On Jan. 30, as NHK kicked off its evening news program with upbeat music, footage aired of a young woman with immaculately coiffed brown hair wearing pearl earrings and her trademark "kappogi," a Japanese-style white apron.

"A 'rikejo' (young female scientist) has stunned the world," the news anchor announced cheerfully as he introduced Haruko Obokata, a 30-year-old researcher at the state-backed Riken institute's Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe.

The footage showed her peering into a microscope in a lab with pink walls and drawings of Moomin cartoon characters on the doors.