Japan's newest star: a chemist

Yesterday, the emperor awarded Nobel laureate Koichi Tanaka Japan's highest academic honor.

"It could be you!"

That message is resonating with Japanese of all stripes since a "salaryman" scientist won the Nobel Prize in chemistry last month.

The previously unknown Koichi Tanaka became the country's second-youngest Nobel winner, and the only recipient of the chemistry prize to have no more than a bachelor's degree. In a country where rank and prominence are usually determined by age, the 43-year-old chemist is breaking the mold and reaching a status usually reserved for pop stars and TV celebrities.

"I wish I were still single," jokes Mr. Tanaka. "When I see myself on television all the time, I can't believe it is me."

Tanaka's award came a day after another Japanese, Masatoshi Koshiba, won the Nobel in physics. Mr. Koshiba, a venerable scientist, pioneered work in detecting neutrinos, the universe's smallest particles, in supernovas billions of miles away.

But it is Tanaka who has captured Japan's imagination. His method for viewing molecules has led to the creation of new medicines, winning him Japan's 12th Nobel Prize. (He shared the award with John Fenn of Virginia Commonwealth University.)

Before the announcement, Tanaka was unknown in academic and government research circles. Even in his own technology company, Shimadzu, he was on the second rung from the bottom of the promotion ladder.

Now, he's a household name.

Tanaka's shy smile graces the covers of magazines, his endearingly awkward speaking style fills the airwaves, and his polite and open character is held up as a model of a lost Japan: humble, but technologically brilliant.

"He's young, but has old-style manners – a rare jewel in his affluent generation," swoons Tamayo Marukawa, a popular female newscaster for the Asahi TV channel.

But Tanaka is a reluctant celebrity. "To be honest, I wish everyone would leave me alone so that I could go back to the quiet life of family and research," he says.

Such sentiments are unlikely to be shared by Shimadzu, which is estima- ted to have reaped free publicity worth more than 1 billion yen ($8 million) since the awards were announced. Its share price has leaped by more than 50 percent.

Embarrassed by the lowly rank of their Nobel laureate, Shimadzu has promoted Tanaka to "fellow" and named a laboratory after him. Research societies that had never previously heard of Tanaka are clamoring to grant him honorary membership.

Belatedly making up for Japan's previous lack of interest in his discovery, Kyoto University has asked Tanaka to lecture, and yesterday, Emperor Akihito awarded him the Order of Culture, the nation's highest honor in the field of culture and academia.

The Tanaka phenomenon has been boosted by the laureate's charmingly ordinary personality. But it also reflects an obsession with the Nobel prizes in Japan and a broader craving for international recognition.

Last year, the Japanese government pledged that its scientists would win a staggering 30 Nobel prizes over 50 years – a five-fold increase on their record over the previous century.

To assist this drive, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science set up an office at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute – the perfect base from which to lobby the Nobel Foundation.

At least one Swedish member complained that the prize-drive of the Japanese was posing "ethical problems" after members of the Nobel Foundation staff were invited for an expenses-paid trip to Tokyo.

Despite such criticisms, the effort seems to be paying off. Japan has won four Nobels in the past three years, and three straight in chemistry. For the government, this is the ideal way for Japan to shed it postwar image as a nation of imitators rather than creators.

But in Tanaka's case, the Nobel success has come despite the lack of official support – and perhaps this is why the country has reveled all the more in his achievement. Millions can relate to his pre-Nobel situation: a lowly corporate employee whose talents were largely unrecognized by the conservative, hierarchical domestic authorities.

And his success in being picked out by what Japan's media see as the most prestigious arbiter of international taste – the Nobel committee – has opened up a tiny window of possibility for others, even during Japan's difficult economic times.

"I am happy and think we can feel proud as Japanese," coffee-shop manager Takeshi Kubota told Reuters. "It makes me feel like trying harder, however tough things are these days."

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