Japan University Rankings 2020: results announced

Surprise results as Tohoku University tops national ranking for first time, while Tokyo Tech rises to third place

March 24, 2020
Tohoku University
Source: Tohoku University

Browse the full Japan University Rankings 2020 results

Tohoku University has topped the Times Higher Education Japan University Rankings for the first time, but experts have claimed that the shift is unlikely to dramatically change student or employer choice.

The Sendai-based university overtook Japan’s two flagship institutions, Kyoto University and The University of Tokyo, to rise from third to first place, primarily due to improving its scores for research grants, scholarly output, international staff and international exchange programmes.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Institute of Technology is now ranked joint third (alongside The University of Tokyo) up from seventh last year. Tokyo Tech achieved higher scores for research grants, student engagement, student interaction and student recommendation this year.

Japan has a very hierarchical higher education system, with the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto being considered the country’s most prestigious institutions. But in the latest ranking, Tokyo received a dip in its score for employer reputation, based on a survey of companies’ human resources departments, as well as declines in scores for international exchange programmes, research grants and student interaction.

Meanwhile, Kyoto received lower scores for research grants, scholarly output, student engagement and share of international students.

The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are still Japan’s top two institutions in the THE World University Rankings, which has a heavier research focus than the Japan-specific ranking.

Japan University Rankings 2020: top 10

2020 rank 2019 rank Institution Overall score
1 3 Tohoku University 83.0
2 1 Kyoto University 81.5
=3 2 The University of Tokyo 81.2
=3 7 Tokyo Institute of Technology 81.2
5 4 Kyushu University 79.7
6 5= Hokkaido University 79.6
7 5= Nagoya University 79.5
8 8 Osaka University 78.9
9 9 University of Tsukuba 77.7
10 10 Akita International University 77.2

Futao Huang, professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, said that Tohoku University has been “making arduous efforts to enhance the quality of its teaching and research activities and international competitiveness, especially since 11 March 2001 when the Fukushima earthquakes and tsunami occurred”.

“It has made far more contributions to the recovery of the Tohoku, or northeast, part of Japan since 2001 based on its academic activities and societal engagements than any other university,” he said, adding that the institution has received a lot of research funding related to the prevention of and recovery from natural disasters .

Professor Huang added that Tokyo Tech has “made efforts to reform and revise its educational programmes” by integrating undergraduate and postgraduate courses and introducing a new institution-wide liberal arts focus.

“It is a small university in which approximately 60 per cent of its undergraduate students choose to go to graduate education programmes and both its graduates and industry have a high opinion of its education,” he said.

However, Professor Huang said that while the new ranking may “surprise policymakers, academics, students and other stakeholders in Japan”, it is unlikely to lead to a swift change in the university choices of students and employers.

“A vast majority of students, companies and parents still consider the difficulty of entry examination of a university to be the most important indicator to choosing a university, followed by the location of a university and [then] rate of employment,” he said.

James McCrostie, associate professor at Daito Bunka University, agreed that the results were unlikely to “lead to any dramatic reordering” of university hierarchy within the country “for the simple reason that most young people in Japan will still prefer to study in Tokyo than Sendai”.  

However, he said that the long-running prestige of the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto mean “they haven’t really had to focus on reforms”, unlike Tohoku and Tokyo Tech.

“In 2014, Japan’s ministry of education selected Tohoku University as one of the schools to receive special Top Global University programme funding. While The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University also receive the programme funding, it would appear that Tohoku University’s rise in the rankings show they are using that money a little more wisely,” he said.


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