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Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the 2019 Graduate Schools Matriculation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Welcome to the University of Tokyo. On behalf of the university’s faculty members, I extend my sincere congratulations to you and your families.

In April this year, a total of 4,496 students entered our graduate schools: 2,927 in master's programs, 1,238 in doctoral programs, and 331 in professional degree programs. Of these, 638 are foreign students. I am sure you are all excited about your future research at the University and full of expectations for new learning and encounters. Our graduate schools rank with the world's best in terms of size, range of academic disciplines, and the level of research activity. I want you to make the most of this outstanding environment, and pursue your dream of devotion to learning with a great spirit of inquiry.

Today’s entrance ceremony will be the last for the Heisei era. You will undertake your studies in the era to be known as Reiwa, as announced the other day. I want you to gain strength and grow at the University of Tokyo to become leaders who support and define this new era, and our faculty and staff will do their best to assist you in your endeavors.

In its charter, the University of Tokyo declares that it serves the global public. Upon our naming as a Designated National University in June 2017, we proposed the formation of “a global base for knowledge collaboration” that contributes to the future of humanity and the planet, based on the principles of this charter. To create a better human society while protecting our irreplaceable earth, we have proposed specific action plans for implementation in four areas: research, education, collaboration with society, and management. Producing new knowledge is essential for making our future better in a world that is changing dramatically. To do so, diverse people must bring together leading-edge research results, collaboratively examine them from multiple angles to produce new ideas, and then amplify and enhance these ideas. We describe this type of research collaboration as a “synergy between excellence and diversity.” With a keen awareness of this synergy, we seek to create value from academic pursuits and link it with action to pave the way towards a sustainable future. Such activities are already starting to proceed apace. To share this widely, in October last year we published the University of Tokyo Integrated Report, taking the lead ahead of other universities in Japan. In this advanced initiative, the University was only the eighth institution in the world to release an integrated report. That's the booklet we distributed to you today, with an illustration of Akamon Gate on the cover. In it we introduce the specific initiatives being undertaken at the University of Tokyo for the purpose of nurturing future leaders with a global outlook. I urge you read this booklet carefully.

Of course, it is important to serve not only the world but also the public of Japan. Last year saw several disasters in Japan, including the Northern Osaka Prefecture Earthquake, torrential rain in western Japan, and the Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake. I would like to extend my condolences again to all those affected by these disasters. Many faculty, staff and students at the University of Tokyo have taken part in various activities to support reconstruction. You should also find opportunities to join the wider circle of support for reconstruction. You will gain valuable experiences that cannot be found in the classroom or in the laboratory.

The 20th century has been called “the century of science and technology,” with remarkable innovations being made in many fields. In particular, advances in automobiles, high-speed trains, airplanes, and other means of transport, and in information and communication technologies such as computers and the internet have been extraordinary, and with the spread of smartphones in the 21st century, humanity can now exchange information across borders in real time, bringing the world even closer together.

We also saw the invention and development of innovative compounds such as synthetic resins and materials supporting the advances of electronics technology. Chemical fertilizers help to provide a stable supply of food, and the discovery of antibiotics has freed many people from the threat of disease. No doubt, technological innovation has dramatically improved the quality of people's lives around the world.

However, conflicts across the globe are unceasing and disparities between regions are in fact widening. Issues such as simultaneous global financial instability, environmental destruction, global warming, and refugees are becoming more serious problems that transcend national borders. All these challenges urgently require a global response.

When I was a junior high school student, the song Seinen Wa Kōya wo Mezasu, or Young People will Seek the Wilderness, was popular. The song’s title suggests that the world is wide and that the wilderness continues without end. About half a century later though, it is more important than ever to be acutely aware of the finite nature of the Earth.

To tackle our planet’s finiteness head on, the United Nations adopted a Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. These goals seek to contribute to the future of the Earth and human society, with developed and developing countries working together to realize a sustainable world in 17 areas such as poverty, energy, climate change, health, and welfare. These goals are consistent with our mission here at the University of Tokyo. We cannot solve the challenges that lie ahead of us with science and technology alone. You will first need to understand the nature of technology, and then you need to have true wisdom so that you can control and make use of that technology. I want you to learn and acquire this wisdom at the University of Tokyo, and become leaders who can proactively tackle the key issues facing humanity.

