Statements from President Gonokami
Home > Statements from President Gonokami > Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the AY 2020 Spring Commencement Ceremony [Translated Version]

Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the AY 2020 Spring Commencement Ceremony [Translated Version]

Many congratulations to all of you. Today, you have been awarded a bachelor’s degree and have graduated from the University of Tokyo. On behalf of the University’s faculty and administrative members, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to you who have made it through to this day despite an unprecedented situation caused by the new coronavirus pandemic this past year. A total of 3,083 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 and research activities all these years.

For us, the commencement ceremony is an important occasion. We were hoping to hold the ceremony here at Yasuda Auditorium with you and your loved ones. Yet again, we have decided to hold the ceremony in this manner this year, too, as part of our efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. I would like to share this moment with viewers of this live stream wherever you are and to congratulate you on your graduation, albeit in this different format.

My six-year tenure as the president will come to an end at the end of March. You are the last class of graduating students during my presidency. I congratulate you all on engaging earnestly in your studies despite the confusion due to campus activities being greatly curtailed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has indiscriminately hit universities around the world, highlighting a new range of management issues. I currently serve as the Chair of the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), an international network of eleven research-intensive universities. Through my conversations with the presidents of the member universities, I feel that the pandemic has brought extraordinary difficulty to universities worldwide. In particular, North American and European universities, which have experienced a wave of commercialization since the end of the 20th century, have sustained considerable financial damage. This is because revenue streams, such as tuition and housing fees, have dried up while these universities have had to face the need for spending on infection prevention measures and growing investments in research and education. Under such circumstances, the ability to secure funding for university management will determine whether these universities can sustain current levels of educational and research activities. So far, universities around the world have been driven by the market principle-based university management model in which students are seen as customers. But this model is now being called into question, and these universities are scrambling to change. For years, the University of Tokyo has upheld a high-minded vision for defining itself as a new autonomous entity that serves as a global commons and the driving force for the transformation of society. This vision is now recognized as a fresh concept, is growing in significance, and is highly appreciated.

Today, I would like to talk about the history and future of the University as a place of scholarship. I, for one, believe that we can choose a better future path and build a more desirable society by learning the history of scholarship over the years at the University.

English has increasingly become the sole dominant language used for international university assessment and rankings according to the level of research and education. Many of those highly-ranked universities, including those institutions in Asia that have recently climbed to higher spots on world university rankings, conduct research and education mainly in the English language. Of course, we, at the University of Tokyo, have been making continued efforts to disseminate information more in English, but we may seem to be put at a disadvantage as we primarily focus on research and education in various fields conducted in the Japanese language. Nevertheless, when I look back on my interactions with overseas officials in my capacity as president, I feel that what underlies the respect and expectations for the University of Tokyo from the rest of the world can’t be fully captured by such rankings. That is attributed to the fact that the University has created an academic environment enabling researchers and students to think thoroughly about academic questions in their everyday language, Japanese, and deliver world-class research results.

Such efforts originate all the way back to a book published jointly by the University’s Faculties of Law, Science, and Letters in 1881 (Meiji 14), four years after the establishment of the University. It is called “Tetsugaku Jii (the Dictionary of Philosophy)” . For instance, academic terms in English and German were translated into Japanese phrases combining multiple Chinese characters, such as “dasei” (inertia), “sonzai” (existence), or “hiritsu” (ratio). The book contains some words stemming from Dutch studies in the final days of the Tokugawa Shogunate (around the 1850s and 1860s). When Japanese scholars at the time were trying to adopt Western academic studies and knowledge in the early Meiji era (around the 1870s), they were making efforts to express such new ideas in Japanese, use and absorb those newly-coined words as part of their vocabulary.

But in the early days following its establishment, the University invited foreign lecturers from advanced western countries to teach classes mainly in foreign languages. Among the Japanese professors teaching back then was Professor Kenjiro Yamakawa, who would later become the president of the University. He was born in Aizu Domain (or what is now Fukushima Prefecture) in 1854, and joined a teenage boy Samurai warrior unit, called the Byakkotai (White Tiger Troop), and was in the camp fighting against the newly-formed Meiji Government in the Boshin Civil War (1868 to 1869). This Byakkotai warrior unit is well-known for a tragic history; they committed suicide in Mt. Iimori in Fukushima Prefecture at the sight of their hometown being burned down. Being a member of the younger unit, Yamakawa was not called to take part in the battle and survived the civil war.

