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As the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka is well known in Japan. But people may not know that he is also a marathon runner and a great presenter who possesses an affable personality. Last but not least, he is a 100% Kansai-jin: having grown up in Osaka and worked in Nara, he is now working in Kyoto. So the audience of 160 ACCJ members and guests was already filled with excitement before the Nobel laureate took the stage.

Yamanaka, who is currently director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) at Kyoto University, started his presentation by showing a black-and-white portrait of a Japanese gentleman wearing a jacket and tie. Asking the audience who they thought this man was, he seemed to catch most people off guard. They were more than likely expecting something more scientific and a little difficult.

He told us that the gentleman was his father, who had owned a factory in Higashi Osaka City and who had passed away more than 10 years earlier. He had been very pleased that his son became a medical doctor—a fact that gives Dr. Yamanaka a great deal of pride.

“It was not an easy path for me,” he said, and then related a surprising anecdote about how awkward he had been as a surgical intern. He would become so nervous when operating that it took two hours to complete an operation that skilled doctors were able to finish in under 30 minutes. They had nicknamed him Jamanaka, combining his name with jama, in Japanese meaning obstacle. This had made him feel powerless.

However, this was only part of the reason he became a researcher after his two-year internship. As an intern he had met a lot of patients suffering from permanent spinal cord injuries and incurable diseases, such as rheumatism and bone cancer. Seeing their pain and despair, Dr. Yamanaka realized that there was a limit to what even the most skillful surgeon could do.

He decided to become a researcher in molecular biology and started working at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. He then showed a photo of his mentor alongside that individual’s German car, and Yamanaka playfully asked a second question: “What does VW mean?” The answer he gave was again not what the audience expected. He said VW means “Vision” and “Work hard.” This is what his mentor had taught him.

The third question he posed was “What kind of disease is PAD?” The answer was Post-America Depression, which is what he went through when he returned to Japan after three years of study in San Francisco. He had to face the difficulties of continuing his research in the relatively poor environment that surrounded Japanese medical researchers 25 years ago.

The difficulties facing his research had been quite serious. However, being a gifted storyteller, he maintained an upbeat tone throughout his presentation. As a result, the audience was fascinated by the complicated scientific explanations of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

It was a great experience to share these moments with our fellow ACCJ Kansai members and guests at the Ritz Carlton Osaka on May 31, and I would like to extend our gratitude to the Business Program Committee for organizing this wonderful opportunity.


Yuko Sangu is vice principal and business director of Kobe Business School K.K. and a member of the ACCJ Kansai Women in Business Committee.
The difficulties facing his research had been quite serious.