2015-2016 Undergraduate Graduation Ceremony Remarks (24 March 2016)

Juichi Yamagiwa, 26th President

Let me begin by congratulating the 2,876 students who are graduating from Kyoto University, today. On behalf of our guests of honor, former Presidents Hiroo Imura and Makoto Nagao and Professors Emeritus, as well as the Executive Vice-Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Deans, and Directors here, today, and all other faculty members and staff, I want to extend our heartfelt congratulations to each of you. I would also like to express our deepest gratitude to the family members and others around you who have faithfully supported you in working toward this, your graduation day. From the first graduation ceremony in 1900, three years after the university's founding in 1897, to the end of today's ceremony, Kyoto University will have awarded bachelor's degrees to a total 202,725 students who have graduated from this university over its 119-year history.

What kinds of lives have you all led since you first entered our institution? Today, I'd like you to look back on the years you have spent at Kyoto University. As new students, having succeeded in passing the fiercely competitive entrance examinations, what kinds of hopes and dreams did you have for your time here? Were you able to attain those goals during the last few years, leading up to today's graduation ceremony? Or, did your dreams undergo significant transformation during your time here? And, how are the new paths on which you are about to embark connected to your original aspirations? 

I was a student at Kyoto University in the 1970s, a time when Japan was just beginning to undergo dramatic changes. I entered the university in the year of the Osaka World Expo, an event at which displays of science and technology from around the world vied with each other, inspiring grand dreams of outer space and new civilizations. It was around the same time as the Expo that student movements concerning renewal of the US-Japan security treaty boiled into violent political unrest and many tragic cases of internal strife and terrorism ensued. I still remember the huge shock I felt when watching reports of Yukio Mishima's ritual suicide being shown on television in the University Co-op cafeteria. At that time, I didn't sense that a new era was about to begin, but the Mishima incident certainly made me feel that the old era had come to an end. I genuinely doubted that there was anything worth learning, any more, in Japan or at university. 

Back then, I relied on movies and books as sources of new knowledge. A film called The Graduate premiered when I was still in senior high school and became a major hit. In that film, Ben, just graduated from an American college, returns to his hometown and runs into Elaine, a girl with whom he grew up. The conflict Ben feels between his love for Elaine and his affair with her mother plays on our heartstrings, accompanied by the enigmatic melodies of Simon & Garfunkel. Elaine rejects Ben and resolves to marry another man but, in the film's closing scene, Ben crashes the wedding ceremony and elopes with Elaine, who has had a change of heart. What is striking about that final scene is the stares of the older guests as they watch Ben and Elaine jump aboard a bus and make their escape. The couple had flown in the face of convention, become distant from their parents and determined to make their own future. But, what destiny awaited them -- the cold barriers of tradition and morality or a warm-hearted society that embraced the new? That, I believe, was the question that the movie was asking. Surely, it was a familiar question for students graduating from Japanese universities around that time. 

Most university students at the time would have read a novel by Sho Shibata, entitled Saredo warera ga hibi ("Anyway, That Was Our Time"). The novel begins with the hero, a University of Tokyo student, stumbling upon the collected works of an author named "H" in a second-hand bookshop and feeling strangely drawn to them. I used to regularly frequent second-hand book stores and I have experienced a similar sensation. Before you even know what the book is about, it feels as if it is asking to be picked up and that the world crafted by the author is trying to reveal something to you. You open the book to find underlines and notes jotted by some previous reader and feel that you have unexpectedly encountered someone who has previously enjoyed the same book. Similarly, for the hero of Shibata's novel, an ownership stamp in the collected works of H that he buys from the bookshop leads him to reconsider his relationships with his girlfriend and fellow members of a political movement. The means whereby the book's hero makes his true feelings known to those around him are direct dialogue and handwritten letters. At one point, a colleague who has gone on to a career in research says: "There is just one rule that I have always tried to make myself follow. No matter how many people agree with a certain idea, and no matter how well-formed that idea may be, if I don't feel completely and utterly convinced by it, there's no way I'll believe it." I can recall thinking back on those words countless times during my student days.

There was a poet and playwright of the same age as Sho Shibata, named Shuji Terayama, who wrote the following words: "Striking a match momentarily, I see the foggy ocean; is there a motherland I can dedicate myself to?" Those words inspired many people of that era to re-examine their own Japanese identity. Japan's landscape underwent dramatic transformations during my time as a student. Many villages across the country were submerged due to construction of dams, and their residents were forced to relocate to new homes. Across the nation, mountain areas and forests were cleared to make way for expressways and arterial forest roads and vast expanses of broadleaf forest were transformed into monocultural plantations of Japanese cedar or cypress as part of an afforestation program. Japan's cities overflowed with new cultural symbols and experienced the influx and birth of many different value perspectives. It was around that time that Terayama wrote the book Sho achi e deyo suteyo mo ("Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets"), which encouraged young people to treat accepted wisdom and traditions with suspicion and to uncover the various schemes concealed behind the façade of everyday life. I was one of those who felt the need to look beyond the idea of the university as the sole place of learning and to identify a variety of forces beyond the campus that would shape our world into the future.

