The University of Tokyo

Opening Dialogue

Innovation and Universities

What are the kinds of “new combinations” in Japan as seen through the eyes of the Executive Vice President of the University of Tokyo and the President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST)?


Interviewer: As Executive Vice President of the University of Tokyo, Professor Yoichiro Matsumoto oversees all of the ongoing research activities at the University. Similarly, as President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), Dr. Michiharu Nakamura is engaged in efforts to promote innovation in Japan from the perspective of government administration. We planned the opening dialogue for this issue of Tansei with the idea of getting you, as two leading figures, to speak freely with each other about the role of universities in innovation and what is expected of the University of Tokyo in the context of promoting innovation. Could we start by hearing what you have to say about innovation in general?

Matsumoto: “Neue kombinationen” is a term that was created by Schumpeter (*1), but looking from the perspective of a university, my belief is that innovation is not merely new combinations of existing technologies, but is also something that results from new combinations of inventions. On the other hand, however, invention alone does not constitute innovation. Researchers are most interested in invention, but what universities need to give thought to is how inventions can be bundled together. I believe that combining inventions is a sure way to achieve innovation.

In today’s world we are often told to allocate budgets to research that will create immediate results, rather than fundamental research. In a newspaper I read just the other day there was a satirical cartoon that showed a person watering a plant, but pouring water on the leaves. It is essential to provide water to the roots

I believe that it is the responsibility and mission of a university to create a rich lineup of inventions that will lead to future innovations. As innovation is general in nature it should not be limited to a certain field or specialty. We should be prepared to create diverse innovations that can be used in various scenarios and contexts. I believe that is the concept that universities should embrace with regard to innovation.

Nakamura: Yes, I believe you are right. Although Japan started out in the postwar period by absorbing science and technology from Europe and North America and producing goods cheaply, creativity and originality also came to be required starting in the 1960s. This was a time when Japan was seeking to be a world leader in science and technology through domestic research and development. However, Japan is not the only nation seeking to be a leader in science and technology. In today’s world there are many countries that have the same objective and we are now in an era of tremendous competition.

Fortunately the science and technology infrastructure that Japan has spent years constructing throughout the postwar period is still functioning. If we can create mechanisms that enable R&D outcomes to be utilized in society as a whole, then these will be useful not only for Japan’s own development, but also for the resolution of various global-scale issues. With regard to what universities should do against such a backdrop, I believe that at the very least it is important to have an image of what society will be like 20 years from now, and work to create groundbreaking and original technologies that could be put to use in such a society.

Matsumoto: That is exactly right. The view that new combinations are born precisely through possessing knowledge from various fields is something to be considered. In that sense it is not necessarily a good thing to remain at the University of Tokyo permanently after graduation. It would be ideal for graduates to go out to other laboratories or non-academic institutions and then return. However, some form of organizational structure would be required to enable this kind of process. It is still the case that a cycle has yet to be sufficiently established at the University of Tokyo whereby researchers receive their PhD from the University and then go overseas to gain further experience before coming back to their alma mater. The question of how to create such a positive cycle is an incredibly important one if we are to ensure that Japan continues to be a world leader in science and technology. There is a tendency in Japan to perceive people who have spent their entire careers at one institution as powerful and admirable. I have the feeling that unless we can tear down this way of thinking, the future 20 years from now could be bleak.

Innovation requires a place where people from different disciplines can come together

Nakamura: I agree that it is extremely important for people to go overseas at around the age when they are studying for their PhDs. One of the reasons that China and the countries of Southeast Asia are doing so well now is because people who have received academic qualifications overseas are now returning home and putting the skills they have acquired to use. The Chinese term for these people is hai gui, or “sea turtle,” and this “sea turtle strategy” is proving to be most effective.

It used to be the case that Japan would also send its students overseas to gain experience. However, after Japan became a member of the world’s industrialized nations in the postwar period the outlook changed, and now it is considered to be sufficient to stay home and study. However, embarking on overseas study when you are still young and fresh can have a big impact not only on your research but on your life in general.

Matsumoto: For example, your impression of Europe would be entirely different, depending on whether you spend a few days in Europe as a tourist, or whether you live there for a few months. One of the key functions of a university is to nurture talented people Therefore, it would be ideal for universities to have the capacity to give students the experience of living and studying overseas, whether it be at the undergraduate or graduate level. Students who have developed their education in this way could go on to attain a PhD and then use the skills and knowledge they have gained to give something back to society. That is the kind of cycle I would like to see created.

