Telecommunications research at Tohoku University began in 1919 with the establishment of the Department of Electrical Engineering in the university’s School of Engineering. In that era, work was centered on strong-current elec- trical engineering, but upon the establishment of this department attention turned to weak-current electrical engineering.
In 1924, the Saito Foundation granted what in those days was a huge sum to fund research by three professors, Hidetsugu Yagi, Heiichi Nukiyama, and Shigetaro Chiba, into communication methods using electricity. As a result, telecommunications related research was conducted systematically for the first time in Japan. The department was subsequently strengthened by the ad- dition of a succession of gifted young researchers such as Yasushi Watanabe, Masatoshi Matsudaira, Kinjiro Okabe, Shintaro Uda, Kenzo Nagai, and Kat- suichiro Kobayashi. The fruits of their research were considerable, as reflected by the publication of numerous papers in journals both in Japan and overseas that attracted widespread attention.
Along with subsequent advances in telecommunications technologies and the spread of communications equipment, the importance of telecommunica- tions related research became increasingly recognized, fueling a groundswell of opinion in favor of setting up a research establishment to undertake tele- communications research at the Tohoku Imperial University. The university’s statutes were revised and an affiliated telecommunications research institute was established. Professor Heiichi Nukiyama was appointed as the first head of the new institute, and he had a full-time staff comprising three assistant professors, six assistants, and one secretary.
Given its intended evolution into an entity independent of the Department of Electrical Engineering, this research institute was designed to function in parallel with the School of Engineering, but shared premises with the Depart- ment of Electrical Engineering, and its research facilities were conventional. It maintained an arm’s length relationship with the Department of Electrical Engineering and the number of people who functioned effectively as regular staff was far larger than the number of regular staff prescribed by its statutes. This strengthened both the organization and the content of its research, en- abling it to produce noteworthy results.
Cradle and growth
In response to society’s need for telecommunications engineers, the De- partment of Electrical Communication was established within the School of Engineering in 1941. As part of a three-entity cooperative structure that included the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Department of Electrical Communication, the Research Institute of Electrical Communication (RIEC) achieved considerable success in a diverse range of research projects and produced a large number of skilled personnel through its research and education activities. In this way, it steadily built up a tradition of combined operations.
As a result of a statutory change, in 1944, RIEC, hitherto a telecommunica- tions research institute affiliated with Tohoku University, was given the status of an integral research institute. It had an independent research institute structure comprising five divisions staffed by full-time professors, but firmly retained a system of close links with the Department of Electrical Engineering and with communications engineering.
During the difficult circumstances of the postwar period, work continued in the research facilities, which had narrowly escaped wartime destruction. As a result of the promulgation of the National School Establishment Act in 1949, Tohoku University was re-established with the status of a national university, and RIEC became one of its integral research institutes.
Owing to the subsequent rapid progress made in the field of electronics, there were successive increases in the number of research divisions with the addition of one in 1954 and 1957, four in 1961, three in 1962 and 1963, and one in each of 1965, 1969, and 1976. This saw RIEC develop into a major re- search institute with 20 research divisions and some 100 teaching staff.
The year 1956 saw the completion of the institute’s first independent build- ing (currently part of the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials) on the Katahira Campus, formerly in the Sakurakoji district of Sen- dai. The end of March 1963 saw the completion of a new building (currently S Block No. 1 Building) that was double the size of its predecessor on the Katahira Campus formerly in the Minami Rokken-cho district, marking the beginning of a move from the Sakurakoji district to the Minami Rokken-cho district. When the School of Engineering transferred to Aobayama in 1966, the former Department of Electronic Engineering building (currently N Block, No. 1 Building) became an RIEC building, as did the building (currently No. 2 Building) of the Training School of Engineering Teachers upon its closure in 1969. This completed the transfer of all the divisions.
