A progressive spirit brings academic freedom

Nature 531 (17 March 2016)
Published online 16 March 2016

Located in central Tokyo, Waseda University is one of Japan’s leading teaching and research universities. Since its foundation in 1882, Waseda has been preparing students for leadership in an ever-changing world. The university’s innovative spirit guides the work of approximately 600,000 alumni in more than 100 countries.

Waseda University is known for its entrepreneurial character, passed through the legacy of its founder, Shigenobu Ohkuma, who emphasized the importance of maintaining an enterprising spirit and a critical mind. The university’s open and diverse spirit has produced countless leaders in industry, academia and government, including seven prime ministers, and the founders and CEOs of many multinational companies, such as Sony, Samsung and Uniqlo-brand operator Fast Retailing. The university ranked 33rd in the world and the top in Japan in the graduate employability rankings released in December 2015 by Quacquarelli Symonds.

“Our aim is to create unique people, who may not fit in at conventional organizations, but who challenge orthodox thinking, do something interesting and stand out in their fields,” says Waseda University president, Kaoru Kamata. “Their spirit is born out of our multicultural diversity, which Waseda is proud of,” he adds.

Waseda has more than 53,000 students, over 5,000 of whom are from overseas, hailing from more than 100 countries, making Waseda the most international campus in Japan according to Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) data. JASSO also ranks the university top in Japan for sending its students abroad for study.

A truly global university

Unlike many Japanese universities, which have only recently started accepting students from overseas, Waseda has a long tradition and established systems to help international students enjoy learning on campus. Just two years after its foundation in 1882, Waseda received its first overseas student from Korea, who was followed by the first Chinese student in 1899. The university’s ties with China have been particularly strong since the late nineteenth century, as many who had studied at Waseda helped shape the Chinese Revolution of 1911, including a famous Japanese revolutionary and philosopher, Toten Miyazaki, who supported Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president.

Other figures with strong ties to Waseda have also been active in creating cultural bridges between Japan and other nations. For example, Ryusaku Tsunoda, an alumnus of the inaugural class, established the Japanese Culture Center at Columbia University in 1929, globalizing Japanese studies by melding Japanese and Western perspectives and approaches.

“Since our foundation, we have looked to the world stage,” says Kamata. “We want students to harness what they have learned at Waseda for the benefit of the world.” Currently, six undergraduate schools and ten graduate schools, or 2,400 courses, are taught in English. The number of programmes that allow students to obtain degrees entirely in English now stands at 50.

Waseda has also formed some 700 partnerships with higher-education institutions in 79 countries, allowing students to attend classes or even obtain degrees from other universities, including Columbia University and Peking University. The university has also upgraded its curriculum, inviting professors from institutions across the world to offer small and interactive classes, as well as introducing a four-term calendar, rather than the calendar year starting in April used by most Japanese universities. Waseda has also launched summer sessions to give students more flexibility.

Strong research base

The university’s established overseas network and systems to accept international students into its world-class courses are highly valued by the Japanese government. Waseda has been awarded state-sponsored subsidies to help accelerate its plan to become an internationally recognized research organization that can promote studies linked to real social issues such as energy shortages and ageing demographics. The university set up five research organizations to work closely with private companies, speeding up research for tackling these issues.

“Government funding is a driver helping to push through our initiatives to generate high-level research that will contribute to the world at large,” Kamata says.

Moreover, Waseda is increasing investment in six research units that already have a proven global track record. Those research fields are Japanese literature and cultural studies; political science and economics; health and sports science; information and communications technology (ICT) and robotics; energy and nanomaterials; and mathematical and physical sciences.

“Our researchers used to work with their overseas counterparts on an individual basis, but the university now takes the initiative in organizing academic partnerships systematically, helping to accelerate the mobility of research personnel,” says Shuji Hashimoto, professor of science and engineering, and vice president of the university. Hashimoto was instrumental in mapping out the strategy to boost Waseda’s global ranking. “By promoting interdisciplinary research in these six fields, we want to be a hub institution for researchers,” he adds.

Waseda’s partners include Columbia University for Japanese studies, the London School of Economics for political science and economics, Loughborough University for sports science, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, for ICT and robotics, Darmstadt University of Technology for mathematics, and the University of Pisa for quantum mechanics.

Frontline research

One of Waseda’s greatest strengths is its Faculty of Science and Engineering, which was created as Japan’s first science and engineering department, based on Shigenobu Ohkubo’s vision of fusing science with engineering.

“Students who like to experiment come to Waseda, as we offer practical education along with scientific theories,” says Hashimoto, whose students enjoy creating humanoid robots under his supervision. “Students are treated as real research members, discussing issues on an equal footing.”

Hashimoto also points out that many of Waseda’s research projects are considered promising and novel, so that they have secured external funding easily and brought results quickly. The team of scientists at the university, for example, created the original concept of CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET), and was soon chosen by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) as its co-developer of the telescope to study cosmic high-energy phenomena and to detect dark matter. In 2015, the CALET docked at the International Space Station and started transmitting signals back to the university’s data receiver. Meanwhile, researchers at Waseda who specialize in mathematical fluid dynamics won a government-related grant, which helped the university become a front-runner in nonlinear partial differential equations and their engineering applications.

Other projects that have garnered various sources of funding include studies of internal combustion systems for next-generation vehicles, innovative electric-power management systems, technologies for an eco-friendly society, and cutting-edge nanotechnology and life science. In fact, Waseda boasted the most research grant proposals accepted by the Japanese government in 13 research fields, the highest among private universities in Japan. The university also operates a bioscience research institute in Singapore, making it the first Japanese university to have a full-fledged overseas research centre where its researchers pursue collaborative research in conjunction with world-leading scientists.

“In keeping with the founder’s progressive spirit, Waseda welcomes challengers,” says Kamata. “Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation.”


Waseda University

1-104 Totsukamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 169-8050, Japan
Tel: +81-3-3203-7747

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