-healing materials made up of biocompatible molecules/polymers such as DNA.

The team brought home a total of 5 prizes which includes the 2nd Overall Prize, 1st in Website, 1st in YouTube Video, Project Award (Gold) and Game Engine award. The members consisted not only from the molecular robotics laboratory but also from material sciences, chemistry, agriculture and chemical engineering. Interdisciplinary method was put in use to bring the project to life.

Paul W.K. Rothemund, Director of BIOMOD Foundation, was quoted as saying. “As every year, it was a great pleasure to see the work and enthusiasm of Team Sendai”.

The team was led by Kensei Kikuchi, a second-year student at the Department of Material Science and Engineering. Being his second year of participation he says, “Based on my experience, I knew BIOMOD is really tough. Also, I was the youngest leader of the team so, I was reluctant to do the job. However, I decided to prepare myself and worked as a leader. For the next 4 months, we faced several challenges about what we can and what we should do for our project. Finally, we came up with idea of self-healing system at the end of July. All members knew what they should do and worked hard to realise the project goals.”

The team is currently working on officially publishing the results and have already started working for BIOMOD 2018.

The official video made by Team Sendai can be seen at https://youtu.be/aMsyQ9d59PE

 

How can Japanese Universities become Leading Universities in the World?

Japanese top universities are at last coming of age and visualizing themselves to rank among the world’s top universities. I believe that this can happen, although, not without some major changes both in infrastructure as well as in educators’ and students’ consciousness.

One thing that is already beginning to happen now in Japanese top leading universities is for certain subjects to be taught directly in English. In order for students to be successful, they will need to increase their ability to understand English. Also they will need to increase their reading skills in English, as many of the best and most up-to-date, new textbooks in all subjects are written in English. I feel that bright students at elite universities in Japan will be able to overcome these obstacles in a relatively short amount of time.

There is, however, another very crucial aspect of the classroom experience that students will have much more difficult overcoming in order to become real world leaders of the future. At the crux of this is a big black box of CAN’T DO and CAN’T SPEAK that is very difficult to explain in words, although I experienced it daily with my students.

One student presented a paper titled “Japanese nature.” He listed four major aspects that he felt characterized Japanese nature: 1. Japanese are negative, 2. Japanese don’t like difference [I think he meant to use the word ‘diversity’]. 3. They themselves don’t want to stand out as different, and  4. They also shun others who are different.

Because I have been living and working with students in Japan for so long, I have learned various techniques that work well to get passive, reticent Japanese students to speak out in English, even if their language proficiency is very low, and also even if they are very withdrawn and shy. I can even do this quite well with large classes of 45 or more students. For example, I might call on a student by name, ask them a direct question, and then guide them with a few prompts. If they just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, further prompt them with, “because . . .”.  I usually go down the attendance list (in a random fashion) and call on each student during every class at least once, or I go down a list of their names on a seating chart and use eye contact to encourage them. There is peer pressure to answer correctly. Elite students reflect deeply on themselves when they are not able to answer well. They also look to their fellow students who can answer well as models that they strive to emulate. Techniques like this and peer pressure help to stimulate learning in the classroom.

However, this is not getting anywhere near to the problem of the black box. What is that thing that is so different in a Japanese classroom among the Japanese students compared to, for example, most of the foreign students in the same class? What is different that I see in the Korean, Indian or Bangladeshi foreign students in that English class from the Japanese? Could it be their worldview perhaps? What is it that holds back even the brightest of Japanese students? And how can this problem be overcome? Do Japanese people hope to ‘overcome’ this ‘problem’? Do they see this as a problem for themselves? Are they even conscious of what this is? I am not sure, but what I am sure of is that if they can overcome this inability to come out of themselves, so speak up, to rally themselves that they will greatly benefit in the end.

As expressed by Prof. Laurel Kamada. She worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth from 2009 until she retired in 2016.