After the Meiji Restoration (from around 1853 to 1868), he was sent by the Meiji Government to study in the United States, earned a bachelor‘s degree in physics from Yale University in 1875, and returned to Japan. In 1879, he became the first Japanese professor of physics at the University of Tokyo. As such, he had such a unique background. For Professor Yamakawa, it was important that Japanese students could study their own chosen fields in their native language, Japanese. As president, he wrote in his book “Address to Students” citing Poland as a country divided up by the European Powers at the time and referring to the miserable situation in which “the use of one’s own language was banned at school” in Poland.

I myself specialize in physics, too. I had the fortune to study the subject using textbooks written in Japanese covering everything from the basics to the latest developments. The first textbook on quantum mechanics I had was one written by the late Professor Shinichiro Tomonaga, a great book beginning uniquely with an introduction to classical physics. This book was translated into English by the late Distinguished University Professor Masatoshi Koshiba of the University of Tokyo, and has been well received overseas. Similarly, the late Professor Ryogo Kubo wrote a textbook on statistical physics, a pillar in the world of modern physics, and the English version of this textbook is also read widely in the rest of the world. For me, it was not at all easy to comprehend the meaning behind basic concepts and mathematical formulas when I started to learn physics. In retrospect, I think I was quite fortunate to use my mother tongue to learn about those convoluted concepts.

Needless to say, academic study, while being conducted in Japanese, should not remain local, traditional or closed, but rather it is refined and developed further through international interaction. Inazo Nitobe, the principal of the First Higher School, the forerunner of the University’s College of Arts and Sciences today, was a living example of such global academic exchange. For example, there is a beautiful Japanese garden, the Nitobe Memorial Garden, at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Inscribed on a stone monument in the garden are his famous words: “to become a bridge across the Pacific.” On my visit to the Canadian university for an exchange project, I had a chance to watch a friendly match between the baseball teams of the two universities together with Japanese-Canadian Professor Santa Ono, the president of the University of British Columbia. He kindly took me out for a walk in the garden, and I learned that Nitobe had spoken those words at an interview during the University of Tokyo’s entrance examination. Those words represented his resolve when he was 21 years old.

Nitobe is well known around the world through his book written in English, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. This book was reportedly inspired by his exchanges with a Belgium legal expert. The Belgian scholar had heard that Japanese schools did not provide religious education, unlike classes about Christianity in western countries, and inquired to Nitobe about how morality and ethics were taught in Japan. Nitobe responded that the Japanese people acquired the concept of right and wrong through a set of norms known collectively as “Bushido.” In other words, his book Bushido represents a Japanese intellectual’s reconstruction of a Japanese “tradition” in a western language and a recreation of traditional norms through contact with western philosophical and academic frameworks. Reading through this book, you will learn that Nitobe, who aspired to become “a bridge across the Pacific,” attempted to systematize ethics of the ordinary Japanese public by referring to ancient and modern examples in the West and explored a new way to shed light on Japanese ethics. He rearranged freely various arguments of western philosophers and writers -- Plato, Aristotle, Goethe, Mommsen, Fichte, and Berkeley, among others -- and examined those rearranged arguments in a new light. That’s the intellectual work he performed through his book. It is this philosophical bridging that helped bring about the Enlightenment. The book was given to the former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was deeply moved by it, at a time when Japan and Russia were fighting the Japan-Russo War (1904 to 1905). In a sense, this book prompted Roosevelt to step in and mediate a peace talk between the two countries.


After World War I, Nitobe became the Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations, of which Japan was a permanent member. His appointment came about as a partially result of the international reputation he had gained from this English book. In 1922, he established the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation aimed at protecting and promoting intellectual activities internationally. ICIC was the forerunner of UNESCO and included Nobel laureates Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.

