‘Nation of copycats’ maligns Japan’s fine science and technology

by Roger Pulvers

One of the most commonly discussed issues of national character in Japan revolves around the question of personal creativity. Put simply, it is this: Are the Japanese lacking in the DNA of originality?

This is an old, and tired, polemic, but I want to revisit it today to throw some light on Japanese achievements in science and technology.

The image of Japan as “a nation of copycats” was conjured up in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). After more than two centuries of national isolation imposed (on pain of death) by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a new modern Japan sprang full-blown out of the heads of talented and impetuous individuals who dreamt of a nation equal in greatness to any other. This meant catching up with the empires of the West; and one of the slogan-engines propelling the newly conceived nation-state forward represented just that: Oitsuki oikose, or “Catch up (with the West) and overtake it.”

This naturally entailed a steep learning curve. The best, the brightest and the most goal-motivated were sent overseas at government expense to learn from the Western powers, primarily Germany, Britain, France and the United States, whatever was necessary to replicate their successes. This process necessarily involved a good deal of what appeared to be rote learning. But this does not mean that you can write off the swift and thoroughgoing innovations of Meiji Japan under the derivative banner, “That’s All She Rote.”

As Japan began to industrialize in the final decades of the 19th century, the Western powers jumped to characterize the Japanese, if you will excuse the mix of metaphor, as a “monkey see monkey do” nation of copycats. The Japanese, too, were more than willing to laugh at themselves in self-deprecation, especially when it was pointed out that a number of foreign-made machines had been replicated in Japanese factories complete with cracks that had inadvertently been in the original prototypes.

After the Japanese defeated Russia in a war in 1905, Europe and the United States started to grow wary of Japanese aims. After all, the spoils of colonialism in Asia belonged to the White Man! Even those authors who were well disposed toward Japan — and there were a great many — generally urged the Japanese not to take the road leading to industrialization. It was far better to view the Japanese as a nation of quaint craftspeople and artisans. Much of the popular writing on Japan from mid-Meiji till the end of the Taisho Era (1912-1926) had this bent. Don’t be like us (you can’t anyway); and, stay as sweet, and undeveloped, as you are.

I come to a book that I am now reading. It is “Nippon Tensaiden (The Story of Japanese Geniuses)” by Akihiro Ueyama, published last year by the publishing wing of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The author sets out his thesis in the book’s epilogue.

“We often hear that the Japanese are poor in originality,” he writes, “but is this, in fact, the case?”

He is intent in this book on describing and defining the achievements of 16 famous Japanese scientists who, since Meiji times, made significant contributions to scientific knowledge. And an impressive list they are.

Here is Jokichi Takamine, the discoverer of adrenaline. He also isolated the enzyme Takadiastase, which formed the basis of a stomach medicine of the same name. (As a child, my mother gave me the odd-tasting Taka-Diastase, pronouncing it “Take a Diastase.” Little did I know — nor did I want to know! — that this was created by a Japanese scientist.)

Ichiro Sakurada was a pioneer in the study of high polymers. Genzo Shimadzu is the father of the modern battery, and the founder of the Shimadzu Corporation in Kyoto. Meteorologist Tetsuya Fujita devised the standard for measuring the force of tornadoes. He taught at the University of Chicago, where he was known as “Mr. Tornado.”

Sunao Tawara, working at the University of Marburg in Germany, clarified the mechanism of the heart’s impulse conduction, which led to the invention of the pacemaker. The heart’s atrioventricular node is now called the “Node of Tawara.”

Mutsuo Sugiura, working in war-ravaged Tokyo, created the first laparoscope, or stomach camera, in 1950. Physicist Ryogo Kubo pioneered the field of nonequilibrium statistical mechanics, for which he received the prestigious Boltzmann Medal in 1977.

Ueyama calls chemist Hikorokuro Yoshida “the father of oxidase” for his discoveries in the chemistry of lacquer. And it came as a surprise to me that Chuhachi Ninomiya devised flight in a heavier-than-air craft in 1891 — a full 12 years before the Wright Brothers. Ninomiya apparently observed that crows flapped their wings only once or twice at a time when in flight. He conceived then of the theory of dynamic lift and applied it to the manufacture of aircraft. Perhaps Ueyama goes a bit far in labeling Ninomiya “the father of the airplane,” but there is no doubt about the latter’s brilliant insight into the mechanics of flight.

The irony of all this is that few of the above are household names in Japan, let alone further afield. In fact, I would venture to say that only one or two of the 16 scientific geniuses discussed in the book would be known to the great majority of educated Japanese. Here is where Ueyama puts his finger on the crucial point underlying the “originality or lack thereof” polemic.

“The fact is that Japanese (scientific) research is highly original,” he writes. “The problem is that most of the epoch-making results of research by Japanese have been buried in history without being given due recognition. In other words, what the Japanese are poor in is not originality, but rather in the ability to recognize and value properly the original research of their very own people.”

Ueyama concludes: “I will be happy if I can increase by even one the number of readers who come to realize that there have been many Japanese whose work has been rich in originality.”

I have never subscribed to the theory that the Japanese are copycats. It was natural that they sought to understand, and partially absorb, aspects of European and, later, American life useful to them. All countries do this; and, arguably, the more successful borrowers are the more successful creators.

But I do believe, along with Ueyama, that the Japanese often lack the will and skills to appreciate and publicize their own achievements, be they scientific or artistic.

Modesty may be a revered characteristic of Japanese social life. But why be modest about genius? The pioneers whose achievements are described in this book, and the men and women who are their successors in every field of endeavor, deserve more from their compatriots than a cup of tea and a pat on the back.

Let’s call for some healthy immodesty this century. Let 100 flowers bloom; and, for god’s sake, let’s give geniuses the big gardens they need to wander about in and flourish.