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Address by the President of the University of Tokyo for the 2021 Spring Undergraduate Matriculation Ceremony [Translated Version]

Welcome to the University of Tokyo. I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations to all of you on your entrance into the University. It is my great pleasure to accept you as new members of the University of Tokyo (UTokyo) community. Today, the total number of new students entering our undergraduate program in April is 3,130. Of these, 664 are female students, accounting for more than 21% of the student body. Still, the ratio of female students is low but it is the highest on record in the history of the University.

I am impressed that you have made it through to the University after studying hard through this unprecedented pandemic and overcoming the newly-launched, standardized university entrance examinations. You have already undergone an extraordinary experience even before entering the University. In that sense, I can say that you are already pioneers for the future.

I, too, became the president of the University of Tokyo in April, and was supposed to deliver a speech at the matriculation ceremony held at the Nippon Budokan hall on April 12. I myself was looking forward to that occasion. But much to my regret, I was unable to fulfill that wish because I contracted the new coronavirus. This news has already been announced on the University’s website. Shortly after the new academic year began, I was feeling under the weather and took a PCR test, and found that I tested positive. As I was about to take on my new duties in the new year, I had been more careful to wear a mask, disinfect my hands, and limit the number of meetings than before. But however cautious I can be in taking preventive steps, this experience brought home to me that infection risks are always all around us.

While I had only mild symptoms, I did suffer from strong fatigue, which was different from that caused by an ordinary cold or a flu, and had a slight difficulty with my sense of smell. I have returned to my official work after about two weeks of hospitalization. During that time, I saw medical professionals who were looking after, monitoring, and treating patients day and night. This made me think about those healthcare and medical professionals working tirelessly to fight against this virus across the world. Here, allow me to express my sincere respect and appreciation to all those who are striving to overcome this pandemic.

To help prevent the spread of this COVID-19, all of us have been forced to socially distance ourselves from each other and to live in spaces isolated from others for a little over one year. Amidst such changes, we are witnessing an increased division in the world and a rapid transformation of how things operate in society. I would say that this occurrence is an entirely new kind of challenge in the history of humankind.

And yet, I believe it is in such circumstances that the existential value of the university becomes all the more significant. This is because what is most needed now is to weave together various insights and wisdom gained from a wealth of knowledge and experience in specialized fields so that we can generate new solutions and find a way to overcome difficult challenges. As the president, I would like to make the University of Tokyo a place of activity where such a diverse pool of knowledge is created, exchanged, and developed further into an ever greater reservoir of knowledge and wisdom.

But this is easier said than done. In reality, even researchers of the same discipline do not always understand each other so easily. This is even more so with people who are in different fields. I think the same goes for you, as students. Even though you are now in the University, which serves as an open space for academic learning and exchange, you could end up graduating without having a chance to talk with others outside of your classes or faculties.

This is not just limited to the realm of scholarship. Universities offer opportunities to meet and mingle with people who hail from different countries and regions as well as those with different mindsets and backgrounds. But it is up to us whether we can take advantage of these chances.

In a place where people of diverse backgrounds come together, I think having a dialogue is more important than anything else. But initially there is no common language or common ground set up for us to do just that. At first, we need to start by exploring how to hold a dialogue. We need to look at what it is like to attempt at holding a true dialogue, as opposed to having a casual conversation, and look into what kind of a possibility lies in such a dialogue. Here, by way of example, let me talk about several cases of knowledge exchange that are related to my own research.

I graduated from the Department of Naval Architecture at the Faculty of Engineering, the University of Tokyo, and did research on subsea robots as a graduate student at the University’s Institute of Industrial Science. Since I started my own research lab, I have developed underwater sensors using microfluidic devices and have studied methods for surveying deep sea areas, for example. The Institute of Industrial Science is located on the Komaba Research Campus, right next to the Komaba Campus where you will take your classes.

The Komaba Research Campus is also home to the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, also known as RCAST. These two research centers engage in a wide array of research from the atomic level to the global scale, as well as research on autonomous driving or big data, to name but a few. The campus is like a huge exhibition of engineering fields. I hope you will get a chance to visit there on a campus tour or on other occasions.

As its name suggests, the Institute of Industrial Science is a place for conducing engineering-related research focused on manufacturing or what is called Monozukuri in Japan. As such, the institute has relatively close relationships with the business and industrial community. When I served as the director of the institute back in 2015, I felt that digital revolution was causing a tectonic shift in the industrial structure and I concluded that we needed to re-envision what manufacturing or Monozukuri should look like in the future.

To connect cutting-edge engineering research with the real world, we need to think of where to apply new technologies gained from such research, to consider what should be made in the first place, and to imagine what users really want. In other words, we need to keep in mind such perspectives or a design-based approach.

To demonstrate such a design-based approach, I took the initiative to launch Design Lab Tokyo in 2017. This initiative was designed to allow for a “dialogue” between on-site researchers and the outside world – neither purely academia nor purely industry – via designers who see things from users’ standpoint. Design Lab was initially launched as a joint project with the Royal College of Art, a postgraduate institution of art and design based in London.

