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April 7, 2003
Volume 81, Number 14
CENEAR 81 14 pp. 42-44
ISSN 0009-2347


JAPANESE CHEMICAL SOCIETY TURNS 125
High-profile event attracts imperial family, eminent scientists, and mass media coverage

JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY, C&EN HONG KONG

As the war got under way in Iraq, an international elite of scientists was meeting in Tokyo in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect that is the hallmark of the scientific community. They were there to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Chemical Society of Japan, one of the world's oldest chemical societies.

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ORCHESTRA CHIMICA Musicians who entertained at the gala are all Japanese chemists. PHOTOS BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

CSJ spared no effort to make the anniversary a truly memorable one. It invited the heads of the world's major chemical societies as well as those located in East Asia. Other guests of honor included Chemistry Nobel Prize winners Jean-Marie Lehn, Harold W. Kroto, Roald Hoffmann, and Yuan T. Lee as well as other eminent chemists. An orchestra composed entirely of Japanese chemists performed impeccably at a gala dinner kicked off by the visit of Japan's Prince Hitachi and Princess Hanako.

Earlier in the day, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the luxurious Rihga Royal Hotel where the event took place. In a carefully crafted address that he himself wrote, the emperor congratulated the society and noted that four of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry won by Japanese were awarded in the past three years. But the emperor also said that he regretted that economic and technological progress in the past 50 years had been accompanied by pollution, a problem that chemistry could help remedy.

Japanese chemists put their hearts into organizing the anniversary. Members of the orchestra, who live in different parts of Japan, practiced for months on Saturdays before they performed in public together at the event. The cost of the anniversary was shouldered by members of CSJ. The overall success of the anniversary was made possible by the leadership and energy of CSJ President Ryoji Noyori, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.

Throughout the affair, the omnipresent Noyori could be seen directing most events, often regaling the audience with his deadpan humor. "If anything untoward happens during the imperial visit, I will have to commit hara-kiri," he told guests after urging them to follow protocol when meeting the emperor. Taking photos of members of the imperial household, for example, was strictly prohibited.

That the emperor and empress attended the event is of utmost significance to CSJ, Noyori says. Bringing the public's attention to chemistry may encourage young people in Japan to study chemistry, he says. The Japanese mass media generally fail to convey to the public the recent achievements of Japanese chemists, but they are immensely interested in reporting the activities of the emperor and empress. Media interest was further heightened by the fact that the CSJ anniversary was the first outside visit by the emperor since he was operated on for prostate cancer in January.

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PRESIDENTIAL CSJ President Noyori (left) and Pieter S. Steyn, president of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry.

OBVIOUSLY in good spirits, the imperial couple was generous with its time. After taking part in a ceremony during which six foreign scientists became honorary members of CSJ, the emperor and empress chatted informally with some of the guests and far exceeded the amount of time that the Palace had originally agreed to. The six scientists honored were Lehn, Kroto, Hoffmann, Lee, 1996 ACS president and Columbia University professor Ronald Breslow, and 2000 ACS president and Kansas University chemistry professor Daryle H. Busch.

Busch was astonished to hear the empress complete Busch's recitation of verses by John Keats, whom he was quoting to explain his feelings toward science. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all," Busch started, and the empress continued, "ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Empress Michiko, who grew up in a family of scholars, studied foreign languages and English literature in college. Later in the day, at the gala buffet, Prince Hitachi and Princess Hanako, who are the emperor's brother and sister-in-law, were both at ease as they chatted with guests. The prince studied biology and claims an ongoing interest in natural sciences.

Chemistry in Japan has never been in better shape than it is now. Hoffmann, a chemistry professor at Cornell University who has collaborated extensively with Japanese researchers, said Japanese scientists have overcome a lack of belief in their own abilities, particularly their acceptance of the Western notion that Japanese are not creative. "This is nonsense," he said.

Scientific research is generously funded by the Japanese government, which sees scientific progress as one of the means it can use to pull Japan out of its economic decline. ACS President Elsa Reichmanis noted that Japanese scientists had contributed 11,000 papers to ACS journals from 1996 to 2001, more than any other foreign country. Reichmanis also noted that ACS and CSJ are partners in numerous initiatives, one example being the Chemical Congress of the Pacific Basin Societies, held every five years.

"Japan has emerged from a tough period to become one of the world's leaders in chemistry," Columbia's Breslow said at an informal dinner preceding the anniversary celebration. "Anyone who doesn't read the Japanese [chemistry] journals is making a mistake," he said.

