Special Article: Prof. Yoshiyuki Kawazoe (Part 1)

University professors have a challenging job to say the least. Teaching is just the tip of the iceberg. They are expected to be highly trained and proficient in many things. In striving to be a good professor, they put in long hours teaching and evaluating students, all while being specialists in their field of study or discipline.

A great university professor is someone who not only possesses the necessary academic qualifications but also the abilities to establish an environment that is favorable to learning, stimulates students, and encourages engagement. To put it another way, university professors do more than just mold the minds of their students, they also interact with a wide range of personalities and establish bonds of trust.

In this article, we share an abridged version of a special discussion with one such great professor at Tohoku University, Prof. Yoshiyuki Kawazoe. We are joined by three of his ‘Kawazoe Lab’ alumni: Prof. Qian Wang of Peking University, Prof. Abhishek Singh of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and Dr. Mohammad Saeed Bahramy of the University of Manchester. As they share about their experiences, you will quickly see why Prof. Kawazoe has been a long-time favorite professor!

*Note: The responses and conversation have been edited for length and clarity.

Part 1: Prof. Kawazoe’s view on the university’s internationalization

Andi: What was your lab situation like when you initially started teaching as a professor at Tohoku University?

Prof. Kawazoe: When I was 43 years old and promoted as professor at the Institute of Materials Research on Katahira Campus in 1990, being in a work or study environment surrounded by international students was still unusual, but my lab environment was already very international. My lab members were already about half Japanese and half international students. Some of our laboratory staff and associate professors were also international students. At one point, among 36 associates and students affiliated with our lab, there were about 17 international students.

Prof. Wang: That’s why you’re used to being in an international environment with people coming from different cultures and languages, right?

Prof. Kawazoe: Yes, Wang-san. Even back then, my lab had the aim to make strong ties with many countries for future research development. We already had that motivation to connect with people around the world.
Once there was a majority of 13 Chinese students, so the most common language was actually Chinese. Not only students, but many international researchers compiling and collecting data visit my laboratory, so Japanese and international researchers have to communicate and work closely with each other.

Prof. Yoshiyuki Kawazoe in his lab office

Prof. Singh: What strategies do you implement to make international students feel at ease?

Prof. Kawazoe: When we are in an international environment, we must keep one thing in mind: Don’t discriminate or treat international students differently from Japanese students. International students and Japanese students are the same. We communicate basically in English, but it’s not always necessary. Once we had many Chinese and Iranian members, so we encouraged them to communicate in their mother languages in our lab. However, I couldn’t speak with them in their language.
In my lab, we don’t force our international students to learn Japanese. It doesn’t necessarily mean they do not learn Japanese though, because they will automatically learn and understand Japanese from being immersed in the environment where they live.

Prof. Kawazoe with his lab members having a party in his lab

Dr. Bahramy: I can still clearly recall my time at ‘Kawazoe Lab’. If we had something to discuss related to research and data, Japanese students or an associate professor would help us solve the problem or a senior of the same nationality would explain in their mother language.

Prof. Kawazoe: Yes, it’s true, Saeed, and that still happens now. Every year, I see this kind of human interaction and it is very interesting. In fact, students who graduated from my lab have now become good lecturers in many famous universities in their home countries. Now they’re getting old, and they have students who have become my ‘grand-students’. Those grand-students are working with us on some projects, and we spend quality time together.

Andi: So, what are your thoughts on the university’s internationalization?

Prof. Kawazoe: Internationalization across the university could enrich us in knowledge sharing and create a big family in terms of education and research.
Anyway, to create a good international environment, I act based on my life principle to not discriminate. I see all my students as my friends. Everyone is my good friend.

This applies not only to international students, but also to foreign visitors such as professors and associates who come to our lab to collect some data or research with our lab team. They come from China, US, Russia, India, Iran, and I always position myself as their friend.

Dr. Bahramy: I appreciate your concept of becoming everyone’s friend. Could you tell us more about it?

Prof. Kawazoe: Yes, Saeed. I always position myself as everybody’s friend and want to make them happy. In this kind of situation, everyone in my lab can easily enjoy the atmosphere and will also never feel awkward because everyone is a good friend.
It also helps to provide an environment that enables everyone to develop skills to network and communicate with people from different cultures. I have seen people coordinate research and education collaboration based on the network and connections they built during their study at Tohoku University. Looking at the current situation, I am convinced that internationalization in universities has a huge impact on the development and connections between alumni.

Prof. Kawazoe surrounded by his students in a gathering event

Andi: Do you have any opinions on improving Tohoku University’s internationalization efforts?

Prof. Kawazoe: To further strengthen Tohoku University, we should be more open-minded. We need to be more independent and widen our network to collaborate more. We should be more open to individuals abroad – not only open our university’s door for them, but open our minds to understand them so they would be happy to collaborate and study here. In turn, they could create good achievements that will raise Tohoku University’s presence.

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