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Address by the President of the University of Tokyo for the 2020 Spring Matriculation Ceremonies [Translated Version]

Welcome to the University of Tokyo. As entrants in the spring semester starting in April, you are the first class of new students entering the University of Tokyo in the Reiwa Era. At this fresh start, I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to all of you on behalf of all members of the university.

New undergraduate students in particular took the entrance examinations in an unprecedentedly alarming situation caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, your hard work has borne fruit and you have lived up to our expectations. For that, I applaud your great efforts. Once again, I would like to congratulate you, your families and others who have warmly supported your studies over the years.

The total number of new students entering our undergraduate program is 3,118 and of students entering our graduate schools is 4,519. Of these, 2,995 are enrolling in master’s programs, 1,196 in doctoral programs, and 328 in professional degree programs. Also, 37 international students are joining undergraduate programs, while 716 overseas students are entering graduate schools.

Today, April 12th, marks the founding day of the University of Tokyo. We usually hold our matriculation ceremony on this day every year. We were looking forward to holding the ceremony with you and your family members. But we have decided to send this congratulatory message to you in a different manner due to concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus has brought about a situation unlike anything we have experienced before. The virus has quickly spread across the entire world, taking a heavy toll on our economy and society. Desperate efforts are being made to contain the transmission amid an increasingly dire predicament. I would like to show my sincere appreciation and respect to all those at the front line who are bearing the challenging tasks of containment. Sadly, many people have died at home and abroad. I would like to offer my prayers for those who have perished and express my deep condolences to their bereaved families. I also pray for a speedy recovery for those who are currently ill.

Watching how this virus has spread, many of you will have realized the extent to which our activities and our economic and social systems today have become interconnected across national borders. Unlike the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck northeastern Japan in 2011, this crisis is characterized by happening in various corners of the globe at the same time. It is not clear how to stem the transmission, which in itself is fueling anxiety among people. But this will come to an end, for sure. We must not lose hope and succumb to despair.

It is important to understand that the spread of this infection around the world is happening not as a natural phenomenon but as a social phenomenon, mediated by way of individual behavior and actions. What is needed now is behavioral change on the individual level. We need to be aware of the impact each and every one of our actions will have on both ourselves and on others. It is important that all of us recognize our responsibility as global citizens.

Even more crucially, we need to think ahead about what kind of society we will be able to build when we overcome this mounting challenge. In recent years, we have seen a growing trend toward “our country first” policies. Yet, globalization has already permeated the world beyond the point of no return. This battle against the pandemic is enveloping the entire world, but I believe that this fight also holds the seeds for building a better future society. Let us hold the hope, and this dream of a better future as we do our part to overcome this novel coronavirus.

As you join the University of Tokyo, the university marks the 143-year anniversary since its foundation. I believe that we all stand at a major turning point in that long history.

In the early part of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the University was established, one of the pressing issues facing Japan was how to re-establish relations with other countries after the long period of the country’s closed-door policy. As Japan was increasingly integrated into the world, the first half of the University’s approximately 140-year history began with its attempts to nurture highly-capable professionals who could work to create a modern state to be recognized as such by major powers at the time. The university’s second 70 years coincided with Japan’s reconstruction from its defeat in the Second World War and efforts to build a peace-loving and democratic nation. At the same time the University of Tokyo also underwent a major transformation from the pre-war imperial university to a new university system.

Now, we are at the start of the University’s third 70-year cycle. Japan and the rest of the world are again going through a major transformation. Undoubtedly, globalization and the digital revolution have been pushing humanity into uncharted territory as never before. This is happening at a time when global issues – environmental problems, aging society, various widening disparities – are worsening at an alarming speed. These are all new challenges to humanity. There is no solution to be found in our textbooks. We can only rely on our creativity. In other words, we must share our ideas and generate new wisdom. The University is a platform that can guarantee us the time and space to freely pursue knowledge and engage in discussion. The value of the University becomes ever more important in these fast-changing times.

You are about to start a new way of pursuing knowledge at the University of Tokyo in a time of change. I am sure that this experience will also be a major change in your life. As we stand at a momentous turning point for the future of the University and in your life, I would like to look at where we are headed together. With that in mind, allow me to reflect on the University’s first turning point 70 years ago.