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LUMINARIES (Photo on top) ACS President Reichmanis (right) and Hitoshi Ohtaki (second from left), professor emeritus at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and president of the Pure Science Division of the Science Council of Japan, chat with 2000 ACS president Busch and his wife; (photo on bottom) Lehn (left) and Hoffmann were among the Nobelists in attendance.PHOTOS BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

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THE VITALITY that Japanese science has achieved is something that it will have difficulty nurturing and preserving in the future. The most concrete threat to Japanese science is financial cost. Although prices in Japan are no longer ridiculously higher than in other countries, it still costs a lot more to conduct research in Japan than in the U.S., Noyori points out. This is because most of the lab equipment and essential research compounds are imported at high cost, often from the U.S., through exclusive agents. To preserve its health, Noyori says, Japanese science should focus not only on scientific achievements, but also on the development of what he calls "scientific infrastructure."

A bigger threat, Noyori believes, is that an insufficient number of young Japanese are interested in chemistry. The lack of interest motivated Noyori to seek the highest possible public profile for the 125th anniversary celebrations. Compounding the problem of lack of interest is that, compared with the U.S., there are few foreign graduate students in Japan to make up for the lack of Japanese students.

Reiko Kuroda, a professor of life sciences at the University of Tokyo who is also a senior science policy adviser to the Japanese government, says graduate students can expect more generous financial assistance in the U.S. than in Japan. "They may have to pay tuition in Japan," she says. Another problem is that, in deference to the difficulty of the Japanese language, Japanese universities tend to issue Ph.D.s more easily to foreign students than to Japanese students, something that erodes the value of the degree in the international arena.

Fewer Japanese students study overseas because Japanese universities have attained a level of excellence comparable with the best foreign universities. In contrast with their 50- or 60-year-old professors, who typically earned their Ph.D.s in universities abroad, graduate students in Japan nowadays are less likely to be fluent in English. This leads to a decline in the ability of young Japanese scientists to participate in international meetings. Kuroda says she requires students in her research groups to conduct their meetings in English, even when the foreign students in the group are fluent in Japanese.

Another problem Japanese chemistry is grappling with is that the achievements of Japanese science have so far very rarely been translated into commercial success. Kuroda contends that the Japanese government is not yet considering decreasing public funding of science because it does not yet perceive science funding to be an expensive luxury. But the Japanese government in Tokyo is running a large fiscal deficit, making it likely that it will have to decide at some point on areas where it could cut spending.

Many efforts are under way to improve the links in Japan between academia and industry (C&EN, Dec. 9, 2002, page 13), a gap that Kuroda calls a "death valley." Starting this month, the 2003 president of CSJ will be Hiromichi Seya, a chemical engineer who is also the chairman of Asahi Glass, a world leader in specialty glass and fluorochemicals. Seya will be the fourth CSJ president from the private sector since 1980. He says CSJ will play a role in finding ways to turn academic knowledge into industrial applications.

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DEEP DISCUSSION (Photo on left) Reichmanis looks on as Breslow (left) and Noyori converse; (photo on right) Kroto (right) with Hisanori Shinohara, an authority on fullerenes who teaches chemistry at Nagoya University. PHOTOS BY JEAN-FRANÇOIS TREMBLAY

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As part of the efforts that went into the anniversary, CSJ released a book about its history. One learns that the society was launched in 1878, which is only two years after the American Chemical Society. It was formed by a group of some 20 students of the University of Tokyo who named their group the Tokyo Chemical Society. At the time, Japanese students were passionately studying foreign science in an effort to raise Japan's capabilities.

It did not take long for Japanese scientists to deliver. During the 1880s, Nagayoshi Nagai isolated ephedrine from Chinese medicine. The sympathomimetic amine has since been a basic medicine in the treatment of bronchial asthma. Nagai, who had spent 14 years studying in Germany, is called the Father of Chemistry in Japan.

Many discoveries followed. Adrenalin was isolated and identified in 1900 by Jokichi Takamine and Keizo Uenake in a small lab in New York City. Monosodium glutamate was isolated in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. In 1910, Umetaro Suzuki isolated orynazin, a substance that was later marketed worldwide as an antiberiberi agent for chickens.

Japanese scientists have garnered four Chemistry Nobel Prizes. Kenichi Fukui shared one in 1981 with Hoffmann for their separate efforts on the course of chemical reactions. Hideki Shirakawa was colaureate with Alan G. MacDiarmid and Alan G. Heeger in 2000 for work on conductive polymers. Noyori, William S. Knowles, and K. Barry Sharpless were recognized in 2001 for their work on chirality. Last year, Koichi Tanaka, John B. Fenn, and Kurt Wüthrich won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing methods for identification and structure analysis of biological macromolecules.

The future will tell whether Japanese science is on a roll or whether it is now enjoying a golden age that will be followed by decline. If there is a demise, the scientists are not to blame. "We researchers did our best; we are recognized internationally," Noyori says. But, he adds, the efforts of the scientists alone may not be enough to ensure a bright future for Japanese science.



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