How can OIST’s OKEON project collaborate with Okinawan society so that both benefit in some way?



While there are many different ways to answer this question, one important collaboration is with high schools in Okinawa. OKEON Chura-mori Project has been developing a new model of high school – university collaboration which benefits students, teachers and researchers alike.

For the past year, OKEON has worked with Futenma, Kyuyou, Kaiho and Hentona High Schools. Each school has collaborated with OKEON in slightly different ways, but students have primarily focused on ants found in their local area as the material of their school research activities. Planning and conducting scientific research is often beyond school curriculums, so in order for the high schools to take part, OKEON project leaders Yoshi and Masako created a training programme for high school teachers.

The programme involves lectures, and a course for planning research, collecting, sorting, mounting and identifying ants.

By taking part, teachers can gain the skills and know-how to create their own research programmes using data from the OKEON project. For Kawabata-sensei, his study of ants during his university years led him to have a personal interest in revisiting the laboratory. Takara-sensei did not research biodiversity at university, but having done Time-Unit Sampling at his school for a year before taking part in the programme, his ability to identify species is already extremely high. Both teachers spoke about how they were looking forward to working with their students to come up with a research plan using their new skills based on current research. Their goals included wanting to encourage students to develop their interest in science and research, but also to create a knowledge network between teachers which exchanges information, and has access to but is not dependent on a university faculty.


The high school teachers trained by OIST will have the skills and know-how to implement environmental monitoring activities and research, and specialist biodiversity data collection. These skills will in turn be passed down to the next generation of high school students.


Once a full cycle has been completed (the student’s research is generally for a year), teachers and students can develop and improve their research methods, thereby improving the scientific capacity of the entire community. Because each high school will have unique ways of researching and contributing to OKEON, as well as different goals, there is scope for a self-sustaining network to evolve where teachers and students can share research methods and data.


This high school teacher training programme is valuable to OIST and OKEON for two main reasons. The first is that there are enormous amounts of data being generated through OKEON, and the sampling system is currently focused on winged insects. Students will be able to focus on worker ants in their local area, generating data which can become the basis for further research at OIST.

The second reason is that this programme is a way to contribute to the sustainability of Okinawan society in the broadest sense possible. Through the training of high school teachers, OIST and OKEON can contribute to education in Okinawa. At Hentona High School, for example, there are specific classes pertaining to the environment, within which this research can become an important component.


Students can take the specialist research skills they learn into their further study, perhaps even coming back to OIST to work with OKEON data. OIST can play an important role in allowing a strong research community in Okinawa to flourish, which will have the capacity not only to understand but to appreciate and protect the biodiversity of the island.


University collaboration: OIST and the University of the Ryukyus

For any given project, strong collaboration is often the key to success. An important collaboration partner for the OKEON Chura-mori project is the University of the Ryukyus (Ryudai).

The Economo Unit at OIST hosts bi-annual joint lab meetings with their counterpart at Ryudai. These meetings have been great for establishing joint interests and combining specialist skills to conduct research. Currently, the two labs are planning a joint research grant application. Professor Tsuji, Professor Tatsuta and their lab have been instrumental in the process of setting up and progressing OKEON, providing advice and connections to their well-established network across Okinawa and Japan. The field centre at Ryudai has also provided permission to set up a monitoring site on their land.

What has been a challenge, however, has been involving students from Ryudai in the collaboration. Ryudai students appear to not only be intimidated by conducting research solely in English, but also the image of OIST as a global research university with unattainably high standards. Inviting students to the lab meetings was not enough to break down these barriers, real and perceived.

To improve collaboration and ensure that benefits are reciprocal, OKEON and Professor Tatsuta, a lecturer in the Agriculture Department at Ryudai planned two field class sessions in July 2016 in which third-year students would be introduced to the OKEON project and learn basic sampling and species identification skills.

The first class was introduced by Dr. Yoshimura, who explained the project from a scientific perspective.

Then, under the supervision of Mr. Yoshida, our insect specialist, Mr. Kinjo and Mr. Iriyama, two members of the sorting team gave a lesson in sorting insects. OKEON’s sorting team is made up of six members, who are hired locally and had no prior experience or specialism of working with insects or research.














The following week, students were taken into the field itself and took part in the sample collection process, before sketching a sample they had sorted the previous week.


Two major achievements were made through these classes. Firstly, by tailoring the class to university students, and conducting it in Japanese, students were engaged throughout and reacted positively to the idea of using data from OKEON for their graduate theses the following year. Visiting the trap in reality, and experiencing data collection and fieldwork made the research more accessible, and perhaps more interesting.

The second positive achievement was how Mr. Kinjo and Mr. Iriyama conducted the sorting class. Having the specialist knowledge and confidence in their ability to teach university students is a testament to their hard work and demonstrates their progression and development. The sorter training programme aims to not only teach specialist environmental knowledge, but to develop responsibility, communication skills, and other skills which will be useful in any career path. Instructing university students shows their ability to contribute to society academically as well as strengthening the bridge between OIST, Ryudai and Okinawa’s local community.

In terms of OKEON and OIST, one benefit is having access to more potential students to conduct research using the large volumes of data generated by OKEON. Another is the possibility to explore different ways of collaborating across academic institutions and within society via research. This type of collaboration is currently a topic of particular interest, and in fact, JST (Japan Science and Technology Agency) took an interest in the programme and came to film the first class for a documentary on Citizen Science.



