Departmental Overviews (Chemistry): Creating the Future through Chemistry - School of Science, the University of Tokyo
Mar 12, 2019

Departmental Overviews (Chemistry): Creating the Future through Chemistry


-The Department of Chemistry -


Professor Mitsuhiko Shionoya (Head of the Department of Chemistry)


When the periodic table of elements was created by Mendeleev, it became the key to understand matter, and even the world. Around the same time, chemistry began to emerge in Japan. With the birth of the periodic table, it became possible to discover and design new chemical compounds and reactions, which significantly accelerated the development of chemistry. Now, about 150 years later, the periodic table is evolving considerably and the frontiers of chemistry are rapidly expanding. Thus, regardless of the field, the Department of Chemistry focuses on training students who will be active internationally by emphasizing the quest to elucidate the mechanisms of nature at the molecular level, and cultivating their ability to create new materials.

The history and organization of the Department of Chemistry

The first research center for chemistry in Japan was called Seirenkata (Department of Refining), which was established in 1861 at Kanda Ogawamachi by the Tokugawa government as part of the Bansho Shirabesho (Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books). Seirenkata became the Department of Chemistry in Tokyo Imperial University’s Faculty of Science in 1877 and produced three graduates that same year. Soon afterwards, the Department of Chemistry became the birthplace of chemistry in Japan and even now is continuing to produce world-renowned research as well as future leaders in academia, industry, and education. In 2011, the Department of Chemistry celebrated its 150th anniversary, which provided the perfect opportunity to think about the contributions of chemistry to academia and society, as well as contemplate the future of chemistry.

  East Chemistry Building

The East Chemistry Building, which was built in 1916, is the oldest building on Hongo Campus and to this day remains unchanged despite having endured natural disasters and war. From March 1983, the entirety of the West Chemistry Building became dedicated to laboratories. An auditorium, lectures rooms, laboratories, as well as the student common room and library, are located in the Main Chemistry Building (built in 1962), which is nestled between the aforementioned East and West buildings.

The Department of Chemistry currently includes three basic fields: physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and inorganic/analytical chemistry. The Department of Chemistry has faculty members from various specialized fields who conduct a wide range of natural science research and education in the School of Science ( Education and research in the graduate school are also supported by cooperation with other research departments, research laboratories, and institutional laboratories, which provide students with many paths to choose from.

Basic chemistry that shapes the future: theory, experiments, and measurement

Modern chemistry consists of synthetic chemistry, which aims to create new materials; catalytic chemistry, which tackles issues ranging from material conversion to energy and global environmental problems; and of course, physical chemistry and analytical chemistry, which elucidate the structure and dynamics of molecules by using cutting-edge technology. It also includes various fields from astrochemistry, which observes molecules in the distant universe by using radio telescopes, and biological chemistry, which uses the latest laser measurement devices to investigate living cells. This is why chemistry is called the “central science”.

The Department of Chemistry aims to elucidate various phenomena in nature based on the concept of molecules through the use of theory, experiments and measurements, and create new chemical substances by combining a variety of knowledge.

The following is a brief explanation of the current research fields in chemistry.

Physical Chemistry

Elucidates the structure and dynamics of a single molecule and the development of substances based on the combination of various atoms and molecules from the molecular level. In the Department of Chemistry, Physical Chemistry attempts to discover unknown physical properties by using a variety of researches based on theory, experiments and measurements.

Material Chemistry

Develops materials based on chemical technology to bolster the innovation of next-generation social infrastructure and creation of new technologies. New compounds are designed and synthesized from the atomic and molecular level, and their electric, physical, optical, and catalytic properties are elucidated. Materials that are assembled and controlled at the atomic and molecular level form a new phase and surface/interface.

