Thinking about science and technology to assist a “Maemuki” mindset with the head of Euglena, the “Professor of Adversity” : YAMADA MAKIKO × IZUMO MITSURU

Baseball player Ohtani Shohei stresses mental attitude. A “Maemuki” (forward-looking) attitude has the power to light up everyone’s life, opening the door to success. However, a survey by the Nippon Foundation shows that, compared to young people in other countries, 18-year-olds in Japan lack self-confidence.
Can science and technology do anything to promote a “Maemuki” life?
Yamada Makiko, the project manager (PM) of a project that aims for “Realization of a society where people can live a “Maemuki” (forward-looking) life in the face of adversity” by 2050, and Izumo Mitsuru, Founder and President of Euglena Co., Ltd., who has had to overcome numerous adversities with a “Maemuki” attitude, discuss the nature of the “Maemuki” mind that future generations will need and how this will change Japan.

YAMADA Makiko : Group Leader (Senior Researcher) of the Institute for Quantum Life Science and the Institute for Quantum Medical Science, National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology. Completed her studies at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University in 2006. Joined the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (now the National Institutes for Quantum Science and Technology) in 2009. Currently continuing research into the brain and the mind. Has been Project Manager of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) MOONSHOT Research and Development Program Goal 9 since 2022.
IZUMO Mitsuru : Founder and President of Euglena Co., Ltd. Graduated from the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Tokyo in 2002. Joined the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi (now MUFG Bank) the same year. Established Euglena Co., Ltd. in 2005, succeeding in the world’s first mass outdoor cultivation of the microalgae Euglena for food use. He has been a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum (Davos Forum) and received the Prime Minister's Award at the 1st Japan Venture Awards. He has been Vice Chair of the Board of Councilors of the Japan Business Federation since 2020.

Japanese children are not “Maemuki” (forward-looking)

Izumo: I have been very much looking forward to being able to discuss this idea of “Maemuki” with you, Dr. Yamada. The first issue I would like to share is that Japanese children today lack the “Maemuki” spirit of “I can do it!”

As an entrepreneur, I sometimes teach entrepreneurship, but I have always had the feeling that Japanese young people have low self-efficacy, which is the awareness of being capable of doing something oneself. This isn’t just my own personal impression—the Nippon Foundation regularly conducts a global survey* of awareness of 18-year-olds, and the percentage of respondents who think that they would be able to change society or their country is much lower in Japan than in other countries.

In other countries, some 80% of young people have the self-confidence that they can change society or their country, whereas in Japan it is less than half. This is a very serious situation, and I think that, as adults, we need to bring about a change as soon as possible.

Yamada: In the project, we are conducting interview surveys across various generations to conceptualize “Maemuki.” Interestingly, from the responses, we can discern that children express a desire to avoid challenges due to their fear of failure. For instance, some children respond that they don't even want to win in soccer matches. It seems like they are setting up a defensive stance from the beginning because they do not want to experience the negative emotions associated with losing. Even age groups that would typically be more inclined to take on daring actions appear to have lost their " spirit of challenge."

Izumo: So you feel that way, too. Japanese people are often said to have a neophobic disposition, meaning that they are afraid of new things, and Japanese people are better suited to working slowly and steadily at whatever they do. I think this is behind Japan’s success in agriculture and automobile manufacturing, and also in the measures against COVID-19.
So, it’s not all bad, but if we just carry on this way, it will be difficult for people to be inspired to start a new company or find solutions to major problems in society, or create innovation like the Moonshot Research and Development Projects.

To bring about a spiritually rich and dynamic society, there needs to be more people with a “Maemuki” attitude, but Japan lags behind in this regard. We need to retain the good aspects of Japan while at the same time ensuring a more positive “Maemuki” attitude among people involved in fields that need innovation and among young people. If we can do this, I am sure Japan will show fantastic improvements.

Yamada: So, it's essential to have a forward-looking mindset while taking precautions against risks. When striving forward, I believe that it's particularly important for individuals to express their potential through phrases like "I can do it!"
This stems from the notion that people often possess "unfounded confidence" in beliefs such as "I am better than the average," "negative events won't happen in my future," and "I can control events." In psychology, these are referred to as "positive illusions." It was once believed that healthy individuals should have an accurate self-perception, but in reality, it's now known that healthier individuals tend to have these positive illusions. Despite their inaccuracy, having a positive perspective allows individuals to maintain hope for their future and keep moving forward even in challenging situations.

