President’s Column #8: The weak yen and universities—Japan’s research in jeopardy

President's Column | May 22, 2024

TETSU Snowdrop/

I started subscribing to The New York Times International Weekly last month. As expected, my vocabulary and knowledge of advanced economic jargons and stories about American pop culture are not up to scratch.


Nevertheless, a recent headline, ‘A Strong U.S. Dollars Weighs on the World’, was easy to understand at a glance. The article is about the US dollar’s solo victory in the world’s currencies.

However, in reality, the US dollar is winning alone, and the Japanese yen alone is the worst off. In any case, during this year’s major holiday weekend, the whole of Japan was flooded with foreign tourists. When interviewed, they said, ‘After all, prices are cheap! It’s a shopping paradise.’ Not only from the US, tourists came from all over the world, including Europe, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

I also visited Seoul the other day. Airfares, hotel accommodation, food and taxi fares have all risen enormously. I was lucky to be able to eat cold noodles for 1,500 yen at a run-of-the-mill street corner restaurant. Prices in South Korea are still rising at a moderate rate. Last February, I visited the UK and Ireland, where the value of the yen has been falling as it is. I had to save money every day, even for dinner.

The other day, I came across a researcher—whom I know is from a national university—carrying a large suitcase at Haneda International Airport. He was going on a business trip to Chicago, USA, for a conference. When I asked him what was in the large suitcase, he told me that it was full of cup noodles. His ticket was for a low-cost carrier, which he had obtained with great difficulty. Even so, including surcharges, it cost 350,000 Japanese yen. His hotel in Chicago was in a poor neighborhood that he never heard of.

Japanese researchers can no longer go to conferences held abroad unless they are very rich. Also, most students from Japan can no longer afford overseas travel, tuition fees, and living costs to study abroad.

More than a few reagents and equipment used for research are imported from abroad. These research materials are now too costly to be purchased with scientific research funds provided in Japanese yen.

I am acutely aware, even after all this time, that a fall in the value of a country’s own currency can have such a fatal effect on its research capabilities. We have to realize that this is what it means for a country’s national power to decline, for a country to fall. If this state of affairs were to continue for several years, Japan’s scientific research capabilities would be catastrophically damaged, and it would be impossible for the country to recover. Japan’s research capability is in jeopardy.

It seems like a dream now, but there were good old days: when I was studying in the US in the late 1980s, the Japanese yen was at the height of its solo dominance. There was a myth that Japanese trading companies owned half of Manhattan Island. A liter of gasoline then cost around just 30 yen.

In that period, the value of salaries paid in Japan was naturally high. Japanese researchers traveling on business for conferences were also saved by the strength of the Japanese yen. In particular, when I traveled to South Korea and Southeast Asia in the 1980s, prices were so low that I could stay comfortably no matter what. Taxis from the airport cost 500 yen; staying at a first-class hotel cost around 2,000 yen, and a 1,000-yen note was enough for a sumptuous dinner. I could enjoy the conferences without worrying about my wallet.

During the period of a strong yen, Japan’s research capabilities were at the forefront of the world.

I don’t want to imagine Japanese researchers sipping cup noodles from their boots in unsafe street-corner hotels.

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