Inorganic Chemistry

Studies metallic elements, which occupy approximately 100% of the periodic table. Includes solid-state chemistry, coordination chemistry, organometallic chemistry, surface chemistry, bioinorganic chemistry, catalytic chemistry, supramolecular chemistry, polymer chemistry, and radiochemistry. This group focuses on creating new functional molecules, solids, and materials through the construction of self-assembled structures based on metal complexes, the creation of oxides, cyanides, and halides that possess superior electric or magnetic properties, and the development of catalytic reactions using metal clusters and the elucidation of their reaction mechanisms.

Analytical Chemistry

Studies everything spanning from Earth, planets, cells and organisms, to natural products and compounds. This group works to elucidate the mechanisms of nature and create new technologies by developing and applying methods such as the high-speed separation of substances and spatiotemporal molecular dynamics analysis, and clarifying the properties of analytical samples.

Organic Chemistry

Through its connection to various sciences, such as pharmaceutical science, materials science, and energy science, organic chemistry has a fundamental influence on the welfare of society. By using organic chemistry as a basis, the Department of Chemistry is developing world-class original and cutting-edge researches in organic synthetic chemistry, organometallic chemistry, catalytic chemistry, physical organic chemistry, analytic organic chemistry, bioorganic chemistry, drug development, materials science, and solar cells.

Biological Chemistry

From basic research that clarifies biological systems to applied research that gives back to society through healthcare, Biological Chemistry takes a new approach that is not bound to conventional chemistry and biology.

Basic lectures/ Cutting-edge lectures and student support programs

The Department of Chemistry is continuing to evolve as a globally-leading research center and an educational research institution with strong connections to society. Our basic policy is to educate students to pioneer cutting-edge research independently and gain the skills to disseminate their research to the world.

1. Systematic lectures in the Master’s and Doctoral programs

From 2002, lectures in the Doctoral program were divided into compulsory courses and elective courses. Students are strongly recommended to take basic courses in the following: Physical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Inorganic/Analytical Chemistry. Furthermore, students are able to learn advanced specialized knowledge and concepts according to their interests through elective lectures. From this curriculum, students are able to learn a wide range of basic knowledge related to chemistry as well as in-depth specialized knowledge related to specific fields.

2. A wide-range of courses in collaboration with other departments in the Graduate School of Science and other graduate schools

Common lectures in the Graduate School of Science include Frontiers in Advanced Technology in which part-time lecturers from industry give lectures on the connection between science and its applications to the field of advanced science and technology, and Science Cluster Lectures, which take students beyond existing academic disciplines to the frontier of interdisciplinary research. There are also common lectures related to semiconductors, catalysts, biotechnology, and polymer science, which provide the opportunity to gain an overview of applied fields of chemical technology by touching on various fields.

3. International education programs for graduate students

We also have special curriculums aimed at fostering a broad range of basic academic abilities and high expertise in outstanding graduate students. From 2011, various graduate schools jointly implemented the Program for Leading Graduate Schools; from 2015, the Graduate School of Science began running an International Graduate Program for Excellence Pilot Project called Global Science Graduate Course (GSGC); and in 2018, we established two more International Graduate Programs for Excellence. Students from the Advanced Leading Graduate Course for Photon Science (ALPS) and Materials Education Program for the Future Leaders in Research, Industry, and Technology (MERIT) courses (91 students from 2011 to 2018) are already training hard to become the next-generation of leaders in various sectors in industry. Furthermore, 12 students currently enrolled in GSGC as well as the first generation of Master’s students (totaling nine) in the Program of Excellence in Photon Science (XPS), which was just launched in fall 2018, have started research activities with the aim of continuing on to the Doctoral program.

All students in the ALPS course regularly consult with and receive direct guidance from secondary supervisors from various fields.

Promoting exchange between leading researchers

The Department of Chemistry actively promotes events for students and young researchers to interact with leading researchers.

1. Zasshikai (Journal Club)

Lectures held at Yasuda Auditorium by Professors Jean- Pierre Sauvage (above) and J. Fraser Stoddart (below), who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. These lectures were held in March 2017 and March 2018, respectively. Professor Bernard L. Feringa, who also received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016, recently gave a lecture as well in March 2019.

