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Home > Current Students > Ceremonies > Congratulatory Addresses at Matriculation Ceremonies and Commencements > Address by the President of UTokyo for the 2021 Spring Graduate Matriculation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Address by the President of UTokyo for the 2021 Spring Graduate Matriculation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Congratulations to you all on being admitted to the Graduate Schools of the University of Tokyo. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Tokyo, I would also like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to your families and loved ones.

In April this year, a total of 4,568 students were admitted: 2,995 entered master’s programs, 1,244 entered doctoral programs, and 329 entered professional degree programs.

I am sure that it was not an easy decision to begin or continue your graduate studies during this unprecedented pandemic. While you may be looking forward eagerly to your studies, you may also be feeling somewhat anxious. Having just been appointed President of the university this April myself, I am also feeling a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

Originally, I was supposed to deliver my address as President at the entrance ceremony held at the Nippon Budokan on April 12. I had been looking forward to it immensely, but due to my infection with the novel coronavirus, I was unable to do so. As I announced in a message on our university website, I felt unwell just after the start of the new academic year, and a PCR test returned a positive result. Before starting my duties for the new year, I had been more careful than ever to limit meetings, wear a mask, and disinfect my hands, but I realize that no matter how careful one is, the risk of infection is always there.

Although my illness was mild, I experienced severe fatigue and a mild disturbance in my sense of smell, unlike the typical symptoms of ordinary colds and influenza. After about two weeks in hospital, I was able to return to my official duties. During my hospital stay, I saw health care professionals working day and night to care for patients, monitor their health, and provide treatment, and I was reminded of the ongoing struggles of health and medical professionals around the world. I would like to express my respect and gratitude to all those who are working so hard to overcome this calamity.

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you again on your admission and to share with you some thoughts that I hope you will take to heart. These are curiosity about the unknown; creativity, the process that seeks to create new things; and collaboration in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation. In fact, these three things are all closely intertwined.

As many of you may have seen in the news, Japan’s asteroid probe Hayabusa2 brought back samples of soil and small rocks from the asteroid Ryugu to Earth on December 6 last year.

In 2010, 10 years earlier, a probe named Hayabusa1 successfully returned samples from the asteroid Itokawa, the first time in human history that this feat had been achieved. These samples brought back to Earth by the first and second Hayabusa probes will teach us much. It is expected that they will yield significant scientific findings that will lead to a better understanding of the origins of our Earth and the Solar System.

Did you know that Japan’s space development program, the forerunner of Hayabusa, began at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science? Dr. Hideo Itokawa at the Institute of Industrial Science led the project there to develop Japan’s first sounding rockets. The asteroid Itokawa visited by Hayabusa1 was actually named after him in 2003.

Before World War II, Dr. Itokawa was involved in designing fighter planes for a Japanese aircraft manufacturer, and in 1942 he was appointed Assistant Professor of the Second Faculty of Engineering at this university. When the Institute of Industrial Science was established, he was appointed a to full professorship there, where he became involved in rocket research from the mid-1950s.

After the end of World War II and the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, countries began scrambling to develop their own jet aircraft, but Dr. Itokawa had other ideas. Rather than returning to aircraft research, he wanted to develop a flying object that was capable of soaring into outer space; a rocket in other words. Even now in the 21st century, the idea of outer space still excites many of us.

In fact, I remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on television in 1969 and also realizing deep-down, even though I was a child, that the impossible had become possible. The massive impact of this achievement later led to my own dream to study engineering and inspired my interest in deep-sea exploration technology, as I will explain later.

Now, while we might say that Dr. Itokawa was involved in rocket development, there was in fact no technology to make a rocket in Japan at that time. In other words, this project was a quixotic attempt to rapidly develop from scratch, a rocket that could reach outer space. Remember that to fly to a height of several tens of kilometers against the Earth’s gravitational pull, a rocket needs to generate a large thrust.

I’m sure you’ve all seen footage of space shuttles and weather satellites being launched, and you’d be aware that large rockets require a significant amount of fuel. Not only that, a mixture of solid fuel and oxidizer in the appropriate configuration and size is needed to ensure that the propulsive force acts in the right direction.

Given the common assumption that rockets must be large, you’ll realize that you can’t even think about beginning your research without a correspondingly large amount of fuel. Dr. Itokawa turned that idea on its head; instead he decided to develop a very small rocket that could fly on a tiny amount of gunpowder. His Pencil Rocket was only 23 centimeters long and weighed about 200 grams. He thought that no matter how small the rocket was, the most important idea was to study the principles of rocket flight in real life. In fact, the experiments using the Pencil Rocket provided his scientists with valuable experience and data, which proved useful for subsequent research.

