More of a saint than a scientist

More of a saint than a scientist


Bal Krishna
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Prof. Shunji Murai Professor Murai is a follower of Buddhism. The religion has taught him sacrifice and compassion. Moreover, he belongs to a Samurai family which focuses on maintaining purity and dignity and emphasise upon sacrifice. At Map India 2002, we met the man behind the legend.

A person who is more of a saint than a scientist; a great human being with inherent magnanimity and philanthropic approach; a person who believes more in personal relationships than professional and business relationship; a person who has deep faith in values; a meeting with Professor Shunji Murai took me all together in the different realm of experience.

Professor Murai graduated in Civil Engineering from University of Tokyo in 1963. He was awarded doctorate of Engineering in 1970. From 1971-83, Prof Murai worked as Associate Professor and from 1983-92 as a professor in the Institute of Industrial Sciences, University of Tokyo. In 1992, he joined Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Bangkok to establish and implement new programmes in Remote Sensing, GIS and Digital Photogrammetry. He has contributed significantly in ISPRS in various capacities since 1976 as Secretary of Commission I, Director of ISPRS Congress 1988 in Kyoto, General Secretary, President, First Vice President. He has been honoured as Honorary Fellow at ITC, the Netherlands, International Member of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Honorary Professor of the Wuhan Technical University of Surveying and Mapping, China, Honorary Member of Indian Society of Remote Sensing and many more. He had been entrusted with many offices in Japan such as General Secretary and President of Japan Association of Remote Sensing, General Secretary, Council Member and Journal Chief Editor of Japan Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (JSPRS) as well as Chief Editor of the Journal of the Japan Association of Surveyors. His work has been documented in more than 250 publications. In addition, he has contributed as author, co-author and editor of more than 20 books.

However, his most significant contribution was towards the creation Asian Association on Remote Sensing (AARS). In fact an interesting story lies behind the conceptualisation and formation of AARS. In April 1980, when he went to San Jose, Costa Rica to attend the then prestigious ERIM Symposium along with some of his Japanese colleagues, he was shocked to find that there were no rooms available for them, despite the fact that the reservations were made earlier. However, the hotel reception offered a big deluxe suite, which the five Japanese could share. “I had no choice but to check in that suite as I and my friends had no energy to look for another hotel after 38 hours long journey from Tokyo. In fact, it was this unfortunate incident that led the birth of Asian Conference on Remote Sensing,” he recalls.

The Japanese group decided to invite Asian friends from China, China Taipei, Thailand, and Sri Lanka for a party. During the party, the idea of organising a conference in Asia itself so that people need not to come that far, emerged. This may be possible if Japan takes an initiative. Prof. Murai then decided to organise such a conference right then and there. Several issues were discussed and it was agreed to organise the first conference in Bankok in 1980 itself but not in Japan. It was also decided that the conference should be held every year and should suit the Asian style rather than the western style. Prof. Murai was made responsible to coordinate the first conference. It was not an easy task to organise such a conference on such a short notice, given the fact that communication facilities like email were not available during those days. Moreover, he did not have the addresses and mailing list of Asian scientists working in the field of Remote Sensing. Raising adequate funds was another daunting task. He still leads AARS as General Secretary.

Prof Murai loves to read history. “I am baffled to see why the West has developed so much when as a matter to the fact it is Asia where most of the great civilasations flourished. The reasons are probably that they have evolved a good human network, systematic and organised approach, free exchange of opinions and compete each other in a democratic way. In Asia, countries are busy fighting with each other. That doesn’t offer a conducive atmosphere for scientific development. There is a need of very close cooperation of China, India and Japan. If that happens, it will ensure a bright future for Science in Asia. I believe if a scientific community in Asia is to be built, the key is ‘friendship’. I work with a person simply because of the reason that he is nice not due to the fact that he is big. I do not think of big money and big projects. I rather focus on small projects and concentrate on bringing people together. I believe in cultivating long-term friendships with good human beings rather than short-term commercial gains. And this approach does work. It is not money but faith, goodwill and trust that matter.”

Professor Murai is blessed with two sons. He has a lot of appreciation for his wife who has supported him throughout. “My sons find me different but great.” As far as hobbies are concerned, he paints, climbs mountains and also develops wooden toys for his grand children. He likes Indian movies.

Prof Murai participated in rowing in Rome Olympics. He recalls, “ I was defeated in sports and got recognition in science. But, I learnt hard work through rowing. I realised in the early stage of life about the importance of hard work. During twenties I was establishing my self in my discipline. And during thirties I realised that the direction of my life is set.”

Professor Murai is a follower of Buddhism. The religion has taught him sacrifice and compassion. Moreover, he belongs to Samurai family which focuses on maintaining purity and dignity and emphasise upon sacrifice. Samurai people may not be rich, as money is considered dirty in their culture, but they do believe in good value systems.