FY2024 Graduate School Entrance Ceremony Remarks (5 April 2024)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University welcomes 2,242 new students enrolling in master's programs, 316 in professional degree programs, and 948 in doctoral programs. On behalf of all of the Kyoto University faculty and staff members present today, I would like to congratulate each and every one of you on your enrollment at Kyoto University. I would also like to extend my warmest congratulations to your families and all those who have encouraged and supported you thus far.

You are all now enrolled in one of Kyoto University's graduate schools, where you will engage in your own research to earn a master's or doctoral degree. The current graduate school format was first established at Johns Hopkins University in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. It was created as an educational program that would award more advanced degrees to students who had already earned a bachelor's degree from a university in the US or other country, and it enrolled excellent students from all over the world. The new graduate school system rapidly spread to other major universities across the US, and in the 20th century, many of the degree holders who graduated from those programs went on to play important roles in diverse fields, such as politics, economics, and science and technology, during a period that was a turning point in US history. In Japan, the graduate school system in its present form was developed as a result of academic reforms after the end of World War II. Particularly in the 1990s, the Japanese government promoted a policy of prioritizing graduate schools in order to strengthen graduate-level education in Japan, and major universities, including Kyoto University, became centered on their graduate schools, and teaching graduate courses was the main duty of most faculty members. That led to an increase in the number of graduate students nationwide, and there are currently almost 10,000 graduate students studying in Kyoto University's master's, professional, and doctoral degree programs.

However, the number of degree holders in Japan is still extremely small compared to major European countries and America. Of Japan's population in 2020, 579 people per million had obtained master's degrees, which is an extremely low number compared to other countries. Looking at other countries' figures for the most recent fiscal year, the UK has the highest ratio by far, with 5,459 degree holders per million, followed by Germany with 2,689, and the United States with 2,613. Furthermore, the ratio for doctoral degree holders in Japan in 2020 was 123 per million people, which is considerably lower than the countries with the highest ratios, such as the UK with 340 and Germany with 338. This may be due to several factors, including Japan's historical background, but it seems that Japan has not yet achieved a situation in which degree holders play important roles in many areas of society. Currently, not only academia, but society as a whole, including the government and industrial sectors, is discussing how to create an environment in which more degree-holding professionals can play an active role in wider society.

So, what are the qualities and abilities that are expected of degree holders? Kyoto University's diploma policy states the following criteria for evaluation:

"In master's degree programs, students should acquire broad and deep knowledge, research skills in specialized fields, and excellent abilities to engage in professions that require a high degree of expertise."

"In doctoral programs, students should acquire the abilities and academic knowledge required to work independently as researchers and engage in highly specialized work."

In this respect, the diploma policies of major universities in Europe and America are more-or-less the same. Upon embarking on such a graduate school course, each of you will find your own research topic, create a plan to address that topic, and acquire the necessary skills and knowledge as you undertake various forms of research by yourself. You will also be responsible for preparing your doctoral dissertation by building on your discussions with many fellow students, seniors, and academic advisors. As the diploma policy states, the important thing is not only the individual content of your research, but also the totality of the processes that you will undertake and the experience that you will acquire in the course of that research, which represents a transferable skill set. Degree holders are expected to maximize the use of that transferable skill set to address and help solve various complex and challenging problems that exist in contemporary society.

Throughout Kyoto University's long 125-year-plus history as a research university, one of the principles that it has most respected is that of "the pioneering spirit". So, what exactly is "a pioneer"? Professor Yukihiko Toquenaga, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Tsukuba, gave a very interesting report at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of Japan titled, "Who'll bell the cat? — Pioneer and follower in Acanthoscelides obtectus larvae". The larvae of the bean weevil grow parasitically in large numbers inside kidney beans. However, the skin of kidney beans is very tough, so the parasite is not able to infest the bean unless one of the larvae first makes a great effort to eat through the skin and get inside. Once a hole is made in the skin by the first larva, more larvae can easily enter through it, and the parasitic infestation is established. In this case, the larva that first makes the hole is called the "pioneer", and the many larvae that come in later are called "followers". Most larvae prefer to be followers, because it is naturally much easier to enter through an open hole. However, at least one of them has to be the first pioneer to make the hole, and it seems that not all larvae can be pioneers. Furthermore, if followers enter one after another through a large hole, the nutritional resources within the bean will decrease rapidly, and subsequent followers may die.

A similar pattern can be seen in the industrial sector. When a company develops a new market by creating a completely new product that has never existed before, it is called a "pioneer strategy". When a company develops an improved version of a recently developed product and markets it widely, it is called a "follower strategy". When we think of the epitome of such a pioneer, we might think of Apple founder Steve Jobs, for example. Naturally, pioneer strategies involve a high degree of risk, because success is not guaranteed, but there are significant advantages associated with the development of new markets. On the other hand, follower strategies have the potential to generate stable profits through rapid expansion of the product market with reduced development costs, but once the market is saturated, there is no point in being a follower.

I am sure that all of you are filled with enthusiasm as you begin your degree research in your respective academic, cultural, scientific, or technological fields. Given the complexity and rate of advancement of today's academia, culture, science, and technology, it is difficult, and not particularly meaningful, to simply divide research into that of "pioneers" and "followers". The tendency towards being a pioneer or a follower each has its own essential function when viewed as an entire system. However, I would like to say something important here. That is: do not be a "follower of followers". The reason is that, as illustrated by the examples of the insects and the industrial sector, "followers of followers" not only make no contribution to society as a whole, in some cases, they can even have a negative impact. The purpose of our engagement in academic and research work is to contribute however we can to the long-term improvement of people's lives and health, or in the words of Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, to "the common good". I hope that all of you, who are beginning your graduate studies at Kyoto University, will keep that in mind. The journeys upon which your academic research in diverse fields will take you will be extremely varied, but they will eventually lead to a contribution to "the common good" — although it may take some time. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that you will be very careful not to simply fall into the self-satisfied research of "followers of followers".

In a 1676 letter to Robert Hooke of the Royal Society of London, Isaac Newton famously wrote "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." It goes without saying that new discoveries, great ideas, and inspiration in science have their foundations in the achievements and accomplishments of our predecessors. It may be that "pioneer" research in various academic fields is nothing more than legitimate "follower" research that builds directly on the achievements of our predecessors. While maintaining that kind of humble attitude toward academic knowledge, I hope that in your new lives as researchers, you will aim to scale new heights and see new vistas that have previously been hidden to you, and that this will empower you to make great contributions to society and humanity's future.

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