The mission of Design Lab is to apply the latest research and technologies to practical ideas. Designers visit labs within the institute, looking around for seeds that can be developed into interesting research projects. This process is called treasure hunting. The fact that there is no “common language” between designers and the University researchers leads to misunderstandings, which they say turns out to be helpful. This is because seeing a given object in an entirely differently light from the viewpoint of the object’s creator sometimes helps illuminate a new aspect of that object.

Since there is no one “correct” answer in the world of arts and design, even misunderstandings can produce creativity. These designers try to think out of the box and turn leading science and technology into something more digestible for the public. Then, the designers and university researchers engage in a free-style dialogue over fresh design proposals, which helps generate collaboration between researchers of different fields and pave the way for disseminating outcomes of such collaboration widely to society.

In 2018, my research lab also devised an idea for a project through dialogue with Design Lab. The idea was to explore how to conduct an innovative ocean research project called the Ocean Monitoring Network Initiative (OMNI). The ocean holds clues to resolving a number of issues related to climate change, food and natural resources. But it is so vast and so deep that we have discovered only a little about it. As ocean surveys are normally very costly and take a long time, it has long been viewed as a field limited only to a few experts. This OMNI project is intended to change such a situation. The ocean is, by nature, open to everyone. A lower-cost ocean survey tool with greater flexibility could make it possible for anyone to collect marine data. At my research lab, we were wondering if we could develop a system for sharing such data among everyone.

We have developed OMNI observation equipment that is about the size of a soccer ball, and it is made of materials that are available at 100-yen shops or electronics stores in Akihabara. As such, this equipment can be put together quite easily. A handmade urethane buoy contains a sealed plastic container holding a position-tracking GPS, microcontroller circuit boards, and a battery, among other things. A sensor on the head of a protruding pole is used to collect data on things such as water temperatures and salt levels. The collected data is transmitted in real time to our server and is made public on our website. In general, it costs millions of yen and takes a long time to prepare one piece of ocean survey equipment. But it took us only a few months to devise this OMNI equipment and cost only 40,000 yen or so. Indeed, this device is a product of a “dialogue” among people of different genres – the designers, engineers, and scientists.

Not only that, this observation equipment allows us to communicate and collaborate with people in broad sectors outside of the University. For instance, we asked secondary and high school students to think of ways to use this OMNI equipment at their schools. A diverse group of people engaging with the ocean – commercial and sports fishers as well as surfers – can also participate in this OMNI project by floating this equipment in their respective areas of activity in the ocean. By using this simple device as a tool for communication, all people, both experts and laypersons, can discuss their unique ideas freely on an equal footing and bounce them off each other. I expect that a further evolution of the OMNI project could not only generate lively exchanges between people but also bring about unexpected innovations, leading to a greater and deeper dialogue between the ocean and humans.

As I have said so far, I have been trying to further explore this vast and deep ocean through a range of different dialogues. Yet, this involves a dialogue on several different levels of meaning. By that I mean, the concept of dialogue encompasses more than just a face-to-face conversation. So, let me elaborate on this point.

I have asked my fellow professors specializing in philosophy, literature and other fields, and I have learned that there are generally three types of meaning associated with dialogue.

The first meaning of dialogue is to deepen people’s understanding of certain problems through a face-to-face discussion and to find out possible solutions. In other words, dialogue is used to open a path to the truth. Of course, a dialogue in this sense was repeatedly held in our process of creating the observation equipment. In reality, however, it is quite rare for all parties concerned to be looking in the same direction and moving toward a shared goal. If so, would it be not possible for us to deliver results through a dialogue? Actually, dialogue is not just intended to find an answer or reach a conclusion.

This brings us to the second meaning of dialogue. Instead of seeking for an answer, dialogue requires you to accept your dialogue partners for who they are, trust them, and listen to what they are saying to you, i.e., a dialogue for empathetic understanding. Similarly, I think such a dialogue can also help breathe life into the arts as well. Such a dialogue is not just limited to an exchange between humans.

The marine surveys I have conducted so far are my efforts to accept the ocean as it is and listen to what the ocean says to the entire globe. In a sense, I think I can say that those surveys have served as a dialogue for such a purpose.

That said, it is very difficult to understand the whole picture. Thus, the third meaning of dialogue becomes ever important. Even if you don’t understand the other person well, you will see an unexpected outcome if you continue to engage in a dialogue with that person. As I said earlier, new treasures generated from misunderstandings at Design Lab are a case in point.

Similarly, the use of the OMNI observation equipment can also be described as an outcome of a dialogue in this third meaning. People who venture out into the ocean using the observation equipment are motivated to do so for various reasons. I assume that they do not necessarily share the same objectives. And yet, they can enjoy exchanges with others via the ocean from their own positions, thereby accumulating a lot of data on the ocean as a result.

