To all of you who have enrolled in or advanced into the graduate school of the University of Tokyo, I offer my heartfelt congratulations. I am certain that your families and everyone else connected with you must be delighted as well. On behalf of the faculty and staff of our university, I extend my warmest congratulations.
At the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, and an action plan called the 2030 Agenda was announced with goals for the year 2030. This year marks the eighth year, the midpoint, of that endeavor. This September, the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) is scheduled to be released. That report is expected to focus on accelerating the necessary reforms.
An especially important challenge is “Making Peace with Nature.” Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, we humans have placed a heavy burden on the global environment. Global warming and the degradation of natural ecosystems are progressing, threatening a significant negative impact on all life on Earth, including our own. Even agriculture, which at first glance might seem environmentally friendly, has serious consequences for the planet. When forests and other areas are converted into farmland, habitats are lost and ecosystems degrade. Environmental pollution, soil degradation, and excessive use of freshwater by agricultural systems not designed for sustainability are having a severe impact on biodiversity as well. Meanwhile, food production still does not meet the needs of the global population, and every day nearly 700 million people go hungry. Moreover, the global agricultural production system is still rife with economic and gender inequalities.
As a university dedicated to serving the global public, the University of Tokyo declared our commitment to contributing to “Making Peace with Nature” in The University of Tokyo Charter. In UTokyo Compass, announced in 2021, we set a goal to “mobilize knowledge across all disciplines at UTokyo to seek solutions to global problems that confront human society.” As part of this effort, we are pursuing the Global Commons Stewardship Initiative, which aims to establish better mechanisms for managing the Earth’s systems as a shared asset of humanity.
However, solving global environmental problems will not be easy. Not only do we need to bring together wisdom from various fields within the university; we must also establish dialogue and co-creation between the university and society. The University of Tokyo itself must initiate interactions, connect people and organizations, and work together with many stakeholders to transform society.
Today, I would like to discuss a few ideas we have for achieving those goals.
Within the Meiji Shrine Inner Garden in Yoyogi, Tokyo, is a forest. Many of you may know that this forest was created by humans.
In the year after the demise of the Emperor Meiji in 1912, at the urging of the industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa and others, a committee was formed to build a shrine to honor the late emperor. Today, a forest consisting mainly of evergreen broadleaf trees covers most of the 72-hectare plot. A century ago, though, it was just barren land overrun with weeds. Experts at the forefront of their fields applied their knowledge and skills to create a magnificent wooded area on that land resembling a primeval forest. Three individuals at the University of Tokyo were deeply involved in the design of the Meiji Shrine forest: Seiroku Honda, a professor of forestry; lecturer Takanori Hongo; and a graduate student named Keiji Uehara.
After studying forestry in Germany, Honda had conducted surveys of forests throughout Japan and compiled A Study of Forest and Plant Zones in Japan. His observations of those diverse forests were incorporated into the design philosophy of the Meiji Shrine forest. To create an orderly and solemn forest there in Tokyo, the committee decided not to plant only the large coniferous trees commonly found in traditional shrine groves but to center the forest around evergreen broadleaf trees from the Castanopsis and Quercus genera that are native to the region. They believed that this would allow the forest to survive into later generations as seeds fell to the ground and grew into new trees. Hongo and Uehara designed the forest plan to realize this vision.
However, it was difficult both financially and technically to transplant a large number of mature evergreen broadleaf trees for the new forest. Instead, they devised a complex plan based on plant ecology. The plan involved creating a foundation for the forest with mature pines, whose transplantation technology was well-established; planting fast-growing hinoki and sawara cypress trees beneath them; and then, below those cypresses, planting young chinquapin, oak, and camphor trees that would be able to grow over time. Coniferous trees like pine and cypress generally cast thick shade on the ground below, making it difficult to nurture the next generation of trees; evergreen broadleaf trees like chinquapin, oak, and camphor, however, can tolerate relatively dark environments. Today, the coniferous forest completed by Honda and his team in just six years continues, more than a century later, to transition as planned into a naturally renewable evergreen broadleaf forest through natural processes.
