Autumn 2021 Graduation Ceremony Address
Congratulations, everyone, on earning your degree today. Several years have passed since you entered SOKENDAI and began your degree research. For some of you it has been three years, for others five, and for some of you perhaps a little longer. During that time, you no doubt faced many difficulties, such as when a failed experiment or observation brought things to a standstill or when your research hit a wall and left you struggling. I congratulate you on overcoming those obstacles, completing your dissertation, and officially earning your degree today. And I would also like to express my joy and gratitude to your faculty supervisors, the professors in your departments, and the members of your family, all of whom have supported your research.
Moreover, I am sure that you faced even greater hardships than previous graduate students due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that began last year. You no doubt had to deal with many disruptive events, including the closure of the research centers and museums where your departments are located and the cancelation of overseas trips that you had been planning. I would like to express my special respect to all of you for overcoming such hardships and obtaining your degrees.
For more than a year and a half now, we have continued to endure changes to daily life because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In various countries and regions of the world, countermeasures have been successful in some places and less so in others. While Japan insisted on hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the measures taken to control infection cannot be called successful. No one knows how the circumstances will evolve or what the future will bring. The situation also makes me worried about what the future holds for all of you as you graduate. Perhaps the time has come for us to rethink conventional wisdom and truly reconsider what kind of life we ought to pursue.
When we ask ourselves how the COVID-19 pandemic started in the first place, we must not overlook the impact of human civilization's unbridled development (mainly in developed countries). My academic background is in physical anthropology and ecology. As Homo sapiens, we evolved in Africa about 300,000 years ago. From even before that time, for 99% of our evolutionary history, we depended on the bounty of nature and survived through hunting and gathering. Then, about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and cattle ranching, Homo sapiens began to transform their environments with their own hands and manage their food supply on their own.
Even so, for a long while, the human population remained in the tens and hundreds of millions; even though we were starting to modify the earth's environment, our impact was minimal compared to today. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, however, Homo sapiens were burning coal as their own source of energy. Since World War II, we have burned oil, mass-produced petroleum products, harnessed nuclear energy, obtained antibiotics, created computers, and on and on.
The pace of change (or development) in human history since then has been remarkable. Between 1850 and 1950, the world's population, the total amount of energy used by humans worldwide, and the global average GDP increased only slightly. Between 1950 and 2020, however, all these have skyrocketed at an astonishing rate compared to the past, while at the same time, ecosystems around the world have been transformed, forests destroyed, cities built up, and species made extinct at an ever-faster pace. In this way, the habitats of other organisms have been destroyed, while areas inhabited by humans have expanded. In the process, there has been a dramatic increase in the degree of contact between humanity and viruses that were previously unconnected to people. COVID-19 is just one such outcome. Though COVID-19 may subside, the problem will not.
Some geologists have suggested that the classification of geological eras should adopt a new epoch, the Anthropocene, and I think they are right. It has been some 4.6 billion years since the earth came into existence, while life itself emerged 3.8 billion years ago. For a very long time, all that existed were microorganisms. Then, about 600 million years ago, the kind of large organisms that survive in fossils came into existence, ushering in the Paleozoic Era. Next came the Mesozoic Era, famous for the dinosaurs, and then the Cenozoic Era, the age of mammals, which began about 65 million years ago after the dinosaurs had gone extinct. At this time, humans had not yet appeared.
The most closely related living animal to humans is the chimpanzee. We diverged from each other about 6 million years ago, while Homo sapiens--you and me--emerged 300,000 years ago. We are a very new creature on earth and yet, as I mentioned earlier, we have radically transformed the earth's environment in just the last 100 years or so, a mere moment in geological time.
Whether to accept the Anthropocene as a distinct geological age classification is a technical issue. That said, should it not be obvious to anyone that the civilization of today's developed countries has advanced in an untenable way that has outstripped the planet's natural cycle of matter and its balance of energy? I certainly believe it should be obvious to any group of scholars who observe phenomena objectively and are trained in the science of analyzing them.