As such, Nitobe’s efforts to segue between the world’s leading-edge knowledge at the time and his understanding of the traditions and history unique to Japan’s communal societies, can also be observed in "Kyôdokai (a meeting for the study native places)" In his book “Principles of Agriculture,” he set forth the concept “Ruriography ” that was intended to do thorough research on agrarian communities and villages in Japan. The book’s bibliography contains a list of more than 100 cited western documents that are written in a variety of languages. The book left an indelible mark on Kunio Yanagita, who later became a bureaucrat overseeing Japan’s agricultural policy and became the leader in promoting a new academic discipline, Japanese folklore studies. Yanagita also participated in meetings of the Kyodokai group held at Nitobe’s residence. Later, at the request of Nitobe, Yanagita became a representative on the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations and observed the situation surrounding citizens victimized under mandatory rule. Through such experiences, Yanagita came to firmly develop the concept of “Jomin” (common people) and other ideas.

While engaging in activities for the development of international society, Yanagita zeroed in on the well-being and culture of diverse local peoples, deepening his understanding of Japan’s unique traditions and its history through contemplation, and carved out his own unique field focused on folklore studies and native anthropology. This process itself represented the very act of what Nitobe dreamed was “building a bridge.”


Despite Nitobe’s efforts to bridge differences between the two sides of the Pacific, Japan ended up plunging into a war with the United States and was eventually beset with enormous challenges resulting from Japan’s defeat. At the time, there was one Japanese leader who strove to reflect upon Japan’s history and traditions that led up to the nation’s defeat while at the same time trying to create a Japanese culture that could generate universal values appealing to the entire world. That leader was Shigeru Nambara, who was deeply inspired by Nitobe’s teaching when Nambara was a high school student under the old system. Right after the end of the war, Nambara served as the President of Tokyo Imperial University (now known as the University of Tokyo). In 1946, he delivered a lecture titled “The Creation of a New Japanese Culture” in which he argued a nation without character had no raison d’etre and discussed the significance of Japan’s mythology and traditions. He stressed that it was possible to overcome the understanding of myths based on an ethnocentric religion, as had been the case in wartime Japan, and to redefine this unique tradition as one of the bases of a culture with universal value and worldwide appeal. He would then reiterate this point, saying that now, it was finally possible for the Japanese to shape themselves as a nation while simultaneously becoming world citizens In the wake of the war, then President Nambara fiercely resisted an attempt by the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the US occupation forces in Japan to seize the University of Tokyo Campus. What’s more, he worked hard to position the First Higher School not just as liberal arts unit of the University’s Junior Division but as an independent organization with its own unique identity, the College of Arts and Sciences. Nambara was focused on university reform for the reinvention of postwar Japan as a peaceful state. To this end, he implemented two principle acts: opening up university education to all by establishing universities in each region of the country, and implementing liberal arts education to overcome the excessive bias towards expertise of the prewar system. This, in turn, formed the foundations of the University of Tokyo today.

The late Tadao Yanaihara succeeded Nambara as university president and led efforts to develop the University of Tokyo incorporating the College of Arts and Sciences on Komaba Campus, a renewed form of the University as a place to realize Nambara’s vision. It is widely known that Nitobe, as the principal of the First Higher School, left a deep mark on Yanaihara when he was a student there. Interestingly, Yanaihara was the one who published the Japanese version of Nitobe’s book Bushido. Yanaihara took the baton from Nitobe and taught at the Faculty of Economics. As Japan descended into war, Yanaihara harshly criticized the Japanese military and was forced to resign from the University in 1937. After the war, he regained his position at the University under the initiative of then President Nambara. As demonstrated by the former First Higher School Principal Nitobe, Yanaihara devoted himself to nurturing students of a new era with global public mindedness through what Nitobe called “human education,” as opposed to nurturing loyal nationalists. After he stepped down as president, Yanaihara worked to involve the newly established Faculty of Education and formed the Institute of Student Affairs in order to address various mental health issues facing students.

As I said at the outset, I believe it is quite rare even internationally that this University has maintained diverse academic traditions that are rooted in non-western culture while at the same time having been able to participate in international, academic discussions that have long been initiated by the West. Built upon the unique intangible assets of the University of Tokyo, the Center for Global Commons was founded in August, 2020, to actively contribute to addressing humanity’s common challenges.

