Essence of the Faculty of Letters

“Letters” as a method / The university as a “space”

Welcome to the faculty where “letters” are studied. The “words” created by human beings have the power to explain subtle concepts and complex emotions, resonating in our bodies and bringing about a sense of comprehension. They make co-operation based on trust in others possible, and articulate the unique subjectivity of each individual. Through the medium of language, the strange and wonderful beings called humans have raised high their “ideas” of reason and justice, created works of “literature” from the richness of their imaginations, woven together stories of fact and memory into “history”, and built “societies” out of spaces of shared experience. The Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology and Faculty of Letters, placed above and encompassing the undergraduate departments, is a place of broad and deep learning, where we attempt to decipher humans and their cultures.

Words have a physical power to move us. I remember, as a middle school student, standing at the front of a bookstore reading a volume called the Poetic Works of Shuntarō Tanikawa (Tanikawa Shuntarō Shishū), published by Kadokawa Bunko Press. It made my body tremble. How could mere printed words on a page resonate like this inside me? It was a mystery. Later I forgot which poem and which verse it had been. I found a copy of the book and tried to trace the poem, but I failed to re-encounter the emotions of forty-five years earlier. I grew a little sad, as if I had lost something important. Nevertheless, words do have the ability to shake people to the core of their beings, and they play an indispensable role in that unique human space that we call society. Of this I have no doubt.

The origins of this power are shown in three verbs: “tell”, “think”, and “feel”. An object that you can hold in your hand and pass to another person must be of an appropriate size and weight. By contrast, the ideas conveyed in words can be far broader, extending even to things that are impossible to grasp fully. These provide us with an “extra hand” for passing on meaning, conscious thoughts, and images directly, and thus create the capacity for “telling”.

Yet words also perform other functions. They make possible the activity of “thinking”. That is to say, they can inscribe memories of a situation in the vibrations of a voice, they can preserve it as an experience, and they can cause it to be transferred into a written record, edited, and re-written in the light of abstract concepts. The spread of books and letters is not merely the history of the expansion of our external storage capacity. It is the history of the development of “another mind”, transcending our individual bodies, and making thoughts of social collaboration possible.

Although it is easy to overlook the fact, the capacity of words to “feel” is also important. Our skin lies at the boundary between ourselves and our environment: a soft layer enveloping us. At the same time, it provides sensory perceptions of the reality of the world. Through this membrane, people experience, and distinguish between, pain, heat, and pressure. Words work in the same way. People may be hurt by words, or they may be soothed by their warmth. Words expand into the space of society, giving us “another skin” to sense intensity, strength, and sharpness.

We can see, therefore, that it is terribly reductive to think of “words” merely as a means of transmitting information. Because words mediate the internal phenomenon that we call thought, providing a medium for individuals to grasp the reality of the external world, they have the power to enlarge and unite the perceptions rooted in individual bodies into shared social consciousness. In addition, they have the power to bring clarity to things that are not yet known or poorly understood; to help us face facts that are baffling or mysterious; to expose the cracks and inconsistencies in the everyday knowledge that we rely upon, and to allow constructive energies to rise to the surface through logic. In this sense, words (bun) are essential tools for the practice of learning, and they become the foundations of the thesis (ronbun) which serves as the graduation requirement for undergraduate and graduate students.

As words of welcome for you all, I recall now that long-forgotten passage from the volume of poetry by Tanikawa. It comes from the well-known poem mourning the puppy Nero, who has died after knowing only two summers, spoken by a youth in his eighteenth summer. Another summer will come, the speaker says, but it will be a summer without you. A wholly different summer. And yet, he reflects, it will surely bring many new things. “Beautiful things, ugly things, things to bring me joy, things to bring me sadness”. And so, he asks himself: “What will they be? / Where are they? / What must I do?” And this openhearted question is answered by the direct resolution that: “After all, I’ll walk onwards”. The reason he gives is beautiful in its simplicity. “To answer all of my questions by myself.”

In the difficult times when we face the unknown, without faltering at the task, we are supported by the words we carry with us, and by the friendship we find in others. I end with the wish that everyone in this faculty and graduate school may rise to the challenge of studying the vast diversity of human societies, penetrating deeply into the rich history of words, and into our complex and multi-layered feelings.

Dean of the Faculty of Letters and Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology
Kenji Sato