Presumption of Innocence

“Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty”. Universal Declaration of Human rights, article 11.

Though it may appear that everything has been said and done regarding the drug-related incident that involved students of Tohoku University last year, the circumstances of the arrests are still a blur. In order to clarify on what grounds the students were taken under custody, the team of The Sentinel contacted one of them for an interview. The student, decided to stay anonymous.

  • According to the police reports, all the students involved in the incident consumed an illegal drug, allegedly cocaine, in parties either in a night club or in the University dorm. Were you actually in one of these? If so, what happened during the event?

“It’s true that all detained students consumed illegal drugs at some point. We did it in the club one night where we got it from Australian guy who was arrested first. None of us planned on doing that, it’s just that we were pretty drunk and at some point he offered us drugs. Also that night, other people who were not found by the police used drugs that he possessed but they were not students and known to me.”

  • When the police took you into custody, were you, at any moment, told the reason why you were being detained?

“It’s their obligation to tell you why they are detaining you and explain it all, so yes.”

  • Were you in possession of any illegal substances when you were detained?

“No. None of the other 6 students possessed or bought drugs. Only the guy who was arrested first and who bought them had drugs when police came.”

  • Did someone, at any moment, told you the charges you were accused of?

“After police arrested a couple of our friends, we suspected we might be next. Also some other students were just brought in for questioning and we were informed that police might arrest us too.”

  • Did the police provide you with a translator?

“Yes. Even during the arrest, and later when I was held in custody, during every interrogation there has to be a translator. “

  • Were you subjected to any form of mistreatment while you were under custody?

“No. Police was nice to me. They tried to help even though communication was a bit difficult due to the language barrier. “

  • Did you have a trial? If so, were you allowed to contact a lawyer?

“We had government assigned lawyers but we didn’t have a trial. On the second day of the custody, police took me to talk to the prosecutor and judge where I admitted that the thing I was accused of was true.”

  • Under what conditions were you left free?

“I believe me and my friends were pardoned by the judge since it was our first crime and it wasn’t anything serious. I wasn’t convicted of anything or paid any fine to be released. Also, I think university assured police that I and my friends will leave Japan after we are released. I also wrote an apology letter to the judge where I stated my intention to leave Japan if released.”

  • Were you officially expelled from Japan?

“I’m not really sure cause after I got out, people from Tohoku University helped me with moving out and all that and after that I went to Tokyo for the airplane. I wasn’t under any surveillance by the police, I met with friends and even spent a day in Tokyo before I left. Also my lawyer told me that we can return to Japan as tourists if we want. Maybe it will be more difficult to get a job and a permanent stay but I don’t think there is a problem to come back and I intend to do that one day.”

As per this statement, the student was treated with respect and kindness while under custody.  However, all of the 6 students were arrested without any physical evidence against them. Whether or not they were presumed innocent is, perhaps, a point open for discussion, but the crux of this matter is if there is no incriminating evidence against someone,  on what grounds is this person arrested?

Disclaimer : The Sentinel is unbiased regarding any incident that takes place within or outside the university. It seeks to state the facts and not take any side. It respects the law of the land but at the same time, seeks to have an open discussion about the same from opposing perspectives.

The Sentinel is not obliged to reveal any details about the interviewee to anyone. No requests regarding revealing of details shall be entertained.

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.

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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.

 

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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 : https://www.tohoku.ac.jp/map/en/?f=KW_A05

Program details (in English) : https://drive.google.com/open?id=10cKTdQR9GxHZYl6s_f7lIQ69dxqtdCj9

Program details (in Japanese) : http://jasas.info/new/5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.

 

Interview : Tohoku University Festival Committee 2017

In November last year, Tohoku University Festival Committee spoke to ‘The Sentinel‘ in an exclusive interview about what it is like to organise a student event at such a scale. With internationalisation of the festival being a key feature in 2017, the organisers have tales to tell. The organising committee is primarily represented by the 2017 Festival Director, Ryuhei Notsuke. Other interviewee profiles are mentioned at the end of the interview.