I would say this third meaning of dialogue is something like the musical concept of polyphony. Unlike homophony consisting of a primary melodic line accompanied by chords, polyphony has several independent melodies but eventually generates a certain harmony out of them. Bach’s Fugue represents this style of music, along with Farandole from L'Arelesienne Suite.

In polyphony, a variety of sounds resonate with each other but not necessarily in search of unity. This in turn generates something, as a result. If you ask me, the underlying premise of polyphony is an awareness that it is not so easy to understand others.

In the world today, society is showing a clear sign of divisions to an extent that empathetic understanding seems unattainable. The chaos over the U.S. presidential election is still fresh in our memory. Likewise, we see rising hate crimes against minority groups in countries around the world. Such a gloomy atmosphere is permeating many parts of the globe.

Over seven billion people inhabit this planet. Given that, it is no easy task to promote mutual understanding. But we can start by listening to others’ voices and we can add our own voices to resonate with theirs. What is important is not to stop trying to hold a dialogue with others.

In this sense, we can start a dialogue in our immediate surroundings. For instance, it can start with eating. It may sound strange, but some of our professors compare research activity to cooking. So, to conclude my talk, let me suggest some practical and easy-to-adopt recipes for you.

Tokyo has various food items coming from across the country and around the world. If you go on a shopping trip, you will see all kinds of food items on sale and get a glimpse into the agriculture, fisheries and livestock industries in Japan as well as the distribution network covering overseas markets. The variety of food items on offer, be it vegetables or fish, vary from season to season. I would say that savoring meals made of seasonal fresh produce and enjoying seasonal food varieties are a form of dialogue with the earth.

We can also think of the earth’s natural resources through food. For instance, in my student days, I had a chance to dive in the sea near the University’s Villa on the west coast of Izu Peninsula. One time, I was surrounded by a school of sardines. The population size of true sardines grows and decreases in a cycle of about 60 years, and its population was at its peak in the late 1980s. But the volume of sardine catches dropped sharply, beginning in the late 1990s and its prices increased by several times accordingly. In recent years, sardine catches have been on the rise again but still the volume of landings is only about 10% of the peak. The size of various sardine populations is reportedly affected by seawater temperatures during winter. If we could collect more detailed data on seawater temperatures through an initiative like the OMNI project, that would enable us to detect changes in the size of sardine population.

Let me give you another example. If you buy a pack of domestic beef at a supermarket, you will notice that an individual identification number is always printed on its label. The Japanese government issues individual identification numbers to all domestically raised cows and centrally controls that data in order to prevent serious cow diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and in case of an outbreak of food poisoning such as O-157. If you input this individual identification number on the National Livestock Breeding Center website, you can see the history of how that particular cow was raised. This is what is called food traceability. As the use of data is becoming more important today, such a system can be widely used to ensure food safety and security, natural resources management, and measures against food loss.

As these examples illustrate, we can learn about a wide variety of things from food. This is even more true if you cook for yourself.

In fact, I used to cook for myself when I stayed in Switzerland for nearly one year to do my research. I remember the time when I went grocery shopping at a local supermarket. In Europe at the time, fresh produce prices declined as the days went by. I felt that this system was reflective of people’s concern about food loss. As you know, unpasteurized milk turns into yoghurt as the days go by. Then, yoghurt becomes moldy as more time passes. Such an experience was new to me. I became acquainted with local Swiss people’s views about food and ingredients and gained a perspective as an everyday person living there. I believe this helped me establish a good working relationship with other people there.

In this regard, I would suggest that you find time to try your hand at cooking, whether you start living on your own, move into a dormitory, or continue to live with your family at home. Just as I said, even going for grocery shopping will give you a chance to gain various perspectives. To be honest with you, I myself can only cook simple dishes. I might dream of making a dish based on the “polyphony” of various ingredients. But only through holding a “dialogue” with ingredients again and again will I be able to make such a dish come true.

Talking with a lot of people over a meal is a great opportunity to deepen dialogue with them. But unfortunately, I would not recommend you to do that right now in light of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Yet, we will get through to the other side of this pandemic no matter how challenging it is. I hope you will eat nutritious food, look after your health, and dive right into your new learning and life as a university student, with the three meanings of dialogue in mind.

We intend to offer you an effective combination of in-person and online education while closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19 around the world. For that to happen, you need to raise your awareness to prevent the spread of the virus based on accurate information. When you engage in activities at the University, I would like to encourage you to think creatively and find ways to achieve your goals.

Having said that, I think many classes will be conducted online this year, too, as we prioritize the wellbeing of all UTokyo members including you as well as your family members and we are committed to offering education without interruption.

With online learning, you can choose to hear only what you want to hear. But because of this very nature of online education, I would encourage you to keep listening to what your classmates have to say and diverse voices from around the world, even though you may not understand them at first. And I hope you will speak up and talk to others. By doing so, I am certain that you will feel closer to the outside world.

Welcome to the University of Tokyo.

The University of Tokyo
April 2021
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