People who use knowledge to contribute to the development of humanity are those I call “knowledge professionals.” To become a knowledge professional, you should acquire three basic abilities.

The first is the ability to reason from first principles; that is, the ability to explore the nature of things and to think and draw conclusions by yourself. Rather than relying on the information that can be easily obtained with a smartphone or other device, it is more important to take the approach of thinking and asking questions yourself. For the specialization each of you is tackling, tracing the history of the discipline and returning to its beginnings to understand its meaning and mission will stand you in good stead to acquire that ability.

The second is the ability to think patiently, a skill that is important when you face questions for which you do not know whether there is an answer. In your research life that begins now, you will surely encounter challenges for which you cannot find even a clue how to proceed. I too, have found myself in such situations in my past research life. At such a time, the most important thing was to keep thinking, without giving up. The biographies of people with great accomplishments often relate anecdotes of genius-like inspiration coming suddenly during a walk or while taking a bath. But these are not revelations that happened purely by chance. These people were inspired only because they kept thinking about the subject. Through persistence, you refine your thinking and gain the ability to break through logically. The graduate school environment that you are about to experience will afford you a lot of free time. I urge you to take advantage of that precious time, and carefully train your ability to think patiently.

The third is “the ability to create new ideas on your own.” Put another way, this is the ability to break through the limits of your existing knowledge. To do so, it is necessary to first thoroughly learn and properly understand the work of your predecessors. Only with a solid foundation of basic academic skills can we add new knowledge we have acquired to the wealth of knowledge shared by humanity. That is the thrill of learning and its most enjoyable moment.

To consider a practical application of these three basic abilities, I now wish to focus attention on the global challenges of the “century of the environment,” with the example of plastics, the revolutionary new material developed in the 20th century. Plastics are made up of hundreds of thousands of high-molecular-weight molecules or polymers, in which their constituent molecules called monomers are linked together like chains in a reaction known as polymerization. The development of materials with excellent insulating properties that do not readily corrode in water opened up a world of new possibilities. The first plastic was celluloid, developed in the late 19th century and synthesized from plant cellulose. New materials and production technologies were developed in the 20th century, allied with advances in the petrochemical industry, and demand for plastics took off rapidly. Light, durable, long-lasting, capable of being molded into various shapes and mass produced, these new materials have become indispensable to us and have made our lives richer.

However, plastics are now having a dire impact on the global environment. The use of plastics is still increasing at an accelerating pace, and many plastic products are disposable, such as straws and plastic bags. Thrown away, they find their way via rivers to the sea where they break down into fine particles and are carried by the ocean currents to all parts of the world. You are all aware that this marine microplastic pollution is beginning to have a profound effect on the natural environment and ecosystems including those of marine organisms. This issue also attracted the most attention at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January this year.

If one hundred percent of plastics could be collected and recycled, they would not end up in the natural environment. But that is not easy. It would be well-nigh impossible to immediately ban the use of all disposable products. Meanwhile, their replacement with “biodegradable plastics,” which break down completely into carbon dioxide and water in the environment, is also being explored. However, in addition to the cost, there are many problems that require scientific evaluation, such as whether they truly break down anywhere on the Earth and how long this might take. Furthermore, the dispersal of marine microplastics is not a problem that can be solved by one country acting alone. It is not only a problem for science and technology; building an international consensus will require contributions from the fields of law, politics, economics and sociology.

To tackle these problems head on, it is again necessary to reason from first principles and analyze them multifacetedly, to grasp exactly where the problem is patiently, to understand the nature of the matter, and to decide with your own ideas what action you should take.

In striving to become knowledge professionals, you should bear one thing in mind. That is the question: “Are we free to research whatever we want?”

