Congratulations to all of you on entering graduate school at the University of Tokyo. Your families and loved ones must be very happy about your achievement. On behalf of the entire UTokyo community, I extend my heartfelt congratulations.
Beginning this spring, you are commuting to your graduate school or University-affiliated institute. In addition to our main Hongo, Komaba, and Kashiwa campuses, the University of Tokyo is also home to many research facilities. Our network of education and research centers spans 15 prefectures nationwide and includes the Kamioka Observatory; the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research (ICRR), which houses the Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detection Experiment in the city of Hidaka, Gifu Prefecture; and the International Coastal Research Center in the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, which has been rebuilt after being seriously damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Altogether, the University’s facilities are equivalent to about 70 Tokyo Domes in terms of area. Did you know that 99% of that area is covered with trees? That is because the University has vast research forests in Hokkaido, Chiba, Saitama, and Aichi prefectures. Throughout the world, there are few, if any, comprehensive universities like UTokyo, possessing forests for education and research, ocean and cosmic research institutes, a medical school, and even a farm. I hope that you will take advantage of our University’s unique strengths and assets so that you can achieve results that will be worthy of global leadership in your chosen fields.
The University of Tokyo was the first national university in Japan to join the United Nations–led global campaign Race to Zero, which calls for actions to reduce net emissions of greenhouse gasses to zero by the year 2050. We hope to achieve carbon neutrality here at the University by using our research forests as carbon sinks while also promoting energy conservation and decarbonization on our urban campuses. Since Green Transformation (GX) needs to be addressed by society as a whole, I believe that the University has an important role to play in that endeavor as a place for creating new knowledge.
The University of Tokyo is a huge, decentralized community of autonomous organizations, with about 11,000 faculty and staff, 14,000 undergraduate students, and 15,000 graduate students. In addition to the members of the UTokyo community themselves, one of our greatest assets is the network of personal contacts built through many channels both inside and outside the university. Over the past two years, however, the spread of COVID-19 has significantly curtailed overseas travel, which in turn has stalled efforts to update and expand our networks. Some of you may have had to postpone study abroad plans as well. Some of our international students were unable to attend this ceremony in person today. While online communication tools are widely used now, those tools do not eliminate the need for direct, face-to-face dialogue between individuals. Even though the ongoing wave of the omicron variant curbs people’s movement, we must find ways to establish mutual reconnections with the rest of the world. For all of you who have entered the University of Tokyo today, in your time ahead as graduate students, I hope that you will not only pursue your research as new members of the UTokyo community but also be active in reconnecting with others in Japan and abroad.
Last year, the University of Tokyo released UTokyo Compass, which lays out the basic guiding principles of our vision and direction. UTokyo Compass states that, in order for us to share a better future, we need to be keenly sensitive to unfairness and discrimination and to the existence of vulnerable groups in society and that we must actively confront relevant challenges with sincerity. We have also adopted a policy to stress the importance of dialogue in the process of creating that future. Dialogue is more than a discussion or an exchange of information. Rather, it is the very act of trying to understand. It is only through attempting to understand that we will begin to see differences. And to begin thinking from the assumption of difference and diversity, we also need to develop the ability to imagine how other people see the world.
For example, even the colors we see in the world look different from person to person. There are three types of cone cells in the retina of the human eye that enable perception of three different colors. About eight percent of Caucasian men are said to have color-vision deficiency due to polymorphism of the red and green light sensor genes. In contrast, most mammals other than primates have dichromatism, with only two types of cone cells. This difference in visual perception is known to be the result of evolution.
