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The educational philosophy of a Nobel Prize factory

Interview with Seiichi Matsuo, President of Nagoya University

Nagoya University is a research powerhouse that has produced six out of the 16 Nobel Prize winners to come out of Japan in the 21st century. Located in the country’s manufacturing heartland, it also maintains significant collaboration projects with industry leaders such as Denso and Toyota. Nagoya is also a leader in gender equality, having spearheaded the effort to promote female faculty members and researchers. In this interview, university president Seiichi Matsuo discusses how Nagoya is working to embrace transformational trends in industry and society, attract more international talent, and contribute to human happiness through quality education

You are a graduate of Nagoya University yourself. What was your journey like from student to president?

I graduated from the medical school and then I moved to the United States, where I spent three years doing research. That experience turned my world around; before that, all I had known was Nagoya. I returned a changed person, and I became very interested in the reform of university organization. As director of the Department of Internal Medicine at Nagoya University Hospital, I made many structural changes. And when I became vice-president in 2009 I made yet more institutional changes. Now, as president, I am pushing everyone to change everything so we can keep competing with the best universities in the world.

What do you see as Nagoya University’s ultimate goal?

As a Japanese national university, it is crucial for us to contribute to the sustainable development of society and the happiness of human beings. This is the most important goal of all, and it will, in turn, make our university more reputable. You have to think that your work goes beyond yourself and the university. We may collaborate with many institutions and industries, but the final objective is the world and society.

“As a Japanese national university, it is crucial for us to contribute to the sustainable development of society and the happiness of human beings”

The education sector in Japan is trying to become more globalized. What efforts are you promoting to increase your foreign student body?

Nagoya University is making a big internationalization effort. We should increase the power of higher education by attracting excellent people from all over the world. I am always thinking of ways to make our university more competitive and attractive to overseas students. Right now, China, Europe and Asia are significant sources of outbound students, while the U.S. and Canada are the main recipients, followed by UK, France and Germany. By comparison, Japan is sending out a very small number of students, and receiving them mainly from China. In fact, at our university, about 42 percent of foreign students are from China, and most are from Asia. I would now like to expand this to students from other parts of the world as well.


How are you working to attract those additional foreign students?

We already have a strong reputation in many fields of research. Nagoya University has produced six Nobel Prize winners in the 21st century, which is an impressive calling card in itself. And we have leading research centers such as the Institute of Transformative Bio-molecules (ITbM), which is attracting many young people from Europe and the U.S.  But we are also doing international outreach work, disseminating information through bases and organizing information fairs throughout Asia. And we have the Asian Satellite Campuses Institute, which has established satellite campuses in Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Laos and the Philippines, where students are offered research-based doctoral programs. It also helps that a current Vietnamese minister is a graduate of our university, and so is the president of the top university of Cambodia, which means that we already have a great human network in place all over Asia to spread the word about Nagoya’s excellence.

“We have long been leaders in promoting gender equality, and these days, there is a growing conviction among politicians and industry leaders that gender equality is good for the economy”

The university is also actively promoting gender equality. What are some recent initiatives?

We were the first Japanese university to establish a university-wide committee and an exclusive office to promote gender equality. We did so around 20 years ago. In addition to two on-campus daycare centers, we also have an after-school childcare center, which other national universities in Japan lack. And we support female faculty members by establishing positions for women only, a move that has already increased women’s representation in the natural sciences. Our commitments for promoting gender equality and innovative approaches to foster female researchers have received international acclaim; we have been selected to join the HeForShe IMPACT 10X10X10 initiative, which aims to engage governments, corporations and universities around the world in activities to achieve gender equality. We have long been leaders in promoting gender equality, and these days, there is a growing conviction among politicians and industry leaders that gender equality is good for the economy.

How do you communicate this culture of innovation to your students?

Our researchers are very enthusiastic about educating the younger students. But our current educational system does not meet these innovation needs. In our Japanese system, once a student enters a field of study, it is sometimes very hard to switch to another area. I think we should become more flexible in terms of student choices.

What double programs with overseas institutions do you offer?

We have several, from short exchange programs to PhD programs in which at least one year should be spent at the partner institution. We have several PhD joint programs and are looking to expand them.  The Toyota headquarters are very near Nagoya and we have developed a summer program in automotive engineering in partnership with them that is very competitive, limited to 30 students although there are hundreds of applications from our partner institutions all over the world.

What main fields of research does this university focus on?

We analyzed the advantage areas of research and found that medicine and biology stood out because this started out as a university hospital in 1871, so we have almost 150 years of history in medical work. The second field is engineering, especially semi-conductors and materials, and the third is the universe and the origin of particles. Every three or four years a Japanese scientist earns a Nobel Prize in particle physics. We are also very strong in chemistry: two researchers from this university earned a Nobel Prize.

What makes Nagoya University different in terms of its core values?

 The most striking trait of this university, which differentiates it from other top universities in the country, is its culture of free and open-minded academic endeavor. Before WWII, the Japanese government selected several universities and turned them into imperial universities. There were seven of them, and Nagoya was the last one, in 1939. But after WWII this university did not have enough resources – human, financial, or infrastructure. So we called for young researchers all over Japan and let them freely discuss and develop their own research. Out of that atmosphere, our six Nobel laureates were produced. 

“The most striking trait of this university, which differentiates it from other top universities in the country, is its free and open-minded atmosphere”

How is Nagoya University preparing professionals for transformational trends such as Society 5.0, the digitalization of Japanese society?

Nagoya is very motivated about Society 5.0 because we are located at the center of Japan, and also at the heart of the country’s manufacturing area. The rapid development of technologies – Big Data, AI and so on – and distribution means that society is also changing very fast. We want the Nagoya region to become the world’s most tech-innovative area in the world. If we cannot produce innovation in tech, then Nagoya will become a rust belt. This means we must produce more human resources in data science, and collaborate with industries and government agencies who should invest more in universities in order to increase these human resources.

How does a high-quality education impact economic growth, domestically and internationally?

The most important driver of an active and sustainable society is education and especially higher education. It is frequently argued in Japan that the human resources produced by universities are not what industries really need. So how do we meet those needs? One way is by creating a curriculum in collaboration with faculty but also with industry leaders. Continuing education is another way, which is usual in the U.S. but unusual in Japan. We should also hire more industry experts. Many Japanese SMEs want to collaborate with universities, and we should encourage this. Governments should facilitate it as well.

As university president, what do you want your legacy to be?

This university wants to encourage “courageous intellectuals.” Every student has their own area of expertise, but nowadays this is not enough. It is also very important to acquire leadership skills, a wider view of the world, to accept and understand diversity. You need transferable skills. I believe that education must serve to advance justice, freedom and the happiness of human beings.

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