2018–2019 Undergraduate Graduation Ceremony Remarks (26 March 2019)

Juichi Yamagiwa, 26th President


Let me begin by congratulating the 2,876 students who are graduating from Kyoto University today. On behalf of our guests of honor, former Presidents Hiroo Imura and Makoto Nagao, as well as the Executive Vice-Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Deans, and Directors here today, and all other faculty and staff, I want to extend our heartfelt congratulations to each of you. I would also like to express our deepest gratitude to the family members and others around you who have provided you with so much generous support in working toward this, your graduation day. From the first graduation ceremony in 1900 to the end of today's ceremony, Kyoto University will have awarded bachelor's degrees to a total 211,548 students over its 120-year history.

What kinds of lives have you all led since you first entered our institution? Today, I'd like you to look back on the years you have spent at Kyoto University. As new students, having succeeded in passing the fiercely competitive entrance examinations, what hopes and dreams did you have for your time here? Were you able to attain those goals during the last few years, leading up to today's ceremony? Or, did your dreams undergo significant transformation during your time here? And, how are the new paths on which you are about to embark connected to your original aspirations?

Last year, our Distinguished Professor Tasuku Honjo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His research career has been a long and arduous journey, with numerous setbacks along the way, demanding great fortitude. I am delighted that he has spent a major part of this career here at Kyoto. Last December, I was given the great honor of attending the Nobel Prize award ceremony together with Professor Honjo himself. In the venerable Stockholm Concert Hall, filled with members of the Swedish royal family and scientists from across the world, Professor Honjo appeared in traditional Japanese attire. Watching him go forward to receive his medal and certificate from King Carl XVI Gustaf, I felt a great sense of pride as I realized that innovative, cutting-edge research continues to shine brightly through at Kyoto University, even amid the rapid changes in the world today and concerns over a decline in Japan's research capability. Many of the scientists attending the ceremony offered high praise for the research of Professor Honjo and our University as a whole. The introduction by the Nobel Foundation was also exceptional. To the accompaniment of one of Sweden's renowned orchestras, the following explanation was provided of the immune system and of the work of Professor Honjo and co-recipient of the prize, Professor James P Allison, with the orchestra augmenting the narration. 

"The immune system is based on a diversified array of instruments, in the form of various cells and molecules. Each of them has its own special sound and technical requirements to get them to work, a bit like the instruments in the orchestra here today."

"T cells - a kind of white blood cells that act, among other things, as killer cells - use a special instrument called a receptor to identify cancer cells as foreign. By the 1990s, cancer immunology researchers had shown that T cells will then react, but unfortunately in a much too timid way. Let's ask the orchestra to illustrate."

"Beautiful and clear, but alas – so short, slow and weak! Playing 'andante and pianissimo' was not enough to eliminate cancer cells. This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to two researchers who discovered how we can release the brakes that hold back the immune system, thereby mobilising it for cancer therapy. Both Laureates are immunologists, but neither was actually a cancer researcher from the beginning. This story therefore illustrates something important: the unexpected benefits of basic research."

"The two therapies have especially strong effects when used together. Let's get a preview by returning to our immune system orchestra. You remember how pathetic it sounded last time. Now let's hear how the same reaction looks when we release the brakes. Maestro?"

"Allegro e Fortissimo! That was a bit different, the way it should sound! By orchestrating the immune system in the right way, it has proved possible to control or eliminate the disease in tens of thousands of patients. Many are still tumour-free after more than five years. This new pillar of cancer therapy is already solid, and the Laureates' discoveries have inspired a whole new field of research. Like the Carmen Overture, it promises an exciting future."

The Nobel Foundation explained that both Professor Honjo and Professor Allison are immunologists, but neither was actually a cancer researcher from the beginning, and the fact that their work led to a surprising discovery and a dramatic advancement in medicine illustrates the unexpected benefits of basic research. This is a point that Professor Honjo himself often makes, and it is part of the Kyoto University spirit: to persevere with basic research, and go beyond accepted wisdom to achieve breakthroughs. This is a fundamental approach that can be applied to any field whatsoever.

The world has undergone immense changes in the few years you have spent here at Kyoto. Even as Japan struggled to recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Great Kumamoto Earthquake, last year the Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake struck and frequent typhoons tore through the Japanese archipelago, affecting countless people. Intensifying ethnic and religious conflicts have resulted in large numbers of refugees and distorted well-established cooperative frameworks and partnerships among nations. In the face of rapid developments in world affairs, such as the instability of the EU as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit, the shift to unilateralism in the United States, and the fluctuations of East Asian affairs, how did you respond and what kinds of resolutions did you make afresh?

