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Address by the President of the University of Tokyo for the Welcoming Ceremony for students newly enrolled in AY 2020 (for undergraduate students) [Translated Version]

Hello, and welcome to all students newly enrolled in AY 2020. I am Teruo Fujii, and as of this academic year, the 31st president of the University of Tokyo.

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 last year resulted in an unprecedented turn of events. The matriculation ceremony that we had all been looking forward to was cancelled, and most courses were moved online. Dealing with this difficult situation by trying a series of new measures, including conducting regular exams online for courses in the junior division, has been a valuable experience for us at the University of Tokyo. We have had to ask students to cooperate with numerous restrictions, not only in classes but also about coming to campus at all, using libraries, and enjoying extracurricular activities like sports and clubs. Without the chance to make new friends and connections on campus, I am sure that some people have felt isolated by the online classes and unsure about their future as university students. We are doing everything we can to alleviate the anxiety and inconvenience you’ve experienced, and we are trying to provide care through our facilities, but I do not feel that we have been able to cover everything. The University of Tokyo has been able to continue the learning and research that takes place here only thanks to the cooperation we’ve received from all of you. I want to thank you all sincerely for that.

We have seen even more infectious variants of the novel coronavirus become more prevalent, and we continue to have trouble containing its spread. I also want to apologize for the suddenness with which this Welcoming Ceremony, which was originally planned for the end of April, was postponed at the last minute.

This Welcoming Ceremony is an important chance to meet all of you in person and to welcome you once again as part of the University of Tokyo after you have spent this whole year experiencing so many difficulties in your studies, research, and lives as students, beginning with our not being able to hold the Matriculation Ceremony. That is why I am so very happy that we are able to have this Welcoming Ceremony, after a two-month delay, to recognize everything you’ve been through.

As many of you may know, I myself contracted COVID-19 shortly after I took on the role of president here in April. However cautious you are in taking preventive steps, this experience brought home to me that infection risks are always all around us. During about two weeks of hospitalization, 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.

Though what has happened during this pandemic has brought new hardships upon us all, I think it has also taught us the significance of being able to study at the university. Nowadays, 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 find a way to overcome difficult challenges. We can weave together various insights and wisdom gained from a wealth of knowledge and experience in specialized fields so that we can generate new solutions. 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, you could end up graduating without having a chance to talk with others outside of your classes or faculties.

In a place where people of diverse backgrounds come together, I think having a dialogue is more important than anything else. 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. Since I started my own research lab at the University’s Institute of Industrial Science, I have developed underwater sensors using microfluidic devices and have studied methods for surveying deep sea areas, for example. 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 imagine what users really want, and to consider what should be made in the first place. 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.

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 questions and 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 question.

In 2018, my research lab, through dialogue with Design Lab, also devised an idea for an innovative ocean research project called the Ocean Monitoring Network Initiative (OMNI). 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. Today, I brought here the Mark III, the third version. This 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 position-tracking GPS, a battery and among other things, and solar panel on the top surface. 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.

Indeed, this device is a product of a “dialogue” among people of different genres – the designers, engineers, and scientists. 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 – also can use this simple device as a tool for communication and 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 bring about unexpected innovations, leading to a greater and deeper dialogue between the ocean and humans.

As I have said so far, this try to further explore this vast and deep ocean 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.

There are generally three types of meaning associated with dialogue.

The first meaning of dialogue is to deepen people’s understanding of certain problems and share questions 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. The dialogues that we have had with you as students as we’ve built the environments to hold classes online this academic year are also examples of this.

One factor that played a major role in the implementation of online classes was the questions and feedback sent to the portal site utelecon from the entire university. Thanks to so many people making their voices heard, we were able to understand the weaknesses of the system and come up with new ideas. Rapid responses also created a sense of dependability and a feeling that we were in it together, and this reinforced our commitment to solve any issues that might arise. Repeated experiences like these made it possible for us to decide to hold not only the class meetings but all the regular exams for the junior division for the College of Arts and Sciences online as well.

It is often the case, however, that not everyone is aligned toward the same shared goals. It is unlikely that dialogue will occur unless we share the same goals. Coming up with solutions is not actually the purpose of dialogue.

It is instead to build a shared understanding, as in the second sense of dialogue. In other words, rather than being a process of producing an answer, it is about starting by accepting the other party in the dialogue as a whole and listening carefully to the questions that they are putting to you. For example, all of you have basically learned to deal with online classes, but I think there must be those among you who have felt that it is still not enough. At the same time, there are probably many who think that online classes are plenty and actually prefer them because of the convenience. Such differences of opinion, in fact, have their roots in differences in the values we hold when it comes to the question of what kind of student life is actually the most desirable. We often see people with values that are in direct opposition to one another online and elsewhere, but these oppositions cannot be resolved as long as people talk past each other, as they often do. Instead, we have to listen to the other party and accept them as a whole person, trust them, and then understand with empathy the issues they raise. That’s what’s important.

That said, it is very difficult to understand in that way. Thus, the third meaning of dialogue becomes ever important. Even if we can’t understand what the other party is talking about or what they are taking issue with, unexpected results can occur simply by continuing the dialogue. You may even find that it is those whom you can’t understand well who will help you see perspectives you have never seen before. 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 aiming an outcome of a dialogue in this 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 more 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. 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.