Nakamura: However, honestly looking back on my own career, I remember wondering, “Would it really be okay for me to go out into the world and experience different places?” My concern was that if I spent two or three years overseas, I would maybe not be able to return to Japan to find a career here. In order to alter such perceptions, it is incredibly important to have mentors. Mentors serve as life tutors and role models, so I think that it may be necessary to introduce a system that allocates mentors to students. If you were living in a society completely devastated by war, then I think you would naturally be hungry to get out into the world and absorb knowledge. However, in modern Japan, where there is ample opportunity for study and acquiring knowledge, that hunger to get out and have other experiences is weaker. I think, therefore, that it would be advisable to have a mechanism in place that pushes people to go beyond their national borders.

Interviewer: Incidentally, did the two of you experienced anything particularly memorable from going abroad in your younger years?

Matsumoto:After receiving my PhD, I considered seeking employment in a company, but ultimately chose to stay in academia. At that time I was told that it would be alright for me to go overseas for one or two years, so I chose to go to Germany. The research environment was very different there and I gained a great deal by living there. My area of specialization is fluid mechanics, but while I was in Germany I engaged in research on a slightly different subject, which helped to broaden my way of thinking. Although there are slight differences in research fields, the experience of engaging in work overseas was extremely useful for my ongoing research career.

I have also spent two months in the United Kingdom, and although Germany and the U.K. are both European countries, I found the atmosphere to be entirely different. The vegetation and even the products on the supermarket shelves are different. Through such observations, I experienced diversity and was able to view Japan, Germany and the U.K. from a relative perspective. It may sound a little conceited, but I feel that I gained a bird’s eye view from which to view the entire and varying situations in the different countries.

Nakamura: After receiving my Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Science of the University of Tokyo, I decided to join a company and thanks to an introduction from a former teacher I joined Hitachi, Ltd. What I felt from working at the Central Research Laboratory of Hitachi was that managers’ ideas were extremely philosophical and conceptual. For example, in 1961 Professor Masaharu Hoshiai (*2), the fourth general manager of the laboratory, created what are referred to as the “Three Hoshiai Principles.” These are: “Do not accept or start research that has already been done,” “Cooperate together on projects,” and “Produce well-timed results.” These three principles are still in place at the laboratory. Young researchers are significantly influenced by their leaders’ philosophy. In the case of a university, it is the philosophy of the president, vice presidents and dean that would be influential.

Using my company’s study abroad program, I went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In an environment where I was given no specific instructions whatsoever, I spent one year entirely free to choose my own path and even now I am still not very good at adhering to frameworks. My supervisor was someone involved in diverse activities and promoted fierce competition very openly. It was this style of research that I found useful as a source of reference. The single most significant outcome of my experiences overseas was that I acquired a mindset that seeks to achieve research outcomes through a flexible process that is not unduly constrained by regulations.

Interviewer: I can see that your experiences in your younger days are still influencing your work today. I would now like to move away from the personal angle and focus a little more on the organizational and systemic aspects. In particular, what are your thoughts on the organizations and structures that support innovation in universities?

Matsumoto: Bringing about innovation is not something that naturally occurs by combining inventions in one specific field. Innovation is born by fitting together inventions and ideas from multiple fields. Universities are in the process of providing a variety of platforms where researchers from different fields can come together. One of these platforms is the Center of Innovation (COI) (*3) program. The target for the COI in the case of medical engineering, which is a field in which I am involved, is quality of life for patients, as well as a sustainable, healthy and long-lived society. This is an area where the humanities and sciences truly come together. The University of Tokyo is a research university with schools of engineering, letters and medicine, as well as a university hospital and graduate school of public policy. I believe that it is part of my role as Executive Vice President for Research to create structures that can bring together all of these diverse areas.

When seeking to set such structures in motion there can be a tendency to put the onus on professors and researchers themselves, but in actual fact it is these people who should be allowed to concentrate on research and educational activities. That is why we need to develop University Research Administrators (URA) (*4) within the University. It is of the greatest importance for us to establish such positions at the University. Our professors and researchers tend to want to do everything by themselves, though (laughs).

