Koichi TANAKA 田中耕一

"I believe it's important for engineers to gain better communication skills so that we can explain our work in our own words."
Nobel Laureate Koichi TANAKA

Koichi TANAKA is one of three Recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2002. He received 1/4 of the prize, which was also shared with John B. Fenn (America) and Kurt Wuthrich (Switzerland). Mr. Tanaka received the award for his development of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the three-dimensional structure of biological macromolecules in solution . This represented Japan's third straight year of Nobel Prize wins. He was joined by Masatoshi Koshiba, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2002.

The sudden win came as a great surprise to Mr. Tanaka, his employer, Shimadzu Corporation, and the Japanese public. The Japanese haven't won a lot of Nobel Prizes; Mr. Tanaka is only the 12th in 54 years to do so. But the main reason that he was not expected to win is that he only had a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering -- He is the first, and currently only, Nobel Prize Laureate in Science without at least a Master's Degree.

As a graduate from Tohoku University in Northern Japan, Mr. Tanaka was drafted by Shimadzu Corporation in 1983. Placed in Electronics Research and Development as a junior researcher on the Shimadzu's laser-ionization microprobe mass spectrometer project, he was tasked with preparing samples for ionization. As an electrical engineer, he had little experience with chemistry, but stoically set about gaining the knowledge he would need.

A year and a half later, serendipity struck. While working to add ultrafine cobalt particles to the laser matrix, crowded lab conditions led Mr. Tanaka to mistake glycerine for the acetone he was to mix with cobalt. When he realized his mistake, instead of throwing out the wasted mixture, he decided to test it -- and discovered it to be far more effective. In February, 1985, refinement of the technique was completed, with measurable molecular weight far exceeding the project's target. In August of 1985, he jointly patented the process with co-researcher Tamio Yoshida.

He was transferred to the Scientific Equipment Research and Development department in 1986, where he worked on the application of his patent. In 1988, Shimadzu produced the first matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometer, named the LAMS-50K. This device can separate protein molecules, allowing them to be more easily and completely analyzed. Potential applications include identifying cancer cells and developing faster and more accurate food inspection methods.

Shimadzu has disclosed that prior to receiving the Nobel Prize, the total bonus issued to Mr. Tanaka for his winning patent was just 10,000 yen -- less than US$100. 15 years later, when he was told he would receive 30 million yen -- about US$250,000 -- for his Nobel Prize, he replied, "Oh, that's a bit too much."

At 43, he was the youngest winner in 2002, and much younger than most other Japanese winners, who are traditonally elderly university professors. A modest man, Mr. Tanaka has been quoted in saying that he has no interest in climbing the corporate ladder. He also admitted that he deliberately failed managerial aptitude exams given by his company, in order to concentrate on his area of interest in research. When called to a national press conference, instead of trying to look academic, he wore his company's uniform of drab blue overalls, and claimed that he did not deserve the prize.

Mr. Tanaka was quickly rocketed to national hero status. Although Japan has recently placed great importance on the Nobel Prize, with a goal of claiming at least 30 in the first half of the 21st century, few expected a lowly salaryman to contribute to the effort. In Japan's modern workplace, where the salaryman is typically seen as an unthinking drone hell-bent on grabbing his share of Japan's dwindling pension reserves, Mr. Tanaka is an extraordinary example of the now dying values which contributed to Japan's post-war recovery and economic dominance in the 1980s. For his contributions to Japanese society, he received the Order of Cultural Merit in 2002.


  • Shimadzu Corporation. Koichi Tanaka: A Noble Soul. http://www1.shimadzu.com/about/nobel/noble/p_stry01.html
  • Nobel e-Museum. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2002. http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/2002/
  • Mainichi Shinbun. Tanaka received 10,000 yen for Nobel prize-winning research. 10 Oct 2002. http://mdn.mainichi.co.jp/news/archive/200210/10/20021010p2a00m0fp027001c.html

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