At the same time, this does not mean that we should create a painless society by eliminating all adversity so that no one has to experience negative emotions. We have to eliminate suffering that threatens life, but from the perspective of the mind, eliminating all suffering is not necessarily a good thing.

As Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” I think it is adversity that can make people grow stronger and put a sparkle in their lives. This is what we are focusing on, and the project is not about eliminating adversity—rather, we are aiming to develop scientific techniques that will enable people to acquire “Maemuki,” the mindset of being forward-looking in the midst of adversity.
I want people to acquire a mindset that will not buckle and to be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. The result of this would be that curiosity could grow, leading to the emergence of new developments and technologies in society.

How far has the science of “Maemuki” been clarified?

Izumo: You are carrying out research with the aim of eventually assisting people to acquire a “Maemuki” attitude, but in terms of the science, to what extent has the concept of “Maemuki” been clarified?

Yamada: I'm a neuroscientist, so I primarily research brain mechanisms. At the molecular level, we can quantify the amount of dopamine receptors, using PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans. There are individuals with both high and low levels of dopamine receptors, and the amount of the receptors correlates with a positive illusion. PET scans used to take around an hour, but, with MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans, we can determine a positive brain state in about 10 minutes. MRI and PET scans are useful for  understanding detailed mechanisms, but they are large devices that are not accessible for everyday use.

In the future, to better understand the mind in a more straightforward manner, we will conduct research that involves deciphering the state of the mind from the body's posture in everyday life.
For instance, when someone is confident, they tend to stand tall, while a lack of confidence or feeling down may lead to a slouched posture. Since bodily movements are influenced by dopamine, we are attempting to establish connections between posture and the state of the brain.

Izumo: Yes, it is certainly true that when a person feels very depressed their body hunches up. I wonder if that is for self-defense? In fact, when the microalgae Euglena are exposed to stress, the cells become round. I guess that’s the same thing.

Microscopic image of microalgae Euglena. (Photo courtesy of Euglena Co., Ltd.)

Yamada: That's very interesting. Even monkeys adopt a hunched posture. By detecting the state of the mind from the body's posture, we can potentially intervene when necessary. For instance, we could train “Maemuki” coaches to provide support and help everyone cultivate a “Maemuki” mindset.

Izumo: A “Maemuki” coaches? I have had to overcome all sorts of adversities up until now, so I guess that makes me a Professor of Adversity. I’m sure I could become a “Maemuki” coach right away! But anyway, how do you plan to make people adopt a “Maemuki” mindset in this project?
Yamada: I believe that agency is crucial. Just as relying on doping in sports doesn't earn appreciation from others for achieving good results, I think it's equally important to acquire a “Maemuki” mindset through one's own efforts. Therefore, we are exploring ways to support individuals in becoming “Maemuki” themselves, rather than simply providing them with positivity.

Fig.1  Experiment to measure brain and physiological responses while walking in a virtual forest

One specific method we are thinking of is a “mental training gym,” where people can train their minds just like they train their bodies in a regular gym. For example, by combining a treadmill (a walking machine, Fig. 1) with video images, we can give people the experience of walking in a forest or let them feel rhythms to examine whether this helps them become more “Maemuki.”

Izumo: When the results of your research are implemented in society, perhaps I will be practicing your mental assistance techniques before I give an important presentation!

Yamada: Yes, I certainly hope you will try them. When using them for interventions, we will have to give special consideration to the fact that the “Maemuki” elements or the intensity will vary depending upon a person’s age or way of life.

It is well known that the Major League Baseball player Ohtani Shohei drew up a sheet with all his life goals on it when he was in high school, and he also wrote down the mental attitude he would need to achieve his goals. In the same way, we are also carrying out research to enable us to display the “Maemuki” elements needed for whatever a particular person is aiming at so that we can give the “Maemuki” assistance best suited to that person.

This is an extremely difficult question. As part of the project, we will develop the topic of how to retain a “Maemuki” attitude throughout one’s life, keeping in mind ideas such as stigma based on societal values and generally held beliefs or views of life and death.

I am hoping that, in this way, we will be able to grasp the necessary elements of the “Maemuki” mind and be able to measure scientifically where anything is lacking, so that, in the future, we can give “Maemuki” assistance in real time.

Izumo’s secret to a “Maemuki” mind

Izumo: When I was 18, I went abroad for the first time to Bangladesh, at the time one of the poorest countries in the world. I met an amazing teacher there, Professor Muhammad Yunus.
Professor Yunus created the Grameen Bank, which started by giving unsecured loans on easy terms to poor people in Bangladesh and, to date, has helped over nine million people around the world build a base for their lives. Professor Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work in creating the system of microfinancing with small, unsecured loans.

