Swiss physicist and Nobel laureate Charles Guillaume said of him, “There are, in fact, two satellites orbiting the Earth. One we call the moon, and the other is the eminent Dr. Tanakadate.”

Yet despite such extraordinary praise, Aikitsu Tanakadate, the father of Japanese seismology and Japanese aviation, is pitifully unknown both in his own country and around the world.

When last month, on the night of Feb. 13, the Tohoku region was struck by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, an aftershock of the Great East Japan Earthquake 10 years ago, I thought of Tanakadate. This massive aftershock was most strongly felt in the town of Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture — Tanakadate’s birthplace, which I visited a few years ago to learn more about the man who was arguably Japan’s greatest modern scientist.

Born in 1856, 12 years before the Meiji Restoration, he was sent as a child to the provincial capital of Morioka to study English. Then, when he was 16, his entire family moved to Tokyo to aid him in his educational pursuits.

Aikitsu Tanakadate went from a childhood in Iwate Prefecture to become Japan's leading light in both seismology and aviation. | COURTESY OF TANAKADATE AIKITU MEMORIAL SCIENCE MUSEUM
Aikitsu Tanakadate went from a childhood in Iwate Prefecture to become Japan’s leading light in both seismology and aviation. | COURTESY OF TANAKADATE AIKITU MEMORIAL SCIENCE MUSEUM

His father wrote to him, “Japanese knowledge is in no way behind that of the West in literature, politics and morality, but when it comes to science and technology we are far behind. If our research doesn’t catch up with and overtake the West soon, we won’t become a full-fledged member among the nations of the world.”

Tanakadate entered the science department at the University of Tokyo, one of only three first-year students in his class. Upon graduating, he taught there for two years before traveling to Europe. In January 1888, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, studying under no less a scientific giant than mathematical physicist Lord Kelvin, before moving on, two years later, to Berlin to work with Hermann von Helmholz, an innovator in fields from physiology to electrodynamics and thermodynamics.

Having then headed back to Japan, he rushed to the scene of the Mino-Owari Earthquake in central Honshu at the end of October 1891. This was, at the time, the strongest inland earthquake recorded in Japan, causing more than 7,200 deaths. In his fieldwork Tanakadate discovered the cause to be the Neodani Fault. The fault had ruptured over 80 kilometers, giving rise to a six-meter vertical and an eight-meter horizontal offset.

He continued his research into the Great Fissure Zone that comprises the boundary of the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line, Honshu’s enormous fault running from Niigata to Shizuoka.

Tanakadate showed, for the first time in the world, that earthquakes are associated with magnetic fields and urged the government to become involved in earthquake damage control.

More than a century later, on the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, those measures have advanced to a degree by which many people in the country — sadly not all — can remain safe when a powerful temblor strikes.

In 1899, Tanakadate was instrumental in setting up the International Latitude Observatory at Mizusawa in his native Iwate Prefecture, one of six such places around the world to determine the extent and effects of precession of the Earth’s axis, a phenomenon that today is thought to be associated with species extinction. All six observatories were located at the same latitude.

But his interests did not stop on the ground. He devised the hot air balloons that undertook reconnaissance in the skies over Port Arthur (today’s Dalian) in China, where one of the decisive battles of the Russo-Japanese War took place in the last five months of 1904.

In 1908, he built Japan’s first wind tunnel at his aviation laboratory to test airplane wings; and the same year sent Japan’s first glider into the air above Shinobazu Pond in Ueno, Tokyo. He chose Tokorozawa, in Saitama Prefecture, as the site for Japan’s first airport.

Between 1898 and 1935, he made 22 trips to Europe, attending 68 international conferences. He was a member, along with Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, of the Committee to Promote Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, and met often with Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, with whom he formed a particularly close bond.

Tanakadate, who served in the House of Peers of the Diet from 1925 until 1947, was intimately involved in the military uses of aviation. In January 1933, he read a lecture on the development of flight in the presence of Emperor Hirohito, later calling the experience “the most memorable one of my life.”

I found an article mentioning him in the Feb. 9, 1944, issue of a New Zealand daily newspaper, The Gisborne Herald. Under the title “Japanese Claim: New Secret Weapon” it states that Tanakadate “reported to the Diet on the scientific development of Japanese secret weapons, declaring that successful experiments were being carried out with a certain powerful element which would instantaneously destroy the entire British Navy.”

This element was doubtlessly uranium, although work on an atomic bomb in Japan was never to get far off the ground.

Some people were critical of his cooperation with the military, among them his friend and colleague, physicist Hantaro Nagaoka, whose theory of the planetary model of the atom with a massive nucleus was confirmed by Ernest Rutherford.

Tanakadate remained in Tokyo for most of the duration of the war but evacuated to his home in Ninohe at the time of the carpet bombing of the capital in March 1945. His home was destroyed in those raids. He remained in Ninohe after the war, traveling to Tokyo for conferences and the like.

He was a unique and eccentric scientific genius, a pioneer in many types of fieldwork, research and development, a prolific correspondent with a host of world-famous scientists. I picture him, solitary, in one of his poems titled “Deep in the Mountains”: “When I strike the keys of my typewriter / I can’t blame people for thinking / There’s a woodpecker around.”

He was quoted as saying, “With developments in science, the day will come when we can minimize the damage caused by the natural enemies: earthquakes, storms and tsunami.”

Tanakadate, who died in 1952 at age 95, also left us with these words for our children: “Don’t have any prejudices, don’t overeat, grow up in a healthy way and become a kid who likes science.”

I think we can all heartily endorse that advice.

Roger Pulvers has written extensively about Japan. His latest book is “The Charter: and Thirteen Other Stories About Japan.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.