Statements from President Gonokami
Home > Statements from President Gonokami > Address by the President of UTokyo at the AY 2020 Spring Semester Diploma Presentation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Address by the President of UTokyo at the AY 2020 Spring Semester Diploma Presentation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Congratulations to all of you who receive your diplomas today. This academic year, the total number of students who have been awarded postgraduate degrees is 4,523, consisting of 3,156 master’s degree graduates, 1,046 doctoral degree graduates, and 321 professional degree graduates. Among these, 1,129 degrees have been earned by international students.

You are the last class of graduating students during my presidency. The coronavirus pandemic, which has taken place in the final year of your study, has transformed the shape of our society and our everyday life immensely. This past year has proven to be a particularly challenging and transformative year in the 144-year history of the University of Tokyo (UTokyo). As such, the academic year 2020 will go down in history and be etched in people’s memory and remembered for a long time.

Even in the face of the pandemic-caused restrictions and difficulty, you continued to work hard step by step and have made it through to the day of completion today. On behalf of the University’s faculty and administrative members, I would like to express my respect to you for your efforts and offer my sincere congratulations. Also, allow me to express my sincere appreciation to your families who have supported you both mentally and physically and join in this day of celebration.

We are currently living in an era of major transformation, the digital revolution. A coupling of the internet and multiple technological innovations has led to the emergence and rapid expansion of cyberspace. This has in turn transformed how individuals live their lives and how states and the world as a whole operate. As we are going through such a change, we are faced with the global spread of the new coronavirus. I feel that digital innovations have helped us in several aspects of the COVID-19 response over the past year.

For instance, real-time online meetings have become a lifeline for continuing the University’s activities. What I found most surprising was the development of mRNA vaccines at an astonishing speed. This is unbelievably fast, given the conventional development and production process of inactivated vaccines and live-attenuated vaccines. This feat is made possible by the cutting-edge data science and artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies. In addition, digitized genome data of the coronavirus was made publicly accessible globally, an important step in accelerating collaboration and cooperation for vaccine development.

The University, too, has accelerated digital innovations internally. Since April last year, our faculty members, administrative staffers, and students have worked together as one in moving all lectures online, and we were able to follow through with the planned school events nearly as scheduled. What’s more, the portal site for information about online classes, called utelecon, is accessed by faculty members of UTokyo and other universities. Moreover, the UTokyo-developed contact-tracing app, called Mobile CHeck-in Application (MOCHA), is used to check on how crowded lecture rooms or school cafeterias are on the University campuses. Meanwhile, we have also discovered a number of benefits that come with online teaching. Our students can attend classes without worrying about a physical distance and commuting hours. This makes it possible for the students of Komaba and Kashiwa campuses to observe Hongo Campus classes during their free time. As such, many people have welcomed this shift.

One year ago, we decided hastily to livestream the diploma presentation ceremony following the spread of the coronavirus. At the time I said that I wanted to celebrate this day in a virtual Yasuda Auditorium. Similarly, some undergraduate students voluntarily organized a virtual commencement ceremony, which led to the creation of a virtual reality space called Virtual Todai. Last September, the University used this VR space to hold online campus visits for high school students and I myself appeared as an avatar in those campus visits. A total of 14,000 students took part in that online event from across Japan, and it ended with great success. One high school student who participated said, “It felt like I was really there,” while another student noted that it was fun because it felt like joining with all the other students.

Nevertheless, what we found out through this experience is not just about technological convenience or the fun of playing with the VR space application. What we have learned is a high level of integration between the physical space and cyberspace, which can open up much greater possibilities.
Digital innovation is not just about digitalizing our existing systems as they are, like replacing an official stamp with an electronic one. Instead, what you need to do is to go back to examining why official stamps were needed in the first place and to start thinking about how to create and integrate a new social system by fully utilizing the latest cyber technologies. You may wonder what new possibilities such a high level of integration will generate. The key lies in our own bodies. While our brains control the information system in humans, our bodies function as an interface between such information and the outside physical space. The information-based cyberspace and the physical space, of which our bodies are part, are not separate entities. In other words, physical space and cyberspace should not be juxtaposed and decoupled. Rather, just as demonstrated by our bodies, these two spaces should be integrated seamlessly. Physicality is a key concept when we think about digital innovation.

Another lesson I have learned from the COVID-19 response is also related closely to this idea of physicality; that is, I have rediscovered the value of face-to-face communication by being physically together in the same space, a custom that was long taken for granted. It is necessary to have mutual trust and empathy in promoting research and educational activities or executing university management smoothly. I realized time and again how difficult it was to build such a relationship of trust just by relying on the current remote communications environment. This is about our physicality in cyberspace. In my address at the diploma presentation ceremony last year, I said that the languages humans used for communication had originated from the act of grooming each other. Given that, I think it is an academically interesting yet challenging task as to how to incorporate physical sensations, such as human touch and warmth, into information and communications media in the future.

