Message to graduate students matriculating in spring 2020 (7 April 2020)

Today, Kyoto University welcomes 2,276 new students enrolling in master's programs, 343 in professional degree programs, and 855 in doctoral programs. I congratulate each and every one of you on your enrollment, and I also extend my warmest congratulations to your families, and all those who have encouraged and supported you thus far.

Under normal circumstances, I would, of course, have delivered this congratulatory message in person. Unfortunately, however, due to the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), I must speak to you via this video message. At present, any large gathering can potentially pose a risk of infection, and we have already asked students to refrain from coming to the University. Our successful containment of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) depends on each individual's awareness and efforts, and on close cooperation among all people. I ask, therefore, for your kind understanding and cooperation in the face of these difficulties.

You are now taking a new step toward mastery of your chosen fields of specialization. Kyoto University's graduate schools span a wide range of disciplines, and the University awards 23 different types of academic degree. The studies of our graduate students are supported by 18 graduate schools, 13 affiliated research institutes, and 14 other education and research facilities. Students in our master's programs are expected to acquire advanced knowledge and skills, and develop their abilities as researchers through classes, practicums, and fieldwork that build on the basic knowledge and expertise acquired at the undergraduate level. Professional degree programs include professional practicums, case studies, site surveys, and other activities in addition to regular classes, and provide many opportunities to learn from experts with extensive practical experience in their respective fields. Doctoral programs focus on the production of a doctoral thesis, and essential tasks for that purpose include data-gathering, analysis, and a comparative review of new findings with existing research. Kyoto University also provides five Leading Graduate School Programs and two doctoral programs for "World-leading Innovative and Smart Education (WISE Program)", in which students acquire the practical knowledge and technological skills needed to address issues in modern society.

Through your graduate studies, you will acquire the advanced knowledge and skills needed in our rapidly changing world. Currently, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is rapidly spreading around the world, posing a major international threat. In addition to the high contagiousness of the virus, the global movement of people has contributed to its rapid spread around the world, as infected individuals have traveled across national borders during the virus's incubation period. Each country has been implementing measures to prevent the spread of infection, including regional lockdowns and travel restrictions. However, a potential side-effect of such measures is that they could cause an economic crisis even more severe than the Lehman Shock. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that occurred in China's Guangdong province in 2002 is, in some respects, similar to the COVID-19 coronavirus. However, the SARS infection was mainly confined to a small area in China, and there were less than 10,000 reported cases. Still, the SARS outbreak took approximately eight months to contain. We can therefore surmise that containing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) will require more drastic measures than were taken for SARS.   

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has sounded an alarm for contemporary science and technology, and for society as a whole. Most of the advanced machinery and devices currently used around the world are manufactured through an international division of labor. Software manufacturers and hardware manufacturers are located in different countries, and the manufacturers of a single piece of hardware's various components are also internationally dispersed. This means that an international supply chain is indispensable in order to manufacture even a single product. However, the current regional lockdowns and travel restrictions are disrupting the supply chain networks, and the shutdown of economic activities around the world has been creating an additional threat. This can be viewed as a weakness of the global capitalist economy.

The world has now begun a shift from labor- and capital-intensive societies to knowledge-intensive societies. Through sharing and consolidating knowledge, instead of resources and energy, diverse social issues can be solved, and new values can be created. The economy and human movement will accelerate, and society and industry will be driven by decentralization and circulation. Through the accumulation of knowledge and the analysis of large volumes of data, market trends can be predicted and new science and technology can be developed to meet anticipated needs. However, such innovative technologies can only be produced in developed regions, in which the equipment and machinery for gathering such information and creating such technologies are available. This means that other regions lag behind in the accumulation of information and the development of technology, and those regions end up providing cheap labor for the supply of resources and manufacturing. The international division of labor has resulted in such a situation, and it has also widened international disparities.

Furthermore, capitalism can only relate to nature from the perspective of short-term profit, and the advancement of science and technology requires a vast amount of energy, straining the planet's resources. In the long term, deterioration of the global environment may reach an irrecoverable state, which may take a toll on the next generation and on developing countries. The recent rise of young people, like Sweden's Greta Thunberg, who are protesting against the slow international response to climate change, and the growing number of refugees that are flooding into developed countries are further indications that our modern social and economic systems and the application of science and technology are not working well.

