2019 Fall Degree Conferment Ceremony Remarks (24 September 2019)

Juichi Yamagiwa, 26th President


Today, Kyoto University is proud to award master's degrees to 108 students, professional master's degrees to 9 students, and doctoral degrees to 189 students. Of these graduates, 164 are from outside Japan. Let me begin by offering my sincere congratulations to all of you on your accomplishments.

With today's ceremony, Kyoto University will have awarded, to date, master's degrees to 81,428 students, professional master's degrees to 1,861 students, juris doctor degrees to 2,258 students, and doctoral degrees to 45,039 students. On behalf of the Executive Vice-Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Deans, and Leading Graduate School Program Coordinators here today, and all the other faculty and staff, congratulations to each and every one of you on receiving your degrees.

At Kyoto University, master's and doctoral degrees are granted in 23 different fields of specialization, such as the "Doctor of Letters". Eight years ago we also began offering Leading Graduate School Programs, and the students who have completed them will receive degree certificates specifying these programs. I am genuinely proud and delighted that you have worked so hard to hone and perfect your skills, learning from and inspiring one another day and night, in all of these fields of study. Today's conferment ceremony is both a destination you have been working toward and the launching pad for your future. I hope that the academic degrees awarded today will be of great help to you in carving out your career paths.

Our world is currently on the verge of a major civilizational change. Humans lived in hunter-gatherer society for several million years, then agricultural and pastoral society from around 12,000 years ago, and industrial society after the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Today, we live in an information society that originated with the emergence of the world wide web 30 years ago, which was in turn made possible by the invention of the telegraph 180 years ago. These waves of change in human society are expanding rapidly.

The theme of the World Expo held in Osaka half a century ago was "Progress and Harmony for Mankind". I entered Kyoto University in the year the Expo was held, and visited it on many occasions. I remember looking around the pavilions with a sense of excitement about what the future may hold. In the United States Pavilion there were rocks that astronauts had brought back from their successful Apollo moon landing in the year before the Expo. The U.S.S.R. Pavilion, too, was showcasing its successes in space development, especially its launch of the world's first manmade satellite. The Mitsubishi Pavilion showed a video of the work of a "Weather Control Rocket Squad" to suppress the activity of super-sized typhoons, and a blueprint for a society 50 years in the future when nature and machines would work in harmony. The symbol of the Expo was, above all, the Tower of the Sun. The exterior of this fantastical sculpture looked like some kind of deity, while on the inside a Tree of Life extended its branches as an expression of the evolution of life on earth. On the top level were models of a futuristic city. As a whole, the tower was a symbol of the course of life itself, from ancient times through to the future. The tower was reopened in the Expo '70 Commemorative Park in March last year, and can now be enjoyed by the younger generations that did not experience the Expo first-hand.

Is our society today anything like the one envisaged in the Expo half a century ago? There has certainly been rapid progress in science and technology, and information and communications technologies in particular have brought people together in ways not previously thought possible. Goods and people move across national borders at increasing speeds, and we can easily keep track of what's going on in the world, wherever we happen to be. Achievements in bioscience and advancements in agricultural technology have made it possible to produce safe, high-yielding and nutritious crops, and fast-growing, tasty meat and fish on a large scale. Developments in medical technology have aided the early diagnosis of disease, the development of new pharmaceutical drugs, and even the design of medical robots that are now starting to perform operations with high precision and safety. Our lives continue to be significantly transformed by technological innovations in areas such as self-driving vehicles equipped with driver monitoring and smart city sensing, product identification utilizing cameras and AI, automated multi-lingual translation, and disaster information analysis.

Nonetheless, science and technology today is still not capable of preventing or controlling climate change or natural disasters. Many parts of the world have been hit by large-scale natural disasters in recent years. In Japan, too, we have experienced volcanic eruptions such as those at Fugendake, Miyakejima, Sakurajima, and Kuchinoerabu-jima, major earthquakes including the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the Kumamoto Earthquake, as well as typhoons, torrential rain, and heavy snowfalls. Each year, disasters such as these have caused many deaths and laid waste to living environments and industrial facilities. Recovering from them has taken huge amounts of effort, time, and money, and numerous people have suffered following the loss of their homes and property. Notable among these events was the meltdown in the core of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station caused by tsunami damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which led to widespread radiation pollution in surrounding areas. This was a major nuclear accident comparable to those in Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986. As we have come to realize how radiation from these incidents affects human health, exclusion zones have been established in the affected areas, and people will be restricted from living in these zones for many years to come. Countries across the world are reconsidering their use of nuclear power, and in Japan many nuclear reactors have been put out of operation to enable exhaustive investigations into their safety.

Recent years have also brought major changes in international relations and the framework of nations and political systems across the world. These changes are impeding the advancement of globalism and threatening to upset the global balance. When the Cold War came to a symbolic end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it appeared that the world was heading toward greater integration. However, ethnic and religious tensions have remained unresolved, and large-scale armed conflicts have broken out in rapid succession across many parts of the globe. Nations have been torn apart and replaced by new orders. People have been plunged into great uncertainty as new types of terrorism have emerged, indiscriminately targeting countless people and making use of weapons such as drones that can be controlled remotely. Moreover, climate change, conflict and other problems have prompted economic refugees to cross borders in huge numbers, leading to a backlash in the form of rising xenophobia. Among a long list of other challenges that now confront us are problems such as withdrawal from international agreements on topics such as nuclear weapons and trade, and intensification of disputes over access to resources.

