To all of you receiving diplomas today, congratulations on the completion of your program. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Tokyo, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations on your achievement. The coronavirus pandemic since early 2020 put many constraints on the last two years of your master’s, doctoral, and professional degree programs. You deserve the greatest respect for your efforts in completing research worthy of your diplomas despite the many challenges. I would also like to express my sincere appreciation to everyone who has encouraged and supported you along the way.
Because of the pandemic, not everyone has been able to gather here at Yasuda Auditorium. But all of you who are watching this ceremony online are with us in spirit, and I congratulate you all as well.
Our society today is undergoing major changes on an unprecedented scale. In the short term, the spread of COVID-19 has transformed our daily lives in a way we have never seen before. In the longer term, the tangible effects of climate change are making social transformation inevitable as efforts to rein in global warming get under way. At first, I thought would begin my talk today by contrasting such short-term and long-term perspectives, but it now seems necessary to take the additional perspective of peacetime versus wartime.
The outrageous military attack that occurred suddenly in late February is causing destruction and tragedy that no one could wish for and is shattering people’s daily lives on an immense scale. The vulnerability of the world order as we knew it has been laid bare. Looking back, we can see that the lessons the human race should have learned from the two world wars are the importance of the freedom to question simplistic explanations, such as justifications for war, and the crucial role that dialogue and interaction play even in the face of fierce conflict. The question for us now is how universities can help to rid the world of the misery of war through our education and research. The University of Tokyo must also ask how we can help students, their families, researchers, and others who are now facing difficult times. These urgent issues have all come into sharper focus.
Returning to the long-term issues, the COP26 summit held last November reached an agreement on the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above the pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This has triggered a number of game-changing efforts toward decarbonization both at home and abroad. UTokyo has announced our own participation in the Race to Zero for Universities and Colleges, an international undertaking to achieve carbon neutrality by higher educational institutions. We have also set up the Energy Transition Initiative – Center for Global Commons (ETI-CGC), a platform for creating a path for decarbonization in Japan through industry-university collaboration. To mark its launch, we held an online event connecting Tokyo with the COP26 venue.
The scientific basis of the need for such initiatives can be found in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), which assess climate change from the perspective of the natural sciences. The Sixth Assessment Report, released in August last year, concludes that widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere are “unequivocally caused by human activities” and that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”
One of the pioneers who sought to shed light on the mechanism behind this severe global warming is Dr. Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. Dr. Manabe graduated from UTokyo’s Department of Geophysics, Faculty of Science (now known as the Department of Earth and Planetary Physics), and moved to the United States in 1958. For over six decades since, he has conducted research on numerical models of the Earth’s climate system. At first, his computing resources were limited, and it was considered all but impossible to simulate the Earth’s climate. Yet Dr. Manabe was able to become the first in the world to develop a radiative-convective equilibrium model to study the exchange of energy at various altitudes in the atmosphere and the mixing ratios of air due to convection. By using this physics-based model, he found that an increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide causes a change in the climate. For that discovery he received the Nobel Prize. UTokyo is continuing research in the direction he pioneered, and now we not only serve as a hub of climate change research in Japan but also have produced the largest number of researchers in Japan who contributed to the IPPC Sixth Assessment Report.
After he received the prize, I was very impressed to hear Dr. Manabe say repeatedly in an interview how interesting the research had been for him when he was pioneering research on climate using numerical models. His words encapsulate a sensibility critically important for doing research, a feeling of venturing out into uncharted territory and forging ahead with excitement. Back in the 1960s when he started his research, he said, he never imagined global warming would become such a major problem. He said that even great discoveries that can have a big impact in the future are initially not recognized for their potential contributions. Dr. Manabe seems to be saying how important it is to have genuine interest and curiosity.
In retrospect, a number of dreams that scientists thought were unachievable in the middle of the last century have now come true more than half a century later. The discovery of DNA’s double helix structure is one such example. Although it is only 50 years since that discovery ushered in a new field of research, scientists have already completely sequenced the human genome, the blueprint of human beings, and revealed it in its entirety.
This great accomplishment occurred because the curiosity and passion of the pioneering researchers became a mission shared by many people who tackled the same research question. That mission then created a context, a place, for further research, which in turn developed into a cross-disciplinary, multigenerational scientific endeavor. The Human Genome Project was launched by the U.S. government in 1990. Initially, experts believed that it would take far longer to achieve the project’s goal. But along the way, techniques were developed for significantly speeding up the decoding process by breaking up the genomes, decoding their DNA sequences, and then putting them back together in the correct order. A start-up company was spun off to apply this technology for practical purposes, and that company’s participation in the decoding process helped create that “place” for international research, setting the stage for further competition. As a result, a human genome draft sequence was unveiled in June 2000, years earlier than originally planned.
Now that the 21st century is already one-fifth over, what was once considered unimaginable becomes a reality in a much shorter span of time. The open-sourcing of technology leads to its application much more quickly, and new technology spreads throughout society faster than ever before. The development of DNA recombination technology to rewrite the blueprints of living things—genetic engineering—began back in the early 1970s, when unraveling entire genomes seemed nearly unimaginable. But 40 years later, by the 2010s, the advent of genome editing technology enabled us to rewrite genome sequences however we like.