  1. What do you think needs to be changed or kept for the festival next year?

I think we have to interact more with students and work as a team.

  1. Where do you want Tohoku University Festival to be in the next 50 years or near future?

Well, though we cannot exactly but we hope it attracts a lot more people and that students can express what they have learnt.

  1. Have you attended any other university festival? Is there anything that makes the Tohoku University Festival unique?

I have attended the festivals at University of Tokyo and Tohoku Gakuin but I think that what makes the Tohoku University Festival different is our focus on what we have learnt and not just entertainment. Invited lectures are a reflection of the same.

  1. Is it the first time you decided to make festival more international? Why? What were the initiatives taken under this process?

Yes, it is the first time. Our idea was to create a school festival where foreign students can truly enjoy. To facilitate the same, we had an English website, signboards in English and also the map in English.

  1. Tohoku University International Festival (TUIF) is chiefly organised by TUFSA. Have you ever considered to have just one festival which includes both international and Japanese students?

For organising the current festival itself, we have to take permission for hosting and cooperate with the authorities. Maybe in the future, we can think about having one festival.

 

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2017 Festival in numbers

 

  1. How many months do you take to prepare for the festival? What is the process of organising?

For organising the festival in November 2017, we began planning in December 2016. Organising the festival itself is a club activity and anyone who is interested can join. Anyone who wants to make a change and has a strong feeling for the school can join the club. The selection of the executive committee is random and this year we chose the members through lottery as the number of interested applicants were many.

The leader of the festival is chosen through voting by former members. The leader is always a sophomore and this activity is meant for freshmen and sophomores only.

 

  1. How did you decide this year’s theme (もどれどうしん、おどれわこうど), mascot (Peton) and theme song (Mellow Grace)?

The theme was decided by sophomores in around May or June but the discussions regarding the same began right from December. For the song and the mascot, we asked the student community to contribute something and then vote upon the same. Therefore, both the song and the mascot, are original creations.

  1. What is your fondest memory of the festival?

Ryuhei : Well, the entire process of organising was fun but most importantly, smiles of the people would remain as my fondest memory.

Ryota : Being responsible for the internet promotions and pamphlets, I saw many people looking up for what we sent out and that made me happy. Personally, I felt a sense of accomplishment when my best friend said that he had great fun.

Yuto : Not many people knew what I did in the team but a lot of them told me that I was shinig in the spotlight. That made me really happy.

Naohiro : This year, the number of people who watched the stand-up comedy live were more than 1,000! This was much more than the last year. This remains as my fondest memory.

  1. Any message/comments for our readers?

Ryuhei : I really hope that everyone, both Japanese and international students, enjoy the school festival next year too!

Naohiro : I would like more international students to attend the festival. This year, it was only the website that we worked on. Next year, I hope we can publish something too so that more international students. The university is investing its time and effort for bringing in more international students and I think that the festival should be reflective of the same too.

Interviewee profiles :

Ryuhei Notsuke (Festival Leader, 2017) : 3rd year student of psychology (Department of Literature) from Gunma. He loves swimming and is good at apologising as he always did so on behalf of the executive committee to the school authorities.

Yuto Sano (Translator during the interview and organising committee member) : 2nd year student of Mechanical and Aerospace engineering from Tokyo. He loves solo traveling and tends to be alone a lot.

Ryota Saeki : 3rd year student of Economics from Miyagi. He loves statistical analysis and he analysed all the festival data this time.

Naohiro Kobayashi (Organising committee member and the person who came up with the idea of internationalisation of the university festival) : 3rd year student of Mechanical and Aerospace engineering from Miyagi. He loves taking photos and was the photographer for the festival committee.

This interview was ideated by Tanach Rojrungsasithorn. A 3rd year student of IMAC-U at Tohoku University, he is a member of the editorial borad at ‘The Sentinel’. 

