Biomedical Engineering Education in Japan

BME education is unstable and the declining birth rate isn’t helping matters

This year, IEEE Pulse has been examining biomedical engineering education around the world. This month, we take a look at biomedical engineering education in Japan.

Biomedical engineering education in Japan started in the late 1960s, and the Japan Society of Medical and Biological Engineering (JSMBE) was established in 1961. After the society was established, the JSMBE took on the role of regulating biomedical engineering education. Nevertheless, no Department of Medical and Biological Engineering (BME) was established until the late 1990s. Before that time, biomedical education was conducted in the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, where interested faculty built a new laboratory for BME. Initially, circulatory physiology strongly influenced Japanese biomedical education and research. The first technology to emerge was Doppler ultrasound devices. Then, oximeters and endoscopes were developed and now these devices are used in clinical practice worldwide.

The major difference in biomedical engineering (BME) in Japan involves clinical engineering (CE). In 1987, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) enacted a law governing a clinical engineering national license. This law concerns mainly the maintenance and proper operation of artificial life-support devices, such as artificial lungs, extracorporeal circulation machines, and dialysis. To obtain a license, students must learn about the mechanisms governing these devices, along with basic knowledge in engineering and medical sciences. From this perspective, a new department of clinical engineering was established. This review outlines the curricula of two universities.

The development of the Department of Biomedical Engineering Education and its Curricula

Although there are many biomedical specialists and researchers, the Department of BME was established very late compared with Western countries. We had three biomedical education patterns for undergraduate studies: mechanical based, electronics based, and information sciences. In addition, the chemical engineering department is interested in developing education in biomaterials and biocompatible materials. Mechanical-based education includes material sciences, bio-fluids, and thermodynamics. Other possible teaching subjects are control engineering and robotics. Electrical-based education includes the design of amplifiers, filter opto-electronics, and control engineering. Some universities are focusing on studies of semiconductor materials and the design of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), sensors on a chip (SoC), and systems in a package (SiP). Information science includes software, database construction, and three- and four-dimensional image processing. In addition, the chemical engineering department teaches courses on biomaterials and biocompatible materials for the development of artificial life-support devices. However, these departments do not teach fundamental subjects like physiology and biochemistry.

In 1999, the first BME department was established at Kagoshima University, and the second at Chiba University. By 2014, about 20 universities had BME departments. These departments developed a BME curriculum. A typical example of a curriculum is shown in Figure 1. Many BME departments originated from mechanical and electrical engineering departments.

Figure 1. A typical example of BME and the major subjects. Mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering and information sciences comprise the main body of the curriculum.

Figure 1. A typical example of BME and the major subjects. Mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering and information sciences comprise the main body of the curriculum.

However, most BME education involves courses in other departments at the undergraduate level, while in graduate school, BME students learn about advanced technology and the basic medical sciences. In addition, some medical schools have increased the opportunities for non-medical students to study at the graduate level.

Biomedical Engineering Employment in Japan

Employment is an important aspect of a university program. There are several biomedical companies at universities. The ideal scenario for graduates involves employment in the biomedical device industry, healthcare industry, pharmaceutical companies, government, and regulatory agencies such as the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Device Agency (PMDA). Companies such as Nihon Kohden, Omron, and Termo employ students who have a basic knowledge of general engineering and not BME specialization at the undergraduate level. Less than 30% of undergraduate students are employed by companies involved in medical fields. Many students want to be employed in general industries and not BME industries. Nevertheless, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which venture BME businesses grow. Many companies are willing to employ students who have completed Master’s and Doctoral degrees.

The BME departments are relatively unstable because of the decrease in the size of the younger generation, especially high school students, and for economic reasons. Unlike Western countries, high school students do not find BME attractive or interesting.

Members of the University Board are always concerned about student interests and employment. Graduates of traditional mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering departments can get jobs easily. Both the Society and University are promoting the attractiveness of BME. BME research is popular and very advanced.

Japan has an unfavorable balance of trade in medical devices, as shown in Figure 2. Although the government supports medical industries, little is known about the growth of biomedical industries and so they are not expected to employ many graduates.

Figure 2. Balance of trade in medical devices.

Figure 2. Balance of trade in medical devices.

The Department of Clinical Engineering, Education and curriculum

The Department of Clinical Engineering (CE) was started at a polytechnic level. University-level education was started in 1991 at Tokai University. This department was approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) and the MHLW. As already mentioned, the curriculum involves more technically advanced courses. Table 1 outlines the 4-year CE program.

Table 1. Minimum CE curriculum.

Basic courses Humans and life 14
Anatomy and mechanisms of the human body 6
Basic medical sciences for CE 8
Basic mechanical and electrical engineering 16
Medical informatics and system engineering 7
Advanced courses Biomedical engineering 7
Medical devices 8
Artificial life-support devices 12
Safety, maintenance and inspection 5
Related medical science (circulation, respiration, etc.) 6
Clinical exercise (visit an operating room, etc.) 4
Total 93

In the final year, the curriculum involves special training in a hospital. The curriculum is more appealing for technicians. To develop sophisticated medical devices graduate-level education is vital, and most universities educate CE specialists after graduation.

Employment out of the Clinical Engineering Department

Most students are willing to work in hospitals when they finish an undergraduate program, so they apply for a license. In 2014, the pass rate was 78.8%. In Japan, only a CE can work in a hospital; BME researchers cannot. When a graduate has a license, it is easy to find a job. Besides hospitals, graduates are employed by the medical device industry. Medical device companies need people to maintain and repair the medical devices at hospitals and employ licensed CE graduates.


In summary, BME education in Japan is unstable and the declining birth rate is influencing the structure of university education. We believe that BME education is required given the aging population and low birth rate and we need to discuss the growth of BME education and employment worldwide. Furthermore, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) should be a leader and take the bull of the BME world by the horns.

  • Ardina

    It’s a wonderful thing that there is this kind of subject in Japan that people would surely learn and apply. They can also gain many different achievements and a good opportunity for their students.

  • Prazapati Priyanka

    I have done BE in Electrical Engineering. And I’m interested in Clinical Engineering. How should I apply for scholarship in this program? Please reply

    • Jesu Priscil

      Did you get through with any japanese universities with course of instruction being english?

  • lordsandun

    I’m a graduate in B.Sc of biomedical engineering.I want to know about the scholarships available for graduate studies?