Statements from President Gonokami
Home > Statements from President Gonokami > Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the AY 2019 Spring Commencement Ceremony [Translated Version]

Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the AY 2019 Spring Commencement Ceremony [Translated Version]

Many congratulations to all of you. Today, you have been awarded a bachelor’s degree by the University of Tokyo. On behalf of the University’s faculty and administrative members, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to you all. A total of 3,030 students from 10 faculties graduated from the University this academic year. I would also like to congratulate and express my sincere appreciation to your families and friends, who have supported you through your studies all these years.

I was looking forward to a commencement ceremony here at Yasuda Auditorium with you and your loved ones. Yet, we have decided to hold the ceremony in this fashion as part of our efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus widely reported by the media. I would like to share this moment with viewers of this live stream wherever you are and congratulate you on graduation, albeit in this different format.

The new coronavirus has spread rapidly throughout the world, causing significant impact both economically and socially. The end to this outbreak is not yet in sight and great efforts are being made day and night to find a way to contain the transmission. Many people have died from this virus in Japan and around the world. May they rest in peace, and I offer my heartfelt condolences to their families. I also hope for a speedy recovery for the many patients who are receiving treatment.

Experiencing first-hand the spread of this infectious disease helps us to realize yet again how globally connected our activities and socio-economic systems have become in modern times. In recent years, we have seen rising calls for “our country first,” but globalization has permeated our society to an extent that it has already reached a point of no return. In this sense, the outbreak has highlighted the ineffectiveness of actions aimed solely at securing interests of narrowly-defined territories.

Four years ago, I asked you the question “Do you read newspapers?” at the matriculation ceremony in April 2016. I wonder if you still remember that. As global issues such as global warming and widening disparities among regions have become ever worse, I wanted to encourage you to cultivate an international outlook with which you can see yourself in relative terms, by reading varied sources of information including overseas media coverage, in addition to the kind of information readily accessible via smartphone. Indeed, the year 2016 saw a Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the unexpected U.S. presidential election outcome. These events proved to be a harbinger of uncertainties to come in the world. Over the past four years, our world has become increasingly unstable and divided. I am also greatly concerned about a growing chasm between different age groups in recent years.

As such, we are faced with pressing issues for the entire humanity to tackle. Therefore, it is all the more important for us to work together to find solutions to those problems, while recognizing differences among us, respecting diversity, and sharing our wisdom. We at the University of Tokyo describe those who continue pursuing knowledge to better the world and humanity’s future as “knowledge professionals.” The diploma you receive today is proof that you are qualified as a “knowledge professional.” It is my hope that you all take pride in your hard-earned achievements. But at the same time, I hope you will remain humble and sincere in living up to expectations from society and taking on new challenges in the years to come.

The real world you are about to venture into is in the midst of a sea change or what is often called “digital revolution.” Digital technologies have made progress by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years. Various types of information become digitized and are piling up in the form of data in the cyberspace. The technology is developing rapidly for analyzing such an enormous volume of data thanks to the use of artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies. There are a number of new businesses utilizing such data and offering new services that are spreading swiftly across our society. We have come to take action in the real physical world while referring to information available in the cyberspace. I believe you have all come to rely on smartphones in your daily life. A fusion of the physical and cyber realms is advancing faster and on a bigger scale than anticipated. That is changing greatly how people connect with one another and how our society and economy are structured.

This fusion of cyberspace and the real physical space is likely to generate numerous services that can help improve the quality of our life, as evidenced by the implementation of telehealth and teleworking. Connecting people over physical distances may help to resolve various issues facing our society today, such as a disparity between urban and rural areas as well as inequalities based on age and disability. That could lead to building a more inclusive, better society where people of diverse backgrounds can participate based on their individual strengths.

I wonder if you have heard the term Society 5.0. It is the fifth society to come following the hunting-and-gathering, agrarian, industrial, and information societies. This term encapsulates expectations for a new society that can appreciate and utilize diverse qualities of each individual through the fusion of cyber and physical spaces. This coincides with a transformation from a capital-intensive society where conventional tangible goods hold value, to a knowledge-intensive society where knowledge, information, and services using them are deemed valuable. In 2015, the United Nations laid out the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Society 5.0 concept is aligned with the targets of the SDGs.

Yet, it is important to note that a supposedly better Society 5.0 will not come about automatically. Cyberspace is home to both useful information and disinformation and is often rampant with fake news. Such misinformation gives rise to modern-day problems such as online mass attacks and online crises. These increasingly threaten to undermine the basic social structure and social trust that humans have built over the years. Cyberspace has to be a public sphere in which anyone can equally access data across national boundaries. It would be problematic if early users dominated that space in a disorderly manner and left it in a total mess. Just as we try to preserve Earth, we need to protect and develop cyberspace as a common platform for all humanity, that is, as a global commons.

