Tohoku University - Back on Course:

An Interview with Prof. Toshiya Ueki, Executive Vice-President, Tohoku University



From 27 to 29 June a research symposium on "Magnetic Materials and Spintronics" organised jointly by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the University of York and Tohoku University took place at the University of York. We took the opportunity to talk with Professor Toshiya Ueki, Executive Vice-President of Tohoku University, on how his institution was faring in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

Damage caused by the earthquake

1. What damage did the catastrophe cause?


Because Tohoku University is in an elevated location there was no damage from the tsunami, although our research facilities suffered a major impact from the earthquake. For instance, in the immediate aftermath we could not use the clean room for semiconductor research, while equipment such as scientific flasks and small-scale accelerators used in biotechnology research suffered major damage. The total cost of the damage to equipment and facilities came to as much as £600 million.

As for fatalities, outside the campus we lost two students while one person who had been due to start in April also died. There were no fatalities among the academic staff. The reason why nobody within the campus perished is that our facilities had been rendered quake-proof. In this regard I think we can take pride in the excellence of Japanese quake-proofing technology.


2. What is the situation now?

Since April we have posted on our home page information about radiation readings we have taken ourselves as well as interviews with overseas students to convince the world that we have a situation in which research and other academic activities can take place with complete safety.

At the beginning of May we resumed lectures, about a month later than usual, and the situation is now back to normal. As for overseas students, right after the disaster around 1,200 of the approximately 1,500 students left Sendai but now more than 90 per cent of them have returned, while 99 per cent of our postgraduate students have come back. More than 90 per cent of our roughly 350 foreign researchers are engaged in their normal academic pursuits.


Furthermore, in the Government's first supplementary budget the sum of £190 million has been approved for Tohoku University, so we will press ahead with repairing the damaged research facilities and putting up prefabricated buildings.


3. How is the university contributing to the recovery process in the region?

I think the disaster has imposed a paradigm shift on Japanese society. To help the process of revival and renewal, Tohoku University has set up an interdisciplinary research base for tackling such issues as earthquake and tsunami countermeasures and nuclear energy risk management.


Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that no other general university has suffered earthquake damage on this scale. As for our own reconstruction programme, I would like our institution to become a model for universities around the world in coming up with disaster countermeasures in the education and research fields whereby we do not simply replicate ruined facilities but prevent damage to our facilities in the future.

Orientation for new students

4. Did the disaster have any effect on your holding of this joint symposium with the University of York?

Our two Vice-Chancellors specialise in similar areas and have a good understanding of each other's situation. In 2008 they signed an agreement on academic exchange. On the strength of this, in 2009 the first joint symposium was held in Sendai. This is the second such gathering. Preparations for it were under way when the disaster struck. Although the University of York understandably expressed concern about whether the symposium could go ahead or not, we were convinced that, despite the circumstances, it was important for representatives and researchers from Tohoku University to appear on the world stage, and thus we decided to persevere and to go ahead with the symposium as planned.


May I also mention that the University of York kindly offered to provide places for students who, as a result of the catastrophe, were unable to pursue their usual studies or research.


5. What is your message to British researchers and students considering a stint in Japan?

Although the recent earthquake and tsunami caused unprecedented damage, at present we have a situation where research and studies can be undertaken virtually as normal. Furthermore, the disaster has opened up new research fields such as regional renewal and nuclear energy risk management. In order to tackle the challenging situation we face, we at the university are set upon overcoming adversity and forging a new direction.