Three students joined us to talk about four topics: their motivation for choosing the program, the stimulation they gained from joining the program, live in Tokyo and important point to select the department.
Daniel : My name is Daniel del Barrio Álvarez. I’m an assistant professor here in the International Project lab. I graduated from this department, I did my master’s and Ph.D., as a MEXT scholar. I am from Spain. I have a bit different profile, I would like to say. I did both my master’s and Ph.D. at the International Project lab with Professor Horii, who is now emeritus professor. And then after graduation, I went to the Policies Alterantives Research Institute (PARI), which is now called the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), also at the University of Tokyo. I worked there for one year and a half on sustainable energy policies, mainly in Southeast Asia. And then I went back to the laboratory in 2020,
Kasun : I’m Kasun Thalgaskotuwa, from Sri Lanka. I came to Japan last year. I completed my Bachelor’s at the University of Peradeniya. It’s one of the most beautiful Universities in South Asia. After graduation, I worked as an Engineer in a government sector.Then I applied to the University of Tokyo and currently, I am a master’s student here at Professor Hato’s lab. Although I have studied many fields of engineering, I chose my field as transportation engineering for further studies. And I strongly believe that I am in the right place to continue my further studies in the transportation field.
Zainab : My name is Zainab, I’m from Pakistan. Currently, I’m a second year master’s student, expected to graduate in September 2023. My supervisor is Professor Su. My research is interdisciplinary in nature, including geotechnical and structural engineering domains. Before coming to Japan in October 2021, I graduated from the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore in August 2020. Meanwhile, I worked at NESPAK Pvt. Ltd (a national consultancy firm) as a junior engineer for around one year. This is my educational and professional background, but other than that, I like to travel and interact with different people around the world and aspire to build a good community of professionals around me.
Mahesh : I am Mahesh Yadav from Nepal. I completed undergraduate level in 2010. After graduation, I joined the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation as an engineer in Nepal. In 2014, I came to UTokyo for a master’s degree and completed it in 2016. I went back and again, joined the Ministry. I passed the examination for promotion as a Senior Divisional Engineer. After four years of working, again, I applied, for Ph.D. at UTokyo. Luckily, I am here and about to complete it. I have my job in Ministry, so I’ll go back and resume my job. Now, I’m working on SDGs, renewable energy, environment and trying to find some nexus among them.
Daniel : Thank you very much. One question is, why Japan? Why this department and how did you come here? And what did you do to be able to come here?
Zainab : My biggest motivation to come to Japan was the fact that my father is a UTokyo alumnus. Since, I have spent around three years of my childhood in Japan, so Japan has been like a second home to me. Apart from that, many of my teachers, and professors at UET Lahore, Pakistan graduated from different laboratories in Todai. So, their praises regarding the quality of research and the heartwarming experience of life in Tokyo had also been a trigger for studying in Japan. UTokyo is a research-oriented institute. My intuitive feeling compelled me that this was the place I should go to because I have always been interested in research. Studying at UTokyo has been a very pleasant experience so far. My supervisor, co-supervisor, and my lab mates have been extremely helpful. Since I am working on multidisciplinary research, I sometimes need to contact professors from other laboratories, for example, ERI, Geotechnical Engineering Laboratory, etc. and they have always been very welcoming to answering my queries. I am very grateful to everyone at this department for making my educational journey very interesting for me.
Daniel : Mahesh, you have a very different background. Why have you decided to come here twice?
Mahesh : For first, I would say, As Zainab mentioned that the embassy recommendation was very competitive and tough. In 2010, I applied through the embassy, and at that time, I had just graduated, so I didn’t have the transcript ready to submit to the embassy. Because of that transcript, I was a failure. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I got motivated to apply anyhow and get the MEXT. In 2013, my friend was studying in a coastal lab and he recommended and provided me the necessary ideas as well as web-links like FSO link. At that time, I had all the documents ready and I applied through the university recommendation, not MEXT from the embassy. So from the university, I got selected and I came here. After start of study, I found the study is different from our regions, because we mostly focus on textual or book things, not research. But luckily, during the undergraduate study, we got a scholarship from Finland’s INGO as well as International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) and we did the research that was similar in nature which is going on UTokyo too.I think that experience helped me to grab the MEXT at UTokyo. After completing my study, I went back and applied the skills as well as time schedule that I gained here, which is the most important for project management. I succeeded in many projects in my office. During the second time in 2020, I was motivated to do Ph.D. anyhow or in any country maybe. But when I applied here, just COVID-19 was starting, I got selected at UTokyo. So, I didn’t apply to other universities. The main motivation was the timely completion, punctuality and high skilled professors. The most important thing is that what we desire, we can do here. So if I want to do something which comes to my mind, then the professor doesn’t interfere, they guide us and provide insight to us.