At the outset of this project, Keiji Uehara, then a graduate student, was involved not only in the design but also in the supervision of the work at the site. He saw the landscaping project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address academic questions. He learned about Edo-Period gardening techniques from experts and conducted various experiments at the site.
The fact that the forest of the Meiji Shrine Inner Garden was realized from a design based on academic knowledge over a time scale of more than a century shows the potential of human action and efforts for shaping nature. It gives us the courage to face the difficult and important challenge of restoring the global environment. The proactive involvement of the young graduate student Keiji Uehara in that project and his utilization of it for his academic research and practice and as a broader learning environment for landscape architecture can be seen as precedent for mutually beneficial relationships between the university and society.
Let me turn to a story about another forest. This time, we move to the present day and across the ocean to Paraguay. The Mata Atlântica forest, which stretches from eastern Paraguay into southern Brazil, was facing a severe crisis that concerned the world. Due to large-scale soybean cultivation and cattle ranching that began in the 20th century, over 90 percent of the forest had been cut down. The export-oriented plantation agriculture model led to massive deforestation and land degradation, and the expansion of soybean production increased demand for land and forced many small-scale farmers to leave their homes.
In response, an NGO started a forest restoration project aimed at stopping the deforestation, regenerating the landscape, and alleviating poverty. That NGO, called Conamuri, is a social movement organization of female farmers and indigenous peoples. It advocates for new practices that can protect farmers’ livelihoods through ecologically sensitive agriculture and improve the situation of women.
A major component of Conamuri’s activities has been promoting the cultivation of the yerba-maté plant in the forest—that is, agroforestry. Yerba-maté has been used in the region since ancient times as an ingredient for tea. Through agriculture that learns from the ecosystem, such as by using natural processes for pest control instead of pesticides, some 250,000 yerba-maté plants and 90,000 native trees have been planted. Yerba-maté cultivation not only improves the socio-economic situation of farmers but also contributes to forest conservation and regeneration.
It is worth noting that the cultivation of yerba-maté tea has led to the involvement and cooperation of various stakeholders. For example, a company called Guayakí sells yerba-maté tea products in the United States under an organic certification and fair trade system. The company’s name comes from a tribe of indigenous peoples in the forest. Through the purchase of the tea from this tribe and the payment a fee for using its name, sustainable development is achieved while also improving the indigenous people’s lives through the sale of the products. By asking contracted farmers to conduct an annual census of native species in the cultivation plots, the company also helps to monitor and conserve the forest ecosystem.
The electric company that operates the Itaipú Dam, which relies on water from the cultivation area, also works closely with the tea farmers, collecting seeds needed for expanding cultivation and promoting conservation. This endeavor is a response to the increase in the amount of sediment flowing into the dam when the forest was converted to soybean fields. The power company believed that if the forest could be maintained through tea cultivation, the company itself would also benefit.
It is important to note that it was agriculture as traditionally practiced by women that held important clues for creating a sustainable system for the continuous use of natural resources.
Let me move now from forests to oceans and think about the concept of ocean terroir. This concept was proposed by the Engineering Academy of Japan, with which I have been associated.
The word “terroir” comes from French wine production and refers to the unique characteristics of the natural and human environment around vineyards. Terroir is an approach to assessing the inherent value of a region by integrating its natural environment, such as climate, soil, and topography, with the culture and society of the wine producers. Ocean terroir is the marine version of this concept. Rather than merely exploiting the natural resources of the ocean, it aims to enable sustainable benefits by taking advantage of the unique characteristics of an ocean area while creating a circular production system.
For ocean terroir, we must first understand the ocean and collect and share data on the sea in a region. However, the ocean is vast, and it is not easy to observe at the required resolution. That is why we began the Ocean Monitoring Network Initiative (OMNI) project, which aims to involve not only researchers but various other people as well in ocean observation. This fully open-source project allows anyone to conduct observations as they like using devices made from readily available components. The collected data is shared and utilized by all.
