The Okinawa way, or how Japanese university is reinventing itself

Photo Patrick Vincent / Vice President (Finance and Administration) of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University / July 20th, 2012

In October 2012, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) will be welcoming its first students. How does one develop a world-leading center of excellence in the lush jungles of a subtropical island? This is a story of political will – but also of strategic intelligence. A Japanese story… which has consisted in not doing things the Japanese way.

ParisTech Review – Patrick Vincent, you belong to the managing team of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST). How was the project born?

Patrick Vincent – Nothing would ever have happened without the will of one minister, Koji Omi, who in 2001 was in charge of science and technology, and whose portfolio also included politically sensitive items like Japan’s northern territories and Okinawa. Omi, who was later to become finance minister, was already very powerful, and he had at heart to do something for Okinawa’s economic development.

One should note that this island, located several hundred miles south of the main archipelago, is atypical in many ways. Far away from the mainland, ravaged by World War II, it has remained under U.S. jurisdiction until 1973 and is still marked by a GDP/capita that is well below the Japanese average (even though the Japanese average is one of the world’s highest). One might also note a setback regarding education and infrastructure. This is certainly no virgin territory, however much remains to be done in comparison to the rest of the country. Moreover, the island has much potential, if only owing to its geographical position as it rests halfway between Japan and Southeast Asia, its positive population growth rate (an exception in Japan) and the youth of its population, and finally, a more international atmosphere.


Therefore it made sense to launch an ambitious project – one that could combine higher education and economic development. I shall add that in some ways the lagging behind of the island turned out to be an asset in the sense that it offered the opportunity to experiment with something really new, without being hindered by existing infrastructure. This is precisely where the interest of this project resides: the smarts not to repeat, in this district so far away from the archipelago, whatever was already being done in Tokyo or Osaka and functioning well. The whole point was to offer something totally new, unique, and really different.

Where does this difference play out?

First of all, in its international dimension. The working language is English, and whether we are talking about the students or the researchers, we have a full 50% who are foreigners with very diverse origins. This is unique in Japan. The first challenge is to build an environment that is an answer to the problem of attractiveness of Japanese universities, but it is also about giving Japanese students, who tend to stay in the archipelago, a window on the outside world.

A second aspect is the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum: here, the ambition is to see constant interaction between researchers from very different disciplines. Again the goal is to break academic habits and to foster another type of knowledge flow. Therefore the university has but one department, which offers a single type of training: interdisciplinary training… but personalized. The main disciplines are neuroscience, mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology and physical and biological oceanography.

A third aspect is the small size of the facility, which houses 500 researchers only and whose number of – carefully selected – students will not exceed 120 (200 if one includes trainees). These will exclusively be doctoral students, 20 per year, attending the program for five years. Clearly, this is a demanding project which aims at global excellence.

And the last aspect: unlike other universities the institution will not be attached to the Ministry of Education, but to the Prime Minister’s office, who represents the Central Government in the management of strategic projects in Okinawa.

These various features all constitute advantages to move from the traditional university model and to try to invent something else.

Through which steps was this new model established?

Several circles participated in the discussion: local authorities, the Prime Minister’s office, but also and especially, outside experts. This can be felt in the way the various bodies were composed, and it also translated into a strong presence of foreigners in their midst.

The reflections were launched via a meeting of “wise men” in Los Angeles in 2002; this laid down the guidelines for the project, which was unanimously adopted by the Japanese Diet (Lower House and Upper House) in 2005. Work began in 2007 and the lab portion of it gradually geared up in premises that were very well equipped, but temporary; at first the university took a preparatory status of Promotion Corporation, and a 2009 law paved the way for the final status: that of a School Corporation (or private university). In April 2010 all teams and equipment were moved from their temporary premises to the village of Onna Son, in a permanent campus with spectacular exterior and interior architecture. In November 2011, after two years of hard work, the OIST received official accreditation from the Ministry of Education which allows it to award doctorates. The first students are arriving this fall, but the academic staff is already installed. Everything is in place to immediately run at full speed.

It is not entirely accidental if the first Wisemen Committee, with three Nobel Laureates among its nine members, met in Los Angeles: the institutional model of the OIST is steering away from that of Japanese universities towards the American model. Governance is one example: the president of the OIST, akin to a chief executive, reports to the Board of Governors. In other Japanese universities, most of the power is exercised by the President.

The current Board of Governors includes seventeen members, with five Nobel laureates and a former president of the Tokyo University who also was Minister of Education. It takes counsel from a Board of Councilors: various stakeholders such as civil society, local authorities, representatives of foreign universities, etc.

