By Michael Fitzpatrick, contributor
FORTUNE — If you ever wondered if artificial breasts can survive scalding hot springs, whether panda dung will dissolve garbage, and if a robot could enter university, then Japan would be the place to satisfy your curiosity.
Such esoteric research is meat and drink to certain branches of the $130 billion research and development industry here. To which, when the annual Ig Nobel prizes are presented at Harvard today, its organizer Marc Abrahams will give silent thanks. He couldn’t do without them, he says. “Japan has been putting up stuff for so long it’s hard to miss,” he says hinting today will be another bumper year for Japan.
He refers to research that, while attempting to solve problems and drive industry, has achieved some crooked profundity while generating the added bonus of making people smile.
So far, in the prize’s 22-year-history, two nations stand out amongst others in eligibility says Abrahams. “Japan and the UK both have consistently produced impressive numbers of Ig Nobel Prize winners,” he says. “I think that’s partly due to something the two cultures share. Most other countries punish their eccentrics. Japan and the UK, in contrast, are proud of their eccentrics.”
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That certainly might be true of Japan. For the people who transformed post-war penury into the world’s number two economy — often thanks to persistence and tinkerers’ ingenuity — offbeat inventors do have a special place in the heart of the nation’s inspiration-seeking salarymen. Some popular TV here is devoted to lone inventors and their innovations that seemed quirky at the time but quickly become novel or breakthrough. Nintendo’s
Wii or the Tamagotchi are two examples.
Nobel prize winners (18 so far) are appreciated, too. Japan wants to produce 30 Nobel prize winners over the next 50 years. And in that quest spends more on R&D as part of gross national product than any other (3.47% of GNP compared to US 2.81% and China 1.55%). While Japan has the third largest budget globally for R&D and over 700,000 researchers.
Ironically it is this driven, earnest approach to innovation that ingenuously sparks a fair bit of unconventional research, and the unintentionally funny. “I think the reason why we have a disproportion (of Japanese Ig Nobel winners) is the strict matter-of-fact-ness of Japanese researcher,” points out Masataka Watanabe, chief science promoter for one of Japan’s great centers of innovation — Tsukuba University.
“Such a paradox is caused by Marc Abraham’s sense of humor. Japanese laureates don’t see their research as funny. But Marc has found funny things in them.” This admission to a sense-of-the-absurd-failure might be closer to the truth in the land where irony is as rare as a Zen barbecue.
The Japanese have so far romped 15 Ig Nobel prizes after 22 years of roping in actual Nobel prize winners to give out the tounge-placed-firmly-in-cheek awards, which like the real Nobels are divided into categories including Peace, Biology, and Physics. As a type of invention’s homage to the god of unintended consequences, Daisuke Inoue’s 2004 Peace prize for inventing karaoke and “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other,” was apt.
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Japanese scientists have done particularly well in chemistry. Unknowing his research into why birds, literally, gave a miss to a metal statue in his local park would induce mirth worldwide, Yukio Hirose, a metallurgist at Kanazawa University, now sees the joke and gratefully received his prize in 2003. “The Japanese selected have been good sports for the most part,” says Abrahams. “There were some who would not take part…” but he is quick to draw a veil over the details.
Some reveled especially in the media spotlight. The prize winner for that has to be “the one and only” Dr. NakaMats says Abrahams. “He is, above all, the Wizard of Oz.” Modestly claiming to have invented the floppy disk, the fax and have patented over 3,000 other inventions beside, Dr. NakaMats, whose real name is Yoshiro Nakamatsu, is in a class of his own when it comes to Ig Nobel prize winners. In 2005 the 84-year-old won the Nutrition prize for photographing and analyzing every meal had eaten over 34 years.
He is better known in Japan as the country’s favorite eccentric boffin who gets his ideas “while 0.5 seconds from death” holding his breath underwater. There is, he says, much method in his madness and the genius of Japanese invention. “There are many innovators in Japan. Because we are very poor in natural resources so we must use our intelligence and human resources,” he explains.
Nakamatsu is now busy trying to save ourselves from ourselves as he watches humanity flail around fretting over energy. To such ends he claims he has invented an air-conditioner that uses just 1% of energy used by conventional units. Verifiable or not we need people like Dr. NakaMats to, as the Ig Nobels put it, “make people laugh, and then make them think.”