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Special Discussion: The University as Engine of Reform

From incorporation, industry-academia collaboration, aging society and declining birthrate to a data-driven society: Two presidents with much in common discuss university reform

As the 24th president of the University of Tokyo, Professor Akito Arima championed University reform, most importantly improvements in the research and education environment. As Japanese Minister of Education, he oversaw the incorporation of the national universities.

Professor Makoto Gonokami, the 30th president, aims to make the University of Tokyo a “global base for knowledge collaboration.” His book, Henkaku wo Kudosuru Daigaku (Driving Innovation in Society: The University of Tokyo’s Vision 2020), was released in April 2017. As graduates of Musashi High School and the Department of Physics in the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Science, and having served as Dean of the Faculty, the two presidents have much in common. Here, they discuss the past, present and future of University reform.

(Moderator: Sawako Shirahase, Director of the Public Relations Office & Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology)
The former and the current president seated in the Yasuda Auditorium. Without being asked to, both wore light blue (tansei) ties.
Shirahase: Professor Arima, what do you think of President Gonokami’s book, Henkaku wo Kudosuru Daigaku?

Arima: I read it through and was deeply impressed. When I was president, opportunities for me to clearly convey my objectives were limited, let alone write a book in that capacity. I am therefore pleased that Professor Gonokami has done this. I feel that this is one of the positive effects of university incorporation.

Gonokami: Thank you.

Shirahase: Professor Arima, you implemented measures to promote a strategic focus on graduate schools when you were president, and later fostered the incorporation of national universities when you were the Minister of Education.

Arima: Yes, indeed. Before becoming president, I served as a special adviser to President Wataru Mori, and my biggest concern then was the deterioration of university facilities and equipment. Laboratories were cramped, glass windows were broken, and Yasuda Auditorium had been left in a damaged state. It was therefore imperative to implement all possible measures to increase the funding for facilities and research. Consequently, I turned to graduate schools. I thought that I would be able to increase the total budget by focusing more on the Graduate Schools than on the Faculties. I also advocated industry-university cooperation, and thus served as the chairman of the committee for Corporate Sponsored Research Programs. However, I faced difficulties because there was strong opposition to such programs. Many spoke out at the Council1 to say that these programs would undermine the autonomy of the University, to the extent that I was prevented from finishing my explanation. I still remember vividly what it was like at that time. There were also objections to placing focus on the Graduate Schools. Today, however, focusing on both Corporate Sponsored Research Programs and Graduate Schools is taken for granted. It makes me realize how much time has passed.

Gonokami: It was natural for people in academia 30-40 years ago to fear that industry-university cooperation would deprive them of their academic freedom, because at that time industry and universities were thought to have different roles to play in society. Today, however, there is growing need for university and industry to collaborate with one another. I believe that we can arrange this collaboration so that it will contribute to the development of industry while maintaining universities’ academic freedom, which will benefit society as a whole.

Arima: I completely agree.

Gonokami: The rapid globalization of industry and internationalization of capital are a challenge for the executives of Japanese corporations. The percentage of shares held by foreign corporations and others has increased from around 5% at the end of the Showa period in the late 1980s to over 30% today. With increasing pressure from shareholders to produce profit in the short-term, Japanese companies are struggling to operate their organizations in the traditional, self-sufficient ways of the past, which is to make intensive investments in R&D and human resources for companies’ long-term development. This kind of environment fosters industry-academia collaboration as companies turn to universities to work together to create new value through research. Industry-academia collaboration is built upon universities and industries thinking together from the start about the new value they should create. Since we are setting the agenda together, there is no threat of universities being deprived of their academic freedom. It seems that there is an increase of people from both sectors who share this belief. I wrote my book in order to further spread awareness of this idea.

Arima: I regarded the Corporate Sponsored Research Programs as a starting point to open a dialogue with the industrial sector. Now, it seems as though the collaboration is substantial, which is wonderful to see.

Gonokami: Cooperation based on relations of trust between industry, which strives to better society through business, and universities, which operate on a diverse array of time scales, will act as a driving force for social reform, I believe.

Shirahase: Because the university is the place for fostering talented individuals who can generate this kind of force, discussing how to implement job opportunities to develop young human resources should be an urgent issue.

