Are Tokyo University (Todai) students cleverer than other people? They ought to be – it is Asia’s top-ranking university – and yet criticism abounds. It churns out good rote learners who do well on tests, detractors say, but poorly in real-life situations demanding unfettered thinking. Is that true? Friday (April 26) doesn’t think so.
There’s brain power to burn, the magazine finds – some of it flowing into some pretty unconventional channels. Would you believe – a circus juggler? A world champion poker player?
There’s something about the atmosphere of a big-league university. One male undergraduate recalls noticing two girls at orientation. The girls were giggling, and he presumed they were talking about – what else? – boys. Not so. Edging closer, he caught references to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. What could he do but shake his head and brace himself for the heady intellectual challenges that lay ahead!
Among the professoriate, Yuji Ikegaya, assistant professor of pharmacology, stands out. At 42, he’s famous enough from numerous publications to attract considerable research funding. In that he’s not alone. For science students, Friday says, Todai is ideal for just that reason – its professors are name people whose labs are well endowed financially, by government and the private sector.
Of the 25.66 billion yen the government awarded universities nationwide, 2.27 billion went to Todai alone. “The research environment here is unrivalled,” says Ikegaya. As for him, “Except when I’m asleep, I’m researching. Every morning I go through 100 research papers. I carry 20 in my brief case, so when I’m stopped at a red light I can read.”
One of Ikegaya’s former students is Takayuki Yamazaki, 29. As a high school student he discovered juggling. It was his first love. “Go to college,” his parents urged him. “Qualify for something. Then, if juggling is still what you want to do…” He saw the sense in this, and – not one to do things by halves – chose Todai, which in turn chose him. He graduated, found his love for juggling undimmed, and joined Canada’s celebrated Cirque du Soleil – where you’ll find him to this day.
Naoya Kihara, 31, was a math whiz as a kid. Growing up in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, he dreamed of someday winning a Nobel Prize. He entered Todai and studied astrophysics. He was going places – he hardly knew where. A member of the university shogi club, he was introduced by another member to backgammon. From backgammon it was a short leap to poker. Tuition was expensive. Earnings as a part-time juku teacher didn’t cover it. Poker winnings did, and then some.
“Todai students are really good at processing information,” he says. “Passing or failing depends on being able to write logically and fast.” That’s not unrelated to successful poker-playing. His math brain and Todai skills stood him in good stead. In 2011 he turned pro; in 2012 he became the first Japanese to win a world championship poker tournament, worth 40 million yen in prize money.
What about astrophysics? one wonders. Presumably, it can wait.