Such an opening to the outside world should be emphasized, as it contrasts with the self-entrenchment propensity of Japanese universities. One goal of the operation is also to show that we can create conditions to appropriately accommodate world-class foreign researchers – an issue, let us note in passing, that does not only concern Japan but also Europe. Okinawa’s response to that question is radical: the working language is English for everything, and given that researchers often come with their families, schools must also be built and it is also time to start thinking about international education facilities and programs. All this has already cost a lot of money so far, but the type of infrastructure involved is one that can easily be duplicated, thus creating the conditions for a veritable international appeal for Okinawa. Efforts to accommodate a few hundred foreigners may well prove even more useful once the mark hits a few thousand, making this a very serious case to attract direct investment or even foreign contractors (a centerpiece of the Okinawa R&D Cluster project).

Some of the innovations introduced in Okinawa have already had ripple effects on other universities. For instance, in the OIST in the school year begins on September 1 and not on April 1 – Is that a coincidence? Shortly after it obtained accreditation, other prestigious universities announced their intention to start the school year in September to be internationally competitive. When one considers exchanges with the rest of the world, this kind of detail can turn out to be critical. It is worth mentioning that the five month gap with the national university system is problematic for our Japanese students. But we make it an opportunity by sending them to universities in California, New Zealand, etc., with research assistant status, to make bring them up to speed in the English language.

While one can easily assess the possible ripple effects on the rest of the Japanese academic world, isn’t the institution at risk of being “out of touch” with its local environment?

There is such a risk, indeed, and it is also the yardstick by which we will be able to assess the results in a few years. For the time being, a special effort was made to integrate the university in the framework of a much larger land development initiative, involving its incorporation into plans to build a north-south railway line (serving the OIST) and urban development projects for businesses and housing.

Collaborations have also been initiated with Okinawa’s Genome Project, and with local start-ups working in this field. Local authorities had already launched several initiatives under the “cluster” label, but the results are rather disappointing at the present time: it has only resulted in the creation of low value-added activities such as call centers… Two other clusters have been launched, but there is a significant risk of resource dispersion and of politicization… so perhaps this is where the action of the OIST really makes sense in the field of territorial development.

Ambitious action was undertaken to have the reflection of local decision makers live up to global competition, so as to attract investors and entrepreneurs, by bringing in foreign experts. We organized two international workshops in 2010 and 2012, which allowed in depth querying and exploring the ways things were done, picking up successful experiences elsewhere in the world. It should be noted that the Japanese view of the R&D cluster often gives too much importance to infrastructure over human capital: hyper equipped buildings are constructed, and then you try to fill them… Successful experiments abroad show that what must be done is just the opposite: people first, then buildings! Our second workshop in March 2012, was deliberately set in the context of an international competition, by querying the demand and motivations of entrepreneurs likely to settle in.

The OIST, who led the first workshop, took the role of a co-pilot in the second workshop, giving the lead to the prefecture: one can see that the logic is indeed to empower local stakeholders. The OIST’s international dimension and its networks may clearly appear as assets, but it is up to the other players to seize the matter. What we are doing is help them build the expertise they lack, aiming, again, at excellence.

For example, we closely observed cluster models as diverse as San Diego’s, Singapore’s and Ghent’s; the latter was launched in 1996 and now constitutes a global benchmark, thoughtfully articulated and balanced out between basic research, patenting, job creation, and funding through calls to venture capital… Of course, Ghent is at the center of Europe, San Diego and Singapore are English-speaking, etc. – the idea is not to copycat this or that model, but to learn the know-how, and especially, to think outside of the box.

This does not solve the one core issue that makes or breaks a cluster: what about entrepreneurs?

It is indeed a key question and the answer cannot be imposed… In Okinawa, there is an entrepreneurial spirit that in one or two generations could produce the likes of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, rarely found elsewhere in Japan. But how can one give rise to them? How can we help a generation of entrepreneurs to emerge? Three types of responses can be outlined to address these questions: by welcoming foreign entrepreneurs, by betting on training for the youth, and of course by developing an environment that is business-enabling.