And yet, it is not so easy for us to become conscious of our physical bodies. You now listen to my speech while being seated (I suppose you most likely listen to my speech while being seated). But I think you are not aware at all which muscle affects your balance in movement. In a sense, our bodies go through their routine motions quietly. This quietness also presents difficulties when it comes to injury rehabilitation or sports coaching.

Nevertheless, the knowledge and experience we gain through our bodies are a precious asset. In the past, I assumed that there wasn’t much difference between in-person seminar or lecture and online teaching in terms of the amount of information you can get. But in fact, there is a certain effect or what can be described as physical intelligence. As the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly restricted opportunities for meeting face-to-face, we have realized how valuable it is for the University to have a physical space that was also taken for granted. The value of physical intelligence can’t be fostered with the online tools available today. I am certain that such a value will grow in importance in the years to come. At the same time, it is equally important to improve the quality of in-person activities such as classroom lectures, experiments and hands-on work in laboratories, as well as fieldwork.

Earlier, I said that the brain-body relationship is analogous to an integration of the physical space and cyberspace. British philosopher Andy Clark argues that humans have in a sense been natural born cyborgs ever since the invention of language. This suggests that our real physical bodies are intricately connected with virtual languages. With the development of language, humans have created multi-dimensional spaces where information and the physical body come together, and have developed a co-creation system called society beyond the limits of individual physical bodies. In other words, humans voice their thoughts to align with others physically and nurture empathy, and have continued to share more knowledge through time and space by using characters as a medium of communication. The academic disciplines you studied at University are the results of such human endeavors over many years.

You must be using emoji in your daily communication on your smartphones. I myself don’t use emoji very much, but I am interested in new possibilities that emoji can open up. Developed first in 1999 in Japan, this new type of characters is suitable for conveying subtle nuances well and is widely used around the world today. Emoji was added to the Museum of Modern Art’s Collection in 2016. The total number of emoji is said to be over 3,000, surpassing the number of daily-use Chinese characters used in Japan. Emoji is now the object of serious research in the fields of linguistics and information science. A team of four students who today completed their degrees at the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies and the Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, have developed an emoji input-dedicated keyboard and an input-assist system called “emolingual.” Their accomplishments are drawing much attention.

I mentioned earlier that the COVID-19 pandemic awoke me to the importance of physicality in cyberspace. In a sense, I think emoji represents a move to revive our physical expression. Historically, handwritten characters -- used to write documents including letters -- have given way to standardized typing and printing, depriving us of an opportunity to put emotions into the way we write characters. In cyberspace, meanwhile, people throw raw emotions at each other in instances of flaming and there is a marked rise in anonymous hate speech or exclusionist verbal abuse. Given these circumstances, emoji serves as what I would call “emotion expressing characters” and represents an effort to generate a new type of character embodying both emotions and physicality through the use of today’s information technologies. I believe that emoji can be a catalyst for reviving empathetic communication -- the original purpose of language -- even in cyberspace.

In our life today, cyberspace is becoming ever more important. Observers point out that cyberspace is degenerating due in large part to the spread of fake news and a deepening division caused by the echo chamber effect.
Similarly, our physical space is also at greater risk of degeneration, as seen in the case of increased global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have continued to expand so much that they can now exert a damaging influence on the earth’s environment itself. The naming of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, is representative of the sense of urgency felt today.
In October 2020, the Japanese government laid out a goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In December last year, the University of Tokyo hosted Tokyo Forum 2020 and held a discussion on this issue based on the latest scientific data. Panelists argued that humanity could lose an opportunity to control the earth’s environment system due to their own discretion and actions unless CO2 emissions were cut by nearly 50% by 2030. We don’t have much time left. Even so, it is clear that we can’t deal with this problem by relying solely on our knowledge and wisdom at hand. The question is how to generate knowledge and wisdom needed to tackle this issue.

Then, what should the University do now? I think we are expected to find a way to generate new knowledge and wisdom from nothing.

When I think about this issue, I always recall zero-point vibration in a quantum vacuum state. This zero does not mean emptiness. Zero-point vibration induces a spontaneous emission of light-emitting excited electrons trapped in atoms, triggering creation and annihilation of particles and antiparticles. In measuring the energy of electromagnetic waves, what matters is only the difference from the standard. As such, I explain in my lecture that we do not need to care about this zero-point vibration.
When we factor in gravitational effect, however, the absolute value of electromagnetic wave energy becomes important and can’t be overlooked. For instance, if we bring two metal sheets close to each other, the zero-point vibrational energy in an electromagnetic field becomes dependent on the distance between the two metal sheets. This generates the Casimir force between the two metal sheets. This effect is so small that detecting this force requires careful and precise experiments. Professor ‪Umar Mohideen of the University of California, Riverside, ‬-- who is an old friend of mine -- has been focused on the Casimir force as his life-long research topic. He spent 10 years to precisely measure the force at work between a minute metallic ball and two metallic sheets by employing the principle of an atomic force microscope, and he successfully detected zero-point vibrational energy.