Dr. Itokawa’s motto was “No-one’s done it before, so let’s give it a try.” The driving force behind this motto is the idea of not being bound by the prevailing wisdom, and the spirit of trying to do something or change something because it hasn’t been done before. This is exactly what makes the impossible possible and engenders creativity. We can also say that it is rooted in curiosity about the unknown. Whenever humans feel anxious, we tend to look to our textbooks and reach for precedents, or we try to follow trends and imitate the latest one. But you can’t create something new by continuing down the same path. In order to make the impossible possible, I want to stress to you here the importance of the attitude exemplified by “No-one’s done it before, so let’s give it a try,” rather than shying away because of lack of precedent.

One more point I would like you to understand is that the development of the rocket was a multidisciplinary project that involved many participants. It required expertise in various fields, including the design of the projectile, attitude control, the fuel technology mentioned above, and instrumentation.

Have you ever seen video of a horizontal launch test of the Pencil Rocket? The rocket penetrates through sheets of thin paper arranged at regular intervals, which provides a record of the measurements of changes in velocity and trajectory aligned with photographs taken by a high-speed camera. This method was in fact a product of inventiveness accumulated in the field. Even today, the Institute of Industrial Science still has a dedicated department that is known as the Image Technology Room. In a multidisciplinary endeavor like this, it is crucial for each specialist to contribute to the project as a whole by applying their own cutting-edge knowledge and technologies.

Vaccination to protect against the novel coronavirus is currently underway around the world, and this too is a multidisciplinary project that cannot be achieved by a single specialist. It was possible because a wide range of technical expertise was brought together, from genome analysis of the virus to the design of mRNA for use in vaccines, manufacturing technology for nanoparticles to contain the mRNA, and cryopreservation technology. Even in Japan, it will be a difficult undertaking just to prepare and implement the logistics for prioritizing and administering vaccines on an unprecedented scale to reach approximately 100 million people, while taking into consideration effectiveness and fairness, and promptly responding to the development of adverse reactions. It is the archetype of a multidisciplinary project, and it is only through experts working together with mutual respect and collaboration that vaccination has become possible today.

It is also not sufficient for vaccines to be distributed only to limited age groups or to specific countries. We need to reach everyone around the world on an equitable basis. To this end, an international framework for the joint purchase and equitable distribution of vaccines in multiple countries has been established, known as the COVAX Facility. Japan is a participant in this initiative and separately provides targeted vaccination support to developing countries. In other words, collaboration should not be limited to specialists. Collaboration with various people in different positions is just as important.

For example, four years after starting development of the pencil rocket mentioned earlier, the research group succeeded in launching the Kappa 6 rocket (K-6), which was 5 meters long and weighed 260 kilograms, to an altitude of 60 kilometers. In the process, the research team had to scout out various locations to decide on a suitable launch site. Obtaining the support and cooperation of the local community at the launch site was also essential to the advancement of the project. It was necessary not only to have cooperation among experts in each technology field, but also to expand the circle of cooperation through dialogue with local residents, respecting each other’s positions and views.

When working to address society’s problems, dialogue must extend beyond the forum that is the university. Our university is actively involved in communities to explore issues and work together with local people to gain insight to the nature of the community and find directions for the future.

As you know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Through its Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, the University of Tokyo has maintained for many years a marine research facility, the International Coastal Research Center, in the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, an area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. While the Center suffered no human casualties arising from the disaster, the facility itself was severely damaged. In 2018, the research laboratory and accommodation building were finally built, and a relationship with the local community began anew.

In 2006, the Institute of Social Sciences at our university launched a research project called the Social Sciences of Hope in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, and this dialogue with local residents has continued in this city known for iron and fishing, and its love of rugby. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, we have continued to work with the people of Kamaishi, who are seeking to move forward without losing their spark of hope. In 2016, the Institute launched a new project, the Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking, which is dedicated to research on how to respond to future crises and to collect, preserve, and pass on the memories of the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake to future generations.

The School for Marine Sciences and Local Hope in the Sanriku Coastal Area, a joint initiative launched by the previously-mentioned Otsuchi-based Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute and the Institute of Social Science, is a unique attempt at dialogue. The school seeks to shed light on the relationships between the different marine environments and organisms living in the bays of the disaster-hit Sanriku coastal area and the diverse lifestyles, cultures, customs, and industries of the people living around those bays. As one example of these relationships, the type of ramen noodles eaten in certain locations is said to reflect the ecosystem of the local shore. The school aims to develop human resources for the future and to forge a local identity while exploring initiatives for reconstruction and promotion that take advantage of the potential of the seas in each region.

