Statements from President Gonokami
Home > Statements from President Gonokami > Address by the President of UTokyo at the AY 2019 Spring Semester Diploma Presentation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Address by the President of UTokyo at the AY 2019 Spring Semester Diploma Presentation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Congratulations to all of you who will receive your diplomas today. On behalf of the faculty members and staff of the University of Tokyo, I am pleased to extend my sincere congratulations to you all. I would also like to pass on my best wishes and deep appreciation to your family members and friends who have encouraged and supported you in your journey to this day.

This academic year, the total number of students to be awarded postgraduate degrees is 4,887, consisting of 3,320 master’s degree graduates, 1,223 doctoral degree graduates, and 344 professional degree graduates. Among these, 1,113 degrees have been earned by international students.

As you look back from this final day, I imagine that you are filled with memories of your emotions and struggles during your years at the University. Many of you may will have experienced the University of Tokyo as a place to create knowledge through the relationships you forged with your research colleagues and faculty. Starting in April, some of you will continue your research at universities or in the corporate sector, while others will embark on careers in a variety of occupations. I trust that your experience at the University of Tokyo has laid a solid foundation for your future activities.

We had looked forward to celebrating today’s graduation ceremony with all of you and your families in person. However, we took the decision to hold the ceremony in a different format to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus infection. I want to celebrate this day with everyone watching the livestream in Japan and around the world in what you might call our virtual Yasuda Auditorium.

The novel coronavirus infection has spread rapidly across the world, having an immense impact on the global economy and society. It is yet to be brought under control, and efforts to contain the spread of infection are ongoing. Many people have died from the infection, both here in Japan and overseas. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have passed away, and we send our deepest condolences to their families. We also wish everyone who is recuperating a speedy recovery.

The spread of infection has reinforced in all of us the awareness that now more than ever, modern human activities and our economic and social systems transcend national boundaries. Despite the recent rising tide of nationalism, globalization has grown to an extent that it cannot be reversed. This infection has shown us that without doubt actions intended to address limited regional interests will be insufficient.

The world into which you are all about to embark is in upheaval from the changes of digital innovation, creating a social environment that is unknown and unprecedented for humanity.

Ever-increasing quantities of text, voice, video, and other types of information are being digitized and stored as data in cyberspace. AI technologies for analyzing the vast amount of information are being developed rapidly. Humans living in physical space now use this data stored in cyberspace to inform our actions every day. This fusion of physical space with cyberspace is changing the way people connect with each other, and the shape of our society and the economy.

The era of the capital-intensive society, in which products and goods created by industry had economic value, is over, and a paradigm shift is underway to a knowledge-intensive society in which knowledge and information, and services that utilize them create value.

This new paradigm may help to connect people across physical distances, via modalities such as telemedicine and teleworking, and may eliminate some of the disparities in modern society by bridging its many divides, such as differences between rural and urban areas, between young and old, and between those with disabilities and those without. We now have the chance to realize an inclusive society where diverse people can take advantage of their strengths, carefully understanding individual differences that were often overlooked in the age of mass production and mass consumption. On the other hand, there is also a risk that the data will be monopolized by certain companies and nations, leading to adverse scenarios in which there is a disconnect or a decisive gap between those who own the data and the data dispossessed.

Which way will it go, I wonder? Humanity is truly at a watershed moment.

I was appointed President in April 2015 and in October that year, I announced my action plan for the University during my tenure, The University of Tokyo: Vision 2020. The action plan leads off with its basic principles: Synergy between Excellence and Diversity—Acting as a Global Base for Knowledge Collaboration. Looking back over the five years that followed, global challenges such as climate change and regional disparities have become even more serious, and the world is rapidly becoming more unstable and unpredictable in a way that represents a sharp turn from the past.

The University of Tokyo’s vision calls for universities to be develop the capacity to drive social change and act on their own initiative in seeking to create a better society. To that end, the principle of inclusiveness is key, complementing the pursuit of diversity. However, I always feel that the close connection between these principles that are seen as two separate wings is yet to be fully understood or disseminated widely.

Today, as you take a major step forward on your new journey, I would like you to etch into your minds the link between diversity and inclusiveness.