However, having the ability to do so freely and easily is not necessarily desirable. We must think deeply about the difference between what we can do and what we should do. We now live in a time when major technological advances achieved in a short period of time permeate our society and lives quickly, outpacing discussions about their ethical and legal implications.
The world we live in today faces a wave of unprecedented changes—not just in technology but in ethics as well. To tackle those changes directly, we increasingly need to be guided by curiosity and responsibility and to engage in free and innovative research across disciplines and national borders.
There are other global issues to be tackled outside the realm of natural science. In areas like poverty, social welfare, education, and gender equality, or the 17 targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, there are many objectives that can be achieved only through combined efforts across a broad range of research fields in the humanities, social and natural sciences, and engineering. As such, it is becoming all the more important and necessary to create a more comprehensive “place” for research.
But when we look at Japanese society today, we cannot say that a sufficient foundation has been built yet for reaching those goals. This problem is the result of a complex mix of factors, including the unique characteristics of Japan’s primary and secondary education systems established over many years; structural problems of our country’s higher education system, including universities and graduate schools; and the limited opportunities for continuing research and studies after graduation.
International student assessment surveys have revealed some interesting facts about primary and middle school education in Japan. According to a 2018 survey of 15-year-old students worldwide conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japanese students worry more about failure while being less motivated to study compared with students in other countries and regions. In the same year, the OECD also surveyed primary and middle school teachers. The survey found that few junior high schools in Japan were helping students find value in learning, and that our country reported the lowest percentage of middle schools encouraging students to develop critical thinking skills among all countries surveyed. As Japanese junior high schools emphasize the academic skills required for passing high school and university entrance examinations, teachers tend to offer standardized guidance on how to raise test scores and fail to encourage students to continue studying out of interest. If these results are true, then the problems must be very deeply rooted.
As for higher education, the number of people entering master’s and doctoral degree programs has been stagnant due to a combination of factors, including an unpredictable academic job market and the labor market’s failure to properly assess the outcomes of specialized study and research at the university and graduate school levels. The percentage of Japanese working adults seeking to improve themselves or gain new or updated knowledge and skills is also said to be low compared to other industrialized countries. There have also been reports that private companies are reducing their spending on human resources development.
As these issues have surfaced, the Japanese government has begun studying ways to do something about the situation. One such measure is to provide better recurrent education, an initiative that gives people opportunities to return to educational institutions to upgrade their knowledge and skills at any stage in their lives. Studying again at a university or graduate school is especially important as a way to gain the most advanced knowledge. Our own university’s commitment to offering recurrent education is included in the UTokyo Compass.
The fact that the average age of Japanese university entrants is around 18, quite a bit younger than in other countries, shows our standardized approach to stages in life. Most Japanese enter college immediately after graduating from high school, and then they start working right after graduation from university or graduate school. As a result, they lose their connections to educational institutions while still young. This is one reason why Japan has a smaller percentage of adults going back to school than in other advanced countries.
Finishing one’s learning early in life is not only unfortunate but also a challenge in today’s rapidly-changing world. The conventional ways of learning must now change. We all need to transform ourselves and our society by allowing people to go back and forth between the world of work and educational institutions at any time in life and over and over again based on individual interests and needs. To make this possible, we will need to revamp our social structure and change the way we live our lives.
Two basic principles espoused by UTokyo Compass are diversity and inclusion. The concept of diversity includes the many different aspects of being human, including gender, nationality, and abilities and disabilities. Equally important is diversity of age and personal background. Regardless of stage in life or past work and background, I hope to offer people a place where they can come together, discuss, and pursue new knowledge. I would like to make the University of Tokyo a place where people of diverse backgrounds can bounce ideas off each other and generate synergies, a place that anyone would want to come to.
Each of you here today is about to set out on your chosen path. Some of you will continue with research at universities or research institutions, while others will start working for companies or government organizations. Some of you will start your own businesses. Whatever choice you make, there is one thing I would like you to keep in mind: it takes more than one person to accomplish anything big. Whether you are doing work or R&D focused on solving a particular problem, or whether you are pursuing new research as your curiosity leads you, as shown by the example of the Human Genome Project, collaboration with other people leads to great outcomes. Perhaps you will find an existing place to do that; if not, I hope you will create such a place on your own.
I am sure that, along the way, you will sometimes hit stumbling blocks but also find new areas of interest. When that happens, please remember that you always have the option to learn and research with a fresh perspective whenever you like, for however many times you like, wherever your interests take you. Of course, one such place, a place that covers a broad range of academic disciplines and that can help you to develop the ability to take on new challenges, is your alma mater, the University of Tokyo.
As I said at the outset, more than ever before, now is the time when we need to keep reinventing ourselves and keep taking on new challenges, because we are now in the midst of unprecedented changes. At a time like this, I especially hope that you, our graduating students, will continue to make use of the University of Tokyo as a place to gain sustenance to lead an even better life. As aptly expressed by the words “lifelong learning,” I hope you will enjoy the great benefits of learning throughout your life.
Congratulations to you all once again!
The University of Tokyo
March 24, 2022