Are things okay the way they are now? What should we do next? What comes next cannot stop with just the science, with just the objective analysis of phenomena. People want to maintain their current way of life, want to live even more comfortably, if possible. That's only normal. SOKENDAI has many international students. A large percentage of them come from places not on the list of so-called "developed countries." No one can fault them for wanting a life like those they see in developed countries.
At the same time, the earth's ecosystem has its limits; there is not an infinite supply of natural resources. What do you imagine will happen if the peoples of today's developed countries continue to live as they currently do, while meanwhile, everyone else has attained a similar lifestyle for themselves? It may very well be that our current level of growth is unsustainable. That is why our thinking needs to change and needs to change drastically.
Should what we commonly call a "prosperous life" be the kind of life that the developed countries of the 20th century have aspired to achieve--a life of material abundance, of profit in terms of money, of ever-expanding resources over which an individual has exclusive control? Even today, it is impossible to provide that kind of life to the more than seven billion people on the planet. And is such a life the only way of living a "prosperous life"? Is it ideal for everyone to own a private jet? Is that the kind of life you envision for yourself?
In the world to come, what will we mean by a "prosperous life"? I firmly believe that a kind of "prosperous life" exists that is different from the kind of affluent Western lifestyles of the developed countries of the 20th-century. I hope that our international students will devise these new ways of living, and also believe that Japanese people, together with other people living in developed countries, must change our commonsense thinking as well as our goals. In that sense, I believe that the recent pandemic has put the brakes on the conventional Western ways of doing things in developed countries and forced us to reexamine them, while at the same time it has given cultures outside the developed countries of the West the chance to envision a new way of being.
Since the Meiji Restoration, culturally, Japan as a country has made it national policy to adopt the culture of the West in an effort to catch up with the developed countries. Yet Japan has longstanding traditions of its own and customs and values that differ from those of Western cultures. In my view, these still hold a great latent power among the Japanese people, despite the pressure to Westernize since the Meiji Restoration. Of course, having now experienced and learned more about a great variety of things, some aspects of traditional Japanese culture would have to be called undesirable. Whether you are an international or Japanese student, perhaps you have noticed this power yourself. Every local culture--be it in different parts of Asia, or South America, or Africa--has both good and bad qualities. From them, I believe, there are many things that we can learn. Regardless of your field of expertise, I hope you will reflect on the kind of "prosperous society" we might build by recognizing and analyzing those things, while making effective use of our planet's limited resources.
SOKENDAI's mission has been to foster deep expertise, broad perspective, and international competence. Deep expertise comes naturally, I believe, through the doctoral dissertation research conducted in each department. Likewise, international competence is no doubt acquired as you converse with the wide range of people met through opportunities such as presenting at international conferences. But what about broad perspective? As you look back, can you say with confidence that you have acquired a broad perspective? This one is the most difficult of them, I think.
In retrospect, it took me a long time before I could say that I had acquired a broad perspective. Indeed, it is difficult to say what it takes before a person can say they have achieved a broad perspective. Definitions aside, if I were to name one specific thing, it would be the ability, regardless of one's field of expertise, to say something about the thing I have been talking to you about, namely, what form the "prosperous society" of the future should take.
It is highly unlikely that your field of expertise or the subject of your dissertation is directly related to questions of how a prosperous society of the future will look. Yet you may find yourself able to think about the kinds of knowledge you can provide on questions that may seem at first glance unrelated, if only you apply to them the intellectual know-how that you mobilized in producing your dissertation and fully utilize the "art" you gained in the process of doing so. That is what I consider "broad perspective."
At any rate, earning a degree is just one milestone in your life. You should be proud of all the hard work you put into it and commended for making it to this point. Yet this is not an end goal; there is more to come. Ahead are new challenges, new prospects, and first steps into the unknown. I hope everything you have learned and acquired at SOKENDAI will serve you well as you embark on that journey.
My sincerest congratulations to you today. I wish you the best in your future endeavors.
The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, SOKENDAI