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Less acclaim, more fun for Japan’s Ig Nobel Prize winners

by Mark Schreiber

Since Hideki Yukawa in 1949, a total of 16 Japanese nationals have been named recipients of Nobel Prizes. In 2010, when the most recent Japanese winners were announced to receive prizes for chemistry, NHK interrupted its scheduled programming with a nyuusu sokuho (breaking news) announcement.

On Sept. 29, Shiga University associate professor Makoto Imai and six colleagues marched onto the stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theater to receive a so-called Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry. The award was bestowed in recognition of “determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.”

The Ig Nobel Prizes date back to 1991, when Marc Abrahams, editor of a Harvard-based publication, The Annals of Improbable Research, organized an event to bestow recognition on scientists, inventors and others whose sometimes outrageously wacky research efforts “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

“Ignoble” — a word obviously chosen for its resemblance to Nobel — is defined in the dictionary as “1) completely lacking nobility in character or quality or purpose” and “2) of humble birth or origins.”

With this year’s award, Japanese researchers have received “Igs” for five straight years. In the entire 21-year history of the Ig Nobel awards, Japanese have taken 15 prizes. And while it may be some time yet before NHK breaks into its regular programming to trumpet such news, fans in Japan can view each autumn’s Ig Nobel ceremony streamed live on the Web via YouTube. The awards are also covered by Kyodo wire service and Japan’s major newspapers, including The Japan Times.

One of Japan’s most famous winners was Daisuke Inoue, the man credited with inventing karaoke, who traveled to Harvard to receive an Ig Nobel Peace Prize. Instead of a rambling acceptance speech, Inoue belted out the New Seekers’ 1971 hit “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” — earning him “the longest standing ovation the Ig Nobels had ever seen,” according to Abrahams.

While conceding that when communicating with Japanese scientists the language barrier “has been a challenge, but not a barrier,” Abrahams, who graduated from Harvard College with a degree of applied mathematics (“Bill Gates was in the class one year ahead of me. I later founded a software company, but it never became big”), was quick to seek out worthy recipients from Japan right from the get-go.

In 1992, the event’s second year, a team of researchers at the Shiseido Research Center in Yokohama were accorded the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine for their pioneering research study “Elucidation of Chemical Compounds Responsible for Foot Malodour,” especially for their conclusion that people who think they have foot odor do, and those who don’t don’t.

Their paper attracted notice after it was published in the British Journal of Dermatology in June 1990.

Abrahams pointed out that “approximately 50 percent” of eventual Ig winners come to the selection committee’s attention from published scientific papers.

“We are always looking,” he told The Japan Times. “And anyone can send in a nomination. In a typical year we receive something like 7,000 new nominations. Between 10 and 20 percent of those are people who nominate themselves. But they almost never win. Winning an Ig Nobel Prize seems to be a side-effect. If it’s your main goal, you are very unlikely to succeed.”

Abrahams added that when Inoue took the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for inventing karaoke, other people — including another Ig Nobel Prize winner — “sent angry letters claiming that they, not Mr. Inoue, invented karaoke.”

“This kind of thing seems to happen with almost any invention that becomes truly famous,” Abrahams observed.

Japanese scientists have done particularly well in chemistry. In 2003, Yukio Hirose, a metallurgist at Kanazawa University, received the Ig in chemistry for discovery that statues containing an arsenic compound would shoo away pigeons.

In 2007, Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan received an Ig for chemistry after she published a paper about extracting vanilla flavor from cow poop. A new ice cream flavor using the extract — Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist — was promptly named in her honor, and served to judges at the stage, who feigned disgust, pinching their nostrils shut while they spooned it into their mouths.

Abrahams was lavish in his praise for Japanese openness toward what others might regard as eccentric projects — comparing it favorably with Great Britain’s.

“Over the entire span of time, two nations have stood out as being extremely efficient producers of Ig Nobel Prize winners: Japan and the U.K.,” he recalled. “I suspect that there is a good reason for that. In most countries, if someone is an eccentric or espouses truly unusual ideas, their neighbors feel embarrassed, and may even try to punish or suppress those people.

“But in Japan and the U.K., people are generally proud of their eccentrics. And typically people are amused by them and, to at least some degree, admire them.”

Abrahams says two winners from Japan in particular stand out as having enjoyed the greatest rapport with the media or public.

“First was Daisuke Inoue, the inventor of karaoke,” he says. “Second, in an entirely different way, the one and only Dr. NakaMats” — who claims to have over 3,000 inventions under his belt.

For the past two years, Abrahams has been running a series of weekly columns in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, and has hopes of expanding Improbable Research readership in Japan as well.

“I am hopeful that when we launch the new digital edition of our magazine soon, we will pick up many new readers in Japan,” he says. “The language barrier is of course the biggest challenge to that.

“We have also had people suggest that we team up with some Japanese TV organization to do an Improbable Research television series. That would be fun.”