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?

A brief look at academic freedom in HE in Japan

A brief look at academic freedom in higher education in Japan
by Charles Jannuzi


Unlike early modern Japan, in the post-war period, academic freedom is now firmly established as a positive right in the Japanese constitution, which the Occupation government promulgated in 1946. This document, along with fundamental laws creating a new education system, took effect in 1947, a year when most Japanese were struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves. Along with the more commonly stated rights of' freedom of speech, thought, conscience, assembly and association, the constitution states that academic freedom is guaranteed. So who or what limits this constitutional right?

Relatively free

If viewed from the perspectives of the freedom to teach, do scholarship or research within a recognized specialty, academics at national and public universities in Japan have considerable latitude. They do not have to conform to a national curriculum or use ministry-approved textbooks. If they write textbooks for the lower levels of education, they will, however, find the content subject to the government's approval.

Compared with corporate researchers, many working at universities and national research centers can pursue pure research and abstract theory, regardless of immediate applications or returns on investment.

Most cases that concern academic freedom, at least in part, play themselves out in labor arbitration negotiations and courts. This is because academic freedom is often said to be violated when universities and their programs are accused of not providing a legitimate reason when demoting, financially penalizing, firing, or not renewing the contract of teaching or research personnel.

How reforms and restructuring hurt academic self-governance

An example is Tokyo Metropolitan University (TMU), the highest-ranking public (not national) university in Japan. Because of troubled finances at many local governments, starting in 2005, the 86 public universities were put on a path of 'consolidation' and 'corporatization' similar to national universities (all 87 of which were corporatized in 2003-04).

In anticipation of the reforms, as early as 2003, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government proposed combining several smaller institutions of higher education with TMU to save money while creating new programs of study that were supposed to be more in touch with post-industrial job markets.

Many academics at the smaller institutions facing absorption and re-organization have objected vehemently to the loss of autonomy the reforms would result in. For example, they cite the proposed imposition of performance-based pay and five-year contracts. A hundred professors and lecturers at institutions which would be absorbed by TMU also refused to sign agreements for new course assignments.

The administration needs these signatures to apply to the national government for approval in establishing the re-chartered public university corporation.

Moreover, the dissenting academics demanded that faculty councils retain control of teaching appointments and course assignments. Many object to the proposed heavier load of large, introductory level classes. They also wish to avoid being put into a lower status requiring them to become contractually or provisionally employed teachers of general education classes.

University educators nationwide have followed the contentious developments at TMU. Unlike at public universities, the administrations of former national universities (now National University Corporations or NUCs) have been reluctant to propose such a system for most of their academics.

University of Kobe

That reluctance changed recently and the largely powerless foreign lecturers became the precedent-setting example. In April 2005 University of Kobe, a top former national university, adopted a contract system for its foreign lecturers, limiting them to a three-year contract and no automatic renewals--although they would be allowed to compete for the position should it be re-opened to new candidates.

In contrast to institutions with national or public charters, the policies and practices that affect academic freedom and employment rights within Japan's extensive private system of universities and two-year colleges (together totaling 984 institutions) vary so much as to make concise generalizations nearly impossible.

It is illuminating to look at the situation foreign lecturers and instructors face at private universities because their cases often attract more attention than those of Japanese nationals.

The plight of foreign nationals at private universities

At one extreme, discrimination is obviously rampant: unlike their Japanese counterparts not on contracts, foreign teachers at many private universities and colleges face arbitrary dismissal, and have one-year or three-year contracts with strict renewal limits imposed while receiving lower salaries, no bonuses and higher pay cuts.

They may also be barred from meetings where decisions are made, excluded from union membership, and be denied health insurance and retirement benefits, since employers try to avoid bearing their share of fees for the national scheme.

Any charge of nationwide discrimination, however, has to be qualified because the administrations of some private universities and colleges are so dictatorial and the unions so weak that even Japanese nationals can face similarly severe employment conditions and unfair labor practices.

Moreover, the very numerous part-time staff who often do more teaching than full-time faculty, regardless of nationality have very little control over their job situations and fewer employment rights or benefits.

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