“The sense of cultural exchange in the contemporary world”
President Hideo Ohno,
Honorable members of the faculties,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honor for me to participate in the celebrations for the 115th anniversary of the foundation of this prestigious university.
Unfortunately, concomitant commitments did not allow me to be with you in person, but I am more than happy to deliver this message to you through this video.
As part of the community of the friends of the Tohoku University, I attach great importance to the year 2022, 115 years after the foundation of this university and a full century since it became a comprehensive institution including both liberal arts and sciences.
However, for us all and for the rest of the world, the year 2022 will also dramatically stay in our memories as the year in which “hard power” abruptly returned to govern international relations.
The war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine shocked the world, set an awful precedent and showed the international community how fragile is the order we live in. This unprovoked and unjustifiable act undermines the foundations of the UN system and constitutes a blatant violation of international law.
In addition to the high price that the Ukrainian population is paying in terms of human and material losses, this war is producing a terrible effect on the world economy, food and product supply chains and on global shipping and travel.
So, here comes the question leading my speech today: what is the sense of cultural exchanges in the contemporary world? And, as a consequence, what hope and expectations can a young woman or man have in this world? How can universities help them?
Watching at today’s uncertainties, one of you might object: what is the purpose of culture when we cannot renounce war? Well, I believe that art and culture can inspire people to progress forward even in difficult times.
In order to better understand the value of culture in international relations, we need to go back to 1990, when Joseph Nye theorized the “soft power” concept.
Back then, the world was witnessing a major change: the collapse of the Soviet Union paved the way for a unipolar system. In a few years the diplomatic community, as well as decision-makers and scholars got used to the idea that it was more convenient for States to influence pacifically the course of events rather than changing it with war and violence.
Therefore, culture came to play a prominent role in the perception of the States as a diplomatic tool, and today, just because tensions are rising and core values are threatened again, it is not a good reason to step back! In addition, today, the spreading of cultural contents through the internet and mass tourism have increased the magnitude of the “soft power” projection.
Media powerhouses such as Hollywood and the BBC or targeted campaigns such as Cool Japan, e-Estonia or Essential Costa Rica proved that influence and reputation are successful promotion tools and that they eventually pay off!
Even Italy, a recognized world cultural superpower, understood the full potential of such initiatives and launched a year ago its own nation branding campaign named “Be IT”, which I invite you all to visit at madeinitaly.gov.it.
The ones I just mentioned are just a few examples of how much culture matters in the contemporary world and, in this perspective, the role of the Universities is critical, since their main aim is to shape the next generation of well-informed global citizens capable of jointly ensuring peace, progress, freedom, tolerance and democracy.
The life you live in a community like the one you have in Tohoku, truly resembles the one that in Latin is called universitas, which refers to learning with others.
As you have already figured out, universitas – like the first one founded in 1088 in Bologna – constituted the basis for the modern university system: through their study and research activities, universities were pivotal in spreading knowledge, and in the case of Europe in leading its nations out of the Dark Ages, straight into the Renaissance.
In the very same way as universities attracted peoples from far-off places in the Middle Age and changed their way of thinking, so they need to act now, as communication and travelling are accessible to larger parts of the population.
In the European Union, we celebrate this year the 35th anniversary of the launch of the Erasmus Program, the most famous student exchange scheme that is currently available in 33 European States and has partnerships with 104 more countries, including Japan.
From promoting student mobility, Erasmus evolved to support training, research, and teaching abroad, with more than half a million people participating every year! Throughout these 35 years, it had a quiet but steadfast impact on the lives of millions of Europeans, creating a common sense of unity and establishing bonds between people and cultures.
Knowing well the opportunities provided by Tohoku University, I am sure that a great number of you will take the chance to participate in the many international exchanges programs available or to take courses in a foreign language.
However, the more these programs will be streamlined among big and small, central and peripheral universities, the more their impact will be felt by the society as a whole, with positive repercussions on other economic sectors.
Under this aspect, Japan and Italy are similar as they share an advanced university system that could be more and more opened to the outside.
With the resources of the National Resilience and Recovery Plan conceived to reverse the negative economic impact of Covid-19, Italy is allocating more than 19 billion euros in structural investments in education and human capital. An additional 11 billion package is dedicated to linking the university and business worlds, supporting research and development investments, promoting innovation and realizing a better match between the skills currently offered by Universities and those required by the job market.
In this context, in Italy, another long-term, structural change took place 7 years ago, when Milan hosted Expo 2015.
In addition to the immediate return in terms of visibility and reputation, Expo was an occasion to attract talents, start partnerships and change the mindset of the Italian education and business communities.
Thanks to a well-functioning public-private project, the area where once the national pavilions stood is becoming an innovation district that already hosts a life sciences research institute and that soon will be complemented by the scientific campus of Milan Statale University and by a new hospital.
For Italy, Expo was not only a celebration of cultures or a way to raise the world’s attention on food-related issues, but a catalyst for progress and innovation for the whole country. This is why, Italy is bidding to host Expo 2030 in Roma, with a theme, which is the ideal continuation of that of Expo Osaka 2025: “People and territories: urban regeneration, inclusion and innovation”. I hope to see you all in Rome in 7 years!
As I come to the ending part of my speech, I realize that so far I told you what a country can do for young generations; what an educational system can do for young generations; what adults can do for young generations. But I would like to focus more on what young people can do for themselves.
You are indeed invested with a great responsibility, that to understand the importance and accept the challenges to reach a high level of education and culture.
It is estimated that within 2050, population will continue to dramatically rise in developing countries, changing not only the world demographics but also the political and economic balance.
Meanwhile, in ageing societies such as Italy or Japan, young generations will be called upon to play a greater role in their communities.
As Baby boomers and Generation X will loosen their grab on decision making, it will be up to you to pick up the baton and give your contribution.
The world we are leaving to you is complex: it is faster, yet more fragile; it is more advanced, yet more dangerous. And what is more, it brings with it some instincts buried in the ancestral soul of mankind: the fear of what is different; the arrogance of claiming our own lifestyle to be the best; the strife to secure resources in order to maximize our chance of survival.
As we head towards a multipolar world, you will need to face and contrast these instincts, stand by the internationally accepted principles and rules and try to make the right choices to achieve a shared greater good.
You will rely on the tools of the contemporary world: information, technology. But you will need Culture in order to use them wisely. You will need to know those who exists close to you, to understand their points of view, to take into account their legitimate interests and to encompass them in your vision of the world. If you will train your mind in this way from an early stage, you will be more successful in shaping a fairer world.
My best wish for the future is that educated, smart and responsible people will have the chance to stand out and do what is best for the global community and I hope you will be among those!
I thank Tohoku University for giving me the opportunity to address you and I wish you all many years of success!