Three years ago an Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, published a book titled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book Harari writes about the cognitive revolution that began with the invention of language, and shows how this revolution generated the fictions of religion, nation, and money that have enabled the flourishing of humankind. He argues that capitalism, with its global outlook and ethical system, is the only religion that has conquered the whole planet, with governments in all parts of the world becoming captivated by the idea of economic growth. And today, now that we know that the essence of life is DNA, humans and all other organisms are comprehended in terms of biochemical algorithms and conglomerations of network systems. The humanist precept of an "individual with free will" is now considered an illusion, and we are said to be entering an era of "data-ism", in which life itself can be generated through the manipulation of data.

Harari develops the following argument in his book Homo Deus, published last year. Humans anticipated that by the end of the 20th century the great problems that had plagued them thus far, such as hunger, disease, and war, would be largely overcome. In the 21st century, Harari writes, humans will instead strive toward three new challenges: divine powers, immortality, and happiness. It is certainly possible to say that the humans who could successfully create new life using bioscience had divine powers. It is also possible that if gene editing and bioengineering expand our resilience, human bodies may last forever. And given that brain death is currently the criterion for pronouncing that a human is dead, we may truly be judged immortal if our brains can be replaced wholly with artificial intelligence. The definition of happiness alone remains elusive. The objective is unclear and there is no certainty that happiness can be achieved through science and technology alone. This is because happiness is not purely individual: it is influenced greatly by interaction with others.

Looking forward, it will be vital for us to sufficiently engage not only with science and technology but also with the fundamental nature of humanity and society, and create a world where nature and culture exist in harmony. This is the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), in which objects will be connected in a network of information and communications technology (ICT) extending across the globe. Huge volumes of information will be analyzed using artificial intelligence (AI), bringing the potential for greater efficiency in our everyday lives. This will mark the onset of the "knowledge-intensive society" in which all sorts of social problems will be solved and new value created by sharing and aggregating knowledge, rather than just the resources and materials we have used thus far. Both economic and human activity will intensify, and dispersion and circulation will become the driving forces for society and industry. In this society of the future, it will be essential to have not only diversity and creativity, but also capacities for self-determination and coordination based on global ethical standards.

It is difficult to predict with any certainty how our planet and society will change into the future. However we already know, as the research on "planetary boundaries" warns, that if the human population continues to grow and the impact of human activity continues to accelerate as it is doing now, global warming will cause natural disasters to occur with greater frequency, and pollution will make more and more parts of the world uninhabitable for humans. It is essential that all countries reliably pursue the objectives they have set under the Paris Agreement, and strive to achieve the SDGs as shared global challenges. The actions that you take from now on will shape the future of our planet and humankind significantly.

Looking through the report on the dissertations for which students are receiving degrees today, I noted a tendency that would be expected of research at Kyoto University. Many of the dissertations describe basic research in great breadth and depth, and quite a few address topics related to recent developments in the world. Examples of these topics include: cross-cultural encounters resulting from globalization, multiculturalism, human migration, movement of goods, global-scale climate change, natural disasters, reorganization of political and economic systems driven by rapid social changes, and new methods of treatment for mental illness and other medical conditions.

The common thread running through all of these works is that they apply incisive analysis to ongoing social problems and unresolved issues, yielding fresh evidence and proposals for resolution. I am sure that these proposals, grounded as they are in reliable data and deep analysis, will serve as important guideposts for the future. There are many studies with enticing titles that made me want to learn about the research described, and other dissertations containing new research beyond my capacity for understanding. I am awed by the diversity of the fields covered, and positive that such diversity, creativity, and vision will lead to world-changing ideas, discoveries, and technologies.

In the future, advancements in ICT will result in significant integration of the physical and virtual realms. Universities will be required to function as think-tanks and communities that coordinate these changes to ensure that they bring greater happiness to humankind. AI and IT will likely permeate the moral dimension of human life as well, with art and human sensibility providing the final bulwark against the excesses of science and technology. While blessed with a wealth of information, we live today in an insecure society, where individuals are isolated and left to contend with various risks on their own. We cannot rely on AI to help us spend quality time with friends; I believe that such experiences are deeply rooted in our bodies and utterly at odds with the pursuit of efficiency. Information has no sensibility, and can be modified in all sorts of ways in line with different aims; it is highly useful but not well-matched to the abilities of humans. That is why I believe we need to envisage an ultra-smart society, one designed to effectively promote happiness as an experience rooted in our bodies. This will require profound learning across the arts and sciences, and expansive knowledge that ranges freely through time and space.

I hope that all of you receiving degrees today will take full advantage of the superior capabilities you have cultivated here at Kyoto University, and find ways for your intellect to flourish in these complex times. Academic work requires a sensitivity to the era in which one lives. In addition, and regardless of your academic discipline, it is also essential to have a wide-ranging education and a solid grasp of fundamentals. The capacity to discover uncharted areas and unexplored topics can be nurtured through experiences of playing in natural surrounds as a child, and of seeking knowledge in fields different from one's own. Today, however, the approach to science throughout the world seems to have become fairly uniform, with a tendency to be tied to technology and focused solely on producing innovations with immediate application in society. I believe that it is important for all researchers to look beyond their own academic disciplines, incorporating a broad range of knowledge from other fields and even an appreciation of the arts into their work, and each developing an individual scientific intuition.

I am confident that during your research life here at Kyoto University, each one of you has cast your eyes over many different fields and developed your own distinctive academic world through vigorous dialogue with others. That is testimony to your studies at Kyoto University, and will be a priceless asset in your life from here on. Moreover, your dissertation is the ultimate gift you can give to future generations, and the footprints you are leaving behind will serve as a guide for those who will come after you. I believe that the value of these gifts will be determined by whether or not you can maintain your pride as KyotoU alumni. It is extremely unfortunate that there has recently been a spate of research misconduct, which has resulted in fierce public criticism of researchers. I hope that each one of you will rely on the pride and experience as a researcher you have nurtured at Kyoto University, and go on to pursue brilliant careers.

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