16 December 2009

Profile of Japan's top university--U. of Tokyo (Toudai)

Recently Toudai dropped out of the THES-QS top 20 ranking of universities worldwide. I thought this would be a good time to run an alternative version of an earlier piece on the University of Tokyo.


Is University of Tokyo Japan's only world-class university? 
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

It is unique and elite

When the university system of Japan is compared internationally, one institution is most often cited as Japan's best example of a 'world-class' university. This is, of course, the University of Tokyo (Toukyou Daigaku' or 'Toudai' for short). Toudai is perhaps most famous for graduating and networking elite bureaucrats and politicians, including prime ministers; however, the supposed lock on leadership in top government has waned over the past two decades. For example, this century's most popular prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, and many of his advisors were graduates of the private elite Keio University.

Historically speaking, Toudai has the unique distinction of belonging to two important groups of universities: First, it was established almost at the very start of the imperial restoration in 1877 as the 'national university' of Japan. A decade later it became the top institution of a group referred to collectively as the imperial universities ('teikoku daigaku') run by the national government in Japan, but extended to Korea and Taiwan as well. These eventually formed a system of nine institutions which gave all their respective countries or Japanese regions their top institutions.

Second, University of Tokyo is the foremost (and only national-public) member of Japan's 'Ivy League' of six elite Tokyo institutions (the other five being the private universities of Waseda, Keio, Housei, Meiji, and the Christian Rikkyou). Like its five private elite counterparts, Toudai's traditions and its reputation go back to the Meiji Restoration, a tumultuous period of forced westernization and development. Interestingly, one tradition did not survive the transition to modernity: foreign academics used to comprise the majority of the teaching and research faculty at the national universities during the Meiji and Showa eras, whereas now, in the era of internationalization and globalization, they are but a small percentage.

Toudai joins a third group of institutions in the mass era of HE in Japan

In the post-second world war era, stemming from the Occupation's reform of Japanese university education in 1949 but also in response to the needs of the development state, Toudai has flourished at the pinnacle of an expanded, much less elite national university system, which had grown to a total of nearly 100 institutions. However, after a period of top-down administrative reforms and forced mergers starting in the 1990s, the 87 remaining national universities were given new corporate charters and a considerable degree of administrative independence in April 2004.

Big, diverse and diversified by Japanese university standards

The newly corporatised University of Tokyo consists of three campuses, all in the Kanto region (with other facilities scattered about Tokyo and other parts of Japan). It has a total enrolment of around 28,000 students (quite large for Japan) coming from top senior high schools (and cram schools) from all over the country. Toudai also plays host to 2,100 of Japan's population of 120,000 international students (the largest total in Japan, with Chinese nationals forming the single largest group). Toudai has a faculty of 2,800 professors, associate professors, and lecturers. 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).

Perhaps this enormous diversity in faculties, disciplines, and programmes reveal the university as a 'jack of all trades, but master of none' when compared to more focused, dynamic institutions. Like its cross-town rival, Waseda, Toudai's most famous and revered alumni are perhaps its literary figures, such as Soseki Natsume, Yukio Mishima, Kobo Abe, and Nobel winners, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe. And, although the university can claim some top prizes in science and technology, the Toudai academic who last won a Nobel, Masatoshi Koshiba in 2002, did so for work on cosmic neutrino detection done in the 1980s. Kyoto University has more top prizes in science, including Nobels, and Tohoku University and University of Tsukuba are both widely considered to be more on the cutting edge in many important areas of scientific research.

Waves of reform in university education during the 1990s brought about sweeping changes in curriculum, graduate education, doctoral level research, and national university administration. The better managed and financed of Toudai's rivals took aim at beating the institution in certain niches, such as in the establishment of western style professional schools in law, business and accounting. Moreover, with their ties to industry and manufacturing, institutions such as the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Nagoya Institute of Technology have emerged as more effectively focused on science and technology with actual commercial applications.

The University of Tokyo has tried to meet such challenges through the establishment of new graduate schools of an interdisciplinary or innovative nature: Frontier Sciences, Interdisciplinary information Studies, Information Science and Technology, and Public Policy. Because of the extent of direct subsidy from the national government (either in bloc grants or through competition), the university also hosts some top research institutes, such as its Institute of Medical Science, Earthquake Research Institute, Institure for Cosmic Ray Research, and the Institute for Solid State Physics.

Where Toudai outdoes the West, it is largely unknown in the West

Perhaps where Toudai is most on the cutting edge of science and technology, its people and their accomplishments are also the most unheralded. One very good example of this is Prof. Ken Sakamura's TRON OS project launched in 1984. The successful development of TRON was initially hampered by trade concerns under the US's Super 301 Trade Law (which largely kept it off personal computers because of a fear of reprisals) but was held back also by a lack of cooperation amongst competing companies unused to working together on an 'open source' project.

In its most successful manisfestations, TRON is an embedded operating system running such ubiquitious devices as mobile phones, fax machines, kitchen appliances, car navigation systems, etc. It is estimated that some form of TRON now runs over 3 billion such electronic appliances worldwide, making it the world's most popular (but still largely unknown) OS. Because of the speed advantages in TRON computing, even proponents of Linux and Windows computing are now working with the TRON project to produce portable, personal computing and communications devices and hybrid operating systems--the software that will run the hardware that will be required in the coming age of ubiquitous, fully networked computing. TRON, either by itself or in combination with Linux, could also play a major role in a recently announced pan-Asian effort to create an open-source OS for personal computing and the internet.

It would seem that it is with computers that Toudai continues to excel. About the time the TRON OS was really 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. Researchers at Riken, a super group of national research institutes and centers in Japan, have adapted Toudai's MD Grape chip for applications in life sciences and molecular dynamics. Meanwhile, research at the University of Tokyo continues in order to develop a more general purpose chip capable of an incredible one trillion plus calculations per second.


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