The arrival of autumn in Tokyo’s Hongo neighborhood promises the yellowed leaves of ginkgo trees and an abundance of students. As if reawakening from slumber, the resumption of classes at the University of Tokyo breathes new life into its main campus. Students and faculty return en masse, collectively forming a vibrant intellectual community. And yet, this year, the promise of autumn for universities is uncertain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed the start of a conventional fall term, as the risks of transmission involved with campus life, from large lecture courses to nomikai (drinking parties), have led schools across Japan to hold classes partially or entirely online and curtail campus access. Even as life for many in Tokyo remains (mostly) normal, universities stand as an exception.

No matter the schema or contours of academic life enacted by each university, faculty or department, the professors — the drivers of university education — are tirelessly at work behind the scenes. Many must work harder to maintain the same caliber of education, transforming into video creators, tech gurus and pandemic-era mentors — all while providing compassion and care to their students. Their challenges are manifold, as the already difficult task of holding classes, whether in-person, online or hybrid, is compounded by international students stranded abroad.