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Vietnamese physicist thrives in Japan

Besides exploring the structure of the atom, Nguyen Dinh Dang is an accomplished painter

by Edan Corkill

Nguyen Dinh Dang didn’t choose Japan so much as Japan chose him. The Soviet-trained Vietnamese nuclear physicist and painter first came to live here in 1995 at the invitation of Riken, a semigovernmental science and technology research institute.

“I was first invited to the University of Tokyo for 10 months in 1994 on the recommendation of my former teacher at Moscow State University, and then in 1995 I was invited to Riken,” Dang explained. He has been working at the Wako, Saitama Prefecture, facility ever since, first as a research fellow and now as a contract researcher.

Dang lives in Wako with his Vietnamese wife and, until recently, his son, who is now going to college in the United States. He is positive about all aspects of life here, noting for example the reliability of the bureaucracy — “If they say something will take a week, it takes a week” — and the level of care at public hospitals. “When my wife was hospitalized once the service was so good she felt like she was the only patient,” he says.

If those sound like small graces, it’s worth remembering the templates against which he compares present-day Japan: wartime and postwar Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Dang was born in 1958 in Hanoi, meaning he and his family were on the side of the north, or the communists, during what they referred to as the “war of resistance,” better known in the West as the Vietnam War.

In the mid-1960s Dang was evacuated with his family to the countryside.

“There was no ground fighting in the north, but there were airstrikes,” he explained. “I remember one night watching the whole horizon light up with fire over Hanoi.”

Still, once away from the city, Dang was able to continue his schooling and live a reasonably normal life, albeit without electricity.

He remembers it was his music teacher who told him that the only way for him to develop himself was to go abroad. He set about achieving that goal by the only means possible: scoring top grades in high school and thus winning a scholarship to attend university elsewhere in the communist bloc.

“I got one of the highest scores in the country,” Dang recalls.

Thus in autumn 1976 he joined hundreds of other bright young Vietnamese students as they boarded a specially commissioned train for the two-week overland journey across China, Mongolia and Siberia to finally reach Moscow. He had in his possession a suitcase containing one suit, shoes and a pullover — all of which had been issued to him by the Vietnamese government.

“We had nothing, because we didn’t have any money,” Dang remembers with a laugh. “They let us choose between a blue pullover or an orange pullover.”

Dang thrived in the late-1970s Moscow. Compared with the war-ravaged country he had left behind, it was a land of plenty. “Moscow was so beautiful and clean and there were tall buildings. You could actually buy things in the shops,” he says.

Having been interested in drawing as a child, Dang took up painting and spent much his free time in front of an easel.

After acquiring a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, he returned to Vietnam in 1985. He married and had a son before returning to Moscow in 1987 to complete a Doctor of Sciences — the highest qualification in the Soviet education system.

On this second visit he became aware of the extent of the Soviet decline. Moscow’s shops were now as empty as Hanoi’s had been more than a decade earlier.

Back in Vietnam in 1990, Dang took up a job at the Institute of Nuclear Science and Technique, and four years later he received the initial invitation to go to Japan.

The scientist says he has never worked anywhere with facilities as good as those at Riken. His current task is to explore the structure of the nucleus of the atom, one of the key challenges of physics.

“Basically the objective is to understand how the universe was created,” he says.

Dang has added conversational-level Japanese to his fluent knowledge of Vietnamese, Russian and French but says most of the Japanese researchers at Riken speak English well. “There is also a large number of foreign staff here,” he adds.

In his spare time Dang continues to paint. In 2003 he had a canvas accepted for an exhibition run by the private art association Shutai. He repeated the feat in 2004 and in 2005 the group bestowed on him the status of “member,” an honor that usually takes decades to achieve.

Dang’s paintings have a Surrealist style. He enjoys depicting his life or thoughts by mixing various symbolic objects in dreamlike landscapes. In one painting, a buffalo-headed figure holding a man’s mouth shut is made to represent the lack of free expression in his home country.

“The good thing about Japan is that you can paint basically anything,” Dang says. “In Hanoi you have to get permission from the authorities even to hold an exhibition.”

Likewise, his views on Japanese society in general are shaped by his experiences elsewhere. In the Soviet Union, everyone seemed angry and untrusting, he says, so he appreciates Japan’s politeness.

“Americans might say that they don’t need someone to push the elevator button for them in a department store. But in Japan that is the face of high-class service, a way of demonstrating the store’s respect for their customers,” he explains.

It might have been Japan that chose Nguyen Dinh Dang, in the form of that initial Riken assignment, but 14 years down the track the Vietnamese scientist-cum-artist has found many reasons to choose to remain here.

Nguyen Dinh Dang will hold an exhibition of his paintings in April at the Fazioli Piano Showroom near Tamachi Station in Tokyo. See www.fazioli.co.jp for details.