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

Address by the President of the University of Tokyo at the 2019 Spring Undergraduate Matriculation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Welcome to the University of Tokyo. We will soon usher in the new era named Reiwa. You matriculate as the last class of undergraduate students of the University of Tokyo in the Heisei era. On behalf of the University’s faculty members, I would like to extend our sincere congratulations to all of you. I know that you have all strived to achieve your goal of passing the University of Tokyo’s entrance examinations. You all have lived up to our expectations and I would like to show my respect for your efforts toward that goal. At the same time, I would also like to congratulate your families and all those people who have supported you through your studies with affection. Today, 3,125 of you have entered the University as undergraduate students.

The University of Tokyo (often referred to as UTokyo), the place that you chose for your further learning, was founded in 1877. The university marks its 142nd year anniversary this year. At the time of the inception, Japan was in the midst of a period of opening and advancement, and was experiencing a tumultuous time as the country fully came into contact with new ideas, items and social systems from Western Europe. The university was established as a novel institution to establish systems and nurture the human talent needed to create a new social structure.

These are tumultuous times you live in. What sets the present era apart from the Meiji-era changes is that this time the whole of humanity is caught up in the transformation. Various challenges -- environmental degradation, energy issues, large-scale terrorism, and financial instability -- are increasingly becoming serious not just in some countries or regions but throughout the entire globe. As you may be aware, these challenges are undermining the very foundations of our society that humanity has long worked hard to develop, namely democracy, capitalism and the international rule of law. Growing calls for interests of one’s own country alone and declining tolerance for living side by side with people of different backgrounds are particularly worrying to me. We are very much facing new and tumultuous times in this day and age.

Behind this upheaval and accelerating change are the spread and rapid expansion of digitalization. As you know well, we are inundated with all kinds of information, including text, images and videos, by way of the internet. All of such information continues to be stored in the form of digital data, forming a gigantic cyberspace. While we live in this actual space or the physical realm, we now go about our daily lives, accessing the cyberspace through devices such as smartphones. As a result, the physical realm and cyberspace are merging with one another as an inseparable entity.

Now, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies that enable us to use the enormous volume of data available in cyberspace are increasingly applied to many parts of our lives.

Meanwhile, we are also seeing a big change in how economic value is created, that is, a shift away from the conventional manufacturing of goods to services based on knowledge or information or a combination of both. For years, Japan and other industrialized countries have pursued economic growth through investing heavily in labor-intensive manufacturing activity. But now, we are undergoing a discontinuous change toward a new knowledge-intensive model, making a complete break with the existing model of economic activity.

At a time when such a new industrial “revolution” or what one can call a paradigm shift is taking place, each of us living through that shift needs to face the fundamental questions – “what does it mean to be a human?” and “what is happiness?” – and identify the true nature of our value systems.

Still, I don’t take a pessimistic view about all these changes. They say “every crisis is an opportunity.” This is a cliched expression but there is some truth to it. In our society today, I believe universities should take the lead in creating a better future. As president of the University of Tokyo, I have always conveyed the message that “the University of Tokyo will drive transformation to a better society.” It is you, as new members of the University, who will take on leadership roles in that very endeavor.

Then, let me explain the two reasons why I think university can drive such a transformation.

First, the university is a place, which enables people of diverse backgrounds to embrace differences and work together to do creative things, in other words, to collaborate. It is necessary to generate new knowledge to carve out a brighter future. Only through participation and commitment by diverse members will knowledge be able to develop further. A research or business project can flourish only when each member brings their unique strengths, engage in discussions and put together different ideas nicely into a whole. In other words, knowledge will not develop further nor advance at all when only like-minded people get together.

The university attracts a diverse range of talents from around the world. The university boasts a reservoir of knowledge built over the years and has produced innumerable distinguished professionals for all fields of our society. A network of alumni members at home and abroad is a strength, too. By fully leveraging these resources, the university can serve as a platform for collaboration among people from all sectors, that is, a platform for driving the transformation to a better society.

Second, I think that university simultaneously embodies different streams of time. When I look at political, administrative or industrial developments in recent years, I often worry that decision makers are so frequently swayed by short-term interests which arises from time to time, that it seems as if they lack the very foundation of decision making; which is vision and strong will that is back by long-term perspective. A dizzying pace of change in the surrounding environment seems to make it more difficult for leaders to paint a future vision. Or it may be that a deflationary mindset is so prevalent that people have lost enthusiasm for venturing out to achieve their ideals. It may also be because companies are coming under intense pressure from investors and shareholders who concerns about figures at a given time.

Even in such a situation, university represents different streams of time on multiple levels. For a comprehensive university like UTokyo, that accommodates a broad range of academic disciplines, this diversity of time streams stands out as one of its unique features and its importance cannot be emphasized enough. In my research field, there is a research area called attosecond spectroscopy in which scientists study phenomena at an ultrafast speed of 10-16 seconds or less. On the other hand, there are research projects looking at a timescale of hundreds of years or better yet 10 billon years. All these research projects on entirely different timescales are being conducted on the university campus matter-of-factly and exist side-by-side together. That is what the university is all about.