Regarding the first point, there are lessons to be learned from the Irish experience, which is a gateway to the European market, by imagining Okinawa as a gateway to the Japanese market, attracting investors from Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore… However, this requires a skilled and bilingual labor market, appropriate administrative services and providers, and international schools for children. One of the key issues is obviously the region’s appeal, and that is why it is essential to make it renowned, to build the Okinawa “brand”. The Institute can help of course, by its very existence, but also through more specific action: some researchers are working on topics that are specific to the island, such as the contribution of the local diet to the legendary longevity of Okinawans, so as to develop a brand image for the region by associating it to scientific pursuits (for instance, via innovative methods to analyze antioxidants in traditional vegetables).

Regarding the education, lectures are given in schools by researchers but also by members of the board and especially the Nobel Prize Laureates: what we have is an elite establishment, the least we can expect of it is that it also shines locally, creating vocational arousal. Again, one can also refer to a foreign model, the “school of science” of Stanford University, California: local schools select a handful of students who will spend two weeks with us, and all high school students in Okinawa have the opportunity to visit the OIST – this represents 10,000 people a year. The stake here is to have them get in touch with research, with science, to make this academic universe tangible to them and to provide ideas for future scientists, and future innovators.

As for the creation of an enabling environment, that is the responsibility of local authorities, however our workshops have advanced the matter. As in Ghent or in San Diego, the choice was made to create a dedicated legal entity at once representing the industry, academia (including the OIST) and the government to co-pilot the cluster project. The OIST provides resources and expertise. For example, regarding patents, advanced equipment or even start-up projects (we purchased a patent portfolio for microscopic imaging that will soon lead to a business). As yet we do not have the resources to invest directly in companies, but we can make a significant contribution “in kind” through equipment or researchers. In addition, following discussions in the second workshop that took place last March, we plan to launch an OIST venture fund, which will allow funding for innovative projects wishing to settle in Okinawa, and not for just projects derived from the research of our academic body.

Once more, and this was an unanimous recommendation from workshop participants, we chose to differentiate ourselves from existing clusters by deciding to give another opportunity to entrepreneurs who have experienced failure. In Japan, failure is a social drama that one does not recover from. Yet by choosing to adopt a different posture (inspired by Americans: to fail is to gain experience, these are war wounds, not stigmata) we can hope to attract interesting profiles which would not fit anywhere else.

What about the researchers, will they have a chance to create and develop start-ups?

The campus will house an incubator, separate from the labs but where researchers will have the opportunity to develop start-ups and collaborative projects with the industry.

Beyond these practical issues (regarding premises, or a statutory possibility), we adopted a different approach. The evaluation criteria of researchers constitute one possible lever. For now they have seven-year contracts with a review taking place after five years, but this assessment is based mainly on scientific criteria. We are considering the possibility of adjusting the criteria by introducing for example the generation of intellectual property. We will of course have to negotiate that with the academic body, but many researchers are eager to do that… or are already well into it! There is a risk of course, as some members of the board pointed out, of putting the cart before the horse… ignoring basic research that may have an enormous impact in the long run in favor of more incremental developments and with limited scope.

All in all, it seems to me that the very idea of making a difference sums up the challenge behind the OIST pretty well. Firstly, through an impact on the Japanese university system, by introducing reforms and experiments that will serve as examples – landmarks! Then, through the development of entrepreneurship for a new generation, on the island itself and elsewhere in Japan, thanks to the advancement of risk-taking and second chance logics, hand in hand. And finally and more generally, by restoring the country to its rightful place… for there is in Japan an intellectual and professional quality that remains unsung in the rest of the world. The combined conservative weight of the technostructure, of the political class and of the academic staff tends to reinforce isolationist logics and to hamper change, yet Japanese society is also one capable of very fast changes: notably, there is a vast base of extremely competitive medium businesses orientated towards international markets.

I believe that there is at present a window of opportunity to shake conservatism. The earthquake in the north-east revealed that large areas were declining, and that it is imperative to revitalize, rethink, and develop new models of urban planning. Two members of our recent workshop belong to the committees in charge of reconstruction, which offers great opportunities to spread our ideas. This is the first springboard. A second springboard reunites the OIST and another cluster, located in the heart of Tokyo, which is dedicated to information technology (gaming, smartphone applications…). Both have been selected by the Kaufman Foundation, and this provides additional opportunities to reflect together and exchange experiences.

The OIST and the island of Okinawa have a lot in common. Both are located on the edge of the Japanese world, all while being deeply connected with the “center”. The risk being of course that they remain “peripheral” and become the exception that proves the rule. But renewal often comes from the fringe…


  • Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (official website)

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  • The Okinawa way, or how Japanese university is reinventing itselfon July 20th, 2012
  • hey_ghis

    And what about Patrick? Is he willing to import in France some practices he learnt from in Japan?