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the second 70-year chapter of the University of Tokyo began, the U.S.-led Occupation forces requisitioned a great number of buildings and plots of land in Tokyo. Even back then, the University’s Hongo Campus occupied a large area of land near central Tokyo and many of its buildings remained unscathed from the U.S. air raids. Therefore, the Occupation forces set their eyes on this campus, with plans to use it as the site for their General Headquarters (GHQ).

The Hongo Campus was not requisitioned in the end and instead GHQ was located in what was then known as the Dai-ichi Life Building in Hibiya, close to the Imperial Palace. This arrangement came about thanks to great efforts by the leaders of the University at the time. University President Yoshikazu Uchida and the Dean of the Faculty of Law Shigeru Nanbara played key roles in those efforts.

Professors Uchida and Nanbara cooperated with the then Ministry of Education in communicating directly with central figures of the Occupation forces to persuade them not to confiscate the campus. In fact, during the war the Japanese Army had also sought to use the University’s land and facilities. But the University flatly refused to accept such a request. The two professors underscored that particular history when talking to the Occupation forces and explained that there were no other facilities that could suffice as a place for academic research. They vehemently argued that the postwar re-building Japan as a democracy should have education, culture, and academic research at its core and that continued education and research activities on the University’s campus was vital. In the end, they successfully talked the Occupation forces out of the confiscation plans.

Under the new constitution designed to value peace and the pursuit of democracy, Japan had to overhaul its social system at the most fundamental level. The University was no exception. In December 1945, Professor Shigeru Nanbara took the baton from President Uchida and became the first postwar president. Professor Nanbara was deeply involved in the Japanese government’s reform of the national educational system. The sweeping reforms of the higher education system even covered secondary and high schools under the old system. Yet, these reforms were not merely about adjusting to the U.S.-styled education system in a haphazard manner.

In wartime addresses to his students, Professor Nanbara had already brought up the significance of deep self-reflection through the liberal arts and character building. He called for continued serious learning without being affected by the trying times during the war. He held up the ideal that such acts of learning would help build the character of each individual. This ideal can also be found in his push for higher education reform in the wake of the Second World War. As the Dean of the University’s Faculty of Law, he had seen off many students heading to the war. I imagine that as president he must have felt heavy responsibility to rebuild a war-ravaged Japan and the University.

The pre-war Imperial universities focused primarily on nurturing a select few from the elite. The focus of the post-war higher education system was on providing educational opportunity equally and democratization. To realize an educational system open to all those willing and capable, Japan created a large number of high schools and established national universities in every prefecture.

Under this new higher education system, the University of Tokyo admitted its first new students on July 7, 1949. At that matriculation ceremony, President Nanbara delivered a speech titled “Rebuilding of the University” setting out his vision of higher education, and declared a University-wide effort to tackle the greatest overhaul of the University since its foundation.

What were the most important features of the new university he envisioned? In his speech, President Nanbara said it was the establishment of the College of Arts and Sciences as an independent faculty and the introduction of a liberal arts curriculum. This in fact was the origin of the liberal arts education conducted mainly in the junior division on the Komaba Campus today. In the speech, he emphasized that liberal arts does not mean simply acquiring knowledge to become knowledgeable or acquiring the trappings of sophistication. Rather, he said liberal arts were for bridging divisions in the sciences and overcoming schisms in human nature.

In prewar days, higher education centered on academic training in highly divided fields of specialization. As a result, the students educated in this way were well-versed in their own specialties but lacking in the ability to see things in a broader and historical perspective. Without acquiring such a broad viewpoint, they assumed important positions in various sectors of society, and Professor Nanbara suggested that this contributed to Japan’s eventual tragic and reckless plunge into war. For these reasons he positioned liberal arts — character building through learning — as the linchpin of the new higher education system.

This ideal of liberal arts advocated by Professor Nanbara remains true even to this day. Learning at the University is not about receiving useful techniques or practical knowledge that can be used right away. Existing knowledge is available and just a few taps or clicks away on the internet. But that is no more than searching for and merely copying and accumulating information that already exists. True learning or acquiring genuine liberal arts is about going beyond your preconceived notions, and that requires a place for interacting with people of different backgrounds.

And now, the advance of globalization and rapid innovation in information technology, often referred to as the digital revolution, are bringing about societal change on an unprecedented scale. Over the past 20 years or so, all sorts of information have been accumulating in the form of digital data in cyberspace. Now, advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies are generating the means for instantly analyzing this huge volume of data and giving rise to new services. I’m sure that most of you carry around a smartphone and decide what to do by searching for information on it.