In such a time of great change, I hope you all will demonstrate your abilities to the fullest as “knowledge professionals” nurtured by the University of Tokyo or “knowledge entrepreneurs” who use knowledge to start up new ventures. Then comes the question: where should we turn for a guiding principle?

In this regard, I think discussions at the World Economic Forum, held in January in Switzerland, can offer us some insight. Global environmental issues have manifested themselves, signaling that the existing expansionist approach to economic growth is approaching its limits. For human society to achieve sustainable development in harmony with the global environment, it is necessary to revisit the meaning of growth itself. Panelists stressed the idea – “No one will be left behind” or inclusiveness – and made the case for pursuing growth in such inclusiveness, i.e., “inclusive growth.” The conventional concept of economic growth has pushed for standardization and efficiency, which, in turn, has tended to dismiss differences. However, there is now a shift in mindset. Those very differences are seen as viable and a source of generating new global value and growth. Therefore, individual qualities and regional diversity come to take on new significance.

New growth in the form of inclusive growth can serve as a guiding principle for global society in the future. Now, by way of example, let me talk about two facilities at the University of Tokyo to look at how inclusive growth is at work in relationships between the University and local communities.

The University’s Institute for Cosmic Ray Research (ICRR) has the Kamioka Observatory located deep inside a mine in Kamioka Town, Hida City, Gifu Prefecture, central Japan. This is where the second-generation Super-Kamiokande (underground neutrino detector) is now in operation. I’m sure you know that the research conducted there on neutrino detection culminated in the award of two Nobel prizes. And yet, not many people know that that very cutting-edge research is deeply related to the locality, Kamioka Town.

Historically, the now-defunct Kamioka Mine used to be the epicenter of what was called Itai-itai disease, Japan’s first pollution-triggered disease. Kamioka Town used to be known for this pollution-caused disease. The suffering of patients back then must have been unimaginably severe. The University’s decision to make use of the hard bedrock formation of the Kamioka Mine to construct the ICCR’s observation facility did not neglect the memory of the pollution in the local community. Rather, this was made possible only after years of exchange and trust-building with members of the local community based on the mutual recognition of this unfortunate past.

Since the award of two Nobel prizes, the observatory and the town have become well known around the world. In March last year, the Hida Space Science Museum Kamioka Lab opened inside a commercial facility in the town. The lab exhibits research on the cosmos and elementary particles and has attracted more than 100,000 visitors in less than one year since its opening. Today, the municipality is seeking to establish its local identity as “the town of science” and “the town of clean water.”

You may ask why as “the town of clean water?” The Kamiokande and Super-Kamiokande facilities are installed with enormous water tanks used to detect neutrinos. These tanks are filled with a large volume of ultrapure water – an extremely high level of pure water that has gone through various processes to eliminate even the tiniest amounts of impurities that ordinary water-purifying devices cannot remove. The Kamioka area is rich in clean water which can be turned into ultrapure water, a necessity for observing neutrinos.

Neutrino observations at Kamiokande were in the preparatory stages when Professor Takaaki Kajita, a Nobel laureate in 2015, was still studying as a graduate student in the research lab of Professor Masatoshi Koshiba, who received a Nobel prize in physics in 2002. Simply being filtered through a purifying device, the clean water inside the Kamioka Mine had a luminous transmittance of 30 meters. This was suitable for experiments using sensors to detect the faint blue light deriving from neutrinos.

And yet, Professor Kajita was struggling with a constant stream of noise observed once the research team began taking data. Then, one day, they decided to stop the pure-water generator, only to find that the level of noise dropped sharply. Groundwater from the Kamioka aquifer was being passed through the filter and into the tank. They discovered that the noise was caused by a tiny amount of radon that was not removed by the filter. In the first few years of his research as a graduate student, Professor Kajita worked hard on how to enhance water purity to an unprecedented level by preventing the entry of foreign matter and sterilization.

We will start construction of the third-generation facility, Hyper-Kamiokande, this year. A larger experimental apparatus will be deployed to further increase the level of sensitivity in neutrino observation, which will help us with our challenge to unlock the greatest mysteries of physics: why matter, not antimatter, prevails in the universe. The entrance to the underground observatory is now located in the mountains. Meanwhile, the entrance to Hyper-Kamiokande will be situated near the central part of Kamioka Town, which I think will bring more opportunities for local residents and researchers to interact with one another. It is my hope that the University’s basic research utilizing local characteristics will help revitalize the local community and reinforce its local identify further.