You think about the long-gone past or look far into the future and seek to uncover the true nature of humans and Mother Nature. As you engage in this pursuit, you come up with the question: what is important? University is a place where you are allowed to discuss such ideas freely and criticize them strongly. Moreover, university is lenient and liberal in that it can afford you the time to fail or change course. This is another aspect of the time uniquely associated with university. By learning from a failure, you may want to go back to basics and think about the next step at leisure. Being a unique place that offers the opportunity to engage in variety of activities in such different timescales, I feel that university should play a much larger role in contributing to humanity.

It is all the more because we are undergoing a tumultuous era of change that now is the time for university to step up and do its part. In particular, the University of Tokyo boasts a long and rich history, has an active exchange of knowledge and talented scholars that transcends the boundary between the humanities and sciences, and is home to world-leading research projects in multiple disciplines. This is why the University of Tokyo must drive the transformation toward a better future society. You all have joined the University as new members. I am sure that you are all excited about that. I hope each of you will ponder about that significance and go about your student life fully from here on.

Looking ahead, you may wonder how to spend your student life from now on. Let me talk about two of our graduates by way of example.

I am sure you have heard about venture companies. The word, venture, originates from adventure. Venture companies are those businesses taking on endeavors shunned by large companies. Today, the University of Tokyo is increasingly seen as an incubator for producing venture companies. The university gives rise to about 30 to 40 new businesses every year, and has seen the emergence of more than 335 start-ups over the years. Among them is Euglena, the first UTokyo-originated venture company that has become listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The company mainly produces and sells dietary supplements and food products using euglena, a type of microbe. It also produces and markets cosmetic products and develops biofuels for airplanes. Mr. Mitsuru Izumo and Mr. Kengo Suzuki are among the founding members of the company. Mr. Izumo entered the Humanities and Social Sciences III of the College of Arts and Sciences Junior Division in 1998 and Mr. Suzuki joined the Natural Sciences I of the division in 1999. Both of them went on to study at the Faculty of Agriculture during their third and fourth years. They are senior to all of you by 20 years or so.

Euglena is the scientific name of a microbe called Midorimushi in Japanese. It is under 0.1mm in length but possesses properties of both animals and plants. It has an active photosynthesis function and contains as many as 59 types of nutrients. For these properties, researchers eyed euglena as having potential applications as a food, an energy source based on its production of oil, and a carbon fixation material for environmental protection, among other purposes. And yet, it was extremely difficult to culture euglena in large volumes outdoors, which made it almost but impossible to use the microbe for commercial purposes. Against that backdrop, Mr. Izumo and Mr. Suzuki met each other at the University of Tokyo and started working together to find ways to put the use of euglena on a commercial basis.

They first started visiting universities and other institutions around the country to seek advice from researchers specialized in euglena and relevant fields. They reportedly ended up meeting nearly 100 researchers. Mr. Suzuki, who was in charge of developing the necessary technology, focused on the issue of euglena habitat in his graduation thesis for the Faculty of Agriculture and continued to do research on it at graduate school. After several years of trials and errors, they finally managed to establish a mass cultivation method for euglena, which helped open up the possibility of commercialization. As a result, they formed the company in 2005. For the first eight years or so, its central R&D lab was located at an incubation facility on the University’s Hongo Campus.

These two men came from different high schools and were in different streams of the first two-year Junior Division. In fact, they met through an extra-curricular club activity on the Komaba Campus. They both joined an investment contest club for university students and got to know each other as senior and junior members of the club. While working together on a variety of club activities, they came to share a big goal: launching a business to make contributions to humanity by using euglena.

This story of Euglena’s Mr. Izumo and Mr. Suzuki illustrates that the University of Tokyo has the great potential to drive the transformation to a better society, in other words, breathe new life into society. The success of Euglena is attributed to all the efforts by these two men. But I would say that they made full use of what this place, the University of Tokyo, has to offer and unlocked their potential for greater development. So, I would like to draw from Mr. Suzuki’s experience and think about what his student days at the University meant and what kind of opportunity awaited him here.

First, let me talk about the diversity of liberal arts education during the first two years on the Komaba Campus. Mr. Suzuki said he had taken a wide variety of classes during his time there. In retrospect, he said lectures about law and economics proved to be very useful even today, although such classes had nothing to do with his specialization in the Natural Sciences I stream. Please don’t dismiss some classes as irrelevant because they may prove to be rewarding at some point. I think that’s what I call “the beauty of liberal arts education.” I can assure you that you will learn about how diverse research topics are and how they are related to each other in a system of academic disciplines, and you will experience many encounters and growth opportunities over the next two years. You will also learn a lot from new friends from across Japan and around the world. The university ensures that students have much time and a space needed to explore and pursue their own interests and potential. I hope you will experience such qualities of the university in your life on the Komaba Campus.