Last year, the Japanese physician Dr Tetsu Nakamura was assassinated by gunmen in Afghanistan. He had dedicated his life to helping Afghan people who were suffering due to poverty and disease. Dr Nakamura initially travelled to Afghanistan to treat leprosy patients. He soon realized that a lack of water, due to drought, was the main cause of people's health problems, and he launched a project to build wells. He also launched a large-scale irrigation project to restore depleted land, and turn it into fertile ground, working with local people to build a network of canals using traditional Japanese techniques. Through those efforts, agriculture was revitalized, and smiles began to return to the faces of local people liberated from chronic hunger. I think that Dr Nakamura believed that this could be a source of peace for the Afghan people. Dr Nakamura was the head of the Peshawar-kai, known in English as the Peace Japan Medical Services (PMS). A newspaper issued by the group in July 2019 featured the following observation by Dr Nakamura.

"The modern anthropocentrism that generally underlies our thinking is bolstered by an absolute confidence in technological civilization. However, there is a tendency to give precedence to technology alone. Contrary to the Confucian proverb, Onko-Chishin — 'know the old to build the new' — we may have succumbed to the illusion that we can develop new things while completely denying the past. In the natural sciences, the approach varies greatly depending on which aspect of nature is being studied. In the study of atoms, for example, problems can be elucidated through the application of specific standard principles, much like mathematics. However, such methods cannot be applied in river science, which changes immeasurably depending on time and place.

"The danger arises when we forget that science and technology has its limits. As human desires increase in tandem with our blind faith in science, the severity of the risks increases with the size of the benefits. For instance, if we build an excellent river dam with sturdy revetments, the stable supply of irrigated water to villages will increase their habitable area and food production. Putting aside any distribution issues, as the population increases and their total wealth grows, the technologies providing such benefits will be accepted without hesitation. However, once people attain something, they cannot then do without it. Those people will then consume more energy to maintain such technologies. Needless to say, viewed in terms of humanity's relationship with nature, this situation illustrates a serious contradiction. In general, our technologies prioritize human benefit, and they are not always in accord with the workings of nature.

"Those who have studied rivers know this very well. Taking a broad look at natural history, the areas of the Earth that we inhabit were formed when tectonic plates moved, seabeds rose, and mountains were leveled by earthquakes and floods. The plains of the Japanese archipelago were formed only 10,000 years ago, and rivers were the 'chisels' that carved the land's surface. Had there been no floods, we would have had no place to live. Controlling floods is like controlling the movement of celestial bodies. We are living in just a brief moment within the immeasurable span of natural history, and humans tend to be short-sighted, unable to clearly perceive such large-scale movement. We rashly believe that, within the natural cycle of formation, development, and extinction, we alone can continue to develop without end."

Towards the end of the article, Dr Nakamura went on to say this about the future of science and technology:

"Technology without self-reflection is a dangerous thing. The arrogance of humans in believing that they are all-powerful like gods, the rampant exploitation of nature, and mass consumption and mass production — these attitudes have destroyed the natural environment and spawned the terror of nuclear war. They pose an undeniable threat to the survival of humanity.

"At school, our generation was taught that 'Eastern culture is in harmony with nature, whereas Western culture subjugates nature'. However, as far as rivers are concerned, the opposite is currently true. It is in Europe that people make every effort to coexist with nature after reflecting on past civilizations. Japan has finally begun to rethink its traditional construction methods, but even that is really just a case of imitating European trends. As we struggle to deal with flood damage from rivers that are overflowing due to climate change, and as we battle droughts caused by global warming (and desertification), we are forced to consider the "ethical and philosophical aspects of technology". Returning to tradition does not mean replicating old methods. It means considering the present from traditional perspectives and making an effort to find the best way in harmony with nature. That understanding is the most important legacy that we can leave."

These words became Dr Nakamura's final testament, and they are words that I will always try to remember. Japan, which has focused on driving national development through science and technology, has recently been suffering due to a number of natural disasters. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan has experienced a succession of large earthquakes, including the Kumamoto Earthquake and Hokkaido Eastern Iburi Earthquake. It is predicted that a large Nankai Trough earthquake will occur in the near future. Severe typhoons with heavy rain and strong winds have also caused serious damage. Last year, a severe typhoon hit Chiba prefecture, damaging many houses and causing a massive and prolonged power outage. I think that climate change caused by global warming is undoubtedly a major factor in the increasing frequency of natural disasters. In addition, the expansion of our living areas into disaster-prone areas also contributes to the increasing scale of such natural disasters. 

