Disinfotainment presents a fascinating look at Japan’s latest Nobel Laureate, Tanaka Koichi, as it was presented on the TV news inside Japan. Tanaka won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in protein analysis. Tanaka could not be more different than the co-winner, Dr. John Fenn. Tanaka is 43, barely half Dr. Fenn’s age. Most Nobel Prizes are usally awarded as the culmination of a long career, Tanaka is one of the youngest ever to receive the Nobel in Chemistry. Fenn is a university professor in Virginia, Tanaka is a mild-mannered salariman engineer at Shimadzu Corp in Kyoto. Tanaka and Dr. Fenn share half the prize, Dr. Kurt Wüthrich, a professor from Switzerland, shares the other half. Dr. Wüthrich’s work made the work of Tanaka and Dr. Fenn obsolete instantly, just a few years after their amazing discoveries.
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But none of this is apparent from the FujiTV news coverage of Tanaka. They make no mention that he received a company bonus of only 10,000 Yen (about $90US at that time) for the patent on his process (which is now owned by Shimadzu). No mention is made that Tanaka repeatedly and deliberately flunked his annual managerial reviews. He preferred to remain in his post, quietly pursuing his research instead of being promoted to management.
But Tanaka’s quiet salariman attitude has made him a media star, and the media coverage is quite revealing of Japanese attitudes. In our video, we see Tanaka arriving at work attired in a suit and tie, he is obviously not accustomed to dressing up since his tie is so wide, it has been out of fashion since about 1980. He is greeted by his coworkers with cheers of “Banzai” and a bouquet of flowers, and seems a bit disconcerted at all the fuss. The scene switches to Tanaka’s family home, where his brother and mother are receiving all the visitors and bouquets. Mrs. Tanaka proudly brings out an elementary school essay little Koichi-kun wrote, describing his interest in exploring the ocean depths in a submarine. While interesting, there is nothing particularly precocious about this essay, except perhaps his application of glow-in-the-dark paint to his illustration. We see an interview with his wife, who says she wishes he would dress better. Next we have the obligatory visit to Tanaka’s elementary school, where the new generation of students congratulates him for his prize. Tanaka’s niece appears and says he’s nice and he always brought her lots of presents when he returned from abroad. During an interview with both Tanaka and his wife, he is asked what he plans to do with the prize money, and he says he’ll have to ask his wife. She says he can do whatever he wants with it. He shows the deferential, self-effacing spirit that has made him the humble hero of Japan.
Now we shift to the next day’s news coverage. Tanaka is greeted by Prime Minister Koizumi, along with Japan’s other new Nobel Laureate, Dr. Koshiba Masatoshi. First the Prime minister shakes their hands in order of age, starting with Dr. Koshiba, in strict accord with formal Japanese customs of respect. They line up in order of age, the Prime Minister in the middle, grasping their hands and declaring them to be like 3 brothers. Dr. Koshiba stands proudly, like any ambitious 76 year old Senior Professor, standing on the shoulders of his junior research assistants (who are the ones who really do all the work). But Tanaka is unaccustomed to such celebrity events. He says he could not even look the Prime Minister in the eye, and was embarassed when the highest elected official in Japan calls him by the honorific title “sensei.” The video backtracks a few hours as Tanaka departs from Kyoto on the bullet train. He is clearly not accustomed to luxuries like a reserved seat in the Green Car, and says he has never ridden on this type of shinkansen before. As the train arrives, he claps his hands together with glee, like a child spotting his first shinkansen.
The story shifts tone dramatically as we see a brief excerpt from the famous Nobel speech given by Kenzaburo Oe, “Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself.” Oe’s 1994 speech, given in English with excerpts in French, galvanized the world literary community and is still discussed and debated today. Commentators now speculate on whether Tanaka can deliver his Nobel speech in English. They search out his brother, who describes our Nobel Laureate’s passing (but not excelling) elementary school grades in English class. Next they interview his old English teacher, who seems a bit put off, and says how rude it is to ask such a question. But the commentators assure us that Tanaka’s years of research in Shimadzu’s overseas offices have prepared him fully for the task.
Now we come to the closing commentary on this subject. The announcer describes how both Nobel Laureates complained to the Prime Minister that scientific research is not valued highly enough in Japanese society. The announcer asserts that Japanese society only values these researchers once they have gained recognition in the West. Another announcer expresses his wish that Tanaka give his speech in English, so his spirit is more clearly shown to the world.
I found this coverage most typical of the Japanese media. They focus not on his achievements, but on his family. They focus on Tanka’s averageness, his dedication to his work rather than ambition for climbing the corporate ladder. He is the nail that never stuck up and thus was never hammered down. Tanaka represents the dreams of every average faceless corporate salariman, and they love him for achieving what they could not.