Daniel : Did you complete both the master’s and Ph.D. studies with Professor Oki?
Mahesh : Yes, both with Professor Oki.
Daniel : How did you think about your Ph.D. or doctoral proposal? Because you did the master’s here and went back to Nepal, worked in Nepal.
Mahesh : That is an interesting one. I’m currently working as an Irrigation engineer. We build dams, irrigation canals and agricultural activities enhancement. At the time also, I proposed similar scenarios like agricultural dams or water security things. But when I came here, after meeting with professor, got informed “This is like a burning issue. Why don’t we try this?” Then, nowadays, wind power is becoming a hot issue. I’m trying to get knowledge about things like wind power, environment, and climate change. I’m trying to find something linked between them. In my master’s, I did something like climate modes relationship but with global river discharge. Now, energy and climate modes. That was the motivation from the professor and the recent hot issues. I’m doing something new in my field.
Daniel : That’s important. Everybody’s doing something new. How about Kasun?
Kasun : There were many motivations to come to UTokyo. There was a summer seminar in 2020, which was organized by UTokyo. In that seminar, I talked with professors, and that was one of my main motivations to come to Japan and apply to UTokyo. Other than that, there were some professors in my previous university, who have graduated from UTokyo. So they also motivated me to apply to this University. And according to my research,it is about post-disaster mobility. So, Japan is one of the countries where people suffer from various disasters and they are using many techniques for disaster management. So, I wanted to study those techniques and methods. That’s why I applied for UTokyo.
Daniel : How did you learn about that seminar?
Kasun : I got to know that from some lecturers in my previous University. They have graduated from these laboratories. So they told me how these kinds of seminars will be important for my future studies.
Daniel : You came here with the scholarship?
Kasun : Yes. I applied two times. In my 1st attempt, unfortunately my application for the MEXT scholarship was rejected. Then I had to wait another year and I succeeded to get an external scholarship from The Urban Redesign Studies Unit, the Department of Civil Engineering.
Daniel : Can you let me know how you live in Tokyo? How are you doing here?
Mahesh : I think this is the second time for me. So I’m not feeling so difficult. I went to the city office, everywhere and did all things by myself. In fact, for the first time, it was really difficult to manage time. Once, My tutor was waiting at the Nezu station, I didn’t know, this would be more punctual. So I came around 20 to 25 minutes late, and he was surprised why I came late. But, after taking the Japanese language class at the department, maybe after two months, life became easy. So, I started understanding something and we can ask few narrative in a convenience store and some neighbors. Then life became easier. Now, I’m not feeling like it’s difficult. So I’m doing everything by myself and for my kid, eight years old. I went to the school, the city office. Some of the apps, like Google Translate or “Sirabe Jisho”. That is very helpful if we get some difficulty.
Daniel : Kasun, you are a newcomer.
Kasun : Yes. This is my first foreign experience. And during this one year period, I was able to go to many places in Japan, including Fukushima, Uwajima, Osaka,Okinawa and Kyoto. Japan is a very beautiful country and I love this culture, because it is interesting to see how Japanese people respect others. So that’s why I love this country. According to the language, initially it was a difficult thing to manage alone and my tutor always helped me. But currently, I am trying to manage things by myself. Currently, I live in Mitaka, a little bit far from Tokyo, but I like that calm environment.
Zainab : For me, it was a pretty smooth transition from Pakistan to Japan. I acknowledge the help and guidance from the Pakistani seniors in Tokyo. They helped me sort out all the basic things like matters regarding the city hall, getting a SIM card, halal food, and others. Other than that, I heartily acknowledge the kindness of my sensei, Professor Su. He has always been there to guide me apart from studies as well.