The 70th Tohoku University Festival would be held in November 2018 under the leadership of Shu Takeda. You can join the festival through this link

 

Tohoku University Festival: Annual updated series of Tohoku University

Generally, the same drama will lose its viewership if new episodes are not released. Harry Potter, one of the most popular novels of all time, would not be able to attract such a huge number of followers until now if it saw its end after the initial 7 books. Also, Starbucks, the most popular coffeehouse chain, would not be able to increase and retain their customers if no new flavors or new products are promoted periodically. In the same manner, because of annual updated contents, staff as well as activities, Tohoku University Festival is still alive until its 69th anniversary in 2017. In other words, Tohoku University Festival is comparable to an annual updated series of Tohoku University.

 

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Scenes from the festival day

 

Tohoku University Festival always comes up with new contents. The contents here are referred to as students’ work and performances from clubs and circles, special events as well as public relations. During the whole year, students seriously practice, obtain new wisdom, and finally create things they are interested in. Accordingly, every year, this festival gathers and exhibits all the new things. Since clubs and circles basically stay alive and are reformed from year to year, such outcomes will always get better and better continuing from what was done in the previous year. One conspicuous workpiece belongs to the Railway Research Circle. They are building the model of a railway system centered-around the Sendai based-one. It is interesting to see the progress of the model in one year. The project is extremely challenging and requires a lot of effort to be put in. It is because of such efforts that there is no doubt why Tohoku University Festival can attract such a large number of guests, approximately 33,000 people in 2017.

 

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More than 33,000 people visited the festival in 2017

 

A film production has a lot of things that goes behind the scenes. For example, photography, camera operation, film edition and sound engineering. In the same way, apart from the festival’s outlook, there are the stories of organizers, event preparation, public relations and students participating in the festival. “For organising the festival in November 2017, we began planning in December 2016”, said the organizing committee. The preparation starts just 1-2 months after the previous festival, including leader election, followed by theme and mascot consideration held around May or June. The 69th Tohoku University Festival is the first time that the public relations have become more internationalized; “Our idea was to create a school festival where foreign student can truly enjoy. To facilitate the same, we had an English website, signboards in English and also the map in English.”, the committee said.

It was not only the organizers but also participating students who put in efforts for the festival. Honoka, now a 2nd year student from piano circle, practiced piano everyday just for the festival performance for 2 months. Without a doubt, because of their efforts, the smile of the visitors were the most valued rewards for them. Also, the bonds of friendship formed during the entire year in the club (and amongst the group of organizers) are also precious things which, is irreplaceable.

 

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Main stage during the festival

 

Unlike J.K. Rowling who definitely knows here next piece of work, the festival committee doesn’t. In case of Tohoku University Festival, composers, who compose this unforgettable annual symphony, are everyone who are related to the festival. So, there are no hints about the future. However, everyone is looking forward for the 70th edition, the future of this unique Japanese culture. “Thinking about the next 20 or 50 years, I think there will be more attendants especially from foreign countries. Tohoku University Festival is the event where Japanese students and foreign students have some activities together.”, said Honoka. New clubs are also anticipated next year. Since society and people interest change from time to time, it is highly possible that new clubs will take birth as a response to the coming trend. Perhaps, E-sport will be one of the sports club in the near future. Food club will not be just a group of people who love cooking but also who are interested in the research field of Molecular Gastronomy. The scale of the club would expand to the social level, where the university club cooperates and are partly supported by outside companies.

Lastly, if we compare Tohoku University Festival to a novel, it is the novel whose new volumes are released every year, written by Tohoku University students. The story behind the novel writing process is full of efforts put in by organizers and friendship between club members. The future of Tohoku University Festival will probably be the next updated chapter of this unforgettable novel series.