As we can see in the example of plastics I mentioned earlier, the goal of research is to invent or discover something completely new or better than ever. Perhaps you may believe that the researcher’s task is to acquire new knowledge and that the responsibility for employing that knowledge lies with the user. However, as it is clear that the earth is a finite environment and that information is now transmitted throughout the world in a blink of an eye, and has a great impact on countless people, the situation has changed a great deal. As ever, it has become difficult to separate the responsibility of the maker and the responsibility of the user. Researchers have a responsibility to think ahead about how the results of their research may be used and how they might affect humanity and the environment. Moreover, researchers nowadays are expected to be accountable even for the unexpected issues that occur as a result of their research.

To acquire the ability to shoulder such a responsibility, it is important to expand your interests beyond your field of specialization. Think about the potential of your research results, consider their connection with research in other fields, and make sure that you can traverse its “boundary” and explain your research to people in other fields. This is essential for establishing effective cooperative relationships with others on key challenges at hand. In addition to crossing the academic divisions, it will be necessary to cross between various areas and cultures by going back and forth across boundaries such as those made by language and nationality. The University of Tokyo is the best place to develop this ability. To aid this process, we offer liberal arts lectures to our graduate students. These are lectures for non-specialists, designed to convey the social and academic background of the fields and the appeal of leading-edge research undertaken by all graduate schools and research institutes. I urge you all to embrace the opportunity afforded by these lectures.

Being a knowledge professional requires an ability to communicate effectively on the world stage. If we do not communicate to the world the new knowledge unearthed through our endeavors, it cannot have a broad impact on society. It is also essential to find partners who understand the value of new knowledge and provide us support with empathy. To that end, honing your skills to express yourselves to others is key. Providing understandable explanations and entering the global community are connected in this age of globalization.

To widely share your feelings about the value of the results you have achieved, it is necessary to have the ability to express it in words that can be widely understood, not by just fellow researchers. It may not be easy to accommodate yourselves to the listener’s standpoint or interests and explain and convey the latest academic findings. However, such a skill is required in modern research.

So, how can we develop such skills? First, take a single, simple step. That is, to actually try talking. For example, you may want to talk to your parents, siblings, lovers, partners, friends, and other people who care for you about what you are doing and what you are about to do. It will be valuable training and I’m sure you will enjoy the conversation. Take the opportunity today to do so with your family, friends, and others here with you.

More importantly, this strategy is also useful for checking and organizing your own understanding of your research. If you cannot explain your research well, it means that your own understanding is inadequate. Why not give it a try, maybe tonight, even for just three minutes?

It is also essential to acquire the ability to communicate in English, which is becoming the common language of the world. Now that cross-border interactions are needed in every field, we cannot just stay at home in our own country. However, just being able to speak English is meaningless. The truly important thing is to have something to say. In the future, you will all work together with people from various countries to a greater extent than you have in the past. At that time, the real issue is your depth as a human being. You must first understand your own country's history, culture, social systems, and economy, and then be prepared to understand other countries. To enter the world community is to understand the history of others and their diverse ways of thinking, and to discuss the way humanity should be 100 years from now.

The University of Tokyo has many overseas study programs. In addition to those involving the entire university such as our strategic partnerships, which are linked with major universities in the world, and experience-based overseas programs, each graduate school has a system that supports overseas study opportunities ranging from months to years. This year we have also initiated a program in collaboration with globally-active corporations in which participants will directly learn about regional challenges in various parts of the world. By all means, take advantage of these opportunities to truly experience overseas living and broaden your own knowledge.

Now, your lives as graduate students are about to begin. The University of Tokyo will support your dreams with all its might. As president of the university, I want to further enhance the research and educational environment of our graduate schools on all levels so that you can devote yourself and do your best in learning and research. A healthy mind and body are the foundation for you to realize your dreams. Graduate students tend to have irregular lives. Wake up regularly, feel the sunshine on your face, and eat a good breakfast every day. Also, find time in your research schedule to develop a habit of exercising that suits your circumstances. And ensure you make time for your hobbies.

I wish you all the best for your success at graduate school.

Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
April 12, 2019
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