On April 2, at the Qatar Science Hall on Aobayama Campus, TEDxTohokuUniversity held what its organizers hope will be the first of many more events to come.
TEDx events are locally and independently organized gatherings, styled on and guided by the well-known TED talks. Graduate student and licensee for TEDxTohokuUniversity, Chanon Pornrungroj, had attended numerous TED and TEDx talks before deciding to bring the platform here.
"I've found the TEDx community to be a very healthy one, where people are connecting and sharing to inspire great things," he said. "I believe that universities should be more active in community engagement and should play a role in not only the development of technology, but also in building a community around us."
The event attracted more than 120 participants, about 70 percent of whom were Japanese. The 10 speakers reflected this demographic split with seven presenting in Japanese and three in English.
The futuristic venue was decked out with lanterns, and presentations were shown on nine screens around the circular hall. Colourful bean bags provided by local sponsors were scattered around the room and quickly occupied. All this was set up by the TEDxTohokuUniversity team composed of some 30 students and 15 volunteers - more than half of them international students.
To get the crowd warmed up, the masters of ceremony encouraged the room to clap, laugh and make lots of noise.
The theme for the conference was "Open Doors," emphasizing that TEDxTohokuUniversity is to be a forum where members of the university and community can come together to share ideas.
The Open Doors policy was initiated by Tohoku University's first president, Masataro Sawayanagi, who believed that universities should not choose students based on class or gender. This conviction paved the way for Japan's first female students to be admitted to Tohoku University in 1913.
Fittingly, the first speaker for the day was neuroscientist Dr. Noriko Osumi, the first female professor to be appointed at Tohoku University's School of Medicine. Speaking on the importance of diversity, Osumi said that male and female scientists should be equally valued for having different opinions and approaches to science. She went on to say that prevailing gender biases in Japan often discouraged women from studying science, and stressed the need for more champions of women in academia.
Tohoku University sophomore Trishit Banerjee spoke on the importance of failure as a step to success. Despite financial setbacks, Banjeree started the first student newspaper in English at Tohoku University in May last year, and is now its chief editor.
Local translator and interpreter Lily Noriko spoke about her determination to succeed in her chosen career and the struggles she faced. She presented in English, dressed like a geisha in full kimono, to emphasize her message that different cultures can be bridged through a common language.
Fellow linguist Ryotaro Sakurai talked about returning to Japan after many years abroad, and his mission to increase the number of tourists visiting Tohoku. He is currently collaborating with another TEDx speaker, vlogger Chris Broad, to showcase the unique quirkiness of the Tohoku region through YouTube videos.
On the theme of recovery, three of the presenters spoke about coming to the region after the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and their projects to help revitalize the area. Takayuki Furuyama has been working in Ishinomaki, introducing young people to the world of information technology. In 2016 he taught more than 240 students how to programme.
TEDxTohokuUniversity is not the first time the university has been involved in a TEDx event. In 2011, TEDxTohoku was set up to highlight recovery efforts in the region. Many of the organizers back then were also students at Tohoku University. Jun Kamei who coordinated all four of TEDxTohoku events, came to TEDxTohokuUniversity to offer his support. He also noticed one significant difference. "You can see that having international students on the organizing team helped with the diversity of participants that are here today."
During the breaks, audience members had the opportunity to walk around booths manned by speakers to ask them questions directly. "I've had many people asking me for advice," said Sakurai, "and it's nice to be able to mentor students."
The live talks on stage were broken up by occasional screenings of other TED talks, as well as performances by Tohoku University's a capella club Del Mundo and Bluegrass ensemble.
"All these great entrepreneurs dedicated their time to come and share their stories with us, which is mind-blowing," said Gekko Patria Budiutama, a member of the organizing committee in charge of engaging speakers for the event.
Graduate student of International Cultural Studies, Yeoju Jung said she had been watching TED talks for about 10 years online, but it was her first time attending a live event. "There are so many interesting people here," said Jung. "The networking part of the event is really great."
Pornrungroj said the organizing committee is already thinking about how to make improvements for next year's TEDxTohokuUniversity event. "The TEDx team, myself included, has learnt so much. From fundraising to making professional slides and videos," he said. "The event was fun and I believe we accomplished this year's goal of connecting and sharing with the community. Next year's event is going to be even better."
Videos of the TEDxTohokuUniversity talks will be online next month.