The collaboration that has emerged on the Sanriku coast between research institutes has great significance as a reconstruction project, in the sense that a collaborative project was created through dialogue and cooperation with the local community from different academic disciplines and approaches.

Your learning in graduate school is now set to begin. Think carefully about the academic discipline you wish to study, how to contribute to the development of society through that discipline, and what you have to do in order to achieve that goal. Some of you may be interested out of pure intellectual curiosity, some of you may want to make our lives more convenient, and some of you may want to help humanity by solving social problems.

The University of Tokyo offers an excellent environment to achieve your aims, with faculty members in a wide range of specialized fields to support your research, first-rate research facilities, and networks with universities and other institutions around the world. I hope that each and every one of you will place a high value on your own curiosity and freely pursue your studies in this environment.

Although it was a long time ago, for example, I majored in marine engineering. My research interest lay in the development of a remote-controlled submersible that was free of cables for electricity and communications, so I chose this research topic for my master’s course. I was mainly working on its control system, but at some point I began to think of this uncrewed submersible as a “robot” and its control system as a “robot intelligence.” When I mentioned this to my supervisor, Professor URA Tamaki, we decided to call our uncrewed submersibles “undersea robots” and uncrewed submersibles without control cables “autonomous undersea robots.”

To further my research on control systems, Professor Ura and I together read through and absorbed, chapter by chapter, the textbook Mathematics of Neural Networks by Professor AMARI Shun-ichi, who was then in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo. It may be rare for a professor and a student to work together to explain a textbook to each other. Through this process of reading and explanation, I began to conduct research on the control of undersea robots using neural networks, currently in the spotlight in AI and machine learning, and this eventually became my master’s thesis.

This is no more than a single example from my student days, but I encourage you to broaden your thinking and feel free to explore your interests. You should be able to find different perspectives from those of your teachers and seniors. If each and every one of you has interests that lead to new scholarship, it will result in the creation of multi-colored and multi-layered knowledge for the university and society as a whole. Dialogue among researchers from different fields and backgrounds and delving into in-depth discussion are key to discovering high-quality ideas and more sensitive approaches.

There is one thing I want you to keep in mind when you grow your interests. That is that just because you have freedom it doesn’t mean you can do anything you like. You must remember that freedom always comes with responsibility. It is also necessary to stop and ponder whether you have tackled the subject with a genuine desire to understand or whether the successful outcome of your hard work will really benefit society, will it be a threat to humankind or the earth, or will it harm others. Such a dialogue with yourself, so to speak, is a very important practice for those of us in the sciences.

For example, in 2018, a researcher announced that he had created twins by genome-editing the eggs of a couple in which the father was HIV-positive. The procedure was intended to prevent the transmission of HIV, but it attracted considerable international criticism. Subsequently, under the leadership of the international scientific community, an international agreement was reached to ban the application of assisted reproductive technologies in human beings via genome-editing of fertilized eggs and germ cells. This is because of the shared concern that such procedures will lead to the birth of so-called designer babies, children who are designed to have the looks, talents, and other features that their parents desire. We must be aware that the abuse of technologies such as genome editing to purely improve our convenience can lead to the extinction of as yet-unnamed living organisms and the destruction of ecosystems, which can have massive ramifications for humankind. For non-human organisms too, the impact on biodiversity of genetic modification technology in the broader sense, including genome editing, is viewed with concern, and scientists around the globe have imposed strict regulations to address this concern.

This voluntary and ethical regulation is part of the fabric of social responsibility for those who enjoy academic freedom and generate new scientific knowledge. In order to implement appropriate self-regulation, it is essential to have a vivid imagination about the medium- to long-term impacts of technology on society. To do so, you should study one area of specialization in depth, and at the same time become exposed to the academic knowledge and culture of different fields, as well as the activities of the arts. It will also require the ability to interact with researchers from different disciplines. The University of Tokyo is eager to offer such a venue to you all.

In closing, I look forward to your future success: developing your creativity to create new things in an enjoyable atmosphere, your curiosity about the unknown to “try something because no-one’s done it before,” and your collaborative spirit to respect and proactively interact with people from different backgrounds.

Welcome to the Graduate Schools of the University of Tokyo.

The University of Tokyo
April 2021
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