However, the difference in the environment of Pakistan and Japan is huge. We, especially the South Asian people, are a bit inclined to shortcuts and smart work which is unlike Japanese. So, I think that it’s a pleasant change in our personalities that we got to value time and discipline. Moreover, I enjoy being a part of an international community at the department. In my lab, there are members from China, Nepal, India and several other countries. It’s always a good experience to talk to them either regarding research or any random topic. I live in TIEC, Odaiba, and that too, is a residential facility subsidized for international students. I think it’s a great chance for me to interact and learn from different people, their opinions and cultural values.
Daniel : How do you relate also with the Japanese and the other international students? How do you find the department as a chance to meet students from other countries?
Kasun : In my laboratory, there are four international students including me from India, Iran, and Rwanda. So we are having some discussions and sharing our feelings. Since there are various cultures, it is interesting to join the discussions. Other than that, I have a lot of Japanese friends inside the laboratory as well as outside the laboratory. They are very supportive to me and talking with them using the Japanese language is one of the interesting things of my life in Japan.
Mahesh : I stayed in Komaba. In Komaba, there are very few Japanese students. Most of them are from China and some are from India or Pakistan. With India and Pakistan, we can speak in the same language. Yeah, so we can share our feelings. We used to gather two, or three people and share our feelings -what’s happening, what’s going on, how is our daily life or what to eat, let’s go somewhere- like that. And when I came to this Hongo campus, Professor Oki shifted from there to here. Then, I didn’t find international students in this lab. There were mostly Japanese students. So I changed my strategy, to learn some Japanese from them. I go to them and ask, “Hello”, “How are you?” They also became frank. Now all of them are graduating after a week. I will miss them all because we used to have a lot of chats in Japanese. They also used to teach me some Japanese tips. And they can speak English also. We can share our feelings with them. So that was interesting.
Zainab : I think, for me, most of the interaction with international students took place in the dormitories, specifically Komaba dormitory in my case. Later, I moved to TIEC Odaiba so was the environment there. I think, in the first year, the interaction within the department was very limited due to the pandemic as most of the students were working from home.. I took charge of ISACE (International Student Association in Civil Engineering) as the president for the year 2022-23. Fortunately, as the pandemic situation got better, we at ISACE together with the department hosted a welcome party for new students entering in October 2022. It was the first offline in-person communication we had among the students. Later, the field trip and symposium in March 2023 also provided an opportunity for students to interact with each other.
Daniel : Did you study at the campus, Kasun?
Kasun : No, I completed it online.
Daniel : How was the experience of Japanese language class?
Kasun : Actually, it was really interesting. I continued my Japanese language class from level one to level two. I think it is really important for our day to day life in Japan.And also if we decide to work in Japan in future, it will be very useful for us. Atleast, knowing the very basics of this language is very useful to interact with Japanese people. Because I have felt that when we speak more in Japanese language, they are also willing to speak more. That’s why I am interested in the Japanese language.
Daniel : How would you describe the department? What are the special features of the department that you can think of? Anything that is unique or interesting facts about the department?
Zainab : I am mostly impressed by the research-oriented nature of the department. Back in Pakistan, I remember always studying theoretical and just trying to memorize things for exams and stuff like that. I don’t feel comfortable with that type of education setup. In that context, I think the quality of research and the research-oriented focus of all the laboratories is a unique thing about the department. The quality of research is the prime focus of every lab and every professor.
Mahesh : For me, it is freedom for students. If they have some new idea, they are free. They can do a lot of research. We can use the resources. If we don’t have something, we can ask professors. They are not hesitating to provide something. They can provide freely and easily. Another thing is the research output. In Nepal, students don’t get access to the journals. They have libraries, and they have hard books, but they don’t have journals, like good journals. When we came here, we had a lot of access to high-quality journals. That also provides us the research gaps between the recent papers. From there, we can start a new idea. I think that is the most important thing. The idea, freedom, and resources.
Kasun : Actually, this department has a good learning environment. They are fully supported to the students who are interested in advanced research methodologies. There are many scholarship programs as well. So I think this is one of the best departments and we can see that according to the world rank of Utokyo. So I strongly believe that if there is anyone who is interested in advanced research areas, this is the place for them.
Daniel : The very best.
Kasun : Yes、 exactly. Haha.
Daniel : What do you think is important? You mentioned this environment. What do you think is important to create that environment? What is important to make the best department in the world? Any idea? This is a difficult question.
