This summer, the Japan Academy awarded Satohiko Sasaki the Duke of Edinburgh Prize for his study of the physiology and ecology of tropical rain forest species and the development of rehabilitation technology. The award, made in the presence of the Emperor and Empress, was a crowning recognition of Sasaki’s work.
He also has received the Achievement Award of the Forestry Society of Japan and the Japan Prize of Agricultural Science.
Sasaki has devoted his distinguished career to forestry since he took his first degree from the University of Tokyo in 1959.
As a youngster, Sasaki was unusual in that he “liked going to new schools.” His family often moved, and he attended eight schools before entering university. After graduate school, Sasaki was accepted in the doctoral course at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He sailed to Los Angeles in a Japanese passenger-cargo ship.
He worked at remedying any language disadvantage as he settled into his studies. During his summer vacation he and a friend continued their research at Kemp Station in northern Wisconsin.
He heard of a young Japanese woman working in the summer at a root-beer stand in a nearby resort. He met her, and learned she was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Four years later they married in Madison. Sasaki says his wife has always encouraged him. “Without her support, I would have been much different in my life,” he said.
Sasaki wrote his Ph.D. thesis on “Effects of Herbicides on the Physiological Processes of Conifer Trees” and received the degree in 1967.
Offered a postdoctoral fellowship, for a while he continued his herbicide research at the School of Forestry at the University of Missouri. He anticipated being appointed assistant professor there.
However, student protests against the Vietnam War caused suspension of university appointments. Sasaki and his wife decided to return to Japan, where he accepted the position of research officer in the Forestry Experiment Station of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
As a research officer, he was sent to the Forest Research Institute in Malaysia, where with his wife and three children he stayed for three years.
“My basic research carried out in the U.S. and Japan was very useful expanded to tropical rain forest species,” Sasaki said.
To counter the loss of forests, largely caused by excessive logging, slash-and-burn clearing of land and other forms of irrational land conversion, he studied storage conditions for seeds, temperatures and moisture.
He examined the effects of direct sunlight and diffused light. He developed a system for planting stump seedlings, and initiated forest rehabilitation trials not only in Malaysia but also in Indonesia, Thailand and Peru.
Some of the early trial areas are now mature forests. Sasaki claims to be the first scientist to succeed in applying the results of basic research to practical plantation trials.
In 1987, Sasaki was appointed professor of silviculture in the Department of Forestry at the University of Tokyo. He set himself to increasing necessary research funding as well as producing good research results.
As committee chairman of the Research Association for Reforestation of Tropical Forests, he and his students visited experimental sites in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
They saw the results of introducing adaptable seeds in forest swamps and in acidic soils. They experienced forest fires and tree recovery. “Our research activities for tropical forests were broadened,” Sasaki said.
Retired as dean of Tokyo University’s Faculty of Agriculture, he was appointed professor of forest science at Nihon University. Elected vice president of the Science Council of Japan, he sought to develop academic relationships with other countries, and achieved the inauguration in Thailand of the Science Council of Asia.
For six years Sasaki served as dean of the College of Bioresources Sciences, Nihon University. His research proposal then was selected as a top program for the 21st Century Center of Excellence. Since September 2005 he has been professor of the university’s Advanced Research Institute.
“Tropical forests are important for the conservation of the biosphere and the maintenance of life,” Sasaki said. “Experiments in the field are very important, and must be supplemented by laboratory research. Combining the two we can develop a new category of ‘field science,’ different from both theoretical and experimental sciences.”