Japanese Pride and Influence

If you’ve studied Japan for even a few years, it becomes clear that Japanese are very sensitive about Nobel prizes. They haven’t won a lot of them, it seems, and it bothers them; many of “their” winners were actually working outside of Japan, which also bothers them.

I don’t know if it will help or hurt Japan’s self-image, but a Japanese was recently honored by the Ig Nobel prize committee (honoring those who have “done things that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK.”) with the 2004 Ig Nobel PEACE award: “Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

By the way, Japan won an Ig Nobel in Chemistry in 2003, for a metallurgical study of a bronze statue that does not attract pigeons and in 1999 for a spray which, when applied to men’s underwear, illuminates signs of infidelity. Japan won another Peace citation in 2002 for the invention of the Bow-Lingual dog bark translator. In 1997, Japanese shared a biology prize for gum-chewer brainwave studies, and were sole winners of the Economics prize for the invention of the Tamagotchi virtual pet. The list goes on; in fact, I think Japan might be one of the most frequently cited non-anglophone countries, though I’m not actually going to tally it up to find out.

Yes, it’s intended as satire (though Mr. Inoue did attend the ceremony this year, and you’d be surprised how many honorees do) but it points out two interesting things. First, honors and prizes are only rough measures of anything. Second, Japan’s effect on the world is not only noteworthy, but has been noted.

1 Comment

  1. A few years ago I heard Professor James Bartholomew give a talk at Berkeley about the history of Japan’s pursuit of nobel prizes. His talk was interesting to me for two reasons. From one perspective, his research in the nobel archives of the prewar period showed how problematic the selection process was, how pro-Scandinavian and pro-Eurpean it was (and how geographic distance from Sweden was actually an important factor as well). I seem to remember him also detailing how, in stark contrast to Japan’s nationalist pursuit of nobel recognition in our present day, many Japanese efforts to win a prize in the prewar period was sabotaged by infighting between scientists and schools within Japan.

    While Bartholomew’s talk was primarily historical, I remember enjoying his many musings on Japan’s somewhat bizarre contemporary goal of getting some number of these prizes, as if this can somehow measure Japan’s ability to innovate and secure its reputation as a scientific world power.

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