As reported by Tanach Rojrungsasithorn (Tae). Tae was born and brought up in Thailand and loves to play video games. If you ever meet him, he might bake a crème brûlée for you. He is currently a third year student under the IMAC-U program of Tohoku University.

Experiences with students in Tohoku University classrooms: Can Tohokudai become a leading university?

Dear Readers of The Sentinel,

I was asked to write some monthly articles for this newsletter on topics of gender, ethnicity, race or identity by the editor-in –chief, Trishit Banerjee. I accepted the offer, not really knowing what you readers of this column might be most interested in reading about, so please give me some feedback on topics that interest you by contacting the editor.

As many of you might know from seeing my name above, I worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth for some eight years, from 2009 until my retirement in 2016. I also volunteered for a few terms teaching a class to foreign students called ‘Nippon jijou’ which I took to mean ‘Japanology.’What do you think ‘Japanology’ means? Actually I made up the curriculum myself after learning topics that most interested the foreign mix of students at that time. The topics ranged from education, social history, interpretations of history, to cinema and literature, the arts, religion and ideology, health, to youth cultures, to ‘Cool Japan’ and so forth.

I had also taught a very similar course to Japanese students called gaikoku jijou (=things of foreign countries). I used nearly the same curriculum and teaching materials for both classes. I did not use any text book for the course, although I am considering writing my own text someday. I have also taught elementary school children in a volunteer project following the 3-11 triple disaster in Tohoku along with student help from both Japanese and foreign students at Tohoku-dai. I feel that children could use the same or a similar text to one that I might use with university students.

Experiences with students in Tohoku University classrooms

(Originally written: November 13, 2009)

When I came to work at one of the top universities in Japan, I had very high expectations of my students as Tohoku-dai was very competitive and difficult to enter and I respected the students there as elite and hard-working.

I felt that I was facing classrooms of Japan’s elite students. I was sure that I would be able to expect a lot of them. And, indeed, a roomful of 40 plus students, with bright eager faces, listening intently to my English-only first lecture on the first day of class impressed me. It was a class of Engineering students, the pride and joy of the university – the elite leaders of our future in Japan. I immediately worried that perhaps the text I had chosen for my class might be too easy for them.

I found that what the students really excelled in was study-skills. After all, a good proportion of them had attended cram-schools throughout much of their schooling to learn, not only the basic skills of mathematics, Japanese, English and science, but also good study skills.

When I gave them a pop-quiz in class one day, I was impressed how they immediately went to work, underlining, jotting notes, dividing up the tasks at hand and then writing quickly and energetically. When homework was assigned, they all had it completed by the next class. I could see that they were really trying their best. Their attendance was also good.

But what I noticed immediately as well was that even with these elite students, they often would not raise their hands or volunteer to speak up. They even often hesitated to raise their hands when I just asking “Please raise your hand if you have ever been overseas.” Or :“Please raise your hands if you have ever heard of something.” After every class I set aside the final ten minutes for them to write a short note of what they learned or felt about the day’s lesson. Invariably, when it came to expressing themselves in writing, many of those students who had neglected to raise their hand during class were able to do very well in expressing themselves in writing.

Another unexpected event happened later that first term with the first year students. I had given them an assignment to choose a chapter from the reading text and supplement it with another English reading (from another source of their choosing, such as a book, magazine or even The Internet). They were to read the two source materials and make a written report of it and then later present it orally to the class. As it turned out, in a class of 42 students, half of them later admitted to plagiarism (=copying someone else’s writing and claiming it to be one’s own), when I asked each student to fill out a form on the matter. I then held a discussion with them to determine WHY they had plagiarized so blatantly. Was it because they thought that the teacher (me) would not notice? Did they think it was acceptable to plagiarize? Did they misunderstand the assignment? When I opened this to a class discussion and called on individual students to offer rationale, some students admitted that it was easier or faster, or that copying insured that their English would be perfect. They thought that because the Internet is so big that the teacher would never find out. They were busy with lots of other classes. Most of them knew it was NOT alright to do it. I am certain that this sort of thing goes on in all countries, in all universities, and in America too.