In the 1970s, when I was a student at Kyoto University, the population was concentrated in cities, factories were built on reclaimed land along coastlines, and residential areas were expanded by cutting into mountains. Highways to connect urban areas were constructed, and numerous dams and tunnels were built, establishing new networks of waterways and roads. However, that infrastructure is now getting old, and there is concern that, in many locations, the aging infrastructure could cause disasters. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is currently facing financial difficulties, which makes it difficult to broadly carry out repairs and reconstructions, and so plans to extend the lifespan of such infrastructures are being carried out. Kyoto University is no exception. For two years, I have served as the chairperson of the selection committee for the Infrastructure Maintenance Awards of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The awards are presented to companies, groups, or researchers who have made outstanding efforts or developed technologies relating to the maintenance of infrastructure. The awards aim to widely publicize such efforts as best practices. Last year, NTT was awarded the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Award for technology to assess structural degradation in utility pole inspections, improving inspection efficiency. Most of the other ministerial awards, including the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Award, were presented for the development of technologies for infrastructure maintenance and inspection, or for efforts to prevent disasters or pollution. Such initiatives highlight the fact that Japan is struggling to maintain its infrastructure on a limited budget. It is time that we appraised the benefits we have received from the various forms of infrastructure established throughout the past 50 years, and also looked at the negative aspects, such as whether such aging infrastructure can continue to function in the face of global changes wrought by climate change, or if it is potentially increasing the risk of disaster. As academic professionals, we must be acutely aware of such potential issues, and seriously consider how they can be addressed.

But science and technology do not always have to deplete resources or destroy nature. Dr Akira Yoshino, who was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and who has been working as a researcher for Asahi Kasei since completing his master's program at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Engineering, developed a lithium-ion battery. With its advantages of light weight, high energy efficiency, and high durability for being repeatedly charged and depleted, the lithium-ion battery is widely used around the world in mobile phones, laptop computers, digital cameras, electric motorcycles, and hybrid automobiles. The battery also shows great promise as a technology that will promote eco-friendly and sustainable clean energy through its applications in renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy. Another example is the porous materials developed by Professor Susumu Kitagawa of the Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study (KUIAS). The porous materials developed by Dr Kitagawa have been widely used as separators for petroleum refining and water purification. It is also highly anticipated that, in the future, they will be used for removing contaminants to improve the environment, and for isolating specific molecules in the atmosphere so that they can be used as resources. Next-generation fuel-cell vehicles are powered by hydrogen fuel, and produce no carbon dioxide emissions. Hydrogen is generally produced from fossil fuels, but researchers at many companies and universities are currently competing with each other to develop a technology to produce hydrogen inexpensively from large volumes of water. These are examples of ways in which science and technology can not only contribute to human convenience through the development of new energies, but can also begin to orient us towards a more harmonious coexistence with the global environment.

For approximately two years, I have served as a part-time member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI) of the Cabinet Office, and have participated in various meetings to discuss science and technology policies in Japan. In recent years, such meetings have focused on the enhancement of research capabilities and the formulation of the 6th Science and Technology Basic Plan, which will cover a five-year period beginning in 2021. The 1995 Basic Act on Science and Technology included a clause that defined its focus as being science and technology "other than science or technology whose sole concern is the humanities". However, it was decided to delete that clause from the revised act, because for the attainment of Society 5.0, which is the Japanese government's vision for the future, it is vital to consider not only science and technology, but also humanity and society. As we face an unpredictable era fraught with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), it is important that we establish new social ethics appropriate for the coming age. By considering such things and envisaging Japan's future in 2030 and 2050 from different perspectives, the 6th Science and Technology Basic Plan seeks to define the ideal role for Japan as a nation founded on science.

In the meantime, the Science Council of Japan, of which I serve as president, has issued a statement asserting that "in order for academia to address the various problems for which society requires  solutions, it is vital to establish a comprehensive knowledge base through close cooperation between the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences, with the latter contributing objective, and sometimes critical, perspectives on humans and society". Throughout the past year, the Council held multiple "Vision 2020" committee meetings in an effort to formulate a blueprint for the future of Japan, including the role that should be played by academia. The committee will soon publish a statement entitled "Questions from the Future — Towards the 100th Anniversary of the Science Council of Japan". I hope that you will all take a look at it.

There has been growing concern in Japan, including within CSTI and the Science Council of Japan, about a decline in the nation's research capabilities. After the United States, Japan has the second highest number of Nobel Prizes awarded since the beginning of the 21st century. The recipients of those awards include numerous scholars affiliated with Kyoto University. However, current research capability indicators, including the number of theses produced, have been declining significantly. I think that a major reason for the decline is a decrease in the number of researchers, attributable to the fact that university operating grants from the national government have been reduced every year since the incorporation of Japan's national universities in 2004, coupled with the fact that the grants provided for university reform have been increasing, and so faculty members end up devoting more of their time to reform efforts, to the detriment of time spent on actual research. 

