KYOTO - If I told you that Japan had a world-class science and technology university that could one day stand tall among the big trees of MIT or Stanford, could you guess its name and where it’s located? Hint: It’s not in Honshu, home to Japan’s top name-brand national universities like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. This university is about 640 km from the rest of Japan and even further away in mission and philosophy.
Call it where science and technology in subtropical paradise meets some of the world’s best lab-based problem solvers. Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) is the best university you’ve likely never heard of in Japan.
Its reputation and academic style adhere to no national boundaries. It’s not typically Japanese or Western: it is an open campus — the Okinawan people are welcome to drop by or attend Open Campus community fairs. It offers 24-hour Open Labs where scientists are encouraged to share equipment, and it is collaborative and interdisciplinary in teaching, research and publishing.
Everyone, student and professor alike, is a research associate. In short, it’s an academic dream, unless your ideal academic setting is a closed office door inside-the-silo mentality.
It is the most diverse international university that Japan has to offer, which is why some of the best science minds in the world keep responding. Eighty percent of the doctoral students come from overseas, many from the Asian region, but also from Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom. This year’s incoming class of 24 is from 15 countries. Just 20 percent of the student body is from Japan.
The students I met were “user friendly” with their ability to explain neuroscience and molecular physics to this social scientist more comfortable in a class about politics and media. The OIST way is to make science and technology more accessible. It encourages its doctoral students to act more like professors who profess — to give public presentations and engage in public speaking as much as possible. Why else would an institution promote science in the global interest if it cannot communicate with the world?
English is the operating language of this Japanese university, which received a nearly $1 billion budget, including construction of the impressive campus, over 10 years from the Cabinet Office. It may seem highly incongruous with the Japanese-language dominance in the classroom elsewhere in Japan, but the smart visionaries behind OIST, including the president of the University of Tokyo, Dr. Akito Arima (1989-1993), knew that global English — the primary language of science, academic publishing and the Internet — would attract the world’s best students and faculty. Any Japanese student who enrolls at OIST will be trained in science and technology that prepares that student for placement across the world.
Why does a Japanese university have just one 1 of 5 Japanese students? Part of it could be a certain intimidation to using English full time for research collaboration and presentation, but OIST offers English courses to all its students, and offers Japanese courses to its non-native Japanese.
Another reason may be declining interest in the natural sciences. A recent survey by the Japan Youth Research Institute showed that Japanese high school students registered the lowest interest in nature and science compared with their counterparts in China, South Korea and the United States. It’s notable that China and South Korea start teaching students English as a second language in grade three (age 8) rather than the typical junior high level (age 12) in Japan.
Japan’s education ministry has 200 high schools designated as “Super Science High Schools,” so we know that the national interest is tied to hard science advancement, but if student interest overall is declining, then we have to think of better ways to entice young people to want to put on the lab coat and start experimenting.
Japan is world renowned for some of the best minds in science and technology. The results of Japan’s junior high school students in mathematics and science remain consistently at an internationally top level, but in terms of personal interest in the subjects (degree of like/dislike), they are at some of the lowest levels internationally. OIST would like to have at least half Japanese students, if not more, but so far the tug of science in paradise lags behind the name-brand mainland universities.
OIST has the potential to serve as the model to how an innovative, entrepreneurial university can operate in Japan. The OIST spirit to innovate comes from a wild dream that might just be realizable — an Okinawan version of Silicon Valley next to a Stanford-like university in beauty and reputation.
The school must develop substantial financial independence within 10 years. Its future success depends on a business model shepherded by patents from scientific discoveries. The profits will be shared equally among the research associates (professor and student), the research laboratory and the university.
Japan continues to try to raise its global profile politically in an updated security regime and global trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it has a chronic problem in global education. Japan’s top-ranked universities are losing global luster and fewer Japanese students are going abroad for undergraduate or postgraduate education. This, in turn, makes them less able to communicate well in English.
“We are living in a period of rapid change driven by science and technology. Japan has taken a very bold move in creating a high level graduate university that is adapted to the needs of the next leaders of international science and industry. It is a privilege to contribute,” said OIST Acting President Albrecht Wagner.
“OIST is already a shining star for Japan in the highly competitive world of top-level science and technology universities. The dream of Okinawa as an international center of R&D is becoming a reality,” enthused Robert Baughman, executive vice president for Sustainable Development of Okinawa, an OIST group.
What I witnessed at OIST were students from around the world serving as well-spoken, poised science and technology citizen ambassadors. They were proud to be OISTers, proud that it was a Japanese government-initiative and even prouder to serve the Okinawan community. Whatever they are doing at OIST is a bit magical and we need to spread some of that magic across the rest of Japan so that the next time a young Japanese person is asked about his or her attitude toward science, the interest will match the ability.
Nancy Snow is the Pax Mundi professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.