2020–2021 Degree Conferment Ceremony Remarks (24 March 2021)

In other languages

Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University is proud to award 2,184 master's degrees, 159 professional master's degrees, 128 juris doctor degrees, and 585 doctoral degrees. Of these graduates, 487 are international students. 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, 85,849 master's degrees, 2,175 professional master's degrees, 2,519 juris doctor degrees, and 46,427 doctoral degrees. On behalf of our guest of honor, former president Dr Juichi Yamagiwa, the executive vice-presidents, deans and directors, and the Leading Graduate School program coordinators here today, as well as all of the other faculty and staff of the university, I would like to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you on receiving your degree.

You have all spent the past year working on your dissertations amidst the difficulties caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, and with severe restrictions placed on your lab activities. I am sure that whole experience was extremely challenging. I would like to express my deep respect and heartfelt congratulations to you on completing your research despite these trying conditions, and reaching this milestone today. Now each of you is officially the recipient of your academic degree from Kyoto University, and on your way to taking on important roles in society, whether you choose a pathway leading deeper into the academic world, or embark on a career in another sector. In this sense, the conferral of your degree today is not an endpoint, but rather a point of departure.

As you know, a doctoral degree is also referred to as a "PhD", which is an abbreviation of the Latin term Philosophiae Doctor. The term originally referred to a degree in the faculty of philosophy, one of the four traditional university faculties, with the other three being the practical fields of theology, law, and medicine. Eventually, however, "PhD" became the doctoral degree in all disciplines contributing to the discovery of academic truth. In the United States, the first PhD was issued by Yale University in the mid-19th century. Over the subsequent years it would remain a largely honorific and extremely rare title, annually bestowed on no more than 20 people across the whole of the country. Then, in the late 19th century, Johns Hopkins University opened the world's first graduate school with a curriculum leading to an academic degree. These developments are detailed in an article written by Professor Sekio Hada of Nihon University, who drew on sources such as Universities: American, English, German by Abraham Flexner, an educator who helped revolutionize US medical education. Whereas universities in those days were focused on liberal arts education, the graduate school of Johns Hopkins University offered a degree program designed to help university graduates develop the skills needed to conduct advanced specialized research. Its other notable features included a fellowship program, which, according to records, annually granted 500 dollars to each qualified student. This amount far exceeded the estimated annual tuition of 80 dollars, and was large enough to attract top talent from around the world. Johns Hopkins University thus began to annually produce a considerable number of degree recipients, many of them going on to hold key positions, not only in universities but also in governmental and private institutions. We also know from records that master's and doctoral degrees were at that time arranged in parallel, rather than hierarchically as they are today, with their distinctions made by each institution in accordance with its own rules.

The success of the Johns Hopkins University graduate school helped the system spread nationwide, with Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, the University of California, and other institutions opening their own schools by the end of the 19th century, around which time several tens of thousands of students received degrees each year. It would probably be no exaggeration to say that this system and its success in attracting talented students from across the world to engage in cutting-edge scientific research are key factors behind the United States' rise to global leadership in scholarship and research in the 20th century.

In Japan, academic degrees were initially conferred in accordance with the Academic Degree Order of 1887. I expect that most of you are familiar with the name Hideyo Noguchi, the medical researcher. Born in 1876, he did not officially graduate from a university, let alone a graduate school. In 1911, however, at the age of 35, he received a Doctor of Medicine degree from Kyoto Imperial University. The government gazette that year reported that "on the recommendation of Kyoto Imperial University's pathology department, the minister of education awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine to Hideyo Noguchi, a commoner from Fukushima Prefecture", and provided a detailed summary of his dissertation. As mentioned in the report, degrees were then conferred not by universities, but by the education minister, a practice that would remain in place until the 1920 amendment of the Academic Degree Order. In 1911, the year Noguchi received his Doctor of Medicine, he attracted worldwide attention by announcing that, as a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, he had successfully grown the world's first pure culture of the pathogenic Treponema pallidum. He then went on to produce numerous distinguished findings about pathogens responsible for some of the world's most serious communicable diseases, with yellow fever being among them. For these achievements he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In later years, however, his findings were found to contain a considerable number of errors, and he ended up not receiving the award. He died at the age of 51 of yellow fever, which he contracted while researching the disease in Accra, Ghana.