Gonokami: We must make our University a place where young people are strongly encouraged to devote themselves to research—a place where they can freely delve into their research without worrying about short-term results or job insecurity. However, since the incorporation of the University, the number of tenured faculty members under the age of 40 has decreased from 903 in 2006 to 383 in 2016. What one does in their 30s will bear fruit in one’s 40s and 50s as unique research, and subsequently cultivate new disciplines. However, young researchers are being deprived of such opportunities because many of them are pushed into pursuing short-term results due to job insecurity.

What is needed for the University now is to focus more on management than on operation. Management here means to make targeted investments with a long-term view. Although the Management Expenses Grants,2 the most stable funding source from the government, have been reduced, we will be able to employ more researchers without fixed terms if we can take advantage of our University's economy of scale in our budget. I began working on a plan created for this purpose after becoming president, and have managed to restore 89 tenured positions for faculty under the age of 40 at the University in the past year. This process of restoring positions also provides us a good opportunity to look to the future and invest in people, creating pathways to new scholarship.

Arima: The first issue that I addressed after becoming the Minister of Education was the incorporation of national universities, so it is something that has long been on my mind. In researching universities around the world that had undergone this transformation, I learned that they had administrative autonomy, so I decided to proceed with incorporation. The biggest concern, however, was the reduction of the Management Expenses Grants. Therefore, after stepping down from the position of Minister, I worked to add a provision to the university incorporation bill for which I voted as a member of the Diet stating that education and research expenses could not be reduced. However, you already know how that turned out.

By the way, one thing that I was unable to effectively accomplish during my career but President Gonokami has succeeded at is the creation of startup companies. I became the president of RIKEN after my time at UTokyo, and sought to “revive the Ōkōchi spirit” at the Institute. Professor Masatoshi Ōkōchi, in his capacity as the president of RIKEN, encouraged employees to generate profits themselves. Under his watch, RIKEN launched a range of startup companies, including those engaged in the mass production of vitamin A and in the development of photocopiers, with the resulting earnings subsequently appropriated to the research budget. I embarked upon my presidency at RIKEN with a similar goal in mind, but I was able to launch only a few ventures successfully. The University of Tokyo now has more than 200 startup companies, I hear.
Gonokami: Indeed, there are over 280 venture businesses that originate from the University of Tokyo.

Arima: The good thing about universities is that they have specialists in every field, and therefore have access to an array of expert knowledge. I feel that developing ventures by making use of this strength is what a wise university should do.

Shirahase: Honestly, from a sociologist’s point of view, which is in the fields of the social sciences and the humanities, I feel somewhat left behind when discussions about venture businesses are started.

Gonokami: When considering the creation of new value amid dramatic changes in society, it is necessary to work along an extensive time scale. In this respect, the role of the humanities and social sciences is integral. One of the many strengths of the University of Tokyo is that it carries a wealth of Japanese culture, inherited from the days even before its establishment. This legacy, I believe, has been passed on mainly to the humanities. Not only did scholars in the humanities adopt Western culture in the Meiji period, but they also integrated it into the system already in place since the Edo period, sculpting a cultural model unique to Japan. The wisdom demonstrated in this process is what we truly need in the making of new social systems. When implementing new technologies in society, a deep understanding of the present system is essential; thus, cooperation between the humanities, social sciences and the sciences is an absolute must. In fact, looking at business startups incubated at the University, those which demonstrate successful cooperation between experts in these areas seem to be producing quality value.

Arima: I believe that the mission of universities is to nurture human culture. For example, one must understand the essence of language when carrying out research in AI, which necessitates referencing linguistics studies cultivated over many years by researchers in the humanities. The same applies to economic phenomena as well as literature. I particularly have high expectations for the humanities when it comes to religious conflicts. I feel that researchers in the humanities must investigate such conflicts thoroughly and share their findings with society. Differences in social structures and economic systems should also be clarified. For example, the SDGs3 are not only about climate change, but also about how humankind should live in the future. Thus, the goals cannot be attained through the efforts of those engaged in the sciences alone. Those in the humanities must also rise up.
Shirahase: I see—I will take your words as encouragement to us working in the humanities. Now let me move on to the next topic. Professor Arima, you are also known as the president who introduced the external evaluation of faculty members at the University of Tokyo.

