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Tohoku University: Wireless, Borderless, Limitless

Sep 01, 2021


Located in the cosmopolitan city of Sendai in Japan’s Northeast region, Tohoku University is renowned for its innovative research and dynamic global network. 

It was among the first to be conferred the status of a Designated National University by the government in 2017, and is currently ranked number one on Times Higher Education’s list of top Japanese Universities for a second year in a row.

Progressive Education

A trailblazer since its founding in 1907, Tohoku University was the first university in Japan to admit female students, and also one of the first to welcome foreigners. These days, 10 percent of its 18,000 students are international, spread across 10 faculties, 15 graduate schools and six research institutes.

The diversity on campus is best reflected in University House, the largest student housing complex to be built at a Japanese national university. There, international and Japanese students share apartments, in a multicultural living environment that is both supportive and inclusive.

In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tohoku University took immediate action, moving all classes online to protect its students and staff. By leveraging its strengths in information technology and by utilizing the benefits of digital connections and resources, it was able to complete the academic year without significant disruption.

A year and a half into the pandemic, Tohoku University is adjusting its activities to incorporate a combination of real and virtual interactions. International exchange programmes have also had to adapt. To accommodate travel restrictions, the university established the Be Global Project, which offers joint academic courses and co-curricular cultural programmes online.

Innovative Research

Among the early inventions that were born at Tohoku University are the split-anode magnetron used in microwave ovens, the steel-wire recorder and the Yagi-Uda antenna, the university’s first foray into a wireless world that put it well ahead of its time.

With a vision to “collaborate, innovate and activate,” the university takes an interdisciplinary approach to research. Its large campus includes a science park that is conducive to in-development tests and experiments, as well as industry co-creation of production-grade new materials and technology.

Tohoku University is also focused on developing new academic fields. For example, in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, it pioneered research in disaster science, giving local and global communities the tools and knowledge to be better prepared for natural disasters. At the same time, the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organization began the world’s first large scale three-generation cohort survey, to develop more effective medical treatment and personalized healthcare for the future.

More recently, Tohoku University has been all-in in the fight against COVID-19. Its Clinical Skills Lab has been providing ECMO simulation training to medical personnel from around the region to help them treat COVID-19 patients, as well as  research projects that cover a range of topics, from medicine, testing and public health to the various technologies that support the search for treatments and a cure. International research collaborations have also been stepped up.

Present Future

But COVID-19 is not the only challenge the world is currently facing. With climate change and widening social disparities also a perennial threat, Tohoku University recognizes the importance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Under the umbrella of a Green Goals Initiative, it is committed to developing green technology, and putting in place actions that focus on recovery and resilience, as well as social innovation and inclusion.

And the university’s vision forward extends beyond the familiarities of Earth. Through partnerships with JAXA and other space agencies, the Space Robotics Lab at the Department of Aerospace Engineering has already contributed to critical domestic and international space projects, such as the Hayabusa2 asteroid sample-return mission, and the Google Lunar XPRIZE race to the moon. It is now planning to launch university-based microsatellite missions from Earth into lunar orbits; and developing a multi-limbed climbing robot capable of reaching challenging locations, such as lunar caves and asteroid surfaces.

At Tohoku University, the story of innovation never ends, and the next step in its journey of discovery is already wireless, borderless… and limitless. 

Education in Japan 2021 was prepared for and originally printed in Foreign Affairs magazine.

PDF of the printed report

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