I have a photo taken together with Professor Yunus and a letter that he wrote to me, which I still treasure. Whenever I look at them, I remember how, even under extremely trying circumstances, he always worked his hardest with a smile on his face. This reminds me that I have to try my utmost as well, giving me the strength to be “Maemuki.”

Yamada: Knowing there is someone who has achieved something under difficult circumstances brings out the “Maemuki” feeling that maybe you can do something too. That’s a very useful piece of information.
As a matter of fact, I have been thinking of compiling the results of my research into a “Maemuki” Handbook. I would like it to show the sort of process needed to become “Maemuki.”

Izumo: How about a program for people to go to Bangladesh and do a stint of part-time work at the Grameen Bank, where they can meet people like Professor Yunus (laughs)? Looking back, I realize my mindset was self-centered before I met Professor Yunus.
I said I was a Professor of Adversity, but actually, thanks to having Professor Yunus as a mentor, I have rarely thought of myself as being in the midst of adversity.

Yamada: While you might not perceive adversity as adversity anymore and even enjoy it as a challenge, I believe this is a crucial point.
As we see these days with children and young people in particular, there is a tendency for people to want to avoid ambiguous, uncertain situations in which the outcome is not clearcut.
This means that while being “Maemuki” in the face of adversity calls for a positive outlook, it also requires the capability to withstand ambiguous, uncertain situations. This is called negative capability. I believe that both positive illusion and negative capability are equally important for maintaining “Maemuki” in challenging situations.

Toward the big dream we each have

Izumo: The best thing about a venture company is when you make a small early success in the hardest field, no matter how small it may be, this is something that you thought would be absolutely impossible for anyone, but you manage to pull off a miracle. I think I have a mission to do this in order to give people around the world the “Maemuki” attitude that perhaps they can do it, too.

This was the reason I created the company in the first place, and there are two things that I want to accomplish. The first is that I want to eliminate malnutrition in one million children in Bangladesh with Euglena cookies. At present, we are still only delivering cookies to 10,000 children in Bangladesh, but perhaps many other countries will be inspired to think that they can do it, too, and will launch their own measures against malnutrition. If that happens, we can rid the world of malnutrition.

The other reason is the spread of biofuels in Japan. Japan is seen worldwide as a country lacking in natural resources, but this same country is producing environmentally friendly biofuels and using them to fly airplanes. What then happens is that other people, companies, or countries think that they want to try it as well, and biofuels spread, thus helping the fight against global warming. These are the two dreams I want to make come true.

I also hope that, when your research project is complete, we will see entrepreneurs, changemakers, and new, young leaders who have been trained by “Maemuki” trainers and who will come together to deliberately take on difficult challenges to solve the problems facing us all. I certainly hope your research is successful.

Yamada: I’m not an entrepreneur, so in terms of how to apply science and technology to society, I am a layperson. I am delighted to hear that the research and development from this project may be able to contribute to the vision of society that you are aiming for.

As the name suggests, Moonshot projects aim for extremely difficult research and development that no one has ever done before, but, like the Apollo project, have the promise of a huge impact if brought to fruition. We researchers experience much adversity when conducting such challenging research, but talking with you today, I have seen situations in which our challenging research can be useful to society, and this has given me the “Maemuki” desire to work even harder.

The feeling of being positive is sometimes described as looking at life through "rose-colored glasses." In fact, our project's logo is also themed around rose-colored glasses. My dream is to provide many people with the ability to see life in a positive light through these "rose-colored glasses," fostering curiosity, personal growth, and societal development. I aspire to spread this wonderful perspective in society and help everyone move forward towards a brighter future.

* The Nippon Foundation’s Awareness Survey of 18-Year-Olds
20th Installment topic “Awareness Survey of Society and Country” (9 country survey)
The Nippon Foundation carried out a survey of awareness of society and country from the end of September to the beginning of October 2019. The respondents were 1,000 people aged 17–19 years in each of India, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, China, UK, USA, Germany, and Japan.

Written by Ikeda Akiko
Photos by Mori Takahiro

Related information

About Moonshot Research and Development Program

 ■Moonshot Goal 9
Realization of a mentally healthy and dynamic society by increasing peace of mind and vitality by 2050.

■Goal 9 R&D Projects
Realization of a society where people can live a Maemuki (forward-looking) life in the face of adversity.