2019 Japan Prize Awarded for Significant Achievements in Technology and Science
Bitsonline was fortunate this week to attend the 35th Japan Prize presentation ceremony in Tokyo.
The Prize, similar in status to the Nobel Prize, is awarded annually to recognize significant contributions to progress in science and technology. The ceremony at Japan’s National Theater included Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress, senior members of the country’s scientific community, and several government ministers.
Receiving the Japan Prize in 2019 were Prof. Yoshio Okamoto for Materials and Production research and Prof. Rattan Lal for Biological Production and Energy. Both Laureates have worked in several countries and made breakthroughs that have been applied on large scales worldwide. They receive the official Prize medallion and certificate, plus ¥50 million JPY ($449,000 USD) in cash. However the real prize is the international prestige and formal recognition of years of work, and in acknowledging the benefits their discoveries have produced for humanity.
Breakthroughs Greatly Improved Medical Treatments, Food Production
In his acceptance speech, Prof. Okamoto (77) stressed the need for persistence in scientific research. Scientists who dedicated most of their time to pursuing their field of interest “have a good chance to make at least two or three major scientific breakthroughs” in their careers, he said. Prof. Okamoto lived by his words, with a reputation in his younger years for sleeping overnight in his laboratory because he was too impatient to wait until the next morning to see the results of his experiments.
In 1977 he discovered “by accident”, according to him, a process to efficiently separate “right-handed” from “left-handed” optical isomers — something that was not even considered theoretically possible at the time. The discovery enabled mass production of optically active drug treatments; chemical compounds that were mirror-image identical and could be either safe or toxic due to this asymmetric nature. It took him five years to perfect the process, which has since become widely used in the pharmaceutical production industry and has benefited researchers working on other treatments.
Prof. Lal developed processes for soil management in agriculture, beginning his research in 1970. By studying regions where soil degradation had diminished crop-growing capacity, he was able to develop new techniques to capture carbon dioxide from plants and the atmosphere, revitalizing heavily-used soil in harsh environments. His work has been vital to sustaining food production in a world expected to top 9.8 billion in population by 2050, with techniques that result in better soil quality and longer use, improved water quality, and also mitigate the effects of climate change.
How the Japan Prize Has Contributed to Science, World Peace and Prosperity
The Japan Prize was conceived in the 1980s as a way for Japan to make a global contribution to scientific progress, and enjoys a status similar to the Nobel Prize. Like the Nobel Prize, the award is given to recipients who are still living in recognition for past achievements, some decades-old. Generally, two science/technology fields are honored each year, although the Prize can be shared among multiple individuals. Researchers from all regions of the world have been recognized, with the majority being citizens of the U.S. or Japan. The 2019 presentation ceremony was a landmark for the Emperor, who took the throne in 1989 and at 85 is set to hand it to his eldest son on May 1st — in just three weeks’ time. As Crown Prince in the mid-1980s he had played a part in establishing the Prize, and as Emperor has presented all but four of the awards.
The nomination, awards and ceremony are administered by the Japan Prize Foundation, established with a donation from Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic Corporation (known as Matsushita Corp. in Japan). Every year over 13,000 nominators from the world scientific community present potential candidates. A Selection Committee then evaluates candidates with an emphasis on their achievements and their impact on peace and prosperity. The foundation’s Board of Directors then makes the final decision.
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Jon Southurst is a Senior Editor at Bitsonline. He is based mainly in Tokyo, and is interested in the roles Asian economies play in developing cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.