The planet we live on is said to be entering a new geological epoch following the Holocene, called the Anthropocene. Ever-expanding human activities since the Industrial Revolution have continued to weigh heavily on the Earth’s environment, and the pace has been picking up in recent years, putting the environment -- a common asset for humanity -- at greater risk. With this understanding, the University established this center as a place to address this important intellectual challenge for humanity as a whole – building a system for responsible management of the global commons. The word, commons, is invariably associated with the concept of tragedy. Being a common asset to humanity means that no one actually owns this asset. This implies that no one is there to take good care of the asset, but instead everyone tries to take advantage of it, and this common place itself gets ruined or lost in the end. This is the plot of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” By extension of the analogy, as global warming is steadily increasing, there is no doubt that the global commons is heading toward a tragedy at an alarming rate.

What must be protected as global commons is not just the natural environment. The global commons encompasses man-made cities and buildings, culture and arts, as well as cyberspace. As the global commons are wide-ranging, new sciences and technologies are needed to prevent such diverse commons from descending into a tragedy of depletion and ruin. And yet, this raises a set of highly intellectual questions: which would be a more desirable direction to pursue; how we should go about building needed systems; and whether it would be possible to make realistic arrangements. No one has yet to find absolute answers to these questions. The University of Tokyo will need to deploy humanities-based understanding, expertise of the social sciences, knowledge of natural sciences, and advanced engineering for implementation to pursue solutions to these issues along with other world-class intellectuals. For the University of Tokyo, this will pose yet another ambitious challenge of making its own unique contributions to resolving these issues. I believe that such important and stimulating intellectual activities are few and far between.

When I became president in 2015, I laid out the goals in my action plan for the University of Tokyo, Vision 2020, in which the University as a management entity shall address highly intellectual and public problems and take action to drive social change originating from the University. As part of its broader efforts to verify and pursue such potential, the University issued University of Tokyo FSI bonds last year. FSI stands for Future Society Initiative, the University’s initiative to create a future society. This university bond is not about raising funds for alleviating the current capital shortage. Rather it is intended to raise funds for making strategic and urgent investments needed now to drive change in the University and society, with an eye on what the University should look like 40 years ahead.

The timescale of academic research is expansive. The late Seiroku Honda, known as the father of gardens in Japan, taught at the College of Agriculture of Tokyo Imperial University and supervised the development of a forest in the Meiji Jingu shrine, located in the heart of Tokyo, in 1915. The then Prime Minister Shigenobu Okuma called on Honda to develop a serene forest of Japanese cedar trees on the Meiji Jingu compound just like the ones seen in Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture and Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture. But based on his scientific analysis of the poor water retention quality of soil in and around urban areas, instead of Japanese cedar trees, Honda stressed the need to plant broadleaf evergreen trees such as oak, Japanese chinquapin, and camphor in stages to create a natural forest, with a view toward a future vegetation 150 years ahead. He talked Okuma into accepting his plans. As a result, the lush forest surrounding Meiji Jingu today is highly sustainable and boasts a great diversity of trees.

Not quite as long as these trees’ 150-year timespan, though, the university bond’s 40-year maturity period is about the same length as a researchers’ life cycle from the start of doing research through to their retirement. This is a sufficient period of time for establishing a process in which the current generation of researchers act responsibly, pass on to the next generation, and the University will be able to receive greater evaluation from society at the bonds’ maturity. As such, we would like to use these university bonds for investment to ensure research diversity and enhance the University’s excellence, that is, to create a rich forest of academic learning and research at the University in the future. Fortunately, the FSI bonds received orders worth as much as 126 billion yen, more than six times the planned issuance worth 20 billion yen, drawing much attention from society. I would say this reflects a great deal of expectations and trust in the University of Tokyo from society. As I have said in my talk today, such expectations and trust are underpinned globally by the University’s wealth of achievements over the years and its dedication to creating value.

I have summarized the essence of my six years as university president in the four character phrase, ‘kyuuchi kyousou’ (master knowledge, create together). ‘Master’ the logic behind phenomena to deepen your knowledge, on that foundation join your strength with diverse individuals, and through empathy create a better society together. I hope you will all join us in this endeavor. Graduates will not really depart from the University. Rather, I hope you will join us as knowledge professionals in disseminating information about issues common to humanity as members of the University of Tokyo which serves as a new type of commons. Let’s march together toward the future. I am sure that such a joint effort will create a steady path ahead toward the University’s future.

Congratulations on your graduation today!

Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
March 18, 2021
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