An interesting research project has studied the fruit-picking success rate of spider monkeys, who have a mix of dichromatic and trichromatic vision. The research was conducted by a group led by Professor Shoji Kawamura of UTokyo’s Graduate School of Frontier Sciences. One might guess that, if red-colored berries can be quickly identified among green leaves, they could be more easily picked for eating. However, the research has found that trichromatic vision is not necessarily advantageous for the spider monkeys’ fruit picking. That’s because the most effective factor for identifying which berries are ripe is the contrast in brightness. Dichromatic vision has previously been found to be advantageous for catching camouflaged insects. So identifying fruit berries involves keen sensitivity to many factors, not only the color but also the brightness contrast and the perception of their outlines. Smell and other senses besides eyesight also seem to affect the spider monkeys’ fruit-picking success rate. Thus there are various modes of color perception, not just dichromatic and trichromatic vision. Biologically speaking, the existence of such diverse individual types is an advantage for the survival of the species as a whole.
Now let’s return to our own society. We humans tend to regard the majority in a group as “the standard” and dismiss outliers as a minority or think that something is lacking in them. This perception is based on the superficial understanding arising from perceiving only those things that are easy to see. It deprives us of the opportunity to broaden our view of the world. For instance, when signs and bulletin boards are painted in color combinations that seem easily recognizable, a significant minority of people will experience inconvenience as a result. That problem is now recognized, though, and there has been a trend in recent years toward adjusting color intensity and brightness for people who have trouble distinguishing colors, as well as toward using easy-to-understand designs without colors or adding colors only for secondary emphasis. Having knowledge about something like this is one thing, while acting on that knowledge in our daily life is very different. To put our knowledge into action, we have to be able to imagine how people of different backgrounds see the world.
In our society, there are many cases in which viewing the majority as “the standard” takes priority over the rights and interests of minority groups.
In 2019, the British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez published a book titled Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. In 2021, this book was translated into Japanese under the title Sonzai Shinai Onnatachi, or “Women Who Don’t Exist.” For too long, there has been an extreme lack of data about women in many areas, including urban planning, transportation systems, public heath, political participation, working environment, and product development. Historically, the majority of decision makers and people in charge of design processes in both the private and public sectors have been men. As the book points out, planning and development have taken place without considering the needs and opinions of women, resulting in great harm to their health, careers, and daily lives.
Even if those decision makers do not malignly intend to discriminate based on gender, their lack of awareness can bring disadvantages and inconveniences to many people in groups considered to be in the minority. Take the size of smartphones, for example. Smartphones have steadily been developed with larger and larger screens. They are easy to look at and may be just the right size for male hands, but one hears that those larger-screen smartphones are often too big and inconvenient for women to use. Similarly, some drugs are developed using data heavily skewed toward male subjects, and car seatbelts have been developed using crash dummies based on the average male body size. Some emergency housing built for disaster victims had no kitchen facilities. None of this is a laughing matter. They underscore the fact that the inconveniences of “invisible people” are overlooked and that the injustices and sense of exclusion suffered by such people are not considered.
What should we do to eliminate such unconscious biases? We need to raise our voices and speak up. We need to participate together in decision-making processes and engage in dialogue. Dialogue is possible only if we accept the words and existence of other people, so it is essential that we listen to the voices of others. To create a system in which people of all backgrounds can participate easily, we must make sure that the interests considered are not only those of the majority with the loudest voices.
Unfortunately, the University of Tokyo has long been known for its homogeneity, and increasing our diversity has become a pressing issue. While we still have a lot of work to do on this front, I would like to encourage all of you, as you come to the University’s campuses as graduate students, to consider what has been hidden by the status quo. As future leaders in society, you need to develop the capacities to see through what appears to be obvious, to listen to the voices of the silent members of society, to hold on to your ideals, and to learn to engage closely in dialogue with others.
There is more than one path ahead for you. When you studied for university entrance examinations, you raced to find the correct answers as quickly as possible. In graduate school, however, you will need to discover for yourself the questions and possible answers. In my talk so far, I have divided people into the majority and minorities, but even that distinction runs the risk of creating a simplistic dichotomy among people of diverse attributes and statuses in society.
What should we do to avoid falling into such simplistic dichotomies? For centuries, various attempts have been made to better understand the distinction between men and women. One approach has been to let people experience what it feels like to be the opposite sex through literary works. As the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said, “A great mind must be androgynous,” and many literary figures have attempted time and again to incorporate the perspectives of the opposite sex in their works.
