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UTokyo and the Nobel Prize: A Look Back at the Achievements of Our Alumni Nobel Laureates, in their Own Words

September 7, 2016

UTokyo Professor Takaaki Kajita received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015, bringing new energy to the University. Looking back to the past reveals that UTokyo has enjoyed a long and familiar history with the Nobel Prize. In this article, we will relive the glorious memories of seven Nobel Laureates who bear the light blue (tansei) mantle of UTokyo through a sampling of their remarks, giving us a glimpse into their unique personalities.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972)

Yasunari Kawabata
Yasunari Kawabata
Graduated from the Faculty of Letters in 1924

The 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature

Prize given "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind"
1. "To not upset others when one dies—that is the greatest virtue a human being can achieve." 1
2. "With the mountains and rivers of Japan as my soul, I will live in your footsteps." 2
3. "A single flower blooms brighter than a hundred flowers." 3

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese person to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He became aware of the Nobel Prize at the early age of 17 and was active in a private literary magazine when studying at UTokyo. The third quote (3) is an excerpt from his Nobel Lecture titled "Japan, the Beautiful and Myself," in which he expounded upon the aesthetic values of the Japanese. The second quote (2) is a farewell made at the funeral of Riichi Yokomitsu, Kawabata's friend and fellow member of the Shinkankaku-ha (New Sensation School) and a co-founder of the magazine Bungei Jidai (The Artistic Age). Although Kawabata said in his novel (see the first quote, 1) and lectures that suicide is not committed by people who have reached enlightenment, he himself chose to end his own life in 1972, upsetting many people.

Leo Esaki (1925-)

Leo Esaki
Leo Esaki
Graduated from the Faculty of Science in 1947

The 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics

Prize given "for [his] experimental discover[y] regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors"
1. "The strength of science-based civilization is that it comes with built-in progress, which is represented by breakthroughs and innovation."  4
2. "Thousands of students who are good at only tests cannot match even one Einstein."  5
3. "An excellent scientist is a person of culture who possesses a wide range of viewpoints rather than a person who excels at one thing."  6

After graduating from the University of Tokyo, Dr. Esaki worked at Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Corporation (the predecessor of Sony) and devoted himself to the research and development of transistors. In 1957, he discovered that electrons, if energized with high voltage, will pass through a thin wall. This phenomenon proved the presence of electron tunneling, which quantum mechanics had theoretically predicted. In recognition of this achievement, an innovative type of semiconductor that uses electron tunneling was created and called the Esaki diode. The Esaki diode greatly contributed to research in metals and superconductors, as well as to the development of various industries around the world. The second quote (2), which suggests that university entrance examinations focused on rote learning may impede students' creativity, gives insight into Dr. Esaki's character as an excellent educator. In the first quote (1), Dr. Esaki shows his pride in the fact that science is built on logic, making it the most reliable discipline. The third quote (3) means that a diversity of viewpoints acts as a driving force for creativity. This quote holds particular significance to the University of Tokyo, which values education in the liberal arts.

Eisaku Sato (1901-1975)

Eisaku Sato
Eisaku Sato
Graduated from the Faculty of Law in 1924

The 1974 Nobel Peace Prize

Prize given "for his proposal of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles"
1. "I want to speak to the Japanese public directly."  7
2.  "Japan's recovery from World War II will not end until Okinawa is returned to Japan."  8
3. "Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit their introduction into Japanese territory."  9

The only Japanese person who has received the Nobel Peace Prize is Mr. Eisaku Sato, a politician who is said to have narrowly managed to pass the entrance examinations of the University of Tokyo with the help of notebooks borrowed from his older brother. The second quote (2) comes from a speech he made when he visited Okinawa for the first time as prime minister in 1965. It was not until 1972 that Okinawa was finally returned to Japan. The third quote (3) represents his ideas of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which were the reason he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The first quote (1) is a comment he made at a press conference when all the members of his cabinet resigned in 1972. This press conference was unusual because he drove newspaper reporters out of the conference, saying that they made up stories differing from his true intentions. He instead gave preference to television reporters because he said that television would convey his comments exactly as he said them.


