2022–2023 Undergraduate Entrance Ceremony Remarks (7 April 2022)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University welcomes 2,938 new undergraduate students. On behalf of our guest of honor, former President 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 admission to Kyoto University. I would also like to pay tribute to the tremendous amount of effort you must have made to reach this point, and extend my warmest congratulations to your families and those around you who have encouraged and supported you in your efforts.

Since the year before last, 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. Many of you here today may have spent much of your time in senior high school feeling anxious due to difficult conditions, unable to attend classes, study, or take part in extracurricular activities in the usual manner. Yet, despite those difficulties, all of you managed to remain focused on your studies until you gained admission to Kyoto University. That is a tremendous achievement, which I imagine must have given you a special sense of accomplishment. Your success is, of course, due first and foremost to your diligent efforts, but I am sure that you also received a great deal of support and encouragement from your family, teachers, and others around you. I would urge you to keep that in mind at all times. The coronavirus pandemic is not yet over, but I am nonetheless extremely pleased that we are able to hold the entrance ceremony again this year, and that I can talk to you all in person.

This year, 2022, is a special one for Kyoto University. The University's initial incarnation, Kyoto Imperial University, was founded in June 1897, so this year marks our 125th anniversary. You may find it difficult to imagine, but our University actually dates back to the brief period between the Sino-Japanese War of the 19th century and the Russo-Japanese War of the 20th century. Up to that point, there was only one national university in Japan, located in Tokyo, and called simply the Imperial University. The purpose of that institution was to educate future government bureaucrats and technologists to support Japan's goal of becoming a modern nation-state. Later, however, amid a rapid influx of western science and culture, calls grew for the country to develop its own approaches to academic research and higher education. Thus, Japan's second imperial university, today's Kyoto University, was founded in Kyoto in 1897, while the original Imperial University was renamed Tokyo Imperial University. It is said that the founding of Kyoto Imperial University was driven by a vision of a free-thinking and innovative institution —  an institution based in Kyoto, far from the national seat of government, and dedicated to the genuine pursuit of fundamental truths. As students of Kyoto University, I would like you all to be aware of its long history and lofty founding ideals, including the ideal of "academic freedom", which is a phrase you may have often heard when preparing for admission.

You are all now enrolled at Kyoto University. You have all worked hard to gain admission, and I am sure that was a valuable process for you. You are now embarking on a new stage in your lives, and I believe that it will be the beginning of a journey toward self-discovery and self-expression.

Self-discovery is sparked, above all, by new encounters. New encounters — whether with people, books, or events — can help you discover abilities and talents that you had not previously been aware of or ever imagined you might possess. The important thing is to liberate your own youthful spirit and sensibility from old customs and preconceptions, and go forth boldly into new environments and situations. When I was a university student, I obtained a book on immunology, one that was yet to be translated into Japanese, with the simple intention of reading it to improve my English. The power that leads us by accident to a fortuitous encounter is known as serendipity. I believe that the best place to invite serendipity, as the capacity to attract unanticipated success, is at a university.

Today, immunology is an extremely well-established scientific discipline, but back when I was a student — almost half a century ago — it was not even part of the formal curriculum of the Faculty of Medicine, and was a mystery to medical students. As I read through that book, however, I gradually became enthralled by the peculiar phenomena and mechanisms of immunity, and started frequenting the University's research labs. Eventually, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr Barry Bloom, then a professor of immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the United States, while he was visiting Japan for an academic conference. He invited me to join his research lab in New York as a new graduate. At the time, it was highly irregular for Japanese students to go abroad for research immediately after finishing their undergraduate studies, and naturally I had no prior experience of living outside Japan. Despite those apprehensions, however, my fascination with immunological research got the better of me, and I embarked on my journey to the United States, where I would spend three years as a researcher.

The research lab in New York was a gathering point for young researchers from around the world. What surprised me initially was that these researchers had significantly divergent ways of thinking, and moreover were unafraid of asserting their views. This made for incessant debate. Up to that point I had been something of an introvert, but I felt my personality change considerably as I spent more and more time in that argumentative environment. Eventually, I got to know a cell biologist, slightly older than I, who would later become my long-term collaborator. She continually advised me to "explore myself". She herself subsequently became a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, and to this day our friendship of more than 40 years remains strong. All of that began with my chance encounter with a book during my undergraduate years, followed by a number of other crucial encounters thereafter. If I had balked at any of these key points, I think my life would have ended up quite differently. Serendipitous chances to succeed present themselves to those who are poised and ready to grab them. I strongly urge you all to experience life outside of Japan by spending a period of time in a foreign country while you are still young. Doing so is sure to provide you with entirely new insights into your potential.

Another thing I would like to discuss is self-expression, specifically, the power to express yourself in writing. Today, in our information society, person-to-person communication takes place instantaneously through social media and other online spaces, in which we tend to focus on speed and try to communicate as concisely as possible. This may be extremely efficient in terms of information transmission, but I would suggest that it also signifies a gradual loss of opportunities to thoroughly develop our written communication skills, such as taking the time to repeatedly review and modify our word choices and phrasing. The process of carefully crafting a passage of writing serves a number of important purposes. One is that it requires us to repeatedly reflect on our own ideas and feelings. This important process in turn requires a foundation of accurate knowledge and ample self-reflection. The information we obtain often contains an external bias. Bias in this case can also mean preconceptions and prejudices. It is not rare for biased information to impede our capacity for rational judgment. The process of carefully crafting your writing can free your ideas and emotions from this kind of cognitive bias, at least to an extent, and help you clarify and pursue your ideal self.

Another important benefit of carefully crafting your writing is that it helps you learn to effectively express your own ideas and emotions. You are going to conduct academic surveys and scientific research in various fields. The ability to write effectively is an essential requisite for all of those activities. Here, I would like to share with you a passage from Tsuyu no mi nagara ("Though Ephemeral Like a Drop of Dew"), a collection of correspondence between immunologist and modern Noh playwright Tomio Tada, who is known as a master writer, and the geneticist Keiko Yanagisawa. In this collection, Tada writes: "The reason so many scientists are poor writers ... is surely because they don't work hard enough to make their discoveries understandable to others ... [Scientists] need to focus more on conveying the thrill they have gained from their own discoveries in a way that thrills others in the same way. If they don't, how can they expect people to value their work? … That's why I think written expression is important regardless of whether you work in the humanities and social sciences, or in the natural sciences. What's important is logic, clarity of observation, and an effort to express the thrill of discovery. I feel that in recent times, fewer people are making that kind of effort."

I concur entirely with Tada's words. Producing a sound piece of writing is a highly energy-intensive task, but it is one that will sharpen both your intellect and your emotional strength. Tada gives this example: "I remember a paper that Susumu Tonegawa presented at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, the first time he announced his discovery of gene recombination. The paper had clarity, logic, accuracy, and a sound structure. I thought, this is how all scientific papers should be. It exuded the kind of thrill that a baseball batter surely feels upon hitting a home run." A graduate of Kyoto University's Faculty of Science, Dr Tonegawa was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his revolutionary immunological discovery that genes change in response to viruses and bacteria, and produce antibodies to fight them. I hope that you all too will make a habit of taking time to craft your writing. It will surely prepare you well for the future, and above all, help you form an enduring legacy.

Today, you are all about to embark on new lives as students at Kyoto University. I earnestly hope that you will immerse yourself unhesitantly in this new environment, get to know many invaluable people, and through those experiences, discover surprising aspects of yourself.

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

(Direct quotations are translated from Tsuyu no mi nagara by Tomio Tada & Keiko Yanagisawa, Shueisha, 2004)