Research continuum

Backstage at the lab

Kyoto into Africa

Kyoto University researchers have spent over a half-century on the African continent developing a tangled web of relationships. Until now, these have mainly been points of contact among individual researchers or projects, but in 2016, the Interdisciplinary Unit for African Studies (‘Africa Unit’) was established to organize these into an international network, with Kyoto University at its center. We asked the unit’s Chair, Masayoshi Shigeta, and his colleagues about how the unit got its start, as well as future hopes for it to become an international hub for Africa research and education.

Africa Unit kickoff meeting

Kyoto University and Africa

Masayoshi Shigeta, Africa Unit chair

Kinji Imanishi (center) and Jinichiro Itani (right)

Africa-related research at Kyoto University is jointly led by the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (ASAFAS) and the Center for African Area Studies (CAAS), as well as the Primate Research Institute, Wildlife Research Center, Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, and department of Human Evolution Studies. Main faculty members span the humanities to the natural sciences, including Motoji Matsuda of the Faculty of Letters, Naoto Ishikawa from Human and Environmental Studies, Hirohiko Ishikawa from the Disaster Prevention Research Institute, and Shinya Funakawa of Global Environmental Studies.

However, according to Shigeta, until recently no one was officially responsible for interdepartmental coordination among existing researchers and research projects. Because many worked in isolation all over the continent, it was possible that they were missing opportunities to obtain large-scale research grants. The Africa Unit was therefore established as a hub for connecting ongoing efforts.

The first step that Kyoto University took was the Africa Anthropoid Academic Investigation (1961–1967), led by Kinji Imanishi, the father of Japanese primatology. As Shigeta says, “There is no mistake that research in Africa at Kyoto University started with primates.” Similarly, CAAS was established in 1986 by primatologist Junichiro Itani, with the objective of better understanding Africa through study the ecology of flora and fauna beyond primates, as well as the social and cultural aspects of African peoples, which led to studies covering a broad range of fields.

In the 1980s, as area studies programs got started around the world, it was rare to see natural scientists in an institute such as CAAS. Shigeta explains, “Area studies here is distinctive, similar to how various disciplines, such as agriculture, were deeply involved in Southeast Asian area studies, even before the conception of interdisciplinary studies. African area studies enjoys heavy involvement from the natural sciences, ranging from primate and animal research, together with agriculture.”

CAAS attracted a wide range of researchers as Japan’s first such center for African area studies. However, to meet the need for a graduate program to help train future researchers, CAAS partnered with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in 1998 to establish ASAFAS, which subsequently reorganized itself as CAAS in its current form.

A new unit and a potential base

Kyoto University has several “units” that are comprised of interdisciplinary research and education projects, but until recently there was no such organization connecting the over 60 Africa-related educators and scholars. Thus the faculty members from ten departments, including Shigeta’s ASAFAS, formed a unit to act as a hub connecting Kyoto University to African society.

One major objective of this unit is to connect stakeholders in Africa organically, sharing information accumulated throughout the university, making related efforts more effective. Additionally, by connecting Africa-related researchers in an alumni-like network, the unit hopes to become the university’s gateway for research in Africa.

As of May 2016 there were 74 African students representing 53 countries at Kyoto University, and many more alumni who have since returned. Numerous other students and researchers have also travelled to the continent, but despite this multitude of ties, there was no unified organization until the recent formation of the Kyoto University African Alumni Association, established at the same time as the Africa Unit, and creating a platform for students and researchers past, present, and future to exchange information spanning borders and fields of study.

A physical base of operations for the new Africa Unit remains to be determined. Kyoto University has satellite offices in Europe and Asia, acting as gateways for multiple fields of study. A similar physical presence on the African continent may help to increase relations with Africa from research, education, and international relations’ standpoints. Shigeta is enthusiastic, saying, “With the establishment of the unit, I want to keep the momentum going in the tradition of interdisciplinary area studies at Kyoto University.”

Bringing the world to Africa

Makoto Kimura

A memento from the Sahara

Some Africa Unit researchers have fields of expertise lying outside of Africa. One example is Makoto Kimura of the Graduate School of Engineering, who is unusual figure in Africa Unit, as his field of study is civil engineering, focused on basic research into buildings and structures through geotechnical and foundation engineering. If plans were made to construct a subway in an African city, he would likely be called upon.

Currently, however, Africa has no need for Kimura’s expertise in this area. Nonetheless, he has already travelled there almost 80 times, his first contact dating back to the 1980s. He started bicycling the world as a student, and after submitting his Master’s thesis he left to cross the Sahara by bicycle in January 1984. At that time he did not have much interest in Africa itself. However, beginning in 1993 and spanning a period of over 20 years, Kimura came to be intricately involved with the continent.