The sheer volume of information in the cyberspace we access through the internet is so enormous that it is beyond any single person’s capacity to fathom. Faced with such broad information, our perspective has a dangerous tendency to become narrower and narrower without even realizing it. We tend to seek out only similar opinions and limit ourselves to the echo-chamber of communication with like-minded people. This type of interaction will help reduce your sensitivity towards people with different backgrounds and limit your imagination. That could threaten to reinforce a tendency among people to lose their unique personal traits and become more vulnerable to the forces of the changing times, just as Professor Nanbara worried in wartime Japan more than 70 years ago.

That is why it is important for the University to continue providing a broad liberal arts education in parallel with specialized fields. I am firmly convinced that the educational ideals espoused 70 years ago by Professor Nanbara and other forerunners shine even brighter today and should be further pursued in a new fashion. By this I mean that the liberal arts learning process helps train our students to develop creative thinking capacity for discovering innovative ideas through combining various fields of academic knowledge.

Such a style of learning is entirely different from the kind of education you received so far in school. There, you just needed to study pre-determined subjects in line with the government’s educational curriculum guidelines. But now, you must change gear to a new style of learning. The University of Tokyo has an abundance of resources for that purpose. It is incredibly fortunate that you can freely access these diverse resources in such tumultuous times. It is my earnest hope that you will seize this opportunity for personal growth and make full use of it in the way that suits you best.

Here at the University, you will meet people of different backgrounds from various high schools, regions, and countries. This is also true for your professors, although such meetings are different from making new friends. But your professors themselves were students a few decades ago, just like you are today. Therefore, they do have a sense of deep bond with you as fellow academics and hope you will learn from their experiences and mistakes they made along the way. So, please don’t hold back and feel free to ask them any questions at all.

Professor Nanbara, who established the College of Arts and Sciences, came to Tokyo from his hometown in Kagawa Prefecture, western Japan, and enrolled in the First Higher School of Japan, the forerunner of what is now the College of Arts and Sciences. At the time, he was impressed with a speech by Professor Inazo Nitobe, the principal of the school, and talked about that experience into his later years. According to Professor Nanbara’s account, the students at the time were anxious to overachieve, but Professor Nitobe reportedly told them that before worrying about “Doing” things they should first concern themselves with “Being” to firmly establish who they are. Before entering the school, Professor Nanbara, as a young boy, had a vague idea about getting ahead and becoming successful in society, just like his peers. But Professor Nitobe’s speech helped him to recognize how important it was to build one’s own character through liberal arts.

Among Japanese scholars mentored by Professor Nanbara was the late leading political scientist Masao Maruyama. Interestingly, Professor Maruyama’s encounter with his mentor, Professor Nanbara, was a stark contrast to that of Professor Nanbara with his mentor Professor Nitobe. In his lectures, Professor Nanbara emphasized the significance of “culture” as represented in classical philosophy. It is said that hearing this as a student, Professor Maruyama thought that it was pure abstract absurdity and initially was critical of Professor Nanbara. However, Professor Maruyama began to develop deep respect for his mentor as he saw that Professor Nanbara remained unwavering in his rational thinking without being caught up in the thinking of wartime Japan. Professor Maruyama went on to become one of Japan’s leading political scientists in postwar Japan. But this success started with meeting and his initial resistance to his mentor, Professor Nanbara.

As I said, learning at the University is not just about receiving a body of established knowledge in a one-way manner. Rather, the essence of university-level learning lies in the fact that both faculty members and students discuss a given topic on an equal footing as they seek to discover universal truths and understand reality. Throughout my academic career as a physicist, I myself have repeatedly gained insights through discussions with my students that have furthered my research. As such, the University is a place for mutual transformation where you and other people change through mutual learning, both between faculty members and students as well as between students themselves.

I hope that you will make full use of what the University of Tokyo has to offer, acquire knowledge from various fields, engage in heated discussions, deepen your thinking, and experience learning at high levels. I believe that such experiences will help build the strength you will need to survive these changing times.

I hope that all of you, our new undergraduate students, will shed the passive learning approach that you have developed all the way through high school and seek what you really want to spend your life on. The College of Arts and Sciences offers you a great chance and precious time to ponder about life choices with a fresh mindset.

Here, I would like to offer you some advice.