While there is already a strong partnership between Ryudai and OIST, it can still be developed further. These classes were an important step towards expanding the collaboration to include students, and the sorting team. More links does not necessarily mean that there is greater collaboration, but in this case, a diversity of approaches has been beneficial and may result in further joint efforts between OIST and Ryudai. To see what else is going on at Ryudai in the Tsuji Lab, please click here

Working with World Heritage Sites: A rare opportunity to enter the protected world of Sefa Utaki

For research involving fieldwork, locations are crucial. Each location has to be considered carefully from a scientific perspective in order to collect the appropriate data. However, beyond the science, there are many other considerations. What are the characteristics of the location? Who is in charge of the land? What is it used for? Each location is uniquely located within space and time, posing individual challenges but also potentially very rewarding.

One of the sites chosen for the OKEON Chura-mori Project is the sacred site of Sefa Utaki, located on the Chinen Peninsula in the south of Okinawa’s main island.

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Masashi Yoshimura, 2016

Urbanisation has posed a significant threat to biodiversity in Okinawa; if you look at an aerial view of the southern part of Okinawa’s main island, the scale at which urbanisation has occurred is readily apparent.

Around 90 per cent of Okinawa’s population live in the southern third of the island, with Naha-shi within the top 30 most densely populated cities across the whole of Japan. As a project which aims to investigate the biodiversity across the entire island, the lack of forested areas in the south posed a major problem when searching for locations to erect SLAM traps to collect insects.
map of sefa utaki google earth

August 2, 2016

As a result, any remaining forest is of critical importance from a scientific perspective. It can help us to understand how urbanisation has impacted biodiversity in the area, as well as painting a more complete picture of biodiversity across the island. The Sefa Utaki site is one such remaining forested area. It is highly sacred according to indigenous Okinawan beliefs.

For many centuries, it has been seen as a powerful spiritual site, meaning that the forest has been virtually untouched and therefore protected. This makes the site particularly interesting from a biodiversity perspective, as it has been preserved for so long within a religion which regards nature with the highest esteem. If the site had not been so well protected against urban development and other invasions, it would not hold such a historical key to the remaining biodiversity in Southern Okinawa.



Due to the local importance of the site, as well as its’ status as a World Heritage Site, it seemed to be an unrealistic aspiration to set up a SLAM trap here.

However, one important connection that OKEON Chura-mori has with Okinawa Municipal Museum’s (沖縄市立郷土博物館) curator, Mr. Kawazoe, led to the chance to work at the Sefa site. Through Mr. Kawazoe and Mr. Higa’s introduction, we asked for the cooperation of the city administrator in charge of the site to allow OKEON to research there.

Despite having obtained official permission, extra care had to be taken at this locally historic site. Within the social system in Okinawa, locally elected ward heads are highly regarded, almost more so than city or prefectural administrators. In respect of this, OKEON project leaders met with Mr Nakama, the head of the ward where Sefa Utaki is located, to receive his approval, and accordingly the approval of the local community.

Without this acknowledgement, foreign researchers entering the local site might cause distress to local communities – despite having official permission – potentially leading to conflict. Mr Nakama also proposed that OKEON should attend the bi-annual community meeting to present the data collected at the site. Here, OKEON will present not only a broad overview of the project, and specific elements pertaining to the area, but also how much of an honour it is to work at this important site which has been protected for so long.



Maintaining a good working relationship with the local people, through the locally elected officials is vital to ensure the longevity of the OKEON project.

Any data collected will be useful, but the particularly exciting element is the potential for it to be continued for many generations to come. Long term studies contribute greatly to understandings of changing biodiversity, but depend heavily on being able to use the exact same sites indefinitely.


Luckily for us, not only as researchers but also as humans who are part of the ecosystem, some parts of nature have been protected for many generations. Sefa Utaki is one such area. The care taken to respect this site will allow the study to continue, but is also a valuable example of how nature could be treated to ensure biodiversity to flourish, against the backdrop of rapidly urbanising landscapes.

For more information about Sefa Utaki and the related Ryukyu Heritage Sites , click here, and for further information regarding the OKEON project please click here.

Ryukyu Shinpo Spin-Off Event in collaboration with OIST

Following on from the success of Dr Yoshimura’s column in the Ryukyu Shinpo, OIST hosted a joint event on Sunday 31st July featuring Dr Yoshimura himself. Attendees were able to meet Dr Yoshimura, listen to his experiences as a researcher both in Japan and overseas in the USA, and learn how to use a magnifying glass to spot different types of ants.

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Dr. Yoshimura spoke about how he became a researcher, and in particular why he became interested in ants. He discussed his experiences moving to San Francisco, working as a researcher and the difficulties he faced. One of the ways that Dr Yoshimura coped living in the USA where there was limited funding for researchers was by starting a one-man band, the Male Ants Project, and earned extra money by busking. Event participants were treated to a performance by Dr Yoshimura of the popular Sukiyaki song.


After the talk, participants were taught how to use a mini microscope to investigate which creatures were in their own surroundings, starting with the Inner Garden at OIST. Children who were already interested in ants or looking for a topic for their summer research project had the opportunity to hear from an expert researcher. Over 50 people attended, and the event was highly successful, with children, parents and university students alike engaged and interested.









For more information and links to the Ryukyu Shinpo Column please click here and here.