Nakamura: I believe that the platforms for innovation in Japan have changed considerably. During the 1970s and 1980s there were a number of large-scale projects led by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (currently the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), but these focused on bringing together people within the same industries. Recent projects are focusing on bringing people from different fields together, and management is changing accordingly. Universities do not need to do everything. The most important thing that universities need to concentrate on is making the important breakthroughs. The ways to utilize these breakthroughs can be found by corporations.

Matsumoto: Yes, and in addition it is important to have talented people in place who are capable of linking inventions with innovation. For example, in the case of drug discovery we need a mechanism in which solutions proposed by a university relates to actual drug needs. There are various drug discovery venture companies around the world that have been established between universities and pharmaceutical companies. These are people who can use previous failed attempts to create the resources for new research paths. As Japan has a career culture where people seek to climb the ladder of one organization, there are very few people who have gone from one workplace to another, experiencing failure only to achieve eventual success. I believe that if we are thinking 20 years into the future it will be essential for Japan to create a culture that seeks to use failures as the resources of future success.

Young researchers with PhDs as the drivers of innovation

Interviewer: Do you have any particular message for young researchers, who will be the innovators of the future?

Matsumoto: One of the urgent challenges for universities is to do something about the fact that very few Master’s degree students continue on to doctoral-level research. If you want to create true innovation I don’t think that a Master’s degree is sufficient. Having a PhD is proof that a person is capable of advancing knowledge in their given field. I would like young researchers to acquire a sense of self from an academic perspective by having done so. The drivers of the future will be those young researchers who have acquired PhDs. Looking around the world it can be seen that the people who are producing results on the frontlines of their specialization are those who have accumulated sufficient knowledge training. I would like young students, who advance from undergraduate to graduate studies, to fully understand that such an option is available.

Nakamura: Even in the corporate world the importance of PhDs is increasing. The number of corporate research laboratories is decreasing as companies find it increasingly difficult to develop researchers themselves as they once used to do. This means that companies are becoming more willing to accept people with doctoral degrees from universities. I think that companies should be more proactive in sending out a message about PhD graduates and that conventional career paths in Japan need to be reappraised.

At JST we are also expanding our “Sakigake” (PRESTO) (*5) framework that targets young researchers. The development of young researchers takes time and effort, and mentors are particularly important. We currently have approximately 30 mentors supervising the activities of young researchers. The PRESTO programs are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of research fields covered, with students of both genders coming from various countries and regions around the world. I am sure that this diversity is also a source of stimulation for the professors who work as these students’ mentors.

Interviewer: Finally, could you provide us with some words of encouragement for innovation activities and initiatives at the University of Tokyo?

Nakamura: I am afraid that I may be a little severe with regard to my alma mater (laughs). My feeling is that there are few efforts on the part of the University that seek to develop human resources through projects that anticipate and respond in advance to future developments in Japan. In the past there were a number of projects being conducted, such as the TAC (*6) project, which created a large-scale computer system. I think that particularly in the field of engineering the University should always be seeking to promote such projects. It is not always necessary to engage in efforts single-handedly within the University, but if the School of Engineering could engage in one or two projects of this kind, it would make it clearly apparent to outsiders that the University of Tokyo is a driving force in the field of engineering.

Matsumoto: There are actually several ongoing projects, though they may not be that noticeable from outside the University (laughs). Any large-scale project attempted by the University creates employment issues. There are many special researchers appointed for such projects using project funds, and these specially appointed researchers engage in their work with a constant sense of concern about what will happen to them once the project is completed. This type of employment structure could very well lead to researchers becoming adventure- and risk-averse. I think that we need to provide such researchers with some kind of guarantee or insurance. If there were some kind of flexible personnel framework that would allow University professors to receive half of their salaries from other funding sources, I believe that we could respond to the concerns and hopes expressed by Dr. Nakamura.

Nakamura: One of the University’s strong points is that it is taken as given that something can be achieved. The University is convinced that it is destined to be a top institution. This mindset is very important, and it is this kind of culture that I hope will continue to be nurtured. I think that both professors and students alike at the University feel its strength as a brand, in the best sense of the word.

Matsumoto: There could also be downsides to the University of Tokyo coming out on top in everything, however. Alongside fierce competitiveness, collaboration is also necessary. Collaboration is an important part of strategy: any tree standing alone on a windswept plain will easily be blown over. My strong belief is that specifically the University should aim to become a global hub for joint research and should create a structure that draws in talent from around the world. The Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) (*7), through which Japan is leading the world in studies that aim to decipher the structures of the universe, is an example of such an initiative. I would like to see one or two more similar flagship programs.