Zasshikai (Journal Club) began in 1890 as a meeting for faculty members and students to read and discuss articles that were primarily published in international academic journals. In continuing with this tradition, we established “The Department of Chemistry Zasshikai at the Graduate School of Science” on March 15, 2007, which aims to train young scientists who can work internationally through promoting collaboration between students, graduates, faculty members, emeritus professors, and those with work experience. Top-class researchers from both within and outside of Japan are invited by the Department of Chemistry to speak at Zasshikai, ranging from Nobel laureates to up-and-coming young scientists and researchers at the forefront of industry. December 2018 marks our 1765th Zasshikai. Zasshikai also provides students with an opportunity to directly speak with prominent researchers from Japan and abroad who visit the Department for events such as the Zasshikai Lectureship.

Furthermore, Zasshikai hosts the “Advanced Corporate R&D Information Session” for students and postdoctoral students every December, which gives them the chance to talk with researchers from leading-edge companies.

2. ZESTY, a symposium hosted by students in English

Every year in the Department of Chemistry, students host a seminar called ZESTY, which stands for "Zasshikai Exchange Seminar for Top Young Scientists for International Network in Chemistry". At this event, Japanese and international students belonging to a number of different laboratories engage in discussion and research exchange in English.

In this way, students of the Department of Chemistry are able to easily learn the latest research trends in related fields from leading researchers in Japan and abroad, and are provided a place for research collaboration and social interaction. Additionally, through promoting interactions between students from various research backgrounds, we are able to help them gain a broad perspective on chemistry research and foster the communicative skills of researchers from different fields.

The impact of delivering lectures in English

Whether while in school or after entering the workplace, graduate students in the Department of Chemistry have increasing opportunities to work globally and engage in international collaboration with researchers. In fact, the number of foreign professors, assistant professors, post-docs as well as international students in the Department of Chemistry is increasing every year, resulting in many opportunities to use English (within 3 years, the number of international students has more than doubled to 67). Furthermore, in addition to the full-time faculty members hired for GSC in 2014, the Department began to welcome full-time professors for GSGC and invite prominent scholars from around the world eight times a year to provide seminars, lectures and guidance for students. Additionally, in July 2018, Professor Robert Campbell from the University of Alberta in Canada joined the Department and now leads the Biomolecular Chemistry Laboratory. These efforts further increase opportunities for students to interact with faculty members from various countries.

Ten years ago, the Department of Chemistry began preparations to deliver chemistry lectures in English for the purpose of training students to be able to work globally. From 2002, “Academic English for Chemistry” began to be offered for first-year Doctoral students and in 2008, “Basic Academic English for Chemistry” was offered for first-year Master’s students. These courses are taught by invited lecturers who are native English speakers in order to improve the English proficiency of our graduate students.

Now, a majority of chemistry lectures for both undergraduate and graduate students on Hongo Campus are delivered in English. This shows the strong desire of faculty members for students to work and succeed globally in the future. Thankfully, chemistry has a universal language called the chemical formula, which makes it easy to convey important things. This is also possible thanks to the periodic table.

In conclusion

Beginning with chemistry, the periodic table of elements has played a large role in developing a wide range of natural sciences. 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Elements (IYPT2019). The 150th anniversary of the periodic table was celebrated starting with an opening ceremony in Paris at the end of January, which was followed with various events to honor its discovery and the developments in natural science that followed. This was also a perfect opportunity for chemists to share the beauty and appeal of the periodic table with the world. On this occasion, the Department of Chemistry would like to encourage future chemists to do their utmost by showing their cutting-edge research and sharing the fascinating and important aspects of chemistry that create the future.


▶︎ For more information, please visit the Department of Chemistry homepage:


This article is from the 2018 "Departmental Overviews in the School of Science" series in The Rigakubu News ―


Translated by Kristina Awatsu, Office of Communication

― Office of Communication ―

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