But the big difference is that in America, this is considered an extremely serious offence. In some instances, students can be suspended or expelled from the university and certainly flunked in the class where it occurred. I have heard of elite students in the prestigious medical department of highly ranked universities in America being expelled for cheating or plagiarism. Also, most students in America realize that it is illegal to take someone else’s words as one’s own. I felt that these bright faces at Tohoku-dai that so eagerly followed every word I spoke during those first few classes had let me down.

As a teacher with integrity I could not allow this problem to be ignored. In mid-sentence of their reading of their oral presentations, I stopped a few students to ask them what percentage of their paper was copied directly from the Internet. It is so easy for a veteran English teacher in Japan to spot when a Japanese student copies sentences from some English source. There are certain expressions and usages of English, that Japanese, even very good English speakers rarely use.

In the end, I allowed my plagiarizing students to save face by adding several pages in their own words summarizing what they read and inserting their own feelings and attitudes towards the topic. I then resolved for future classes never to allow students a window for plagiarism by allowing them to access the internet but selected all reading materials myself.

As expressed by Prof. Laurel Kamada. She worked at Tohoku University as a lecturer-professor of English and had classes in general oral English, reading and so forth from 2009 until she retired in 2016.

Bears, Ghosts and Grades : My First Impressions of University Life

First impressions count. When I first saw Tohoku University’s website about the Future Global Leadership program, I was excited. Japan is known as a land full of great food, historic sites, and cherry blossom trees. I jumped at the chance to study in such a country. Several months later, I arrived at the university dorm room and looked out the window. There were no houses nearby. No view of any nearby temple. No beautiful trees. Instead, I saw the sun brightly shining over a cemetery. I promptly chucked out my initial impression.

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My room overlooking the cemetery

As I tried to piece together a more accurate depiction of life as a Tohoku University student, I stumbled upon a strange find. I found anti-bear bells in the campus store. It was funny at first. I thought, “Who would buy bear bells? This campus is near the city. There are supposed to be no bears.” Until I heard that Tohoku University had a particular campus on a mountain. There, the mountain bears would occasionally come out of the forest and approach a certain building. For some odd reason, it was my faculty’s building.

While the fear of bears and of seeing ghosts did influence my opinion of life at Tohoku University, they did not matter as much when I started to attend my classes. Some of the professors were kind; others, strict. But they were human and held some compassion somewhere in their hearts. Their lessons, however, did not. I remember walking into a class one day, sitting down, listening to the professor talk for an hour and a half, and leaving the room without understanding anything. This happened several times for some of my classes. It was utterly frustrating.

Aside from mind-blowing lessons, I found out that the Japanese GPA system was quite unique. Basically, I could get five possible grades for each class: AA, A, B, C, and D, the last of which is a failing grade. Which letter grade I would get depended on what range my score fell in to. For example, a score from 90 to 100 points meant an AA while a score from 80 to 89 points translated to an A. So, even if I got a raw score of 89.99, my grade would still be an A, which translates to a value of 3 when calculating for my GPA. Compared to the grading systems of other countries, my own included, I found this to be quite unfair. Here, students who received an 89 would get an A while students who managed an 81 would also get an A. It made little sense to me as why the two would be given the same letter grade.

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One would think that, by that point, my impression of the life as a Tohoku University student would be quite negative. The combination of bears, perhaps ghosts, and mind-boggling lessons and grading systems does not seem to lead to anything positive at all. Yet, my impression is that life here is just different, and not necessarily in a completely bad way. As cheesy as it may sound, my friends were the ones who gave me a much brighter view of life as a Tohoku University student. Because as much as living accommodations and the university system matter in a great university life, the community plays an even greater role.

