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Surprise and gratitude in Japan's after Akira Yoshino wins Nobel Prize

JIJI, Kyodo

Akira Yoshino’s winning of the Nobel Prize in chemistry has been greeted with surprise and gratitude in Japan.

Yoshino was among three scientists given the award on Wednesday for their work on the development of lithium-ion batteries. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Wednesday that the chemistry prize would go to Yoshino, 71; John B. Goodenough, 97, of the University of Texas; and M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, of State University of New York.

In a meeting room at Meijo University in Nagoya — where Yoshino serves as professor — Akihiro Ohara, the institution’s president, and students watched a video broadcast announcing the winners. Soon after Yoshino’s name was read out, the students appeared surprised but soon burst into applause.

While Yoshino, an honorary fellow at major chemicals maker Asahi Kasei Corp., spoke about his win at a news conference held at the company’s head office in Tokyo on Wednesday night, more than 100 employees of the company flooded the venue to see him and offer praise.

Toshio Tsubata, the 55-year-old head of Asahi Kasei’s fuel cell materials business promotion department, said that tears flowed from his eyes when Yoshino’s win was announced.

Tsubata conducted research with Yoshino for some 15 years from 1992, and he said they often go drinking together.

Naoki Matsuoka, 43, who worked under Yoshino between 2010 and 2015, said he has sometimes felt that Yoshino is a “prophet” due to his deep foresight. Matsuoka calls himself “the last disciple” of Yoshino.

Kenichi Sanechika, Yoshino’s former subordinate at Asahi Kasei and currently an adviser at the Japan Science and Technology Agency, was involved in the basic research on the batteries with Yoshino but at the time never expected them to become so common.

“When (lithium-ion batteries) were commercialized, I thought there may be a market for them used in 8 millimeter video cameras, but they ended up creating a market we never expected as they became smaller and lighter and made their way into personal computers and mobile phones,” he said.

At Osaka University’s campus in the city of Suita, Osaka Prefecture, students exploded with joy when they learned of Yoshino’s win. Yoshino earned a doctorate degree at the university in 2005.

“Patience is required in developing new technologies,” said Shunpei Fujio, 23, a fourth-year engineering student at the university. “I respect him.”

Osaka University Professor Masanori Ozaki, who worked with Yoshino when he was a doctoral student, said: “I expected he would win a Nobel Prize some day. I’m honored to have helped his research, albeit slightly.”

Everyday users of the technology also showed their appreciation.

“Thanks to lithium-ion batteries, I’m now able to work regardless of what time it is or where I am,” a 34-year-old architectural designer in Tokyo’s Koto Ward said. “It was great that (Yoshino) continued research, looking to a future where anybody can carry communications devices with them.”

He added: “I now realized that we owe our future to researchers’ tireless efforts.”

“I’m proud of Yoshino as a Japanese,” said Junpei Kawachi, a 45-year-old corporate worker in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, calling the chemist the “leading figure who made the world convenient.”

Mizuki Ohira, a 22-year-old graduate student at Meijo University, said “it seems natural that the research outcomes are helping our everyday lives, so I hadn’t been aware of their greatness.”