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 electrical 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 addition of a succession of gifted young researchers such as Yasushi Watanabe, Masatoshi Matsudaira, Kinjiro Okabe, Shintaro Uda, Kenzo Nagai, and Katsuichiro 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, enabling 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 building (currently part of the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials) on the Katahira Campus, formerly in the Sakurakoji district of Sendai. 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 included 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 engineering 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.
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 collaborations between industry and academia, the changes that occur in the fabric of society, leading to the creation of new information and communication industries.
In 2009, major changes were made to the organization of university research institutes and centers; the national collaborative research institutes were abolished, 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 midterm 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.
Leap forward: As a world center of excellence
To realize RIEC’s philosophy and goals in the coming era of next-generation global, ubiquitous information communication, an appropriate research system has been put in place. In fiscal 2004, a reorganization was undertaken, herein research organizations were broadly classified into short-term (approximately 5 years; Research Center for 21st Century Information Technology) , medium-term (approximately 10 years; Laboratory for Nanoelectronics and Spintronics, Laboratory for Brainware Systems), and long-term (approximately 20 years; 4 research divisions) research. In March 2004 we founded the Nanoelectronics and Spintronics Integrated Research Block equipped with the state-of-the art semiconductor cleanroom facility.
RIEC played important roles in establishing university wide organizations authorized by the President of Tohoku University. In the fiscal year of 2009, Center for Spintronics Integrated Systems was established to carry out the program designed by the Council for Science and Technology Policy, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan. In 2011, Research Organization of Electrical Communication was established to carry out research on disaster-resistant information communication network as one of the eight programs Tohoku University launched under the Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research in response to the heightened social needs after the East Japan Great Earthquake. In 2013, Center for Innovative Integrated Electronic Systems was established to construct a center of excellence of academic-industrial alliance. In 2014, the Brainware LSI Project, which aims to realize novel-concept LSIs that are capable of making human-like judgment, was adopted by the government. In 2016, “Yotta Informatics Research Center” was established. This is based on a project for handling the “quality” of information to meet the challenges of “beyond big data” involving researchers from arts and sciences fields.
The research works on Spintronics, RIEC members are leading, was recognized as one of the four top level research fields of Tohoku University as the Designed National University in 2017. RIEC members have great contribution for establishment and operation of the Center for Science and Innovation in Spintronics, Graduate Program on Spintronics, and Center for Spintronics Research Network. In 2022, Center for Spintronics Research Network was consolidated with Center for Science and Innovation in Spintronics.
RIEC has structures for close cooperation in the spheres of research and education with the School of Engineering (Electrical Engineering, Communications Engineering and Electronic Engineering), the Graduate School of Information Sciences, and the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering. At the same time it welcomes researchers from within Japan and from all over the world, and as a world center of excellence its duty is to engage vigorously in research activities in a wide range of fields related to telecommunications. Construction of the main building of 13,513m2 was finished in November of 2014, and an opening ceremony for the building was held on June 23, 2015, together with the cerebration of 80th anniversary. In addition, the reconstruction of Building #2 is scheduled to be completed in 2025. Building on the proud record of achievement of our distinguished predecessors and colleagues, we are entering a new era in which we hope to make further leaps forward amid the rapid development of information and communication technologies and the rising tide of globalization. Towards the era of New Normal, we are advancing new research on rich and seamless human communication in cyber and real space. Moreover, responding to the demands of the times we will also work on the reformation of our research organization to enable rapid and practical applications of information and communication technology.