The University of Tokyo offers a number of programs conducted at home and abroad for you to get out of your comfort zone and enjoy novel experiences. In particular, I would encourage the new undergraduate students to participate in such an activity at least once during your time at the University. For a start, please register with the global competence certificate system, the Go Global Gateway. Moreover, English-medium classes of the Programs in English at Komaba (PEAK) are open to non-PEAK students as well. These courses should be a great help as you prepare for a career on the global stage. I hope you will come to see yourself in a new light and from a broader and global perspective through seizing these opportunities.

I imagine that many of you are already worried about which faculty to go onto in your third and fourth years. But let me tell you that what matters most is to use your own initiative to envision a future for yourself.

When I got enrolled in the Natural Sciences I stream on the Komaba Campus, I didn’t have any clear idea as to which faculty to go onto in the third and fourth years. I took a modern architecture seminar conducted by Professor Hiroshi Hara at a University-affiliated institute in Roppongi back then. I also took a philosophy class taught by the late Professor Wataru Hiromatsu and a class on the overview of legal studies for the purpose of acquiring a teaching license. All these classes had little to do with the specialized field I chose later on, but I still remember them to this day. I feel that being exposed to such a variety of academic fields has been quite helpful in my life.

Similarly, making new friends through extracurricular activities, such as clubs, is invaluable. I don’t remember exactly why, but I started going to a classical guitar club a few months after I entered the University. I became friends with people from different places and with different academic specializations as well as different viewpoints. I remember having spending more time on discussion with them during club training camps than on practicing the guitar. These friends of mine each went on to study at the Faculties of Law, Letters, Medicine, Science, or Engineering, and then they went off in different career paths. It has been 40 years since we graduated, but we still respect each other and stay in close touch. I treasure these learning experiences and friendships from my Komaba days.

So, I would like to remind new undergraduates not to miss this chance of “changing gear” I mentioned earlier. If you have any questions about administrative procedures and systems, feel free to contact the University’s administrative staff. It is also my hope that, when the time comes for you to graduate from the University, you will talk to junior students about your experiences, including the friendships you built and relationships with your professors, and your aspirations for the future.

For those of you entering the graduate schools, you are about to embark on research in earnest. You are the ones to create the scholarship of the University of Tokyo in the future. At our graduate schools, the University offers a number of programs and initiatives that facilitate your growth as capable researchers. For instance, in 2016 we put in place an integrated research system that connects new research fields based on a common theme across faculties and departments. There are 33 such systems in operation so far.

Moreover, we have launched a new institution, called Tokyo College, that invites world-class researchers and intellectuals to give high-level lectures to the public. Furthermore, we have established an integrated Master’s and doctoral program to support graduate students, called World-leading Innovative Graduate Study (WINGS).

What’s more, the UTokyo Global Internship Program (UGIP), established with the support of Daikin Industries, provides you with a precious opportunity to tackle societal issues worldwide and gain experience at the front line of business. I hope you will take advantage of these new programs and initiatives to become “knowledge professionals” able to demonstrate the creativity and flexibility to tackle fundamental questions.

Now, as humanity is in the midst of an unprecedented fight against the novel coronavirus, you have begun a new chapter in your lives at the University of Tokyo. Like this matriculation ceremony, your studies and research have to be conducted differently, including the use of online lectures. We as faculty members are also trying to figure out how best to go about doing so. Yet, what is important is that all of us -- faculty members, administrative staff, and students alike – think creatively and move forward step by step. As I said at the outset, it is most important for us constantly to think about how our actions affect others and society, and to remain considerate when we take action. This battle will not be won easily. But we should not give up hope. Infectious diseases inevitably come to an end.

I can assure you that we will provide you all with uninterrupted learning opportunities. I believe that this challenging experience will prove to be a life lesson and, one day, a valuable asset in your life. So, please rest assured and stay positive.

On a separate note, this is also the last year of my six-year tenure as the President. So far as president, I have carried out various reforms in research, education, university-society relations and management. The results of these reform initiatives are detailed in the University of Tokyo Integrated Report. I hope you will take a look at it. That said, what matters most to me is that each and every one of you will enjoy the benefits of these reforms and grow as “knowledge professionals.” Through learning and contemplating your way of life at the University, I hope you will develop the skills needed to function as leaders in society. When you attain such heights, only then will we see the reforms at the University of Tokyo come to fruition.

I sincerely hope that you will fully enjoy your student life to the full as you pursue your studies and develop capabilities to play a leading role in society even after graduation. On that note, I would like to conclude my remarks.


Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
April 12, 2020
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