Second, I would like to tell you about the social trust the University of Tokyo has built over the years. In conducting their euglena research, Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Izumo visited a number of people. They said that every researcher had listened to them with sincerity from the very beginning, as they were UTokyo students. They said they were very grateful for that. As the students of the University of Tokyo, I think you will also get to experience such kindness and hospitality. This is a great source of social capital for all of us. As members of the University of Tokyo, we may as well capitalize on it fully. Nevertheless, you should not become dependent or complacent about the university’s brand. Please think of such an occasion as a chance to reflect on yourself and renew your own resolve. You should never forget about the numerous graduates of the university who have long committed themselves to scholarship and have built this very trust through their self-development. Let me remind you that you now have the responsibility to further deepen this trust as one of UTokyo’s resources and pass it on to the next generation.

You have been freed from a world defined by a single-dimensional measurement, that is, test scores. But from now on, you will set out to freely explore the vast world of academia underpinned by a multitude of values. You will come to see what value you have acknowledged so far and what value you have overlooked. I hope you will spend time here contemplating that while enjoying interaction with the types of people who are new to you.

If I may give a piece of advice for you to enrich your university life, this is it: Take the first step forward. So, allow me to give you three tips on how you can take that first step, starting from tomorrow.

First, to make the most of this opportunity that comes with being a member of the University of Tokyo, I encourage you to engage with friends and senior students and be proactive in asking questions to faculty members. Most importantly, please try to get the most out of faculty members. The University of Tokyo boasts a great number of professors who are willing to sincerely engage with students and their own scholarly research as they themselves have become researchers as a result of pursuing their own curiosity and passion found in their student days. When you find yourself looking for academic advice, I am certain that professors engaged in world-leading research are willing to spend time to sit down and talk with you. Such an experience will help spur your growth and encourage you to take on a new challenge. So, I encourage you to visit professors without hesitation.

Meanwhile, we will launch this year a new program that will allow you to not just listen but learn firsthand about leading research topics. For a start, we will open a cluster of classes in the new category “Advanced Sciences” for first-and second-year science-major students. Young and up-and-coming professors, who are leading researchers in the world, will teach you about the basics of cutting-edge knowledge on topics ranging from quantum computers to the evolution of life to biology of the cell. I encourage you to take these classes.

Second, I hope you will make the best use of our libraries. The University of Tokyo owns a variety of libraries, one of which is the Komaba Library.

The world of academia is far deeper and much wider than you can imagine. The library is the place where you can literally feel that vastness of academia. I am sure that you can feel that if you just step in, walk around, and look at the spines of the books in any of our libraries. The university libraries offer a gateway to myriad worlds of academia. The Library of Economics houses a collection of Adam Smith’s books. You can actually touch and read the books owned by the novelist Ogai Mori, who was active from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, at the General Library. Moreover, the University of Tokyo has the unique libraries such as the Faculty of Law Center for Modern Japanese Legal and Political Documents (Meiji Shinbun Zasshi Bunko), the Multi-media and Socio-Information Studies Archive at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, and the Historiographical Institute Library. I hope you will go and explore these precious libraries.

In fact, I myself had a precious encounter with a book at the Komaba Library, the College of Arts and Sciences. As a student in the Junior Division, I always found it very difficult to make up my mind to choose one field that I would study further from among various interesting fields that I was exposed to. Such fields included mathematics or architecture. I used to visit Komaba Library and pick out books of various genres to read just by looking at the titles on their spines. Then one day, I chose a book and came across a striking fact. I learned from this book that there are still unsolved mysteries regarding the speed of the crystal growth that even modern physics cannot explain. This chance encounter drove me to want to learn about solid state physics and eventually, I became engrossed in this field of study.

Third, I encourage you to participate actively in classes and programs that help you develop a global mindset. Mr. Izumo of Euglena said that he took part in an internship program in Bangladesh as the first-year student and saw people suffering from dire malnutrition with his own eyes. He said this experience gave him the impetus to do research on utilizing highly-nutritious euglena.

You will live in a time, where it will become more and more important to engage with people from around the world who have diverse backgrounds and learn how to accept and embrace differences. To learn the basics of such competence, the University of Tokyo has created a new certification system designed to nurture global-mindedness, called the Go Global Gateway. It serves as a guide for developing language and communication skills as well as international perspectives, which will help you greatly when you work together with people from across the globe. Moreover, this system offers you useful information on international exchange and study aboard programs and will also provide you with greater assistance, including financial help for language examinations, a prerequisite for taking part in study abroad or overseas summer programs. So, I would like you all to register with Go Global Gateway. I hope you will take advantage of this system for a richer student life and your future career.

Last but not least, you need to have both physical and mental well-being to enjoy your university life ahead. We are ready to offer you support as much as we can. I hope you will lead a fulfilling life ahead and wish you good health and the best of luck.

Makoto Gonokami
The University of Tokyo
April 12, 2019
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