Mahesh : I think the answer to this question is linked to the answer to the previous questions. As we said, in our country, we have many lackings. So when UTokyo is inviting students from developing countries, the professors need to keep in mind that they are from the lacking facilities. They don’t have access, they don’t have a research background. They have good knowledge of theory, they have good knowledge of mathematics. But that knowledge is not applied as we apply after coming here. Sometimes, I found in some of the labs or some of the professors, they start forcing the students. So that may cause some problems, like mental problems to the students. So the professors need to keep in mind that they are from other regions. We need to train them slowly during the classes. Maybe the first semester, after the first semester, mostly all the students get used to the Japanese style or this university style. So I think that needs to be improved.
Zainab : I think that most of the students, nowadays, are involved in some sort of interdisciplinary research. So at the beginning of my research i.e., in my second semester, I did not have much exposure to what is being done in other labs. I think this limited communication was primarily due to the COVID. It was sometimes hard for me to locate a focal person to discuss particular aspects of research with. I think if we have extended communication among different labs, students and professors, it might be very helpful for the students to seek expert opinions and make the most of their time here.
Kasun : My first motivation to come to UTokyo was a seminar which was organized by UTokyo. If we can organize many webinars and seminars for other international students, we can make some paths for them to come to UTokyo. So that’s my suggestion. In addition to that, there are many onsite seminar programs organized by UTokyo and other universities in Japan. But when we arrange such kinds of seminars, we have to think about the other country’s facilities. Although there are talented students in those countries, sometimes they could not apply for that if we don’t arrange some scholarship programs for them. So I think we have to think about that kind of aspect.
Daniel : What kind of students will be recommended to this department? In Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Nepal, or any other place, what kind of students do you think would be very interested in coming here?
Mahesh : I think in Nepal, most of the students try to go to the US. And some of them go to European countries. But I think many of them don’t know about application procedures or something like that. So if we share some messages like how to apply, then maybe the application number will increase and they will get a chance to get accepted.
Daniel : What do you think is the main difficulty or what is the main information that is needed to understand the application process?
Mahesh : Some of the countries, like Australian Universities, used to conduct seminars in our country. And many students used to go there and they get to know how to apply to that country. But I think from Japan, they also used to conduct, however, mainly focused on language schools. Not like UTokyo, Kyoto University, or Hokkaido University. They are not going out there and sharing. Information sharing is important.
Zainab : I think people are generally concerned regarding the language barrier. They feel that maybe settling in Japan is tough due to the language barrier. So I think this is one thing that creates a gap, leading to more and more people being interested in the USA and UK. I think dissemination of encouraging information in this context might attract more people to study in Japan
Kasun : On that point, I agree with Zainab san. When I talked with my friends in Sri Lanka, they also mentioned that there are settlement issues in Japan because of the language barrier. So that’s why they choose Canada, UK, and USA. As Zainab san mentioned, if we can show them that language is not a big issue in Japan now, I think surely we can increase the number of people who are applying for universities in Japan.
Daniel : Then what is next? What do you want to do now? What are your ideas?
Zainab : I had a job at a consultancy firm for one year when I was back in Pakistan. I don’t feel that I am a good person for a monotonous job routine. I am more into academics. So I think I want to work as a researcher, either in a university or the research & development sectors of any company. Right after my masters, I am looking forward to a doctoral degree.
Mahesh : My career plan was that when I have been accepted for a Ph.D., I also passed the examination for the Director level, which is very high position in the ministry. And bad luck, I failed the interview and this failure made me to again visit Japan. So my timeline is that what I plan till today is going in my favor, except that one. I’m planning if I will be visiting Nepal, then soon I will become a policy-level person. I can utilize what I learned here in the lab and from Japan so that I can transform something new in my ministry.
Kasun : Actually, I have no intention to stop my studies from master’s. Therefore I’m planning to extend my studies to further research on residential choice analysis and disaster planning. Because I think Japan is the best place to learn about disasters and transportation plans. So I’m not going to apply to any countries for my doctoral program. And I will apply again to UTokyo for my doctoral program.
Daniel : Now I think what I would you can have some questions for each other. Because it’s the first time you meet. So that one and then you have a bonus. You have here many professors. You can ask any of them, whatever you want. And you can ask me any easy questions.
Dr. Matsuba : I think first-year master’s students are taking many courses in our department. What do you think of the curriculum and classes for your research or your motivation? What are the interesting classes? Variable or not needed?
