2020-2021 Entrance Ceremony Remarks (7 April 2021)

In other languages

Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Last year, we were unfortunately unable to hold this entrance ceremony due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Today, precisely one year later, we are pleased to finally be able to come together in person and celebrate your enrollment at Kyoto University. On behalf of our guest of honor, former president Dr Juichi Yamagiwa, as well as the executive vice-presidents, deans, and directors here today, and all of the other faculty and staff, I sincerely congratulate each and every one of you on your enrollment in the University's undergraduate and graduate programs. The pandemic has not yet come to a complete end, and we are unable to welcome your family members to this ceremony, but I am genuinely delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you in person at long last.

Since last year, we have faced unprecedented and ongoing restrictions on our social activities. In your case, during most of your first year at Kyoto University, you had limited access to the campuses, and had to take almost all of your classes online. These circumstances must have proven especially challenging for those of you who last year began your university education for the first time. With no opportunities to engage in many of the experiences that newly admitted students typically look forward to, such as making new friends and participating in extracurricular activities, you must have felt extremely lonely and anxious. And I can only imagine how concerned your families must have been for you all this time, even as they continued to support and encourage you. I commend each and every one of you wholeheartedly for keeping your spirits up under such difficult circumstances, and making it through to today's ceremony.

According to Johns Hopkins University in the United States, as of March this year the novel coronavirus has caused around 130 million infections and more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide. Diseases caused by pathogens that have never affected humans before, such as the novel coronavirus, are known as "emerging infectious diseases". Humans have been hit by such diseases countless times in the past, some of the relatively recent examples being acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), Ebola hemorrhagic fever, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Where on earth did these pathogens come from? The answer is wild animals. Pathogens that had long coexisted with wild animals somehow made their way to humans, and eventually began to pass from human to human. In fact, many of the infectious diseases now associated exclusively with humans, including measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, and pertussis, are thought to have originated with other animals, such as cows, pigs, and birds. They probably began spreading to humans a few thousand to ten thousand years ago and became human-specific sometime thereafter.

Many of these transmissions can be traced to when people in Europe began to live in densely populated farming settlements and to domesticate wild animals, such as cows and pigs. In his famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls human infectious diseases a "lethal gift of livestock". Over the course of several millennia thereafter, Europeans acquired a degree of resistance to these new pathogens, most of which have survived to this day, one of the exceptions being smallpox.

Migration from the Old World to the New World began more than 10,000 years ago. It is well known that during the Age of Discovery, small numbers of Europeans armed with iron firearms and war-horses invaded the Americas, and in the 16th century, drove the empires of the Aztec and Inca to extinction. According to Diamond, however, American indigenous populations were in major decline well before the demise of those empires, owing mainly to the infectious diseases introduced from the Old World. It is estimated, for example, that in what is today known as Mexico, the local population plummeted from 20 million to just 1.6 million as a result of a major smallpox outbreak. Unlike Europeans, indigenous people in the New World neither lived in crowded agricultural settlements nor kept livestock, leaving them highly vulnerable to animal-origin infectious diseases. It is thus no exaggeration to say that pathogens have altered the course of human history.

The novel coronavirus is similarly thought to have its origins in wild animals, such as bats, although this is not yet confirmed. In any case, the major difference between Covid-19 and infectious diseases of the past, such as smallpox, is that, owing to globalization, the former spread across the world in just a few months, not over several centuries. While a great deal of discussion is going on today about the "post-corona" society, I think that it may be worthwhile to also reflect on the history of modern humans' battles against and coexistence with infectious diseases over the course of millennia.

Meanwhile, looking at Kyoto University's own history, which stretches over 120 years since its founding in 1897, you will find that you are not the first cohort of students to have matriculated without an entrance ceremony. I am not sure about the period before 1945 when Kyoto University was still an imperial university, but since World War II there has at least been one ceremony that was effectively cancelled. This happened half a century ago in 1969, a time of great upheaval, when "student power" took center stage across the world. University students in Paris, Berlin, and other European cities led large-scale demonstrations, and student activism arose across Japan as well. That year, Kyoto University did initiate an entrance ceremony, despite having many of its buildings barricaded, but had to cancel it after just the first ten seconds due to a group of students storming the venue.

As it happens, 1969 was the year that I entered Kyoto University, so I had similar experiences to all of you. For close to a year after matriculation, I was unable to set foot on campus or attend classes, which simply did not take place because it was before the advent of online learning. Moreover, I was, in those days, living alone for the first time, having just moved to Kyoto from my rural hometown, so I can probably relate to the sense of unease and frustration that many of you must have felt over the past year. I ended up not attending my own entrance ceremony, but here today, half a century later, I am deeply moved to be able to speak to all of you who have been through something similar to what I experienced. I would like to take this opportunity to offer you two pieces of advice based on my experiences as a student.

The first is to be a keen reader. This century is called the information era, and the internet is overflowing with tremendous volumes of information, conveniently accessible across the boundaries of time and space. Regarding written information, we probably engage with it today more on our computers and tablets than in printed form. Reading, however, is not simply a means of accessing information. Contemporary author Fuminori Nakamura, whose work was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, once stated, "A person reading a book is a fine sight." I suspect that the sight he had in mind was one of an emotional transaction taking place between reader and author. He also wrote that the general direction of his life was probably determined when, during his first year at university, he encountered Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, which he read in low spirits alone in his apartment. He recalls feeling so depressed at the time that he may not have survived, let alone become an author, if not for that novel.

Actually, I had a similar awakening in my third year of university, when I read Cellular Immunology. The author was Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, a pioneering immunologist who helped establish the modern theory of immunology and received the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I read all thirteen chapters of the book assiduously, partly with the intention of improving my English. The final chapter, devoted to cancer and immunity, was surprisingly short. It concluded with Burnet explaining that, although he believed in the immune system's ability to fight cancer, almost nothing was known about the subject, so he had little to write about. That passage stayed with me long after I finished the book, and shortly following my graduation, I actually began research on cancer and immunity at a lab in the United States.

I thus ended up working in the United States for a full three years in my late 20s, gaining experiences that would shape the rest of my life. I expect that my life would have turned out quite differently had I not encountered Burnet's book as a student and had not, therefore, been inspired to undertake that sojourn in the United States. This leads me to my second piece of advice: try to go abroad as early in life as possible. The architect Tadao Ando, a close acquaintance of mine, often says the same thing. Having spent his student years as a complete stranger to the field of architecture, he set out in his early 20s to become an architect through self-education, which involved spending three months traveling around Europe. Traveling on the cheap, day after day he would visit all types of historical sites and buildings, feeling many of the structures with his own hands. This experience was undoubtedly instrumental in the subsequent development of his globally acclaimed, highly original world of architecture. His self-education also entailed reading a tremendous number of books. Architectural historian Riichi Miyake, in his Japanese-language critical biography Ando Tadao: Kenchiku wo Ikiru ("Tadao Ando: A Life in Architecture"), writes that, in his 20's, Ando turned from a boy with an aversion to studying into an extremely diligent learner.

Some of you may have already experienced traveling abroad, but I think the important thing is to actually live, even for just a short period, in a completely different environment. You may well discover a strength within yourself that you were never aware of.

Once you have found your own way forward in life with a free spirit, the path that you tread will surely endure into the future. Kyoto University will do its utmost to support you on your journey. You have been through tough times over the past year, but I hope that you will feed off that experience as you continue your learning and research into the future.

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