You may think that a university is a place to explore new knowledge. This is by no means wrong, but that alone is not enough. You must never forget that knowledge gains strength and utility when it is shared with others. Hence, it is essential not only to acquire knowledge but also to share it.

First and foremost, knowledge is a public good that is available to all humanity and accessible to everyone. You may think that sharing occurs naturally because knowledge is open to all and that there is no need to do any more. Modern science, built on the application of logic and mathematics to data accumulated through observation and experiment, and the expansion of modern economic activities based on the circulation of money have flourished because of free and open venues such as scholarly journals and markets. However, public goods are not newly shared automatically or spontaneously. The reality is that it is not so simple. It is precisely in the claims “it’s difficult” and “it’s not so straightforward” that the potential and great possibilities of humanity and society lie hidden. And, it is the interest in exploration and discovery that attracts us.

To take a deeper look at the relationship between this difficulty and its intriguing nature, let’s revisit the language that we use every day, or put another way, the functions of language.

We tend to think that the functions of the tool that is language are simple and clear, and that everyone has the ability to use them. I specialize in experimental physics, and I was taught that when writing scientific papers I should always use clear expressions that everyone will interpret the same way, and I tell students too, that they should write accurately. However, language is by no means a colorless and transparent, fair and neutral form of communication. Amidst the various symbols, natural language in particular is accompanied by fluctuations in meaning, tinged with values and emotions. To put it another way, words are mixed with noise. Misunderstandings due to failures of expression or misinterpretation happen daily. Differences in culture between the two sides in an interaction also lead to various obstacles and friction.

This is truly troublesome. How useful would it be if language was a transparent and noise-free tool like mathematical formulas? Let’s recall here the historical truth that the mission of language is not just the transmission of information. Even today, the lines of famous movie scenes and the lyrics of songs we once hummed will evoke memories and emotions of the past. Language does much more than simply act as a carrier of information.

A hypothesis proposed by researcher Mitsuhiro Denda provides an interesting perspective for thinking about the multi-dimensional role of language. Also known as a science fiction writer, Denda did his graduate studies in chemical engineering at Kyoto University, and then became a dermatological researcher in the private sector. Denda’s hypothesis is as follows.

Humans lost their covering of body hair about 1.2 million years ago, a massive change in the history of human evolution. This had wide-ranging effects, inspiring the development of clothes and houses, but the most significant effect was a change in communication.

Observe monkeys for a period of time and you’ll often see them grooming each other. Studies show that grooming not only brings comfort to monkeys, but also plays an important role in maintaining social relationships and building relationships in the group. In fact, humans also communicated with each other by providing comfort through grooming until they lost their hair. However, when they lost their body hair humans also lost their opportunities to groom each other.

What took its place was skin. Borrowing Denda’s words, the skin is very “smart.” In addition to touch in a narrow sense, the skin can also feel the warmth of light and the vibrations of sound. Some people can detect that their partner’s feelings towards them have faded through a decrease in their skin temperature. The skin is thus acting as a sensor for us in our interactions with the outside world.

I want to note here that these functions have been taken over by language, a new tool that has been highly developed by humans. Humankind acquired language in the process of evolution, and this is thought to have occurred about 200,000 years ago. In short, the tool of communication shifted from hair to skin and from skin to language. To put it another way, language is directly linked to our physiological body. Language, as did grooming and skin contact before it, now supports ambiguous and diverse interactions involving emotions and values.

Reflecting on grooming and human communication, the complexity that we now tend to regard as “ambiguous,” “obtrusive,” or “unnecessary” may be rather an essential element of language. If that function is lost, language can no longer be language, and more specifically, humans may no longer be human.

Verbal communication is not simply an act of information transmission. Before exchanging messages, we first make eye contact, greet each other, and mumble or think aloud. The tone and style of the voice convey subtle nuances, and silence also has complex functions. Prior to the transmission of information, we show that we are interested in the other party and acknowledge their presence, and interact with a wide range of emotions. Those emotions may emerge from agreement and excitement, but sometimes opposition or distrust may breed more negative emotions. People may be lovable, and yet on occasion may also be dangerous and defy comprehension. If we look at language as simply a phenomenon of information transmission, these may just be extra noise. However, this noise is actually important for building fundamental trust such as emotional exchange and context sharing.