Another facility I would like to mention is that of the International Coastal Research Center of the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute. This research center was established in the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in 1973. It sustained severe damage during the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

I myself visited the center in 2015. That was before the completion of the new research-testing facility building, which was viewed as a symbol of recovery from the devastating disaster. I also participated in remembrance ceremonies in the town of Otsuchi in 2017 and 2018 and witnessed the steady progress of recovery thanks to efforts by many local residents. Even so, reconstruction still has a long way to go and we need to remain engaged in the recovery efforts.

Immediately after the disaster, this center began studying from a natural science viewpoint how the earthquake and the resulting tsunami affected marine ecosystems all along the Pacific Ocean coast of the Tohoku region. In fact, the center’s records of data on marine environments and living organisms accumulated over the 40 years since its establishment have proven to be incredibly useful in this research. We can accurately assess impacts of a natural disaster only when we have built up a steady record of observation data and scientific knowledge. It is important to note that much of the pre-disaster data was collected regularly not for any specific research purposes, but as a basic record of the center’s research home area.

Many researchers have used the University’s International Coastal Research Center as an international hub of basic marine research. On the other hand, the center was not necessarily familiar to local residents or needed by them. Even after the 2011 disaster, the center began oceanographic research to shed light on the results of huge natural disturbances, purely from a scientific standpoint. But once it started, the center found itself asked to offer expertise, such as relating to fisheries, that was directly beneficial to the livelihood of local residents. The disaster proved to be a key turning point for the center to realize the importance of its engagement with the local community.

The center’s Sanriku area study is now developing into a uniquely new area of research focused on diversity within the local area on both natural science and social science fronts.

For instance, offshore buoys equipped with a GPS system are used to measure precisely the height and direction of waves. In the wake of the disaster, such wave-measuring GPS sensors were deployed to measure in great detail waves in a number of bays along the Sanriku coast. This research found that wave characteristics varied greatly according to the shape of those bays and directions of ocean currents. It has long been known that small bays and coves dotted along the saw-toothed Sanriku coast have created their own unique ecosystems according to small differences in their shapes, and that marine products caught there and how they are used varies slightly from one place to another. This is despite the fact that all the bays and coves face the same Pacific Ocean. The research has come to reveal a causal link between diversity in the local natural habitat and regional variations in food culture and customs.

That ocean science research is linked to the understanding of diverse local cultures has, in turn, served as a bridge between natural science and humanities research. One such example is “A School for Marine Sciences and Local Hope in the Sanriku Coastal Area.” This project was launched in 2019 to help impart knowledge about local ocean environments to local people, including primary, secondary and high school students, and learn about such local environmental diversity together.

The University’s Institute of Social Science is deeply involved in this project. The institute had engaged in research subjects called “the Social Sciences of Hope” and “Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking” prior to the 2011 disaster.

Hope represents a desirable future for each and every person. Therefore, what hope signifies differs from person to person or from community to community. Therefore, for all of us to share a desirable future, it is all the more important to understand and accept differences among individuals and local communities. In this regard, the activities of “A School for Marine Sciences and Local Hope in the Sanriku Coastal Area” are based on the center’s basic ocean research findings and offer local residents an opportunity to think about the natural environment peculiar to the area and their unique culture developed there.

Meanwhile, the research outcomes of “Social Sciences of Crisis Thinking” also underscore the importance of diversity in society. When a natural disaster occurs on an unforeseen scale, it is not easy to deal with it swiftly and appropriately. To develop such a capacity, you need to have tolerance for others, curiosity about the unknown, and a willingness to interact with different people. To that end, a society that can embrace diversity must be in place as broadly as possible.

In the Sanriku area, local residents can deepen their understanding of the diversity and richness of the ocean in their localities. This supports the growth of their local identity and increases their preparedness for future natural disasters.

So far, I have discussed the relationship between the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research and the Kamioka area and the one between the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute and the Sanriku coastal area. These two cases illustrate that the University’s research and education activities go hand in hand with the development of local communities.

This is where I see the role the University can play as a place for cultivating and nourishing hope and the potential of the University as a driving force behind the development of local communities. I believe that we can create a hopeful future by looking at what really matters to local communities, studying ways to achieve their goals, and sharing outcomes with local communities – and doing all this through the University’s education and research activities.

Many of you will go through a range of experiences in places that are quite different from your hometowns or familiar environments, be it in Japan or abroad. When that happens, I hope you will learn to see positively what it means to be different and have a mindset to enjoy that difference, instead of rejecting it out of fear.

The University has deep ties with society in general. I hope you will keep your ties with the University even after graduation and use it as a platform for intellectual exchanges with a diverse pool of professionals. Together with you, the University of Tokyo hopes to be the driving force behind social change towards inclusive growth and building a more inclusive society.

Lastly, I sincerely wish all graduating students good health, happiness and a bright future as you play an active part in building a better society in this time of change. Congratulations!

Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
March 24, 2020
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