2021–2022 Undergraduate Entrance Ceremony Remarks (7 April 2021)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University welcomes 2,942 new undergraduate students. On behalf of our guests of honor, former Presidents Hiroo Imura, Hiroshi Matsumoto, and Juichi Yamagiwa, as well as the executive vice-presidents, deans, and directors here today, and all of the other faculty and staff, I congratulate each and every one of you on your enrollment at Kyoto University. I would also like to pay tribute to the tremendous amount of effort you must have made up to this point, and extend my warmest congratulations to your families and those around you who have encouraged and supported you in your efforts.

Since last year the world has been rocked by the novel coronavirus pandemic, which, here in Japan, has subjected all kinds of social activities to unprecedented and ongoing restrictions. Yet, under these difficult conditions, all of you managed to remain focused on your studies until you gained admission to Kyoto University. This is a tremendous achievement, which I imagine must have given you a special sense of accomplishment. This success is of course due first and foremost to your diligent efforts, but I am sure that you were also supported and encouraged in your studies by your family members, teachers, and others around you. I would urge you to keep that in mind at all times. In the meantime, I am extremely pleased to be able to talk to you all today in person, unlike last year when we had to cancel the entrance ceremony due to the pandemic.

Now, all of you are Kyoto University students. Previously, as prospective students, each of you must have had your own impressions about the University, impressions that were formed based on the opinions of those around you, such as your high school teachers and seniors, and on information obtained from the internet and other sources: one of Japan's oldest universities with over 120 years' history; an institution of research excellence that has produced to date the largest numbers of Nobel laureates and Fields Medalists in Asia; an "omoroi university" (omoroi meaning interesting or intriguing in the local Kansai dialect) that thrives on exploration, adventure, and fieldwork; a wild and rebellious university — there are many different possibilities. The phrase that you came across most often, however, was probably "academic freedom". The tradition of academic freedom certainly underlies many of these images of Kyoto University. But what does this freedom actually mean?

In 16th-century France, there was a precocious young thinker by the name of Étienne de La Boétie, who wrote the classical masterpiece Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. According to his close friend Michel de Montaigne, the author penned it between the ages of 16 and 18 — around the same age as many of you are now. In this volume Boétie discusses freedom and defines it as a natural animal instinct. He employs the metaphor of a wild horse, that when first being broken in will resist having a bit placed into its mouth. Later, however, as the device continues to be forced on it, the animal begins to readily accept and even enjoy being constrained. Likewise, freedom may be a natural state for humans, but we can easily abandon it, typically in the course of trying to conform to our surroundings and customs. My interpretation of Boétie's analogy is that in order to be free, we must cast off external constraints, such as those deriving from the surrounding environment and social customs, so that we can rediscover our authentic selves. Until recently, all of you were working very hard toward the grand objective of gaining university admission, which I am sure was a very important process in your lives. Now that you have entered university, I suggest that as your next goal, you try and liberate your spirit from the accepted ideas and conventions that may have long been a part of your everyday existence. Doing so may awaken you to an aspect of yourself of which you have never been aware. Something is needed to trigger this process, and in that regard I would like to share with you two pieces of advice.

The first is to be a keen reader. The 21st century is known as the information age, and the internet is overflowing today with tremendous volumes of information, all conveniently accessible across the boundaries of time and space. Regarding written information, we probably engage with it more on our computers and tablets now than in printed form. Reading, however, is not merely a means of obtaining information. Fuminori Nakamura, a contemporary author and winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, once said, "A person reading a book is a fine sight." I suspect that this statement has to do with an emotional transaction between reader and author, one that I think we can sense when looking at someone reading a book. We can perhaps describe this sight as one of empathy at work. This applies not only to novels and other literary works but to all kinds of writing, including academic papers, as you will surely learn for yourselves in due course.

Nakamura, discussing his experiences with books, also writes that the general direction of his life was probably determined when he began reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground alone in his apartment and in low spirits during his first year at university. I actually had a similar awakening in my third year of university when I encountered Cellular Immunology. The author was Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, a pioneering immunologist who established the modern theory of immunology and received the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I read the lengthy book assiduously, partly with the intention of improving my English. It took me many hours to reach the last of its thirteen chapters. When I finally finished reading the last chapter, devoted to cancer and immunity, I was surprised at how short it was. It concluded with Burnet explaining that although he believed in immunity to cancer, almost nothing was known about the subject, leaving him little to write about. This passage stayed with me long after I finished the book, and eventually inspired me to pursue research on cancer and immunity as my life's work.

My other piece of advice is that you try to go abroad at as early an age as you can. This being a global era, I expect that many of you have already experienced international travel. But living abroad, even for a short period of time, can be a great opportunity for self-discovery, as it can liberate you from the accepted wisdoms and conventions that may have guided your life up to now. Following my encounter with Burnet's book and immediately after graduation, I had the opportunity to travel to the United States where I would begin my research into cancer and immunity at a lab in New York. There I would spend a full three years in my late 20s working in an environment of friendly competition with other researchers and graduate students of various nationalities but of my age group. This experience had a decisive influence on my life course thereafter. Day after day I felt how all those young colleagues, who came from different countries but shared the same interests and aspirations, were both similar to and different from me. I am still in touch with some of those people more than 40 years after getting to know them. My life might have turned out very differently had I not encountered Cellular Immunology as a student, and had I not gone to the United States in my mid-20s, inspired by that book. I hope that you too will experience enriching encounters during your time at university.

Kyoto University has produced eleven Nobel laureates to date, which as I mentioned earlier is the largest number among Asian institutions. These researchers include Hideki Yukawa, who received the 1949 physics prize to become the first Japanese laureate. Winning the Nobel Prize, of course, is not the purpose of research. Those eleven laureates, regardless of their academic disciplines, received their prizes as a result of breaking new ground based on original ideas that were free from trends and traditions. That is how researchers working in our environment of academic freedom have opened up new scholarly horizons and produced findings that benefit human life, health, and welfare. That is Kyoto University's scholarly tradition. The most recent laureate from our university is Tasuku Honjo, who received the 2018 Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I had the privilege of accompanying him in my capacity as a former collaborator to the award ceremony held that year in Stockholm. Professor Honjo once said that he and his fellows at Kyoto University had always striven to be the "only one" rather than the "number one" in their respective fields. He added, however, that ideally he would like to see his "only one" achievement, no matter how small, eventually contribute to shaping the course of history, as in the manner of a small spring whose water forms a stream, transforming into a great river. Now that you are members of Kyoto University, I would like you to begin searching for a "spring" that sparks your interest, from a fresh perspective that is free from your habitual thought and social trends. That spring may not be easily recognizable and may reveal itself only after many rounds of trial and error on your part. Yet, I believe, that exploration is essential to being free, and that this is the crux of what Kyoto University's "academic freedom" is all about.

A little over a century ago, in 1914, the poet Kōtarō Takamura published Dōtei ("The Itinerary"), well-known for its first lines: "No path lies before me. Yet behind me a path shall appear". As each of you carves your way forward through life with your free spirit, you will surely see the path you will have made behind you. Kyoto University will do our utmost to support you on this journey.

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