The starting point of communication or being in touch with another person is unconditional respect for the physical presence of the other person, and that I believe is the origin of true empathy. Other people first appear to us as an undeniable presence through their physical, living body. Their physicality exists in real physical space and is often overlooked in virtual cyberspace. Space only becomes real when different bodies are present: for example, “me” and “you.” Encounters that create this awareness of otherness are never in vain, nor are you better off without them. This is the very essence of what is required for the creation and functioning of society. And such contact is an important element not only in the sharing of knowledge but also in its exploration.

Language is an ambiguous and incomplete tool. If the use of this tool started with touching as a part of grooming, it must involve a complex process of resolving misunderstandings and overcoming conflicts. Similarly, the use of language in the sharing of knowledge encounters a variety of obstacles, including objections, misunderstanding, non-understanding, conflict, and dissension.

I am sure that many times in your university life you have been bewildered by your inability to share understanding with others. You can’t agree with your research partners or can’t get your supervisor to understand. You just can’t understand what a lecturer is saying, or you can’t acquire the knowledge no matter how much you study. In contrast to moments of understanding where you exclaim “Oh, now I understand!” or “That’s what it was!” and which leave memorable pleasant impressions, you may often erase these negative ones from your memory. However, there must have been some raw encounters with other people and confrontations that you were forced to face yourself. In fact, it is through such processes that a solid foundation of knowledge is formed. It is only through clashes with different opinions, through misunderstandings and incomprehension, that knowledge that must be shared is polished and shines through.

I would now like to return to my words at the beginning of this speech and connect back to the importance of diversity and inclusiveness.

Respect diversity and use it as motivation to pursue excellence. Achieving this is not easy. It’s not just about simply accepting different wisdoms and different values. That would differ little from control by brainwashing. Instead, we need to talk face-to-face with people with different values, and not be afraid of making major concessions or changes. Even if you believe that you are absolutely right, don’t impose your mindset on others. Through sincere dialogue, search together for an ideal understanding that can include the other person’s ideas. The foundation of inclusiveness is an attitude that aims for a better coexistence without forgetting the balance of society as a whole and consideration for the vulnerable and minorities. Therein lies the significance of respecting diversity.

I was struck by the words of Professor Takeshi Yoro, who was invited to speak at last year’s Homecoming Day. On the topic of personal authentication in information technology, he said that “It’s my own unique noise that identifies who I am.” In order for a highly complex organic unified body to perform its intended functions, the various components of the organism must be linked together. They may appear to be out of place, but they are sometimes needed in interactions with others. For one prone to leaping to conclusions, such diversity may appear as annoying noise. But therein lies an essence that is unique to the individual, and that creates and supports a higher degree of diversity. Interpreting the noise without overlooking those differences and disparities requires sensitivity and imagination. I believe that cultivating that ability is even more important today as the voices of xenophobia and nationalism become ever more prominent. An acute and abundant sensitivity to individual differences is an essential precondition to the pursuit of inclusiveness.

That is why I feel that uncomfortably different opinions and encounters with different and diverse people play a greater role than ever before. I want you, as knowledge professionals, to always keep in mind that language is not a transparent tool, and that the ways we cultivate knowledge are not immutable or set in stone. I hope that you will further refine your sensitivity to calmly detect the noise that language sometimes produces and be able to respond intelligently and creatively. This is something that artificial intelligence is not yet able to do. There may be treasures yet to be discovered in that noise. I want you to become “sommeliers of noise,” so to speak, able to distinguish the chaff from the grain. And I want you to contribute to the sustainable development of the earth and human society.

Your experience at the University of Tokyo, from which you are leaving today, will be your greatest asset in the future. I truly hope that the two wings of diversity and inclusiveness I have spoken on today will carry you to ever greater heights.

There may be times in the future when you feel the need to go back to your roots. Or, you may want to collaborate again with colleagues with whom you have studied and researched at the University. When that happens, I hope that you will use the University of Tokyo and join a new cycle of collaborative creation. The University of Tokyo will always be with you. Graduation is not saying goodbye to the university. This is the beginning of a new collaboration. I will conclude this message with my sincere wish that you will all continue to be actively involved in the growth of the University.

Congratulations to all of you today.

Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
March 23, 2020
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