Professor Kazuo Tsubota’s lab attracts students from all over the world. We sat down with him and a handful of students to find out why an international approach to medicine is now a necessity.
Q: Why internationalize?
Professor Kazuo Tsubota: Thirty years ago I studied abroad at Harvard and I'd never been in such an exciting and stimulating academic setting before. Even then I knew I wanted to create that kind of learning environment here in Japan. Harvard is at the center of the academic world. Keio needs to be, at the very least, at the center of academics in Asia. But we have no choice but to look beyond Asia. That’s the kind of dream I’ve been working to make come true.
Q: How many international students do you currently have in your lab?
Tsubota: The three PhD students who are here with us today (March 2016), and one other doctor who is from Turkey. He came to Japan 10 years ago, and decided to stay here and get his medical license. We currently have one other international student who is working to get their license here in Japan as well. We also have KIEPO, an exchange program that we operate together with the University of Illinois. Second-year residents from Keio do a short, two-week exchange program in Illinois, and second-year residents from Illinois come here to Keio for two weeks. It’s all about exchange. Our students get a chance to not only study English, but get to experience American education. And as you may know, all of the graduate programs at the Keio University School of Medicine are conducted in English.
Q: Why does internationalization feel so important in the world of ophthalmology?
Tsubota: Internationalization is no longer an option. It is a must. Writing research papers in English is a must. Getting those papers published in high-quality journals is also a must. The competition is global, and the whole world is our playing field. We need to approach things with that mindset. Education also needs to have its fair share of competition. If you don’t open up to the world, you won’t survive. If Tokyo was just the center of Japan, we wouldn’t survive. We need to make Tokyo the center of Asia. I think that’s a very important concept.
Q: Do you have any message for those who may be considering studying abroad?
Tsubota: Many resident fellows are going abroad. Anyone who wishes to gain experience outside of their home country is more than welcome to join us. For us here in the School of Medicine, going abroad is routine. I should also mention that if you can read Japanese, one of my books, A Guide to Life as a Researcher (Rikei no tame no kenkyu seikatu gaido [理系のための研究生活ガイド]), goes into some detail about studying abroad. It is now in its 17th printing, so I guess you could call it a best seller [laughs].
Q: Ying Liu (fourth-year doctoral student), could you tell us about yourself?
Liu: Sure. I came from Harbin in China. I knew about Keio University before coming because my dad had done research here before. When I told him I wanted to study abroad, he told me that Keio was one of the best schools in Japan. That’s why I decided to come to Keio.
But it’s not just because of my dad—I was interested in Keio because of the research being done into dry eye and the ocular surface. I worked for two years as a doctor in China, but during that time there were no effective treatments for severe dry eye. But great progress in dry eye research is happening here, and that’s why I chose Keio.
Q: What does a usual day for you look like?
Liu: Well right now, as a fourth-year doctoral student, I’m preparing for my graduation presentation, which I have to give in English. But my first two years I spent focused on research. Professor Tsubota is often abroad attending conferences, so we’re encouraged to work together with other researchers.
And actually, I had pretty severe dry eye myself during those first two years in Japan. Professor Tsubota explained that exercise can help to alleviate dry eye, so I started exercising. And it totally worked! I don’t use any medicine anymore. With severe dry eye it can take up to five seconds for you to open your eyes, and for me it was taking around three seconds—I don’t even want to mention how bad it was with my makeup on. But now I’m totally fine, and I think Professor Tsubota was right. And I’m actually part of the research team that is looking into the correlations between dry eye and exercise. I’ve also started doing Chinese dance. Lots of Chinese and Japanese people do it for exercise, and when I asked other students about it, quite a few told me that after they started doing dance their dry eye went away, and they felt much happier and less stressed. This is another one of Professor Tsubota’s hypotheses, that simply being in a good mood may be considered a treatment for dry eye. I’ll also add that Tai Chi is good, too. I hope I can continue my research into dry eye and exercise.
Q: What got you interested in pursuing a medical license in Japan?
Liu: I think the Japanese medical system is great. Japan is often first to implement leading-edge technologies, and I think there is a good doctor-patient dynamic here. Having a license in Japan would allow me to learn about the latest technologies and do research both here and in China.
Q: Xiaoyan Jiang (Research student, seeking PhD in Medicine), did you graduate from a university in China before coming to Japan?
Jiang: Yes, I graduated from a medical school in southern China, but I wanted to keep studying [laughs]. I’m just kidding, but more than finding a job, I was interested in doing research. I also felt like I was in need of some new scenery. After looking around online, I fv happened to find Professor Tsubota’s website, and got really interested in his work. I sent him an e-mail and he wrote back to me right away. We talked on Skype, and after that I was accepted into Keio and on my way to beginning myopia research. Myopia research is very new, so we’re making progress every day, and it’s very exciting. 90% of teenagers in China are nearsighted, so finding a cure would help so many people. Keio’s ophthalmology department is also engaged in clinical research, and being able to meet and talk with patients is a huge perk for me.
Tsubota: Nearsightedness is also a big issue here in Japan. 80% of high school students are nearsighted. However, in Denmark the numbers are very low. One thing we’re researching is why the numbers vary so drastically between countries.
Q: Xiayon, did you apply to any other schools?
Jiang: Yes, I did. But I chose Keio because I wanted to study myopia. This is really the only place where cutting-edge myopia research is happening. I read one research paper that I found on the Keio website... and it was just awesome [laughs]. Professor Tsubota is very different from other teachers. He’s so full of energy, every single day.
Q: Can you tell us what an average day is like for you?
Jiang: I usually get to school around 9:00 a.m. and go home around 9:00 p.m. There’s so much work to be done, but I really enjoy it. It feels like we’re constantly discovering new things, and there are new test results coming out all the time. It’s so exciting hearing professors explain how a certain experiment yielded certain results,or how one experiment might shed light on some important issue. There’s this feeling that every day is new, and we can’t wait to see what will happen.