Ideas about life itself have also changed significantly. The birth of a set of human twins through genome editing in China last year ignited the debate over the bio-ethics of designer babies. This year we saw the birth of a genome-edited clone monkey. In Japan too, there have been rapid advancements in medical technologies utilizing stem cells, and it is even possible today to grow human organs inside the body of a pig. A wide range of ethical questions are emerging in relation to the bio-environment and outlooks on humanity. This is because broad possibilities have opened up not simply for curing illness, but also for intervening in the beginnings of human life and the genetic scenarios of humans. These factors can influence the age profile of society and the life plans of individuals to a considerable extent, impacting future social dynamics. At the same time, the linkage of medicine and business in bio-ventures is beginning to generate prodigious wealth and emerging as a force in the global economy. It is precisely in times like these that we must look back at the long history of various forms of life, and apprehend the human being comprehensively as both a life form and a social entity instilled with culture.

In time, you will all be living and working in what is being called "Society 5.0", the ultra-smart society. Here, advanced communication devices wield the power to connect humans and things, while robots and artificial intelligence dominate in many fields of work. This may result in fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction. I believe, however, that in such an environment it will be more important than ever for humans to directly interact with each other and to manifest their capacity to live as they engage with the world. The world is currently on the verge of transformation from a capital- and labor-intensive society into a knowledge-intensive one, while the Japanese economy is undergoing a shift from one that is excessively concentrated on the Tokyo metropolitan area to one that is more regionally diffused. You have the power to determine how these developments unfold.

The society of the future will require novel outlooks on nature and the human condition. It will surely be important to gather together ideas that were once viewed as outmoded and use them to re-think our future, rather than placing all our faith in advanced science and technology. The practice of onko chishin – referring to the old in order to comprehend the new – is becoming more essential than ever. Today, rapid advancements in information and communication technologies have enabled us to access existing knowledge with ease, whenever and wherever we choose. Huge volumes of video material are streamed free of charge through our devices, and books are no longer an indispensable means of acquiring knowledge. Nonetheless, world-changing innovations cannot result solely from scientific and technological advances; it also requires knowledge of the humanities and social sciences and a solid outlook on the human condition, which in turn must be reexamined based on the collective wealth of scholarly insights we have accumulated over the years. I believe that now is the time to tap the vein of profound thought that we are proud to refer to as the "Kyoto School".

The problem today seems to be that the basic capitalist principle — one that underpins the human aspiration for a future that is superior to the present — namely, the notion that economic growth is the ultimate good, is beginning to disintegrate. When I was a student at Kyoto University at the start of the 1970s, Japan was still in a high economic growth phase, and it seemed that a brighter future was just around the corner. The World Expo was held in Osaka, and there was a real sense that science and technology was opening up a whole new world of possibilities. Eventually, however, it became clear that pollution, global warming, and other forms of environmental degradation were advancing rapidly and on a global scale. Thereafter, "sustainable development" became the new catchphrase, and a number of international conventions were established in the hope of preventing further damage to the planet. A consensus developed that earth's resources are finite, and there is a limit to how far human development can go. Japanese companies too began to align their corporate ethics and strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), advocated in the Paris Agreement. In the coming era, it will be increasingly important to consider biodiversity and human society from a holistic and global perspective.

In the meantime, I am sure that all of you graduating today have experienced free and open-minded discussions of the same type as pursued by the generations of KyotoU graduates who came before you. These experiences, together with your friendships with fellow alumni, are sure to prove extremely valuable to your lives from here on. At Kyoto University we uphold a tradition of respect for creativity, and are proud of our enthusiasm for new challenges, an enthusiasm that drives one to blaze trails into uncharted and untraversed territory. I am certain that having completed your undergraduate studies in this environment, many of you have acquired diverse and exceptional abilities and are already applying them in various spheres of activity. There are sure to be many opportunities from now on for you to demonstrate these abilities, putting them to the test. What you must never forget, however, is to listen carefully to the opinions of those with different views from yours. It is crucial to take into account multiple points of view before you pass final judgment on and tackle the problems confronting you. At such times, our traditions of "academic freedom based on the ability to engage in dialogue" are sure to be of assistance.

"Peaceful coexistence across the global community" is a major theme that Kyoto University has pursued since its founding. In our present society, however, this harmony is disintegrating, and coexistence among people with diverse views is in jeopardy. In the future you are sure to encounter situations that bring you face to face with this difficult reality. When you do, I hope that you will invoke Kyoto University's spirit of open debate and boldly tackle the challenges you face.

The attitudes and behaviors that you display from now on as KyotoU alumni are sure to attract public attention, and also serve as a guide for the students following in your footsteps. A great variety of paths lie ahead of you. However, those paths are sure to intersect again in the future. It is my sincere hope that when that happens, you will feel proud of being part of the KyotoU community.

Once again, let me offer my sincere congratulations to each and every one of you graduating today.

*The passages in quotation marks are taken from NobelPrize.org