Nobel laureate Manabe shunned Japanese “harmony” for American franchise

NEW YORK / TOKYO – When Japanese meteorologist Syukuro Manabe spoke about his troubles with Japan, laughter could be heard among the audience gathered at Princeton University to hear this year’s Nobel Prize winner in physics ‘Express.

“In Japan, if you ask a question you get ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Manabe said in front of a crowded auditorium on Tuesday, the same day he received the award for his work in helping the world understand the climate change. “However, when the Japanese say ‘yes’ it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes’. It could mean ‘no.'”

But in America, “I can do whatever I want. I don’t care how other people feel.”

Although these words were received half-jokingly, they contained a message that should be heard by Japanese policymakers and academic circles. Manabe’s criticism of a culture that places greater value on so-called face-saving than outspoken frankness is a factor that some academics say could weaken the traditionally strong science and technology community. from Japan.

For Manabe, the desire to break out of the conformist bubble came shortly after graduation. He moved to the United States in 1958 after obtaining his doctorate in meteorology from the prestigious University of Tokyo. This is where his cutting edge research was encouraged. He would go on to develop a computer simulation that showed the link between an increase in carbon dioxide concentration and higher global temperatures.

“I never imagined that this thing I was starting to study would have such a huge consequence,” said Manabe, now Princeton’s senior meteorologist.

Being “driven by curiosity,” a phrase he used repeatedly during the hour-long press conference on the Ivy League campus, is his biggest motivation. Even at 90, he talks about the climate and his relationship with all living things with the fascination of a young boy.

However, neither Manabe’s climate model nor the truth about global warming was quickly accepted. It took time for meaningful action to be taken. The first important step towards wider awareness of climate change came in 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted after the Earth Summit in Brazil.

Even then, global warming skeptics remained firmly in the mainstream for several years.

Understanding climate change is not easy, “but [it’s] much, much easier than what is happening in current politics, ”Manabe joked.

Manabe likely faced his fair share of frustrations – many of which came from Japan. When asked why he transferred his citizenship to the United States, his response was straightforward.

“I don’t want to go back to Japan,” Manabe said. “Because I am not able to live harmoniously.”

Manabe returned to Japan briefly in 1997 when he was appointed to lead research on climate change predictions at an agency under the country’s current Ministry of Science, around the time the protocol was adopted. of Kyoto, a United Nations treaty that called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. worldwide. While in Japan, he worked on the Earth Simulator supercomputer project, which used climate models to assess the effects of global warming.

But the stint did not last long. “Global warming research ace returns to the United States,” said a 2001 headline in the Nikkei newspaper.

While in Japan, Manabe found himself caught up in the country’s bureaucracy, spending a lot of time coordinating the various research agencies. There were also staff shortages and the unique custom of Japan that discourages people from speaking up.

These burdens on his research work would be unimaginable in the United States. If Manabe had spent his entire career in Japan, he might not have achieved such historic achievements.

A maverick would be out of place in an environment that demands accommodating attitudes and reading the play. For a researcher who dares to achieve the unprecedented, Japan could not have been a good choice.

Manabe praised his supervisor in the US

“My boss was generous enough to let me do whatever I loved to do,” Manabe said. “And here I have everything [the] IT expenses. “

Even with climate deniers, Manabe received lavish funds that allowed him to pursue what his heart desired.

Manabe believes that Japan is engaging in “less and less curiosity-driven research.” Despite being the 20th Japanese-born Nobel Laureate since 2000, most of the winning achievements date back to the salad days before the economic bubble burst in the 1990s.

In 2018, Japan ranked ninth in the world in terms of belonging to the top 1% of academic citations, according to the Japan National Institute for Science and Technology Policy, which is a drop from fourth place 20 years earlier.

Progress appears to be stagnating due to the lack of stable research funds and positions for young scientists. As a result, the number of groundbreaking search results is declining. More than a few critics believe the scramble for Japanese Nobel Prizes will end sooner or later.

The structural problems in the Japanese scientific community that Manabe criticized stem from the lack of communication between scientists and policymakers. The gap between academia and the center of Japanese government is unusually wide, and science and technology are rarely given political priority.

This incomprehension between the two parties manifested itself during the coronavirus epidemic in Japan.

In recent years, Japanese Nobel laureates have warned of a looming scientific and technological crisis in the country. While these alarm bells may receive brief attention, they have not resulted in any drastic changes in government policy.

With the new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was once Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy, perhaps the warnings of Manabe and other scientists will no longer fall on deaf ears.


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