Kenzaburo Oe (1935-)

Kenzaburo Oe
Kenzaburo Oe
Graduated from the Faculty of Letters in 1959

The 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature

Prize given "for creating with poetic force an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today"
1. "After all, literature can fundamentally serve as encouragement to humanity." 10
2. "If high-level communication is possible between different people, I think that their common language would be 'words of literature.'" 11
3. "This ambiguity which is so powerful and penetrating that it splits both the state and its people is evident in various ways." 12

The second Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature was Kenzaburo Oe. He made his debut as a writer during his days at the University of Tokyo when he contributed his short story titled The Strange Work (Kimyo na Shigoto) to The University of Tokyo Newspaper. From the first quote (1), an excerpt from one of his nonfiction works intended for a young audience, we can see the stance that underlies Oe's literature. The second quote (2) is a comment he made during an interview for a special feature of Tansei 17 (English edition Volume 6) published in 2006. He also said in the interview that "What I learned at Todai was how to read a foreign language." The third quote (3) is from his Nobel Lecture titled "Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself," which was inspired by Mr. Kawabata's Nobel Lecture, "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself."

Masatoshi Koshiba (1926-)

Masatoshi Koshiba
Graduated from the Faculty of Science in 1951

The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics

Prize given "for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos"
1. "In this country, you have to listen to what your elders say."  13
2. "I check my 'research eggs' whenever the occasion presents itself to see if they are going to hatch. Isn't that exciting?"  14
3. "How to strengthen intuition? The key is to think over matters thoroughly. If you explore every possible factor and ruminate over them to the point of squeezing your brain, you will have a better chance of getting things right."  15

As the father of neutrino astrophysics and as a teacher who is strict at times, Professor Koshiba has had great influence on his successors, including Professor Takaaki Kajita. The words that are key to deciphering Professor Koshiba's achievements are "intuition," as in the third quote (3), and "research egg," as in the second quote (2). Being the leader of a massive research project, he had to decide on what, when, where, with whom and with what kind of devices his team should experiment. He proudly asserts that he is able to constantly make optimal judgements because he "squeezes his brain" by ruminating over these matters, thus strengthening his intuition. Also, he has been able to carry out unique research because he has always incubated a variety of idea "eggs," believing that those eggs will hatch someday, even if they are not ready now. Professor Koshiba famously persuaded (see the first quote, 1) the CEO of Hamamatsu Photonics to manufacture 50 cm-diameter photomultiplier tubes, which had been considered to be difficult to make, by stressing his seniority over the CEO (although Professor Koshiba is only one day older). This anecdote shows us that to achieve something great, you need to have a strong will that may appear to be sometimes irrational.

Yoichiro Nambu (1921-2015)

Yoichiro Nambu
Yoichiro Nambu
Graduated from the Faculty of Science in 1942

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics

Prize given "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics"
1. "My opinion is that all natural phenomena can be explained with mathematical formulas of some kind."  16
2. "When solving mathematical equations, I don't use notebooks because I cannot concentrate. Instead, I work equations out in my head. Consequently, I dream about mathematical formulas solving themselves when I sleep."  17
3. "The basic laws of nature are simple, but the world is not boring. Is this not an ideal combination?"  18

Professor Nambu has won great respect from researchers around the world as a "prophet of physics." He was a trailblazer in not only spontaneous symmetry breaking, but almost all the tenets of today's particle physics theory, including string theory and quantum chromodynamics. Recognized by everyone as an unparalleled genius, his greatness can be understood through the following anecdote. Professor Toshihide Maskawa, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics with Professor Nambu, said in tears at the press conference that winning the Nobel Prize together with Professor Nambu brought him incomparable joy. The third quote (3) is the closing comment Professor Nambu made during a speech held at the University of Chicago to commemorate his winning of the Nobel Prize. This comment precisely and passionately expresses his appreciation for the complexities of nature based on modern physics. The first (1) and second (2) quotes are excerpts from an interview Professor Nambu gave to a newspaper in Fukui Prefecture, where he lived until graduating from high school. Through these quotes, we can see his profound confidence in physics and his innate intellectual prowess which can never be imitated.

Ei-ichi Negishi (1935-)

Ei-ichi Negishi
Ei-ichi Negishi
Graduated from the Faculty of Engineering in 1958

The 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Prize given "for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis"
1. "I am an advocate of the 'examination hell' experienced by Japanese students, which is infamous worldwide."  19
2. "I think that countries now flourishing and enjoying prosperity are those that have invested a huge amount of money in science. Therefore, in other words, research is essentially profitable when considering it from a wider viewpoint."  20
3. "Be both independent and cooperative."  21

Cross-coupling refers to reactions where two molecules with different structures are coupled. The Negishi coupling, which synthesizes organozinc and organohalogen compounds using palladium as a catalyst, made greatly pioneering contributions to the development and application of organometallic compounds. The first quote (1) refers to Professor Negishi's belief that it was the Japanese educational system that taught him that the more advanced your research, the more important basics become. In the second quote (2), he looks back on the history of humanity and argues that it is meaningful to invest in scholarship, highlighting the foolishness of reducing research costs shortsightedly. The third quote (3) refers to one of the six creeds written in his book. He states that the biggest discovery he made in his lifetime was that he noticed that being independent and being cooperative can be compatible. The integration of these apparent different values can also be called a "Negishi coupling."