From its establishment to this day, Kyoto University has upheld a tradition of academic freedom based on dialogue. For my part, I have sought to harness this tradition to the fullest whilst acknowledging the winds of change. One thing that opened my eyes as a student was the variety of student-organized seminars and research workshops through which we could engage in discussion beyond the borders of our own academic disciplines. Participating in such forums brought me into contact with many different ways of thinking and multifarious approaches to interpreting the world around us. I read a lot of books at that time but the one that I found most profoundly inspiring was Jun'ichiro Itani's Gorira to pigumii no mori ("In the Forest of Gorillas and Pygmies"). Itani had traveled solo to Central Africa on the eve of the Congo's independence, making his own way into the deepest jungles in search of wild gorillas, and experiencing things that had never before been seen or heard. What was at stake for Itani was not the culture of the small nation of Japan but, rather, the existence and origins of all of humanity, which had evolved from the same ancestors as gorillas. Despite being human, I had no certainty about my own origins. This realization came as a great shock to me, especially as I learned for the first time that Itani was a faculty member of the same part of the university as I was studying in -- the Faculty of Science. I immediately went to meet him and began to think seriously about the search for the origins of humanity in the African wilderness. That would transpire to be a major turning point in my life.

The world has also changed significantly during the years that you have spent at Kyoto University. Around the time that you entered university, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, rendering parts of Japan unlivable due to radioactive contamination. That disaster forced us to rethink our notions concerning energy generation and the affluent lifestyle that we had built with the support of nuclear power. It has become clear that the resources available on our planet are deteriorating rapidly due to environmental pollution and global warming, and human activity is now subject to various restrictions. Ethnic and religious conflicts are growing in intensity, producing numerous refugees and straining the collaborative structures and partnerships that exist among different states. What have you made of these rapid developments both in Japanese society and in other parts of the world? How have they reaffirmed your resolve?

Methods of acquiring knowledge have also changed greatly since my time as a student. As was foreseen at the 1970 World Expo, advances in information technology have made it possible to access existing information easily, anytime, and anywhere. Vast quantities of audiovisual material are provided free of charge through information-processing devices, and books are no longer the treasured means of obtaining information that they once were. Email and mobile phones have become the major means of communication, and letter-writing is becoming a rare practice. Nonetheless, face-to-face dialogue continues to be an important method whereby we make our feelings known to one another and generate new ideas through discussion. 

I am sure that you who are graduating today have experienced open-minded and frank debates, as did those who have graduated from our university before you. Those debates and the contributions of your fellow students no doubt will serve as very precious assets for you as you journey through life. Kyoto University values its tradition of honoring the spirit of creativity. The university takes pride in engendering a spirit of readiness to take up challenges and motivation to carve out new pathways in previously unexplored fields. I am sure that many of you have acquired various skills which set you ahead of the rest and that you are already successfully applying those skills in pursuit of your aspirations. I have no doubt that there will be many opportunities in the future for each of you to demonstrate and test the skills that you have cultivated at Kyoto University. However, it is important to remember to listen thoughtfully to the opinions of people with different ways of thinking from yours. It is also necessary to draw on the input and feedback of various different kinds of people in order to ultimately be capable of making your own decisions regarding the challenges that you face, and then to tackle these challenges. If you only listen to the opinions of those who agree with you, your judgment will eventually become clouded, just like that of the monarch in the popular tale "The Emperor's New Clothes". In that context, academic freedom based on the ability to engage in dialogue, which you have acquired and developed here at Kyoto University, will help you to make wise decisions.

One of the key missions of Kyoto University is to contribute to "peaceful coexistence across the global community". We are living in an age when such harmony is in a state of disarray, placing in jeopardy coexistence among people with different ways of thinking. I expect that you will all face situations where such issues will need to be addressed, wherever you may go in the world. When you do, I hope that you will tackle such challenges boldly while demonstrating the spirit of unconstrained debate that is upheld by Kyoto University. As Kyoto alumni, how you behave and act, going forward, will be of great interest to the world and your actions will serve as examples for current and future students of the university to follow. From today, the paths that you take will diverge significantly, but they will surely cross at least once more in times to come. I sincerely hope that such occasions will be enjoyable encounters in which you can take pride as graduates of Kyoto University.

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