The Laboratory for Microelectronics (operating for a limited period until March 1994) was established in 1984, and the Super Clean Room block was completed in 1986. The Laboratory for Electronic Intelligent Systems was established in April 1994 as an advanced version of the Laboratory for Micro- electronics.
In 1958 the electricity related departments of the School of Engineering, with which RIEC was closely associated, were supplemented by the addition of the Department of Electronic Engineering. Subsequent milestones includ- ed the establishment of the Research Center for Applied Information Science in 1972 and increases in the number of information engineering majors in the Graduate School of Engineering in 1973 and in the information engineering departments in the School of Engineering in 1984. With this as a basis, the Graduate School of Information Sciences was newly established in 1993.
With greater emphasis being placed on graduate schools, in 1994 the electrical, communication science, and electronic engineering majors in the Graduate School of Engineering became electrical and communication en- gineering and electronic engineering majors. With greater emphasis being placed on graduate schools, in 1994 the courses in electrical, communication science, and electronic engineering in the Graduate School of Engineering were replaced with courses in electrical and communication engineering and electronic engineering. A total of nine courses were instituted, including full- time courses. In addition, four electricity related departments and the Depart- ment of Applied Physics were amalgamated in 2007 to form the Department of Information and Intelligent Systems, whose name was changed to Department of Electrical, Information and Physics Engineering in 2015. In addition, 2008 saw the establishment of Japan’s first Department of Biomedical Engineering, with the aim of fusing medicine and engineering with active input from the electrical field. In 2012, the Department of Electrical and Communications Engineering of the Graduate School of Engineering was reorganized as the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Department of Communications Engineering.
Development: From national collaborative research institute to joint usage/research center
In 1995 RIEC celebrated the 60th anniversary of its establishment. To mark the occasion it sought to meet the needs of the impending advanced informa- tion society by reorganizing itself as a national collaborative research institute. In June 1994, approval was given for RIEC to become a national collaborative research institute engaging in both theoretical and applied research relating to high-density and advanced information communications, whereupon it reorganized into three broad research divisions: Brain Computing, Materials Science and Devices, and Coherent Wave Engineering. In addition, to replace the Laboratory for Microelectronics, which had reached its specified duration, the Laboratory for Electronic Intelligent Systems was established across the three divisions.
The backdrop to this was the IT revolution, characterized by rapid progress in information and communication technologies, which made the information society a reality. To ensure that RIEC played a leading role in the information society, in 2001 its philosophy, objectives, and goals were reformulated.
RIEC has defined its philosophy as follows: “Close and smooth commu- nication between people is fundamental to maintaining and developing a flourishing and humane society. We will contribute to the well-being not only of Japan but also of human society as a whole through the rapid develop- ment of science and technology related to communication.” In addition, RIEC pledged that, based on the results of research conducted hitherto in relation to high-density and advanced information communications, it would play a pivotal role in undertaking comprehensive research into the theory and appli- cation of science and technology that will provide communication approaches that benefit humankind.
Also, in April 2002, RIEC established the Research Center for 21st Century Information Technology in compliance with a ministerial ordinance. Straddling the three research divisions, the center’s aim is to address, through collabora- tions between industry and academia, the changes that occur in the fabric of society, leading to the creation of new information and communication indus- tries.
In 2009, major changes were made to the organization of university research institutes and centers; the national collaborative research institutes were abol- ished, and joint usage/research centers were established. A council for joint usage/research centers was set up in April 2010. These centers involve not only the joint use of facilities but also the conduct of joint research; something that is strongly desired by the research community.
At the time of the change to a collaborative research institute in 1994, RIEC’s intention was to operate with its orientation towards joint research, gathering research scientists together from a broad range of backgrounds both within Japan and overseas, and pursuing joint research projects. In this regard, RIEC anticipated the main goal of these new centers. In recognition of its achievements, RIEC has been accredited as a joint usage/ research center since 2010. In both the mid-term and final assessment as a joint usage/ research center, RIEC received the first rank evaluation for its research activity and contribution to the related communities.