Nobel prize: the Japanese experience

The diligent Japanese have finally proven they are not just the engineers who could only innovate on the breakthrough of others. They still have very strong "pipeline" (candidate) who could win another in the next couple of days, e.g., the acclaimed writer Murakami Haruki (村上春樹).

So far they have won 16 Nobel prizes, of which 15 were Japanese citizens at the time of receiving the prize. The 16th Nambu who won the physics prize this year, was educated in Japan, became a professor in Japan, and moved to US only after his 31st birthday.

氏名 受賞年 部門 理由等
湯川秀樹 1949年 物理学賞 中間子の存在の予想。コロンビア大学在籍中に受賞。
朝永振一郎 1965年 物理学賞 量子電気力学分野での基礎的研究。
川端康成 1968年 文学賞 『雪国』、『千羽鶴』、『古都』等の作品。
江崎玲於奈 1973年 物理学賞 半導体におけるトンネル効果の実験的発見。IBM在籍中に受賞。
佐藤栄作 1974年 平和賞 非核三原則の提唱。
福井謙一 1981年 化学賞 化学反応過程の理論的研究。
利根川進 1987年 生理学・医学賞 多様な抗体を生成する遺伝的原理の解明。MIT在籍中に受賞。
大江健三郎 1994年 文学賞 万延元年のフットボール』、『燃え上がる緑の木』三部作等の作品。
白川英樹 2000年 化学賞 導電性高分子の発見と発展。
野依良治 2001年 化学賞 キラル触媒による不斉合成反応の研究。
小柴昌俊 2002年 物理学賞 天体物理学、特に宇宙ニュートリノの検出に対するパイオニア的貢献。
田中耕一 2002年 化学賞 生体高分子の同定および構造解析のための手法の開発。
南部陽一郎[1] 2008年 物理学賞 自発的対称性の破れの発見。
小林誠 2008年 物理学賞 対称性の破れによるクオーク世代の予言(小林・益川理論)。
益川敏英 2008年 物理学賞 対称性の破れによるクオーク世代の予言(小林・益川理論)。
下村脩 2008年 化学賞 緑色蛍光タンパク質(GFP)の発見とその開発。

In fact, the Japanese have already won 4 prizes between 2000-2002 in consecutive years. 

One interesting coincidence is that it seems that they tend to win Nobels when the US is in recession (e.g., 1973-74, 1987, 2000-2002, 2008; the economy wasn't great in 1981 and 1994 either).

This is a very strong refute to the myth that Japan does not (know how to) innovate which was a very popular belief from the 1980s through even today. See, e.g., The New Scientist article published in 1989, "No-bells for Japan"
  • "This worries policymakers even more than the league table of Nobel prizewinners does. Yoshihiro Miki, director of policy research in the government's Science and Technology Agency (STA), says that Japan has completed the 'catch-up stage' in its scientific development: it has closed the gap over the period since the end of the Second World War. To go further it will need fundamental changes to encourage its scientists to be creative. 'We need to have an environment where researchers can freely display their creativity and ability,' says Miki. "

A lot (11 to be exact) of "bells" for Japan have been awarded since, across all disciplines (except for the Economic Prize.  They even won an infamous Peace Prize - even though the Japanese were not involved in international political power game such as the Israelie-Palestine deal and the Vietnam cease-fire talk),  4 in the past few days.

It should be noted that most of the works for these prizes were accomplished before the 1989 article was written (when Mr Miki lamented). e.g. the Cabibo-Kobayahi-Maskawa matrix was published in 1973. The reform in Japan started in 1860's and the first Japanese Nobel (Yukawa) was awarded in 1949 (90 years later) for works that was done in 1935 when he published the "Yukawa potential".

What Japan has shown us is that fundamental education and a reasonably funded but propoerly managed (i.e. fair) academic system (which it enjoyed) play a much more important role than government directive or intervention (which the pundits derided) when it comes to innovation.

This bring to the question of China. So far there are 9 ethnic Chinese who have won the Nobel prize. None of them hold Chinese passport
  • Only Gao Xingjiang's work was done entirely within China. (the only non-scientist, non-politician)
  • Only 2 physicists (Yang and Lee) completed their undergraduate in China, Dan Tsui was educated in US. The other 3 physicists, Chu, Ting and Tsien were not even born in China
  • The chemist, Lee Yuan-tseh was educated in NTU, Taiwan, which is basically the same system Yang and Lee went through
  • The DL is a Tibetan grew up in India and the west, and the prize he received does not exactly reflect education and scientific/cultural advanceness (and some readers, including the DL himself or many Chinese nationalists, do not think he is considered Chinese at all)
... and the Japanese lessons for China
  1. Can China foster an environment for innovation of the Nobel quality? Yes, it has produced Gao, and partially Yang and Lee -- there will be another Dan Tsui, another Y-T Lee once in a few years since there are so many people who went to the US for PhD and stayed behind
  2. Were these prizes more like an anomaly of the Chinese education system? Yes, considering Gao is an outlier in the circle and Yang/Lee could not have done the same work had they stayed in China (and the 50 year-vacuum afterwards) -- China today is at best the 1960s of Japan when it got a couple sporadic prizes, so we have have one or two Nobel laureate in the coming decade, but the paths of these winners will be quite different from their peers
  3. When will China be really part of the "Nobel community" (i.e. on par with Japan, Germany, Switzerland, etc)? Probably another 3 decades, if Japan's path is to be followed. The innovation in Japan started in 1970s (or late 1960s) and the harvest started about 30 years later. Today's China resembles Japan in late 1970s, in terms of economic development and education. Yes, China is on an accelerated path, but the corruption, poor management of its research and education system could more than offset the 'economic acceleration' plus the 'population scale' it may enjoy in the next 2 decades


Anonymous said...

These things need time, but there is still a lot of work that China can do to catch up in innovation. However, I hate when people say that China can't ever be innovative and they are always only copying and manufacturing. It may be true now, but when China is near developed and the next batch of educated researchers reach their prime, China will definitely be a big innovative nation. I also hate those self-deprecating Chinese who feel that China will never catch up in 1000 years literally. Seriously have some confidence.

Also, do you think China lacks freedom of speech in the academic arena which is the main reason why China can't be a technological giant? I really think the main reason is the brain drain to the most advanced west.

Sun Bin said...

my view (my personal view):

freedom of speech, yes but not the deciding factor for science subjects, more for humanity such as literature (economic is more like a science now and there is no 'marxist view' hindrance nowadays in china)

more importantly, it is the system and structure (corruption, bureacracy, bad management) -- the same reason why the soccer team sucked.

also, i really do not think brain drain is a problem. many japanese went to US from 1950s till even today. some went back some didn't. it is actually positive for even the domestic research in long term.

Anonymous said...

Why list "ethnic Chinese" who never spent a day in China? That is like claiming Nobel prizes for Germany when an American wins the prize who is "ethnically German." Makes no sense.

Sun Bin said...

that is because many media do this, and it makes comparison and reference easier.

some also use this to show that it is not a 'genetic issue' but an 'environmental' issue. -- though the sample is too small to say that.