Nakamura: No, I think we need about five (laughs). Japan as a whole is now reaching an important and critical stage. We must ensure that we will return to being a nation that values and nurtures science and technology. To that end I would like researchers to aim to achieve groundbreaking research while also being aware of the society in which they live. JST is a national institution and we seek to create a value chain structure for innovation that encompasses all aspects from research through to industrial applications. We would like to continue to hear from the education and research side in the future.

Matsumoto: The critical role of a university is to be a place for research and education. I believe that it is a national responsibility to create an environment in which universities understand their mission thoroughly and can act with vigor and flexibility. It is important to abandon the thought that it is good enough for the University of Tokyo or a certain laboratory alone to succeed. In this regard, I would like us to take the next appropriate steps while we still have the energy to do so. That is something I would like us to keep firmly in mind.

Interviewer: Thank you for participating today in this extremely beneficial dialogue. I am sure that it will prove to be a valuable source of reference in our future activities.

(December 25, 2013, at the Kaitokukan, Hongo Campus, University of Tokyo)

Kaitokukan, the venue for this opening dialogue, looks out over the UCR Plaza (University Corporate Relations Plaza), which links the University to business and the community. In such an environment, the topics discussed by these two distinguished individuals naturally progressed towards the future and society as a whole.

*1 Schumpeter
Joseph Schumpeter was an Austrian economist who was active in the early 20th century. In 1911 it was Schumpeter who defined the concept of innovation as the critical dimension of economic change and development. His idea of “Neue kombinationen” translates to “new combinations” in English.

*2 Professor Masaharu Hoshiai
Professor of Tokyo Imperial University and former Director General of the Institute of Industrial Science. In 1959 he was appointed General Manager of the Central Research Laboratory of Hitachi, Ltd.

*3 COI
This refers to the Center of Innovation Program launched by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in fiscal year 2013.

*4 URA
This term refers to a specialist position in which a person works together with instructors to plan and manage research activities in order to boost research quality, and also seeks to promote utilization of research outcomes.

*5 Sakigake
Sakigake (also called PRESTO) is one of JST’s Strategic Basic Research Programs. The program supports individual research in strategic, prioritized fields of science and technology, with a view to developing future seeds for innovation seeds.

*6 TAC
The Tokyo Automatic Computer (TAC) project was a cooperative venture in the 1950s by the University of Tokyo, Toshiba Corporation and Hitachi, Ltd., to develop an early computer. The resulting machine used a total of 7,000 vacuum tubes.

The Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe is headed by Director Hitoshi Murayama and is part of the Todai Institutes for Advanced Study (TODIAS).

Yoichiro Matsumoto

Yoichiro Matsumoto

Professor of the Graduate School of Engineering (Department of Mechanical Engineering). After serving as Dean of the School of Engineering, in 2008 he was appointed Vice President, before becoming Executive Vice President in 2009 (responsible for planning and implementation of academic strategy, promotion of research, strengthening of the graduate schools, and the University hospital). His area of research interest is fluid engineering. In 2012, he served as head of the Office for Promotion of Medical Innovation, which was established by the government. His nickname is “Matchan.”

Michiharu Nakamura

Michiharu Nakamura

After serving as General Manager of the Central Research Laboratory and as Executive Vice President of Hitachi, Ltd., in 2011 Dr. Nakamura became the first President of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) to be appointed from the private sector. His area of research specialization is optoelectronics. He has served on a wide variety of bodies, including as chair of the Sub-committee on Nanotechnology under the Committee on Industrial Technology of Keidanren and Chairman of the Working Committee of the Council on Competitiveness-Nippon under government-industry-academia collaboration. His favorite pastimes as means of taking a break from work are golf and taking trips with his family. He also enjoys relaxing in a natural environment away from the city.

Shinobu Yoshimura

Interviewer: Shinobu Yoshimura

Professor at the Graduate School of Engineering (Department of Systems Innovation).
His areas of research interest are computational mechanics and intelligent simulation. In 2012 he was appointed as director of the University of Tokyo Public Relations Office and since then has engaged in efforts to renew and innovate Tansei, the academic information site UTokyo Research, and the University’s website. It seems that on the weekends he transforms into a specialist in home-made cooking!?