It has just announced that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 was awarded jointly to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent". I'm very glad to hear the news not only because Yamanaka is Japanese but also because I've been impressed by his background and words which were introduced in a documentary on his findings. The documentary was broadcast when he began to draw considerable attention in Japan a few years ago.
According to the documentary, Yamanaka tried to become an orthopedic surgeon immediately after his graduation. However, he wasn't able to become a "normal" surgeon. He usually took much longer to do an operation than others. For example, he took about two hours to do an operation which takes 20 minutes on average. He was so unskillful that he was called jyamanaka/邪魔なか(His name is Yamanaka/山中. The nickname "jyamanaka" sounds very similar to his name, but jyama means disturbing others or bothering others). While struggling to improve his skill, he often encountered the fact that surgical procedures aren't very helpful to patients with intractable diseases. Eventually, he decided to change his career from orthopedic surgeon to researcher mainly because he wanted to find a way to help patients with intractable diseases. A few years later (maybe), he sent his research papers to many universities in the US in order to continue his study. One of them welcomed him. After that, he often had difficulties in his study both in the US and Japan. Well, I'll stop talking about his background.
In the documentary, he was interviewed. Many of his words impressed me. I'll talk about some of them. He said, "When I was at the university in the US, nobody cared about my past. Prominent professors often spoke to me. They were friendly to me. In Japan, it's unlikely to happen. In the US, people often change their careers when they find something more interesting, so my background wasn't strange to people there. I was really saved by this academic research environment and atmosphere in the US. In Japan, people tend to try to go straight to and work hard toward their goals. This attitude is considered to be good in society. I think that the attitude is not bad, however, it's likely to limit potential."
Other than him, I've heard that Takeshi Kitano/北野武, who is well-known as a movie director in the world, points out similar things (He first succeeded as a comedian in Japan. After that, he started making films). He said on TV, " In France, people admire me for having succeeded as both a comedian and a movie director. In contrast, in Japan, I'm often told that I'm a successful comedian, so it's too much and even intrusive for me to make films (His words and their nuances are hard to translate into English).
There are many things that we can learn from their words. They have shown how Japan should change. I do hope that Yamanaka's win of the Nobel Prize will make more people realize what we should learn. At the last press conference, he said, "I want to express my sincere gratitude to my family and fellows, at the same time, I greatly feel responsible. I have to work harder so that our findings will enable patients with intractable diseases to be cured as soon as possible. I think that the pace of research in my field is much faster than expected. I hope that discussions on the law and ethic issues will be promoted". Japan often can't make a quick decision and change things. It usually takes some time to do that. I do hope that Japan won't miss this chance because of its poor support.