Other Nobel Laureates with UTokyo Connections

There have been other Nobel Laureates who are associated with UTokyo. Professor Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, who won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the development of quantum mechanics, received a degree (Doctor of Science) from the University of Tokyo in 1939. His thesis was examined by Professor Kiichiro Ochiai, Professor Takuzo Sakai and Professor Yoshio Nishina, academic heavyweights in the field of physics whose abilities were second to none. Professor Satoshi Omura, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his great achievements including the development of ivermectin, a medicine well known to dog owners, also received a degree (Doctor of Pharmacology) from the University. So, there were actually two 2015 Nobel Prize winners with UTokyo connections!

The Fields Medal: the "Nobel Prize" in Mathematics

Mathematics is not one of the categories for which Nobel Prizes are awarded, but there is a prize called the Fields Medal that is considered to be the mathematician's "Nobel Prize." The Fields Medal was established in 1936 by John Charles Fields, a Canadian mathematician, and is awarded every four years to a mathematician under 40. To date, three Japanese have received this medal. The recipient associated with the University of Tokyo is Professor Kunihiko Kodaira, who was awarded the Fields Medal in 1954. He graduated from Tokyo Imperial University's Faculty of Science and worked as an associate professor at the Faculty. Also, among the five judges for the first Fields Medal (1936) was Professor Teiji Takagi (see Tansei's Campus Walk 17). Numerous other judges have come from UTokyo since then.


1 Kojin no Sono (Garden of the Dead) in Kawabata Yasunari Zenshu Dai Roku Kan (Yasunari Kawabata Collection Volume 6) (Shichosha Publishing)
2 Nobel-sho no 100 nen: Souzousei no Sugao (Cultures of Creativity: 100 Years of the Nobel Prize) (Universal Academy Press)

3 The Nobel Prize website: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1968/kawabata/lecture/
4 Genkai e no Chosen (Challenging the Limits) by Leo Esaki (Nikkei Publishing Inc.)
5, 8 Nobel-sho 100 nen no Ayumi 7: Nobel-sho wo Jushoshita Nihonjin (100 Years of Nobel Prizes Volume 7: Japanese Nobel Prize Winners) (Poplar Publishing Co., Ltd.)
6 Nobel-sho no 100 nen: Shizen Kagaku Sansho de Tadoru Kagakushi (100 Years of the Nobel Prize: History of Science from the Viewpoints of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Medicine) (authored by Rensei Baba, Chuokoron-Shinsho Publishing)
7 Stated at the press conference held in June 1972 when the Sato Cabinet resigned
9 Stated at the December 1967 meeting of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives
10 Atarashii Bungaku no Tame ni (For the New Literature) (authored by Kenzaburo Oe, Iwanami Shinsho Paperback Series)
11 Discussion with an Executive Vice President: On Becoming an Intellectual in Tansei 17 (English edition Volume 6)
12 Aimai na Nihon to Watashi (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures) (authored by Kenzaburo Oe, Iwanami Shinsho Paperback Series)
13 Butsuriya ni Naritakattandayo (I Have Always Wanted to be a Physicist) (authored by Masatoshi Koshiba, Asahi Shimbun Publishing)
14, 15 Neutrino: Koshiba Masatoshi-sensei Nobel-sho Jusho Kinen (Neutrinos: Commemorating the Nobel Prize Win of Professor Masatoshi Koshiba): http://umdb.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/DKankoub/Publish_db/2003neutrino/06/060100.html (University Museum)
16, 17 Hogaraka na Tankyuu (Cheerful Exploration) (Fukui Shimbun Publishing)
18 The website for the Faculty of Science/Graduate School of Science: http://www.s.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/
19 Nobel-sho no 100 nen: Souzousei no Sugao Kaitei Dai Ni Ban (Cultures of Creativity: 100 Years of the Nobel Prize, the Second Edition) (Universal Academy Press)
20, 21 Yume wo Mochitsudzukeyou (Let's Always have Our Dreams!) (authored by Ei-ichi Negishi, Kyodo News)

Photo Credits

Eisaku Sato: By Nijs, Jac. de / Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kenzaburo Oe: By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yoichiro Nambu: By Betsy Devine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

* This article is a translation of an article that was originally printed in Tansei 32 (Japanese language only).
** This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the University of Tokyo and the Nobel Prize. (Read Part 2 and Part 3 here.)

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