How can we restore and enhance Japan's research capabilities? The Science Council of Japan asked its members and associate members, over 2,000 people, for their opinions on that question. Their responses were then submitted to CSTI for discussion. CSTI reached the conclusion that effective solutions would be providing support for early-career researchers, enhancing collaboration with industry, and accelerating the international circulation of talented researchers. Considering the problem that, among developed countries, Japan alone has a decreasing ratio of students advancing to doctoral programs, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has proposed a comprehensive package of programs to strengthen Japan's research capabilities and support early-career researchers. Like Europe and the US, Japan should view doctoral programs as not just education programs, but as a first career step for professional researchers. To achieve this, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) has set a goal to increase the number of research fellowships for students in the DC1 and DC2 categories, currently only approximately 10% of whom receive such support. In addition, open research funds will be established to support creative research by young researchers, and the period of support will be extended to 7–10 years, compared with the 3–5 year periods of other funding schemes. There are also plans to proactively provide industrial sector internships for graduate students, and increase the sector's recruitment of doctoral degree holders. There have also been discussions about increasing interdisciplinary research through industry-government-academia collaboration, particularly between natural sciences and humanities and social sciences fields.

I hope that, while engaged in your graduate studies, you will all continue to pay attention to these developments and find the best way to realize your own potential. The challenges and demands placed on researchers by society and industry can be expected to increase, but Kyoto University does not aim only to promote research for which society will have immediate use. Since its foundation, the University has fostered a tradition of academic freedom based on frank and open dialogue, and cultivated a spirit of creativity among its students and researchers. This approach has facilitated the pursuit of diverse learning and the development of innovative research, which will be vital in addressing future problems and issues. All of you are about to undertake advanced and specialized research, but this does not mean that you should rush straight into the narrow path of a specific field. It is by interacting and communicating with many other students and researchers in different fields that you will be able to develop your knowledge and ideas, and arrive at the truth. In the future, some among you may turn your attention to a different field of specialization or different social issue to that which you are currently pursuing, and become active in that field. Such a change of direction can be the catalyst for a great leap forward of equal significance to success in your established field of specialization, and can create new possibilities. I hope that you will not be afraid of making mistakes, and will devote yourself to your studies, guided by your own interests. Kyoto University provides an environment in which you can do that.

The campuses of Kyoto University are not the only places in which you can learn. Before you graduate, it is also important to learn from work experience in the business sector, and to seek opportunities to develop your abilities and research in the world outside the campus. Our university implements mid- and long-term internship programs, and provides matching opportunities in cooperation with many companies through the Industry-Academia Collaborative Innovation Human Resource Development Consortium. Also, to endow our students with the ability to be successful on the international stage, we are implementing an increasing number of double and joint degree programs with leading institutions overseas. Currently, Kyoto University is enhancing its collaboration with universities around the world through its overseas centers, which are located in Heidelberg in Germany, Bangkok in Thailand, Washington DC and San Diego in the US, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. A total of 59 international networks and overseas offices have already been established by the University's individual faculties and departments to facilitate international exchange among researchers. By utilizing these networks and offices, we are enhancing research collaboration and student exchange to provide increased opportunities to our researchers and students, and fostering the skills that will enable them to play an active role in the international community.

As part of our efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Kyoto University will utilize online classes and other means as it continues providing education to our students. Currently, extracurricular activities have been restricted, and we must all endure many inconveniences in our daily lives. However, when we get through this difficult time, we will be able to resume a normal and enjoyable life. Human beings have experienced and overcome serious epidemics many times throughout history. Through the cooperation of people around the world, we will overcome the crisis we are now facing as well. At the same time, such mutual cooperation can contribute to the creation of a new world — the world in which all of you will excel. In the meantime, please take care of your health and dedicate yourself to your independent studies.

Once again, I offer my sincere congratulations to each and every one of you on your entrance into Kyoto University's graduate schools.

7 April 2020
Juichi Yamagiwa
President, Kyoto University

(Text in "double quotation marks" is quoted and translated from "A Discussion About Water 4: Water and Flood Control in the East", Tetsu Nakamura, Peshawar-kai Newspaper No. 140, pp.21–23, 2019)

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Video version (in Japanese)