After the Sahara crossing and then becoming an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Engineering, he received an invitation to come to Kenya from colleague Hiroji Nakagawa, who was involved in establishing Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), which the Japanese government had been supporting since the 1970s. Kimura had just finished his PhD thesis when he was offered a lecturer position at JKUAT, and he spent two months of every year in Kenya until 1998, helping to improve the curricula as a lecturer in civil engineering.

Japanese government support for establishing JKUAT grew out of a desire to aid Kenyan agriculture — its largest economic sector — but in Kimura’s view as a civil engineer, improving agricultural production must be preceded by transportation upgrades. A lack of roads makes going to school, hospitals, and normal life difficult. Kimura saw such improvements to quality of as necessarily tied to solving the problem of poverty. Based on Nakagawa’s experience in Kenya, Kimura helped adapt an easy, Japanese road maintenance technique using sandbags. This became a program of the non-profit organization Community Road Empowerment, and is now used in other developing countries worldwide.

Kimura has high hopes for the future of the Africa Unit, saying, “Although there are many researchers focusing on Africa at Kyoto University, my specialty is not Africa itself, but more generally improvements to infrastructure within local communities, which is intimately linked to NPO activities. For both students and researchers in the Engineering Department, there are many challenges to tackle in Africa. The establishment of the Africa Unit will enable interdisciplinary exchange of information, and lead to new ideas. I also want to network with colleagues in agriculture and cultural anthropology. With this in mind, I would like to further Kyoto University’s reputation worldwide as an institution for expanding knowledge.”

African researchers at Kyoto University

Road improvement using Kimura’s method

The Africa Unit is an important presence not only for researchers heading to Africa from Kyoto, but also for scholars and exchange students coming to Japan from the continent. Masahiro Kihara of the Graduate School of Medicine approaches epidemiology from a social science point of view. He takes in researchers from all over the world, many of whom are from Africa, to help solve problems in developing countries. Currently, he employs two scientists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from Swaziland, who are conducting research related to HIV/AIDS.

For Patou Musumari, who came to Kyoto University from the DRC in 2009, Japan was not the country he originally had in mind to pursue his research interests. “The people of Congo think of Europe first as a center of research. I found out about Japan through a scholarship program at the embassy. Until then, the only ‘Kyoto’ I knew about was the Kyoto Protocol (3rd Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC).” Musumari obtained a degree with support from Kihara, and continues to be productive in the field of social epidemiology.

The other African in the Kihara lab, Bekumusa Lukuhele (‘Becky’), came to Japan from Swaziland in 2010. He obtained his Master’s degree after one year at Kyoto University, and then completed his PhD in the Inter-Graduate School Program for Sustainable Development and Survivable Societies. He had studied nursing in Swaziland, and had national-level experience in public health. Becky had first came to Japan through a program of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and eventually elected to study public health in Kyoto using social marketing. “Before coming to Japan, I was considering Colombia University in New York. I had a Fulbright scholarship as well, but Kyoto University’s novel research methods ultimately proved to be more attractive when considering future prospects.”

However, Becky also struggled linguistically during his Master’s studies, as many of the lectures were held in Japanese. He was surprised by the lack of English knowledge at Kyoto University, as he was able to use English during his stay in Osaka with the JICA program, where he had initially thought, “How advanced! Everyone can speak English.” He didn’t imagine how different it was going to be in Kyoto.

Patou Musumari of the DRC

‘Becky’ Lukuhele of Swaziland

Further, even if he wanted to connect with other Africans, there was no such network at the time. “I was the very first student from Swaziland that came to Kyoto University. There aren’t very many Swazis in Japan either, although this changed with the ABE Initiative (a human resources development program for industry, run by the Japanese government).”

Based on the experiences of these two Africans, and the lack of opportunities for networking, the role of the Africa Unit will be extremely important for future exchange students.

Oussouby Sacko, born in Mali, is the head of the Faculty of Humanities at Kyoto Seika University and obtained his degree at the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto University. At a kickoff ceremony for the Africa Unit, he addressed the audience representing African Kyoto University graduates, saying, “As an exchange student, it was difficult to make connections that transcended national origins and departments. A network like the Africa Unit is extremely welcome in order to strengthen the connections between African researchers in Japan, as well as between Japan and Africa.”

The Africa Unit got off to a good start, hosting the Inaugural African Women Exchange Student Meeting and the African Primatological Consortium Conference shortly after its establishment. With this, the unit has given Africa-related research at Kyoto University an opportunity to leap forward, heralding the arrival of new researchers and the birth of new ideas.

Professor Masayoshi Shigeta
Director, Center for African Area Studies Deputy Executive Vice-President for International Affairs Kyoto University