The community here is tight-knit. The network of senpais (upperclassmen) and kohais (underclassmen) is surprisingly welcoming. Unlike the stories of upperclassmen that I have heard from my friends back at home, the senpais here are not unfriendly at all. They give us plenty of support for anything and everything. Tips about classes. A list of the best places to eat. Apartment-finding advice. Advice on how avoid the bears. I was also infinitely relieved that someone could help me decipher all the messages in Japanese that I received in my mailbox. It was nice to know that there was someone who experienced the Tohoku University student life and was not afraid to share his wisdom.

Aside from senpais, my classmates in the FGL program are amazingly smart, talented, funny, and kind. No one hesitates to help anyone who asks. In a foreign land with only each other for company most of the time, it was not difficult for us to become friends. We laughed and cried together. We cringed over our perfect views of the cemetery and cracked jokes about the bears. We went over the lessons we could not understand by piecing together the whole picture with the different bits that each person understood. We had movie nights that lasted until dawn, and cooking parties almost every month. It was this gathering of brilliant people that really made my life here at Tohoku University enjoyable.

Being a student at Tohoku University is not how I first imagined it would be. The University system is tough and confusing. There are no magnificent views of temples or cherry blossom trees to soothe the tired soul. But in the end, there are amazing people here who brighten things up. Life here may not be perfect, but somehow, it is enjoyable. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?

As expressed by Shenelle Lim. Shenelle is from the Phillipines and is currently a first-year student under the FGL Program of Tohoku University. She is also a part of the editorial board of ‘The Sentinel’.

Royal meets Rural: One Sendai Hotel’s Inbound Tourism Strategy

“How do we attract more tourists?” continues to be the big question asked by government agencies, tourism and travel companies, restaurants and finally major hotels here in Japan.

Several of the major luxury hotels here in Sendai, such as Metropolitan, Westin, and Kokusai Hotel, already boast high level service and partial, or complete, multilingual websites with multilingual staff, in addition to their excellent facilities. These hotels are also quite famous for their restaurants, which would be expected of any luxury hotel in the world. But what really sets these hotels apart from each other?

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While each are sure to have valid points to argue, one luxury hotel in Sendai is setting itself apart by combining the comfort of staying at a luxury hotel with the raw experience of rural nature, farming, and adventure.

Sendai Royal Park Hotel opened in 1995 with the theme of a European Manor. It appears almost castle-like in appearance, with an elegant interior and property-wide outside garden. Its location is both a blessing and a curse for tourism. Freeway access and the adjacent Izumi Premium Outlet shopping mall make this a great pitstop for those coming by car. However, while there is a free shuttle from Sendai Station, tourists from abroad are tempted to stay at more central hotels in the city center.

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In fact, Royal Park Hotel is on the border of Sendai’s suburbs and Izumi Ward’s farm country. And for this reason, as of last year, the hotel has started creating outdoor activities and programs specifically to attract international visitors– something other Sendai luxury hotels here have not yet started or simply can’t because of their confined location.

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Strawberry or mushroom picking, a cycle tour through rice fields and forest to a hidden waterfall, stargazing, and wintertime snowshoe trekking are starting to put the hotel on the radar of travelers. Another well-known program is “glamping” or “glamorous camping”. Think top quality cuisine paired with fine wine enjoyed inside a tent lit by a miniature chandelier. This was one of the activities introduced by Sendai-based YouTuber Chris Broad through his video “What does a $3000 Japanese Hotel Room look like?“, uploaded August 2017. The video has amassed over 910,000 views.