To make ocean terroir possible, ocean observation must be democratized and made accessible to everyone. By sharing the collected information, discussions about sustainable use of the ocean can include people who have long been using a particular ocean or coastal area. As a result, the local region or even all of society can be involved in the discussions. Creating such forums and working together with citizens and communities to change not only the ocean but all of society is one of the important roles of universities in the future.
Our natural environment such as forests and oceans is a shared asset of society as a whole, and its proper management and operation are essential for keeping our society sustainable and stable. In the 1970s, a professor in our Faculty of Economics named Hirofumi Uzawa called such assets “social common capital” and emphasized the importance of their proper management and operation. He saw the natural environment not as a resource to be exploited unilaterally but as capital, and he thought about how it should be renewed by society. That way of thinking is related to the current Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), an initiative that discloses the risks and opportunities that organizations’ economic activities pose for the natural environment. While the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) focuses on climate change, the TNFD extends its scope to natural capital as a whole. Moreover, TNFD focuses not only on risks but also on the goal of realizing nature-positive effects.
Social common capital encompasses not only the natural environment such as forests and oceans but also social infrastructure such as roads and transportation systems and institutional capital like education and healthcare. Another essential part of social common capital is the university.
As I mentioned earlier, UTokyo Compass calls for us to address global challenges and serve the global public by pursuing knowledge, nurturing people, and creating places. Just as forests and oceans enrich our society, universities must also make society happier and more prosperous. Those of you who are about to enter graduate school can be the crucial agents and driving forces to create that happier and more prosperous society.
The University of Tokyo is a collection of many research groups with advanced expertise. That diversity is a powerful force enabling the creation of comprehensive knowledge. The United Nations’ SDGs include 17 goals and 169 targets for sustainable development, and research groups can be found at UTokyo for each of those goals and targets. But due to the size of our institution and the extreme specialization of our cutting-edge research, different parts of our university tend to become isolated from each other. That is another reason why dialogue is so important, both between individuals and throughout our organization.
We are now aiming to foster human resources capable of contributing to the realization of the Green Transformation (GX) through a new cross-disciplinary human resource development program called SPRING GX. The 600 doctoral students from throughout university participating in SPRING GX will, I hope, utilize the program as a place to pursue specialized knowledge and build networks with other fields and with society. We want them to experience how the diversity of the University of Tokyo can become a powerful force in creating a better future.
The strengths of our students are a valuable asset for our university. One student-led initiative for GX is the UTokyo Sustainable Network (UTSN), which was founded mainly by members of four student environmental organizations. UTSN is promoting the installation of water dispensers on campus and the introduction of plant-based foods in the cafeterias. It is also cooperating in the formulation of the University of Tokyo’s action plan for the United Nations-backed Race-to-Zero campaign. This action plan, announced in October 2022 under the name UTokyo Climate Action, aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
UTSN members are also serving as student ambassadors in the global network of Nature Positive Universities. As its name suggests, that network aims to create universities with a positive stance toward nature. This initiative seeks not only to use universities as open science venues and citizen science hubs for the nature-positive movement, but also to utilize campuses as urban green spaces for biodiversity improvement, thereby contributing to nature-positive efforts. Last December, four UTSN students gave a presentation on their involvement in that movement at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 held in Canada. I hope that all of you will also think about how to address the issue of “Making Peace with Nature” from various perspectives, including the nature-positive approach.
The Meiji Shrine forest is a kind of designed capital that harmonizes the environment with the city. Today, it continues to evolve as it links to various aspects of urban life through human pathways while preserving the natural and scenic beauty of the Musashino plain. By creating harmony between the environment and the city across generations, the forest also offers significant insights on how university campuses can help to improve biodiversity. To redesign the University of Tokyo’s campuses as though they were nature-positive forests, or to re-imagine our society as a forest where natural capital is respected, we need to envision not only their current state but also their possible forms and functions a century from now. As you embark on the next stage of your learning and research, I hope that each of you will similarly enrich your powers of imagination.
Congratulations once again on your admission to graduate school.
The University of Tokyo
April 12, 2023