The education ministry shocked Japan’s research community last Friday when it named Tohoku University as the first recipient of investment returns from a ¥10 trillion ($68 billion) new university endowment fund over two of the most respected academic institutions in the nation.

The news left many in academia reeling because the advisory board tasked with selecting institutions to benefit from the fund — dubbed Japan’s “last chance” to reverse its decline in research competitiveness — chose Tohoku over the two other shortlisted candidates: the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. Those two institutions, which have led Japan’s academic development, were both widely regarded as the front-runners.

In addition, the fact that only one university was selected out of a total of 10 applicants — mostly national universities carrying out costly big-science projects — left many wondering: Why Tohoku University? And why Tohoku alone?