There is a novel called Orlando written by the British writer Virginia Woolf. The protagonist, named Orlando, is a young nobleman who falls into a deep sleep at the age of 30. When he wakes up, he has been transformed into a woman. What is interesting about this novel is the author’s description not so much of the change in Orlando himself but of his confusion and anxiety about the transformation in the attitudes and behavior of the people around him. The fact that Orlando lives on for 360 years in the novel suggests the profound importance of recognizing such changes and the necessity for understanding and accepting change over a long period of time.
Regarding the importance of understanding over time, we should also think about negative capability. The term was coined by the English poet John Keats to describe the ability to accept and confront issues that defy quick solutions and to continue tackling mysteries and uncertainties. In his 2017 book Negative Capability: The Ability to Withstand Situations Without Answers published by Asahi Shimbun Publications, Japanese novelist Hahakigi Hōsei described negative capability as “the ability to exist with dishonesty, mystery, and doubt without rushing for proofs or explanations.” This viewpoint deserves renewed attention now, as today’s world demands quick solutions and instant responses.
The concept of dialogue emphasized by UTokyo Compass involves more than just speaking to others. You must also listen to what others have to say. This sometimes requires a willingness to face, rather than dismiss, that which is difficult to understand, with an attitude similar to negative capability. Having such a mindset will prove helpful when you confront unprecedented challenges in your research. All of you will experience difficulties finding answers in your research and in your life ahead. When that happens, you may need to listen to the opinions of your friends, faculty members, and even people you don’t know. I hope that you will recall then the potential power of negative capability and continue stubbornly confronting your problems.
The sudden, unjustifiable military invasion that occurred in late February is causing destruction and tragedy that no one ever wished for, and it is forcibly shattering people’s ordinary lives on a large scale. Our world order has been proven to be fragile. This situation reminds us yet again that war is not the direct result of everyday conflicts that accumulate over time; rather, the use of military force—the state of war itself—deepens and entrenches conflicts between two sides, thereby increasing people’s suffering and hatred and making it extremely difficult to resolve those conflicts. Now universities are called on to find ways, through our academic and scholarly work, to help rid the world of the suffering brought about by this crisis. Even in times of fierce confrontation, we must value the qualities I discussed today—the ability to imagine how other people see the world, and a willingness not to dismiss but to deal with what seems incomprehensible—and to rethink the roles that dialogue and exchange can play.
The University of Tokyo has launched a special program to host scholars, students, their families, and others affected by these difficult circumstances. We are also reaching out by establishing an Emergency Relief Fund for Scholars and Students at Risk. These initiatives are the first step toward fulfilling our university’s mission to create a space for free intellectual pursuit that is open to the world by listening to people we don’t know and continuing to work tirelessly.
As you know, there has been growing concern in recent years about the weakening foundations of research in Japan. With the government’s difficult fiscal situation, stable posts for young researchers are in short supply. In 2000, the percentage of students going on to doctoral degree programs stood at 17%, but by 2018 that number had fallen to 9%. Our future society, though, requires further advances in science and technology enabled by young researchers’ flexible thinking. The University of Tokyo knows that we need to step up support for our graduate students. One such effort is SPRING GX, a project launched last year to foster high-level human resources. This project aims to produce competent people who will contribute to a Green Transformation in all fields on a large scale. The University of Tokyo defines GX broadly as a social transformation, and every year we offer human resources programs and financial support to 600 doctoral students throughout the University, not only science and engineering students. I hope you will make good use of this support system to devote yourselves fully to your research. Finding solutions to the global issues facing humanity—including climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and poverty—requires not only specialized expertise but also intellectual exploration from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective. As you move ahead in your research, please remember your perspective as a global citizen.
Once again, congratulations on entering graduate school at the University of Tokyo. I have great expectations for all that you will accomplish.
The University of Tokyo
April 12, 2022