Q: What do you do on your days off?
Jiang: On Saturdays I usually study for the Japanese medical licensing exam. And on Sundays and Mondays I prep for meetings. We always have long meetings on Mondays. It’s where we share our findings and plot out the next week’s worth of work.
Q: Let’s hear from you, Hoang Viet Chi Vu (First-year doctoral student). How did you decide on Keio?
Vu: Well, growing up in rural Vietnam, I have to admit that I had not heard of Keio until I decided to study abroad. I looked at Japan because it wasn’t too far away from Vietnam. I also spoke with an acquaintance from Japan who said that Keio University was the best choice in Japan if I was interested in ophthalmology. That’s when I started to look into Keio. Japanese people are known for being such hard workers so I felt like it would be a challenge to get into Keio, but I had a chance to speak one-on-one with Professor Tsubota, and seeing how internationally minded he is, I felt like I might be able to get into his laboratory. Most importantly, I was also interested in dry eye, whic Keio University is an internationally recognized authority on. I would definitely say Keio is the best not just in Japan, but in all of Asia.
Q: How do you like living in Japan?
Vu: Well, I can’t speak Japanese very well, so at first it was quite a challenge. So it was difficult both inside and outside the lab. But I’ve definitely gotten more accustomed to Japan the longer I’ve been here. Japanese people are really very patient and helpful. We don’t always communicate well, but they always wait for me and are always eager to help.
Q: The School of Medicine has many student clubs and organizations that are quite active. How about the graduate school?
Vu: The graduate school doesn’t have any student clubs actually. But some students dance and exercise on their own. And there are all kinds of seminars where you can meet and chat with other researchers.
Q: Peter Svane (Clinical Elective student) and Nikolaj Friis (Clinical Elective student), can you tell us how you ended up coming to Keio?
Svane: Nikolaj and I are medical students from the University of Copenhagen. At our school we are given the opportunity to study abroad while working on our master’s. We had both wanted to come to Japan for so long, so it was an easy choice to make. I’d actually lived in Japan before, and knew how international Keio was. So when I first started thinking about studying in Japan, I checked out Keio’s website first. It was obvious that Keio had an open and international outlook and works to build connections with its surrounding countries. It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for. Not to mention that I have zero Japanese ability, so an international environment was very important for me.
The Keio website also had a lot of helpful information for international students--very easy to understand, and the forms were easy to fill out. It was a breeze applying for the exchange program. Actually it’s not an “exchange program,” is it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one Japanese student in Copenhagen [laughs]. Our school doesn’t offer support for studying abroad, so we had to do all of the paperwork ourselves.
Friis: On the other hand, I was quite impressed by the response we got from the staff here at Keio. I think they replied to our e-mail on the same day. They were very friendly, and helped set up all kinds of things for our stay here. There were so many forms to prepare, but they were always on top of things and always wrote us back within 24 hours. So the whole application process was very smooth. From the outset it was clear that Keio has a big presence, not just in Asia, but at the global level. I must admit that we also like a bit of adventure, and thinking about the travel potential with Tokyo as our home base, I’m definitely glad that we chose Keio.
Tsubota: I’m very happy to hear that. We are working hard to provide as much information as possible to international students. It wasn’t so easy in the past. That’s why we all have our individual lab websites in addition to the School of Medicine website.
Q: So how long have you been in Japan now?
Svane: It’s only been three weeks so far. We’ve been at this lab for two weeks. We’ll spend a total of one month here, and then go to Dermatology, followed by Otolaryngology. And we’re able to transfer all the credits we earn here back to the University of Copenhagen, so we are staying on track for graduation.
Q: Do you see yourself coming back to Japan?
Svane: Definitely. I’ve had a great time here. Sometimes we have trouble communicating with each other, but everyone has been fantastic.
Friis: So much of the staff and faculty speak English here, which is quite special, I think. When we can’t understand the patients, the doctors always translate for us. The younger doctors and residents have been especially helpful.
Svane: Language has definitely been the biggest challenge for us. I don’t know what we would do if we couldn’t talk with the patients and doctors. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who do speak English.
The Keio University School of Medicine understands that strong relationships are at the heart of all good research. The professors here are looking forward to welcoming more international researchers and strengthening Tokyo’s reputation as the center of medicine in Asia. The door is open—will you step through?
Education and Employment
|1980||Graduated from Keio University School of Medicine|
|1980||Received medical license, residency training at Keio University School of Medicine|
|1983||Director of Ophthalmology, National Tochigi Hospital|
|1985||Fellowship Programs at Harvard University (through June 1987)|
|1987||Director of Ophthalmology, National Tochigi Hospital|
|1990||Director of Ophthalmology, Tokyo Dental College, Ichikawa General Hospital|
|2004||Professor, Keio University School of Medicine|
|2004||Visiting Professor of Ophthalmology, Tokyo Dental College|
|2015||Chairman & Professor of Ophthalmology, Keio University School of Medicine
Also currently serving as Co-Leader of the Keio University Health Science Laboratory and as President of the Japanese Society of Anti-Aging Medicine
Regenerative medicine, corneal transplants, dry eye, refractive surgery, and anti-aging medicine
|1988||Japanese Ophthalmological Society Award (from the Japanese Ophthalmological Society)|
|1991||Award from the Kowa Life Science Foundation|
|1992||Uehara Award (from the Uehara Memorial Foundation)|
|1997||Sakaguchi Award (from the Keio University School of Medicine)|
|2000||Claes Dohlman Award (from the Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society)|
|2004||Senior Achievement Award (from the American Academy of Ophthalmology)|