I suppose you must have hesitated over your approach before you were able to crystallize your research into an academic paper using words. You must have experienced various difficulties. When you are in deep thought searching for words to express your ideas, just like a zero-point vibration, you may appear as if you are doing nothing from the outside. But this process is indispensable to generate new knowledge. I believe you must have experienced such a force of zero-point vibration through your research at the graduate schools here.

Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the U.S., wrote that “Throughout the whole history of science, most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” As such, he argued that educational institutions should strive to foster curiosity. You may have been taken aback by your friends or overseas researchers who were passionate about something. Without realizing it, seeing them may have inspired interest in you. Nurturing curiosity will help enrich a great variety of zeros, so to speak.

Unfortunately, there are those who only appreciate visible outcomes in the form of “1.” In Japan’s high economic growth era, efforts were welcomed to increase the benefits of growth from 1 to 10 and the already-achieved outcomes from 10 to 100. This was because there was a clearly visible growth path.

However, we are now living in an age of constant change with a string of unpredictable challenges. When such a challenge arises, we will likely end up panicking if we simply try to respond with conventional measures. That is why it is all the more important to embrace a variety of zeros filled with energy fueled by researchers’ curiosity. The key lies in having a fertile ground and the agility to generate “1 from 0” or something from nothing in various fields.

In retrospect, Japan was going through tumultuous times in the early years of the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) when the University of Tokyo was established, as well as the economic recovery period after World War II. To create a new form of society in Japan, our predecessors built the University as a place of new academic learning from scratch and continued to develop it through trial and error. As we are now in this great time of change, I think that these zeros are the most fundamental and precious value the University has to offer.

As president, through encounters with various people, I have realized time and again that the University of Tokyo has an abundance of such zeros. This means that the University has a zero that can turn into 1 at some point, i.e., a source of new knowledge. But I may miss such a chance if I just sit around. To not let it pass, I have also learned the importance of not dismissing different ideas or interests outright and continuing dialogue. Those who passionately devote their lives to something find fun and joy in what they do. That is exactly where this zero comes form, and it is important for us to nurture that on our own initiative. To do that, we need to identify the sign of a zero that can generate 1 sometime in the future, be curious and excited enough to jump right at it, and have a support community that can help sustain that zero. It is about relating to other people’s interests through dialogue. In other words, curiosity and empathy form the basis of value creation at the University. I hope you, the graduating students, will remember this experience here at the University of Tokyo.

You need to take on various challenges in order to build a better future. In a sense, the University serves like a theater where students and researchers come together to share and carry out such challenging tasks. This “school theater” offers a wide repertoire of themes, has a number of strong-minded players on the stage, and takes in and sends out audience members from various backgrounds. Different values may have been so surprising and overwhelming that you may have felt uncomfortable at times. However, the path toward a better society is not going to be an easy one.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been adding to the pace of digital innovation. On the other hand, digital innovation could also risk allowing certain companies and governments to monopolize data, which in turn could lead to a deep division and gap between who owns data and who doesn’t in a digital monopoly society. This is because it is not at all easy to relate to someone else’s problems as if they are your own.
While serving as president, I myself have also learned a lot from embarrassing as well as horrifying moments. To genuinely respect diversity is easier said than done. I have realized that we can’t foster diversity unless we make conscious efforts to respect and take action to preserve it. Yet, I am certain that having the ability to see things from a different perspective and a place for communicating with diverse people will be an invaluable asset for us.

This address is my final message as president. Lastly, let me talk a little bit about a behind-the-scenes story. All my addresses and messages so far were developed through dialogue and deep discussion with many faculty members from various academic disciplines. As president, I have been blessed with opportunities to learn firsthand about the University of Tokyo’s rich academic traditions built over the years. All of those encounters were eye-opening to me. Thus, I have always wanted to talk about the appeal and power of knowledge to the students on occasions like matriculation and commencement ceremonies.
It has always been truly interesting to have the time to discuss with other highly-specialized knowledge professionals and generate synergies in ideas for my speeches. That process has given me the chance to experience the co-creation that is the essence of what I have advocated. In the past, only books on physics were lined up on the bookshelves in my study. But now, I have a wide and rich collection of books on themes ranging from linguistics to history, economics to sociology, biosciences to information science. On this occasion, allow me to express my appreciation and thanks to a total of more than 100 professors. I feel that the past six years as the president of the University of Tokyo have been the most rewarding time of my life.

Today, you are graduating from the University of Tokyo. You are no longer a spectator nor an actor who simply read the lines in a script. You are now a screenwriter for your own life. I strongly hope that you will cherish the ability to see things from a higher perspective beyond your field of activity, the ability to relate to other people, and the ability to comprehend a flow of events in history from the past to the present and to the future so that you can take the lead and drive change for a better society. If you feel the need to recharge yourself and stimulate your curiosity further, please feel free to come back to the University of Tokyo.

It is my sincere hope that the University of Tokyo will continue to develop further as a joyful place full of discoveries made from diverse zeros. As a knowledge professional seeking to build a new better world, I am also committed to driving our society together with all of you. I, too, would like to graduate from my role as president.


Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
March 19, 2021
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