Arima: Universities should be held accountable. They should explain what they have done and what value they can provide using the funds sourced from taxpayers. Furthermore, universities should be evaluated objectively from external viewpoints rather than just self-publicizing their achievements. By the way, the first organization at the University of Tokyo to employ this kind of system was the Faculty of Letters. A third party's evaluation of how phenomenal your research is will hold more weight than if you proclaim so yourself. There is no need to be afraid of such evaluations; in fact, an outsider's perspective may even shed light on some positive aspects of your research that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

Gonokami: As the premise for this, we, as experts, should take full responsibility in the process and the result of evaluating the value of our academic activities. For example, when hiring a researcher who will one day go on to lead a particular academic field, the number of citations a researcher’s paper has received is just one of many factors for evaluating this person. We must make our selection by taking in a range of perspectives and using all possible means of evaluation. For instance, one may be chosen for having great potential and the most innovative ideas of all the candidates, even if they haven't published extensively. We must not cut corners when choosing our fellow researchers. I feel that this is just as important as the education of students.

Shirahase: I think your ideas are quite innovative. Then, what kinds of unique contributions do you think that the University of Tokyo could make to local communities?

Gonokami: One characteristic of Japan's development is that through the course of the country's rapid economic growth, gaps between cities and regional areas have widened. This is something that must be rectified; doing so could lead to the proposal of a model that is useful for all humankind. I therefore think that it would be opportune to advance initiatives taken by the University in cooperation with local municipalities. Accordingly, we have started the Field Study Program for Policy Making Collaboration this year, through which students visit regional areas and address local issues. We can expect, for instance, students to carry out activities aimed at giving encouragement to the many elderly individuals living in those areas.

Shirahase: Professor Arima, you also proclaim often that the high abilities and skills of the elderly should not be wasted. But would that not lead to the young and the old competing for jobs?

Gonokami: Young researchers are assets that make possible future academic achievements. I therefore think we should foster an environment in which they can challenge themselves with large-scale ambitious research, with the retired members helping them in many ways by taking on responsibilities unrelated to research in the meantime, such as those concerning student care and entrance exams. For instance, writing textbooks to pass down knowledge to younger generations is a crucial task for retired faculty members. The older generation can thereby communicate the knowledge they have gained over the years, while also supporting the present generation. If the University of Tokyo can demonstrate a working model of this concept, which enables people of all ages to exercise their abilities, the concept can serve as inspiration for future work-style reforms.

Arima: I have been encouraging contribution by older people by saying, “Let them work as long as they can, but at the minimum salary, and allocate the savings to the younger generations.” I also say, “Employ older people as advisors and not as deans of faculties or heads of sections,” in order to prevent the old from interfering too much in what younger people do. Let them be free to do what they are good at, and give them their train fares and lunch money in return—that should be enough. I also want to say that Japan should strive to enhance its higher education in consideration of the aging society and the decreasing birth rate. As the population decreases, the level of higher education should be raised. I expect universities to help young people increase their abilities. I would also like for scholars in literature and medicine to examine the post-war population policies of countries that overcame their population decline, because findings about these policies will provide important clues for Japan’s future.

Gonokami: As a matter of fact, we made a proposal about these exact issues when we filed an application to become a Designated National University4. We newly established the Future Society Initiative (FSI), and proposed measures to achieve a society with healthy longevity based on the SDGs. The University has started working on this collectively in order to take specific actions.
Shirahase: Well, it seems that we could reach the consensus to close this dialogue.

Arima: I have one more request. At present, there are no specific guidelines for the elderly regarding, for example, what they should eat and how much they should exercise at the age of 70, 80 or 90. So, I would like the members of the University of Tokyo Sports Science Initiative (UTSSI)5 to publish guidelines for each age group. I’m sure it depends on the individual, but there must be a rule of thumb.

Gonokami: Thank you for that great idea. I believe that a data-driven society will be at the core of the future global paradigm shift. The conventional growth model based on mass production will come to an end, and the use of ICT and other technologies will make it easy to provide individuals with customized products and services. Professor Arima, wouldn't it make you happy to receive health advice tailored specifically to you, like about what to eat this week and the next?

Arima: Indeed. (laughs)

Gonokami: I am currently wearing a sensor device on my wrist which automatically counts how many steps I take, measures my heart rate, and even evaluates the quality of my sleep. I started using it to experience for myself what living in a data-driven society would be like. The most useful data is the information on my sleep—it shows me not only how long I slept, but also how deeply, as well as how many times I had woken up. I use this data to manage my health; for instance, if I see that I had bad sleep during the week, I make sure to rest over the weekend.