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Olga Zielińska, a Sendai resident with experience in Tohoku region travelling and tour guiding, recently tried the half-day cycling program. She remarked: “This is what none of the big metropolis in Japan have. The calm countryside of Sendai, lunch with fresh locally grown ingredients, the real traditional Japan experience within one hour drive from the city center, and, more importantly, without overwhelming crowds. Cycling along creeks and rice paddies while enjoying the view of Mt. Izumi, and later coming back for English-style teatime at the hotel was the perfect ending of an incredible stay at the hotel”

Director of the hotel, Katsuhiko Kasai, made it clear that that he wants to work together with locals and make sure they are happy during promotion efforts. He was surprised with the responses so far: “Farmers welcome us with waves and smiles, and once a tour group was flagged down and given freshly made sweets by a housewife! Sometimes our tours do lunch with farmers that have prepared rice balls from the same fields we cycle through!”. He also emphasized he wants participants to think about where their food comes from and to appreciate nature on a deeper level.

As the hotel has fewer rooms than other major hotels in Sendai, travel site reviews and word-of-mouth is challenging as there are just fewer guests compared with other hotels who are sharing their experiences. However, as Royal Park Hotel tours are also open for people in Sendai just visiting for the day, and there is a global trend in tourism for experiences over destinations, time will tell if such inbound tourism strategy will work—and how other hotels in Sendai will react. In the grand scheme of things, competition is good for business, especially when that business is promoting our city Sendai.

As reported by guest-writer Justin Velgus. Justin is an American who currently works with the Fukushima Prefectural Government but loves to explore Tohoku. He enjoys cycling and onsen and you can definitely treat him with gyozas!

A few additional comments were added by Manuel Campos. Manuel was born and brought up in Venezuela and is currently serving as the Managing Editor of ‘The Sentinel’.

Students at Tohoku University are facilitating the national goal of ‘Study Abroad’

On 14th March, the Instagram profile @tohoku.ryugaku1 announced the launch of the website ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’.  Aimed at telling stories from study abroad programs and helping aspiring exchange students with country/course selection and applications, it is established by the students of Tohoku University who are currently studying abroad. “We are also planning to help aspiring students with reviewing of application documents,” the website wrote in its introduction section.

Japan has long battled the challenge of low and decreasing number of Japanese university students studying abroad. About 70% of Japanese companies with overseas operations have complained about difficulties in finding and nurturing of globally minded talent. With the introduction of the ‘Japan Revitalisation Strategy’ by the cabinet in 2013, the government aims to double the number of students studying abroad by 2020. In such a situation, support facilities such as experiences of other students plays a key role in leading the change.

With 718 partners as of March 13, 2018, Tohoku University’s global network provides plethora of opportunities for students to engage in study abroad programs. Yuto Katsuyama, a student of Chemistry at Tohoku University is currently studying at University of California, Berkeley (UCB) for one year. He shall be joining UCLA from May 15 this year as a visiting researcher. One of the first few students to write for ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’, he explains the procedures to enter UCB along with his experiences in California. “There are so many professors who have more than 6,000 citations! It is also easy to access them and have one-to-one conversations,” he writes in his blog on the website.

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A screenshot from the ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’ website

For Katsuyama, there were several experiences that were new to him. “It is a bit scary when barricades are put up and you can see police officers with rifles whenever there are protests on the campus but the classes on these days are cancelled too,” he writes. In all, the overall experience is something he cherishes the most as he gets to step into the world of elite. One exchange student at University of California, Irvine has written how his baseball friends got to practice with Shohei Otani, the professional Japanese baseball pitcher and designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels.

The statistics from MEXT, JASSO and JAOS have shown an increase in the number of outbound students by 15% between 2015 and 2016. As more and more students apply for outbound programs, support websites like ‘Tohoku Ryugaku’ by the current batch of study abroad students will surely act as a pillar of strength and motivation.

References

  1. More than 200,000 Japanese students aborad in 2016 : http://monitor.icef.com/2018/01/200000-japanese-students-abroad-2016/
  2. About Tobitate! (Leap for Tomorrow) Study Abroad Inititaive : http://www.tobitate.mext.go.jp/about/english.html
  3. Tohoku University Partners, International Exchange Division : http://ie.bureau.tohoku.ac.jp/partners?lang=en

As reported by Team Sentinel

The featured image is a screenshot of the website’s homepage.