The online regular exams we conducted during the spring semester last year were designed based on this idea. We understand that there are many methods and that the manual was complicated, and we have heard from many that they never want to do it again. Nevertheless, while students and faculty hold diverse opinions, we will conduct testing in the fairest way possible and in ways that do not place an undue burden on certain people. I think that is precisely the reason that this resulted in the creation of such a complicated system. Ultimately, it was only thanks to the cooperation of each and every one of you that we were able to finally achieve this goal.

Trying to go about everything in a way that respects and values diversity can present more challenges than one might imagine. Trying to respond to the voices of the many can often lead to excessive burdens being placed on individuals. It’s easy to adopt a very simple method temporarily. But the question remains: how can we achieve a polyphony of voices while also minimizing the burdens on others. I believe that is one of the toughest problems for anyone studying at university. That’s because diverse voices and diverse questions are the lifeforce of the university. What we want to do is to work with all of you to make our university a better one while continuing to value this way of thinking.

This is a way of thinking that society needs more of in general. The fight against COVID-19 has placed a great many restrictions we’ve never dealt with before on so many facets of our lives. We have seen that there are many who have suffered undue and unexpected hardships because of the state of emergency. We need to consider the people in these positions and think about what we can do so that they do not become isolated or left behind. This is yet another area in which we need dialogue.

At this point, there is something that I need to talk to you all about. It has to do with the postponement of the May Festival (Gogatsusai) that was originally planned for May 15 and 16. I want to apologize for the fact that this postponement was only on May 10, just before the scheduled date.

Looking back at the status of infections in Tokyo at the time, monitoring and analysis by the Tokyo metropolitan government showed that, as the infections spread especially among younger populations, a more infectious variant (N501Y) had become prevalent, and it was reported that there was cause for concern about serious cases among younger people. In fact, in just three days, from May 6 to May 8, the number of new cases in Tokyo roughly doubled to more than 1,000. The university’s administration, which is charged with crisis management, saw this as a significant threat.

Meanwhile, in response to the extension of the state of emergency on May 7, the University decided to keep its restriction at “Level Pre-1.” Even as we continued to hold some in-person classes, the number of cases at the University was still rising and given the situation, we had to strengthen our precautions. Because of these conditions, the University's administration carefully reviewed whether the plan for the May Festival (Gogatsusai) fell within the permissible range of events under Level Pre-1. I do believe that everyone considered this fully, and given past cases of events at the University where infections had not been sufficiently prevented, and it was feared that even if the May Festival (Gogatsusai) were to be held completely online instead, people would still gather in their homes and rented spaces in order to prepare and execute parts of the event, further spreading the infection.

Because we had also seen a medical crisis that had never been seen before when a variant of the virus first appeared in Osaka, we were concerned about the rapid spreading of the virus among people in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The May Festival is also itself a venue for dialogue between the University and the rest of the world. It was for that reason that we had to make the decision based on how the University would be viewed by society at large if we were to hold a school festival in such circumstances. As a result, we decided that we would need plenty of time to hold the May Festival in such a way that both the event hosts and participants could feel safe, and we reached a decision to postpone the event.

As I said before, we do apologize for the decision being made so close to the original date, but there are often many factors the urgency of which can make dialogue difficult, if not impossible, in decision-making processes during a public health emergency. Please understand that this was a decision we had to make as the people ultimately responsible for the University as the result of repeated deliberations with experts within the University.

It’s my wish that this will serve as an occasion to develop the May Festival into an occasion for more intimate dialogue in the context of post-pandemic society, and I hope that we can continue to energize the dialogues taking place within the University to achieve that.

I know that a lot of things have been hard for all of you over this past academic year. I still remember everyone’s smiles when we began having some in-person classes starting in the second half of the year. We are working toward increasing the proportion of in-person classes and activities. For a little while longer, however, we have no choice but to continue to conduct some online classes as well. This situation makes me want to emphasize dialogue even more going forward. Please talk to someone any time you have issues with class environments, or if you are just feeling uneasy or depressed.

In the second half of this academic year, you will be setting out into your specialized fields for the senior division. From discussions in seminars based on your interests, to trial and error in the lab, to battling mountains of books and documents, to sweating through surveys in the field, richer and more varied opportunities than ever await you, along with many new connections and questions. While the need to restrict activities will remain for a time, I hope that you will do your best to find ways to achieve your goals through new ideas and inventive thinking. Those new ideas are most often the products of dialogues with the teachers and peers around us.

I have one last thing today. In online learning environments, it is possible to choose only the voices that we want to hear. This is exactly why we must be conscious about listening to what our fellow students have to say, and we must continue to listen to diverse voices from around the world, even if we can’t understand them. I want to encourage all of you to speak up with your own opinions, and to try engaging with others and asking questions. Considering everything we have been through in the last year, we surely have plenty of things to talk about.

I want to thank you once again for all your hard work and cooperation. Even though it is a year late, I want to congratulate you all on starting your journey here.

Let’s build the future of the University of Tokyo together.

The University of Tokyo
June 26th and 27th, 2021
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