Arima: I also use a pedometer. In fact, I have been using one since October 1992, when I was the president of the University. I took 15,000 steps every day until I turned 70, and then reduced it to 12,000. Now I take 10,000 steps per day. My doctor tells me that this is too much for my age, but I do not actually know how many steps is best anyway.

Gonokami: Wasn’t it difficult for you to take 10,000 steps every day when you were the Minister of Education?

Arima: I walked around the Imperial Palace during lunchtime. I felt sorry for the bodyguard who had to walk with me, but I think it must have benefited his health as well. (laughs) Anyhow, the University of Tokyo should publish its own health guidelines. A thorough analysis of an extensive amount of user data from pedometers and other such devices would greatly benefit society.

Gonokami: What you have said precisely matches my vision of a data-driven society.

Arima: I am really impressed with your great efforts, President Gonokami. Although my background is in physics just like yourself, I often end up fretting over particulars rather than getting things done, maybe because I'm a theorist. You, on the other hand, methodically bring into fruition what you have planned. Perhaps it’s because you carried out more experiments in the lab. Thank you for learning from my mistakes and doing well. I once got very ill while I was president, and it was then that I began to walk more. Please take good care of yourself.

Gonokami: Thank you very much—I will bear that in mind.

About the Participants

Makoto Gonokami
Born in Tokyo in 1957. Graduated from Musashi High School, then from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of Tokyo in 1980. Took a position as a research assistant at the Faculty of Science in 1983 and obtained his PhD degree in science at the University in 1985. Became a lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering in 1988 and an associate professor in 1990. Became an associate professor and a professor at the University’s Graduate School of Engineering in 1995 and 1998, respectively. In 2005, he was appointed to be a special adviser to the president. Became a professor at the University’s Graduate School of Science in 2010 and was appointed as a vice president of the University in 2012. In 2014, he became the dean of the University’s Faculty of Science/Graduate School of Science. Has been the 30th president of the University since April 2015. Specializes in quantum optical physics. Has authored a book titled Henkaku wo Kudosuru Daigaku: Shakai to no Renkei kara Kyoso e (Driving Innovation in Society: The University of Tokyo’s Vision 2020) (University of Tokyo Press).
Akito Arima
Born in Osaka in 1930. Graduated from Musashi High School, then from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of Tokyo in 1953. Obtained his PhD degree in science at the University in 1958. Became a professor at the University’s Faculty of Science in 1975 and was appointed president of the University in 1989. Became president of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) in 1993, and chairman of the Central Council for Education in 1995. In 1998, became a member of the House of Councillors and the Minister of Education. Became director-general of the Science and Technology Agency in 1999. After serving as chairman of the Japan Science Foundation, he became the chancellor of the Musashi Academy of the Nezu Foundation in 2006 (current position). Received the Order of Culture in 2010. Specializes in nuclear physics. Also a leading haiku poet. One of his recent books is Wagamichi, Wagashinjo (My Way, My Creed) (Shunjusha Publishing Company).


  1. Council: The University of Tokyo’s top decision-making organization, which was composed of the president, executive vice presidents, deans of the Graduate Schools, heads of the University’s institutes, councilors, and others.
  2. Management Expenses Grants: Money given to national university corporations for management of the operations entrusted by the government to the universities. Funding for the grants has been on the decline (hitting a low in fiscal 2014 and remaining at that level).
  3. SDGs: Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations to be achieved worldwide by 2030. There are 17 goals and 169 targets, including gender equality, anti-climate change measures and the eradication of hunger.
  4. Designated National University: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology launched the Designated National University System to improve Japan’s education and research standards and foster innovation. The University of Tokyo became a Designated National University along with Tohoku University and Kyoto University in June 2017.
  5. The University of Tokyo Sports Science Initiative (UTSSI): A university-wide organization newly established in May 2016. A total of 16 graduate schools and research institutes are participating in this initiative to promote multidisciplinary research related to sports and health science.
Photos: Junichi Kaizuka

* This interview was originally printed in Tansei 35 (Japanese language only). All information in this article is as of September 2017.

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