Mahesh : I would say something. Because if some of the students are coming who already have jobs in their countries, for getting promotions, or going upper level, they need to check their transcript. Either you studied the relevant subject or not. So if they are not studying the relevant subject, only like a thesis, a thesis doesn’t mean good for the promotion. If I am working in the water sector, then I must have water-related subjects or management or project finance, etc. If that is not included, then I am not going to get that promotion in my department. So as you mentioned that the classes are good. We need that classes. Because most of the students are coming from a working background. Because working people are getting priority during the scholarship or admission. So the classes are okay. But some of the classes need to be changed.
Dr. Urata : Do you have any favorite classes?
Mahesh : My favorite class was wind power engineering by Professor Yamaguchi. He coordinated Seoul National University and UTokyo students together online. And he gave us so many assignments, which is very important. Good assignments and exams. And he distributed the marks weightage for all activities for grading. It means, if you submit the assignment, you will get some marks. As a whole, the grade of the students is not going to be bad. They are getting good grades by doing something.
Zainab : I think that the courses are quite good enough. But I think for most research students, like the graduate students, it would be helpful to have courses regarding the recent advances. For instance, many students nowadays are working on machine learning and artificial intelligence. So, introducing courses to teach the application of advanced approaches for research would be beneficial for the students.
Kasun : I will give some suggestions. Generally if we consider the course registration list, Although there are many courses for international students as well in English. But there are some courses with some important topics that are conducted in Japanese only. I think it will be effective if we could increase the courses in English as well.As we discussed before, then we can reduce that language barrier. Then we are able to give a good message to others as there are many options and many alternatives to learn. We could show it to the outsiders. If we increase the number of English language lectures.
Daniel : Any other questions? It’s your chance to throw questions to the professor.
Zainab : I have a question. Basically, most of the time we are asked the question: what do we expect from Japan and how is our experience here? So I would like to take this opportunity to ask the professor what they expect from us in return.
Daniel : I personally expect you will be happy. As you mentioned, this is a research-oriented university. But this department is also not only research-oriented. Civil engineering is a curious department. Everywhere you go, so far I have asked people from different countries, Civil engineering is a side type of engineering. A specific type of engineering. We are kind of, as you mentioned, we touch so many domains. We try to touch so many people. We have so many disciplines. We have no boundaries. And they are very much focused on trying to solve problems or trying to build things kind of LEGO, Everybody in this department has played with LEGO or CCD or that kind of stuff. Or we make castles on the beach and so on. Then to do that, what I feel is that it’s important to see how things are done in other places. And it’s important to see how people think about them. Because we are talking about very simple but complex problems that happen everywhere. That’s one point. And for you coming here and then deciding to stay here or to go wherever you go, you are still part of this department. We build collective intelligence that wherever you go, you will find someone from UTokyo, and that will be like, oh, I just studiedin the same department. Then you speak the same “language”. I think that is very, very valuable for you. But it’s also important for us and for the department itself.
Dr. Urata : So, we discussed our foreign students in the lab. What do we want to come here, what do you want to learn? We want to make you happy. We want all international students, also Japanese students, to contribute to your society and our society as engineers. That’s one of the important things, I think. But, in some cases, some students want to be not engineers. It’s also okay, but our teaching and supervising is that you will be an engineer.
Dr. Matsuba : I spent one and a half years in the Netherlands as a postdoc. It was the first time for me to stay in a foreign country for a long time. I had some difficulties getting used to the culture there, in particular the food. But I think most Asian countries, people from Asian countries, have a particular food culture or lifestyle. Also, the religion. Did you have any problems here? Or how did you solve the problem?
Kasun : Before coming to Japan, there were some food restrictions for me. But now I eat anything. No food restriction for me. So personally, I have no issue about the food selection in Japan.
Mahesh : For me also, no problem. I can eat anything. When I went down to the canteen in 2014, I didn’t like miso soup at that time. But after one month, that became my favorite. So I enjoyed a lot of Japanese food.
Zainab : For me, being a Muslim, I had the obligation to look for halal food. Even then, there are many options of food to choose from. It’s really been a pleasure to cherish the food diversity in Japan. Japanese food, unlike Pakistani food, is not spicy, but it has a very delicious flavor. Also, the variety of sweets is huge here.
Daniel : Thanks for gathering with us today. It was a fun time. Let’s hope that a diverse group of students will come to our department.
Group Photo