Actually, his work with Treponema pallidum is today viewed mostly in a negative light, but his papers on the immunological characteristics of snake venom, which were submitted to Kyoto Imperial University, are still considered to be of exceptional quality, at least when reviewed against the standards of immunological research at the time. These papers remain preserved to this day in the archives of Kyoto University's Faculty of Medicine, where I did my undergraduate studies. Instead of going on to a graduate program there, I left Japan to study in the United States, where I would somehow find myself employed as a postdoctoral researcher. My first published research paper appeared in a 1979 issue of a journal published by the Rockefeller Institute. I was later astonished to find out that the very same journal, in its April 1905 issue, had published Noguchi's paper on snake venom, a study that would later provide the basis for his academic degree from Kyoto Imperial University. I remember feeling a sense of connection upon learning that fact, and also that Noguchi was 29 years old when he penned that paper, almost the same age as I was when my first paper came out.

Meanwhile, the Japanese graduate school system, centered on US-style degree programs, was instituted during the post-WWII period as per the newly enacted School Education Act, with the first of such schools opening at national universities in 1953. Under this system, the universities themselves awarded degrees based on the candidates' achievements and knowledge in specific academic fields, without requiring authorization from the education ministry. Likewise, the degrees you will receive today are awarded directly by Kyoto University, with the title of the degree specified on the certificates and the field of specialization in parentheses — a format that is also common in the United States.

In Japan, there have long been concerns that the country's graduate students and degree recipients are not enjoying the same levels of support and social standing as their Western counterparts. Critics have raised the specific issues of inadequate financial aid opportunities for graduate students and an underrepresentation of degree holders in the government and business sectors. The education ministry has recently finally responded to those concerns by launching a range of financial and career support initiatives. Academic degrees from Japanese universities fully satisfy global standards, and are reliably recognized across the world. Ensuring that holders of those degrees can play active roles across society, not only in academia but also in other sectors within Japan and around the world, is undoubtedly essential to the country's progress, and to world peace.

Over two centuries ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason: "Philosophy . . . cannot be learned; we can at most learn to philosophize". He went on to explain that to philosophize means to "exercise our powers of reasoning in accordance with general principles". I am not a philosopher and do not profess to know the true intent of this statement, but I do feel that a good understanding can be gained by substituting "philosophy" with "science". I do not know whether science exists in a universal, unchanging sense, or whether it is at all possible to learn and master such science. Nonetheless, at the very least, all of you have now learned how to "exercise your powers of reasoning in accordance with general principles", through your experience of actively engaging in science. Objects of our "reasoning" are liable to change with the times, and the challenges emerging before us are evolving and growing more complex day by day. The Johns Hopkins University president who helped establish the US graduate school system is the subject of a biography written by the sociologist and bibliographer Francesco Cordasco. The book is titled Daniel Coit Gilman and the Protean PhD. The world is currently undergoing immense changes, and it is precisely at times like these that capable individuals such as yourselves can play important roles in a wide variety of fields in a "protean" manner. That is, exercising what you have learned at Kyoto University, not in terms of "science as knowledge", but as "the practice of science" — that which you have attained by exercising your powers of reasoning.

You are now setting out towards your respective new places of work as core members of society. Let me reiterate what I said earlier about the conferral of an academic degree: it is not an endpoint but a point of departure. I genuinely hope that you will put the abilities that you have honed at Kyoto University to full use in your coming endeavors, and in so doing contribute to humanity and society. I wish you all the best.

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