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Turning into Japan’s Everyman in a Nobel way

by Philip Brasor

People who get selected to compete on Japanese trivia-based TV quiz shows are always getting asked questions about Japan’s Nobel prizewinners. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Until two weeks ago, there were only 10 of them.

The relatively small number makes it easier for schoolchildren to memorize their names, though perhaps not their accomplishments. That’s OK, because winning is what counts. And once you win a Nobel, you are sure to be given all sorts of other awards from foundations and the government, which loves winners because of the confidence they inspire. (Upon being informed of the latest Japanese prizewinner, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “See, Japan is not an altogether worthless country.”) And then you’ll be offered fellowships and positions on study committees and other cushy jobs that require little more than showing up. Nice work if you can get it.

But, as the paucity of actual award-winners in Japan proves, getting the Nobel is very difficult, and not for the obvious reasons. Since the award is an international one, the Nobel selection committee needs help with nominations. The Japanese government can be excused for not noticing that they have talented people in their midst, but what about the folks who are supposed to encourage and cultivate this sort of thing? What about Japan’s hallowed academia?

Two weeks ago, after Koichi Tanaka won the Nobel in chemistry, a female professor on one of the wide shows commented that foreign scientists associated with the Nobel selection process are always asking Japanese academics to propose nominees. These foreign scientists complain that they receive very few. In fact, the Japanese who do win tend to be nominated by non-Japanese.

Apparently, there’s a Japan Nobel Prize committee, which is made up of elite academics. (I know this because one of its past members was famously sued for sexual harassment about 10 years ago.) Presumably, part of their job is to recommend nominees, but according to an article in last week’s issue of Aera, neither the academic nor the industrial world in Japan is good at isolating important research that’s taking place right under their noses.

Two years ago, when Hideki Shirakawa of Tsukuba University won the Nobel in chemistry, nobody in Japanese academia was prepared. Shirakawa had invented a type of plastic that could conduct electricity, but it was toxic and so he didn’t pursue further research. However, researchers in other countries took his basic idea and modified it. When the concept won a Nobel, Shirakawa was credited.

The media has made much of the fact that four Japanese have won Nobels in the past three years. They claim this windfall shows that Japanese technical knowhow is making a comeback, but actually all four prizes were given for research that was carried out before 1990.

Tanaka’s situation is much the same as Shirakawa’s, only more humiliating for the academic world. Shirakawa’s out-of-left-field win pointed at how ignorant they were of the significance of his research. Subsequently, they stepped up efforts to find people who have done important work. Nevertheless, they missed Tanaka too.

Maybe it was easy to miss him because he wasn’t working in academia. Tanaka works for a private company. But even his employer, Shimadzu, didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Tanaka was nominated by a group of Germans. He was cited along with others who adapted Tanaka’s basic research — research that Shimadzu discontinued in 1987 because they could not find a commercial application for it — and developed an important protein analysis method.

The academics who are expected to make recommendations for Nobel nominees have lofty titles and belong to name-brand universities. Consequently, they tend to look at one another for nominees. That’s why Masatoshi Koshiba, the University of Tokyo professor who won this year for physics, told reporters that every year he waited for the call from Stockholm. He’s been nominated 15 times by his colleagues, and he knows it.

It’s also why the coverage of Tanaka has resembled a Frank Capra movie. Whatever his scientific accomplishments, Tanaka doesn’t fit the media image of an academic. He’s a shy, socially awkward salaryman, and the media adores him for it. They don’t ask questions about his research, but rather about his wife, his family, his hobbies. After he and Koshiba had a private luncheon with Koizumi, the media asked him what he ate, but he couldn’t remember. They loved it.

More importantly, Tanaka is the first Japanese Nobel prizewinner born after World War II, which means his mother (or, actually, stepmother, since Tanaka’s mother died shortly after he was born) can be interviewed. This is important because the Japanese public desperately want to know how to raise their sons to be Nobel prizewinners.

Since the academic community wouldn’t stoop to Tanaka’s level and notice his work (“He doesn’t even have a Ph.D,” was how one professor reacted to the news), Tanaka will have to be elevated to their level. That’s why Shimadzu said it will set up a research institute especially for their prize employee. It’s also why everyone, from Shimadzu OLs to the prime minister, now refer to him as “sensei,” a term that Tanaka is not comfortable with, since, at 43, he doesn’t think he’s old enough to qualify for such an honorific. After all, he still has work to do.