01 February 2008

Is University of Tokyo Japan's only world-class university?

Photo of U. of Tokyo's Komaba Campus
( public domain photo by Ikuo Otani at Wikipedia)

University of Tokyo: A profile
by Charles Jannuzi

Is University of Tokyo Japan's only world-class university? Is it Japan's best university?

One institution is most often cited as Japan's best example of a 'world-class' university. This is the University of Tokyo ('Toukyou Daigaku' or 'Toudai' for short).

Toudai has long been esteemed in Japan for its faculties of letters, law, and science. It is also famous for graduating the members of 'old boys networks' who join elite cliques of politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen. In the post-war period, this has included a large portion of prime ministers and other top cabinet members. This has not been true of recent years. For example, the past two prime ministers and the current one, Yasuo Fukuda, are all graduates of elite private universities. Such private institutions have long had status in the humanities and social sciences, but they are, for the most part, light weights in research in science, engineering and technology.

In the THES - QS World University Rankings, Toudai slipped from 16th in 2005 to 19th in 2006, tying with the National University of Singapore. In 2007 it climbed back up slightly, coming in at 17th in the latest listing.

Regardless of international rankings, in Japan the Toudai's aura as the ultimate place to study has not diminished. This has more to do with history and tradition than any public awareness of the quality of teaching and research.

Historical distinction

Toudai is the only institution to belong to all three of the most important groups of elite Japanese universities. It is the most prominent member of the following: (1) the Tokyo area 'Ivy League' of old universities, (2) the former imperial university system (1886-1939, now known as the 'national 7' grouping), and (3) the post-war national university system of universities and colleges (there are now 87 of these).

Toudai is the foremost (and only public) member of Japan's 'Ivy League' of six elite Tokyo area institutions, a group which has roots going back to educational reforms and the establishment of institutions in the late Edo and early Meiji Restoration periods of the late 19th century. The other five of this exclusive elite are the private universities of Waseda, Keio, Housei, Rikkyou, and Meiji. These institutions were established as western-style institutions of higher learning. The creation of a national education system reflects strong influences from France and Prussia. It should be remembered that Toudai was created in 1877 as a major part of the political, social and cultural revolutions that gave birth to modern Japan.

As the Meiji Era turned more nationalistic and reactionary, Toudai became the founding member of a second group of historically significant institutions. It was re-established as the 'Imperial University'in 1886. As such, it was then re-designated 'Tokyo Imperial University' in 1887, becoming the showpiece institution of a system that would grow into the nine imperial universities ('teikoku daigaku') set up and run in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Adding to Toudai's special status is its membership in still yet a third class of privileged universities: since the Occupation's reform of the Japanese university education in 1949, Toudai flourished at the pinnacle of a highly subsidized national university system, which had consisted of nearly 100 institutions all across the country. However, these were consolidated to a total of 87 and then given their administrative independence in April 2004. Toudai, like the rest of this system, became a 'national university corporation' (NUC).


The newly denationalized University of Tokyo consists of three official campuses (along with other facilities and research centers in the Kanto area). It has a total enrolment of nearly 30,000 students, with a graduate level of enrollment slightly surpassing its undergraduate population. This total includes about close to 2000 international students, most of whom are post-graduate (with China the largest nationality represented).

Toudai has a full-time faculty of 2,800 full professors, associate and assistant professors, and lecturers, along with large contingents of researchers and part-time teachers. Annually some 2,200 foreign researchers visit for short and long periods of exchange. Toudai is a co-educational, multi-disciplinary university with a comprehensive range of taught programs, post-graduate research, and professional schools (such as its legendary law school).

Although the university can claim some top prizes in modern science and technology, the Toudai academic who last won a Nobel, Masatoshi Koshiba in 2002, did so for work on cosmic neutrino detection done back in the 1980s. Kyoto University faculty and alumni can put their name to more top prizes in science, including Nobel prizes, and Tohoku University and University of Tsukuba are both considered to be more on the cutting edge in many important areas of scientific research. For a university known as a science and technology school, it is perhaps ironic that the most famous alumni are its literary figures, such as Souseki Natsume, Yukio Mishima and Nobel winners, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.

Unheralded accomplishments in computing

Perhaps the area where Toudai still outclasses its many competitors is the one in which it is also mostly unheralded--computing and software. The two best examples of this are the TRON and MD Grape projects.

The successful expansion of the TRON (the real time operating nucleus) to many types of computing was initially hampered by trade concerns under the US's Super 301 Trade Law and other 'bilateral' frameworks which the US forced onto Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. This trade protectionism from the US largely kept TRON off personal computers as well as forcing Japan 's electronics giants out of processor chip development. Operating systems software and chip development are developed in a coordinated fashion, which is why the US is famous for its so-called duopoly of 'Wintel' (MS Windows and Intel chips) .

The TRON project was also hampered early on by a lack of cooperation among companies. Many of Japan's famous manufacturers shunned the project. They were wary of open source projects and reluctant to participate in a consortium that might prompt a wider response from the US.

The TRON project, after its brief bit of notoriety in the US as, paradoxically, an example of Japan's 'unfair trade practices', fell out of the spotlight and remained sheltered within the relative backwaters of the traditional 'laboratory' system. Its victory has been a flexibility and persistence in the face of an almost total lack of recognition, with TRON quietly becoming the world's most successful set of OS standards and specifications.

In its most common forms, TRON is an embedded OS running such ubiquitous devices as mobile phones, fax machines, kitchen appliances, car navigation systems, and the still emergent but converging categories of 'info-appliances'. It is estimated that some form of TRON now runs over 3-4 billion such electronic appliances worldwide, making it the world's most popular (but still largely unknown) OS.

Toudai's excellence in computing and software is unknown to much of the world, including Japan. Yet it is in these areas that Toudai is best set to continue having a global impact. About the time TRON was taking off as the embedded OS for Japanese electronic appliances, another research group at the University of Tokyo started the MD Grape project in order to design computer chips for supercomputers doing calculations in astrophysics. Subsequently, researchers at Riken, a 'super group' of research institutes and centers in Japan, have adapted Toudai's MD Grape chip for specialized computing applications in life sciences and molecular dynamics. Meanwhile, research at the University of Tokyo continues in order to develop a more general purpose Grape chip capable of an incredible one trillion plus calculations per second. While the current applications seem arcane, the ultimate goal is to achieve supercomputer processing power on ONE chip.

Conclusion: Can Toudai thrive as a National University Corporation?

What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the new denationalized University of Tokyo will lead to the birth of more such successful projects as TRON ubiquitous computing and MD Grape specialized supercomputing. Will Toudai's dominant status as the top NUC in Japan help existing projects flourish at the university? After all, it was the old, non-corporate way of doing things that gave the world its most widely used OS. If Toudai had commercialized TRON early on along the lines of an American university, would so many other companies and consumers worldwide have benefited so much from computing software that they do not even know exists?

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