Nobel Selection, Noda Rejection

Politics Economy Science Technology

Great News from Stockholm: Japan’s New Nobel Laureate

Yamanaka Shin’ya, a professor at Kyoto University, has been selected as one of the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, a finding that holds tremendous promise for the development of regenerative medicine. This is splendid news, and I extend my heartfelt congratulations to Professor Yamanaka.

The political class was quick to respond to the announcement of Yamanaka’s prize. The three biggest parties in the National Diet—the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and New Kōmeitō—have reportedly agreed on a bill to promote the practical use of regenerative medicine, which is to be submitted to the current extraordinary Diet session. At a meeting of the Council for Science and Technology Policy on November 2, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko called for the adoption of legislative measures, including revision of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law, in the next ordinary Diet session (to be convened in January next year) to encourage the realization of regenerative medicine using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), along with the drafting of safety standards and the strengthening of support for young researchers. I hope that this push from Professor Yamanaka’s prize will energize medical research in Japan, not just in the field of basic studies but also in clinical research, an area in which Japan’s activities have not been internationally competitive up to now.

Clinical studies of regenerative medicine are already underway. Takahashi Masayo, a project leader at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, is planning a study using iPS cells to regenerate retinas in six patients over age 50 affected by age-related macular degeneration, a disorder in part of the retina that is caused by aging and can lead to loss of sight. She has applied for approval from the ethics committees at Riken and the hospital where the study is to be conducted.

The news of the Nobel award was also followed by one bizarre episode. Moriguchi Hisashi, who claimed to be a visiting fellow at Harvard University, announced that he had successfully used iPS cells to treat patients with grave heart conditions. Both the success stories and the Harvard connection were soon revealed to be fabrications. I will not get into the details here, but I think we need to reflect seriously on the fact that the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology was employing Moriguchi as a project professor. Though project professors have only limited tenure, they are regular faculty members and researchers. As such, they are presumably subjected to rigorous screening prior to employment, including confirmation of their records. But the fact that Moriguchi gained this post raises doubts about the reliability of the screening process, which ought to be reexamined. Simply removing Moriguchi’s name from the center’s website cannot be the end of the story. The University of Tokyo needs to explain how he received his appointment.

Island Rows: Respect International Law

This year’s ASEAN-Europe Meeting, which brings together the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their counterparts from Europe and from other Asian countries, was held in Laos on November 5–6. In his address to this ASEM summit, Prime Minister Noda spoke of the need to respect international law as the means for resolving conflicts, implicitly referring to Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea regarding the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima, respectively. He was reiterating the position he expressed when he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in September, when he expressed Japan’s determination to seek peaceful solutions to disputes based on international law and called for use of the International Court of Justice for the settlement of territorial and maritime disputes.

Let us review the significance of this call in relation to the issue of the Senkakus, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands and claim as their own. These islands are under Japan’s effective control, and the position of the Japanese government is that there is no international dispute concerning their ownership. The Chinese government, meanwhile, takes the position that a dispute exists, inasmuch as China claims the islands but does not effectively control them. The decision by the Japanese government to “nationalize” the islands and the subsequent saber rattling over the issue by China have done nothing to change this basic set of conditions. And, in the absence of military action, the situation is unlikely to change in the future either. Japan will never give up its ownership of the islands, and China will never give up its claim to them. Meanwhile, however stubbornly Japan denies the existence of a dispute over the islands’ sovereignty, inasmuch as China is pressing its own claim, it appears to third parties—that is to say, to the international community—that an international dispute does indeed exist over this issue.

So what should we do? If we accept that the dispute cannot be solved anytime in the foreseeable future, then the only way of handling the matter is for both Japan and China to contain it and to strive to keep it from negatively affecting their bilateral relationship. In this context, it makes sense for Japan to call on China to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and make use of this tribunal for the settlement of territorial and maritime disputes under international law. I do not expect China to heed this call, but by making it Japan can delegitimize the saber rattling on the Chinese side. It will also make it natural for Japan to call on South Korea to accept the same sort of approach to the issue of Takeshima, which Japan claims but the Koreans effectively control (they call it Dokdo). Rule making is of crucial importance for stability and prosperity in the fast changing regions of Asia and Asia Pacific. Japan should call on all parties involved in territorial disputes in these regions to use the ICJ for the resolution of disputes. Japan should also work with the Philippines and Vietnam to make rules for territorial issues in Asia's seas.

Agenda for Noda: Commit to the TPP Talks and Call an Election

According to an October 26–28 poll conducted by the newspaper publisher Nikkei Inc. and TV Tokyo, support for the Noda administration was 20%, down 13 percentage points from the previous poll a month before and the lowest level since Noda’s inauguration in September 2011. This low figure is comparable to the 19% support rate for the previous administration of Kan Naoto in its final days. I do not think it is fair to lump Noda together with Kan, who merely clung to power without accomplishing anything. But his support has been sharply eroded by a number of negative factors. One was the reshuffling of his cabinet on October 1; Noda got poor marks for this, particularly for his appointment of Tanaka Keishū as minister of justice. Tanaka was forced to resign barely three weeks after assuming his post in the face of reports of serious blotches on his record, including having allegedly consorted with underworld figures. Another factor was Noda’s backpedaling on the promise he made to (then) Liberal Democratic Party President Tanigaki Sadakazu in August that he would dissolve the lower house and call a general election “soon” after securing passage of a consumption tax hike with the support of the LDP in the upper house. As matters now stand, despite his historic accomplishment of getting the consumption tax hike enacted, Noda will lose his opportunity to make a comeback; sadly, his only remaining options are to dissolve the lower house and call an election at a time when his support level has sunk or to resign.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the European Commission is preparing a proposal to members of the European Union calling for the start of talks with the United States in the first half of 2013 on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, including an EU-US free trade pact. If the EU and the United States enter into talks on a comprehensive economic partnership, it will be the first step toward creation of a free trade area accounting for almost half of the world’s entire gross domestic product. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership are expected to get into full swing early next year, after the US presidential election is over. Japan has indicated its interest in the TPP, which would also create a huge free trade bloc, but has yet to officially decide that it will join in the talks. Not participating in the process of building the international trade order for the twenty-first century is not an option for Japan. Prime Minister Noda surely realizes this. He faces three urgent tasks for which he needs the cooperation of the LDP and Kōmeitō, namely, securing passage of authorization for the issuance of deficit-funding bonds, establishing a nonpartisan panel to deliberate social security reform, and rectifying the unconstitutional disparity in the weight of votes between the most- and least-populated lower house districts. The prime minister should tackle these with alacrity, and he should also make the decision that Japan will participate in the TPP talks. I hope that he will do so and then call an election without further delay.(*1)

(Originally written in Japanese on November 6, 2012.)

(*1) ^ Prime Minister Noda dissolved the lower house on November 16. A general election will be held on December 16.—Ed.

diplomacy United States Kan Naoto RIKEN Shiraishi Takashi Noda Yoshihiko China politics election TPP economy FTA Korea EU South China Sea Senkaku Islands science Kyoto University Yamanaka Shinya regenerative medicine technology International Court of Justice Takeshima territorial disputes Nobel Prize iPS cells