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