RIKEN's first building: No. 1 Building
Work in the machine shop during WWII.
A young Masatoshi Okochi
Yoshio Nishina pleading with US forces not to destroy the cyclotron
The cyclotron being dumped in Tokyo Bay
Harry C. Kelly
SPring-8, the world's most powerful synchrotron
An artist's rendering of the Supercomputer Facility
The Wako Institute today
|The Evolution of RIKEN|
So wrote prominent businessman and industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa in a September 1917 article describing the steps leading to the creation of RIKEN. Just three months earlier, Shibusawa had gathered 120 leading figures from business and government together at Seiyoken, a Western-style restaurant in Tokyo, for a speech by well-known researcher Dr. Jokichi Takamine. In his speech, Takamine argued that the world was moving away from mechanical industry toward scientific industry, and urged Japan to establish a national research institute for the study of pure science.
"Japanese are good at imitating but poor at creating," he reportedly said, declaring that there was a need to establish a research institute focusing on pure science, to "turn the country from imitation to creative power".
The gathering in 1917 was a turning point in the history of Japanese science, one that set the groundwork for the emergence of Japan's largest research institute focusing on the pure sciences. Nearly one hundred years later, after many developments and transformations, RIKEN has grown to become a world leader in scientific research. If he were alive today, Takamine would no doubt be amazed at the world-class institution that his words inspired.
A long journey
The journey to reaching this point, however, has not been without its ups and downs. "Science is an endless journey of discovery," says Ryoji Noyori, RIKEN's current president, "whose significance lies more in the encounters and experiences along the way than in arriving at destinations." The same holds true for the challenges that RIKEN has faced—and that in turn have shaped RIKEN—in its path to becoming the institution that it is today.
The first attempt to create RIKEN actually resulted in failure. In 1914, leaders from various fields, Eiichi Shibusawa among them, petitioned the government for the establishment of an "Institute for Chemical Research", but their proposal was scrapped. The founders of RIKEN then turned to the private sector, where they raised approximately 2 million yen (the equivalent of 3 billion yen, or US $30 million, in 2007 terms) to get the project off the ground. Physics was added to the name, and the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research was formally founded on March 20, 1917 in the Komagome district of Tokyo.
RIKEN's troubles, however, were not yet over. Soon after it was established as a private foundation, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research was afflicted by the economic turmoil and severe inflation that followed World War I. The public had little understanding of the work of research institutes, and RIKEN was unable to solicit funding from the private sector. The future of Japan's first major pure science research institution looked decidedly bleak.
A paradise for scientists
Things turned around for RIKEN in 1921 with the appointment of its third director, Masatoshi Okochi. Only 42 years of age at the time, Okochi accepted the appointment and was thrust into the highest position in the institution just as it stood on the brink of collapse. With a strong sense of vision and determination, Okochi set out to completely transform the underlying structure of RIKEN and erect in its place an institution like none other in Japan.
Among the changes that Okochi brought about in research, one in particular has withstood the test of time. In 1922, just a year after taking on his new position, Okochi abolished the Physics and Chemistry Divisions that had existed previously in RIKEN, and introduced a radically different system in its place. In the new system, which exists to this day at RIKEN, each independent laboratory was directed by a Chief Scientist who was given considerable autonomy to manage research topics, personnel and budget.
The atmosphere which resulted from this structural change was described by Shinichiro Tomonaga, Nobel prize-winner in physics, as a "paradise for scientists". Tomonaga was a member of the Nishina Laboratory (now Nishina Center), famous for boldly venturing into new areas of unexplored science. In contrast to the perception of Japanese as imitators, its founder Yoshio Nishina was not interested in following in the footsteps of Western physicists, but rather strove to compete with them. "What surprised me the most," Tomonaga wrote of his experience at RIKEN in the 1930s, "was the free atmosphere. This was true not only for the Nishina Laboratory but also for RIKEN as a whole. Everyone was relaxed and everything was comfortable."1
With funding secured through government and an increasing number of subsidiary companies, RIKEN grew steadily through the 1930s and early 1940s, nurturing in the process a new generation of young Japanese scientists. Bowen C. Dees, a physicist involved in the later (temporary) dissolution of RIKEN following World War II, wrote of this "golden age": "No similar institution in the United States attained the status that RIKEN had achieved in Japan during the nearly thirty years previous to the end of World War II, although comparable American institutions have existed for decades."2
Collapse and rebirth
The end of World War II marked a sudden and devastating end to an era of rapid expansion at RIKEN. Having decided that the RIKEN venture companies, which had multiplied to more than sixty by the end of the 1930s, constituted a zaibatsu, the allied occupation forces disbanded them, starving RIKEN of its main source of funding. Its two cyclotrons destroyed by the Allies in November 1945, and itself under threat of total dissolution, RIKEN was closer to total collapse than it had ever been before.
It was the support of one American scientist, Harry C. Kelly, and his friendship with new RIKEN director Yoshio Nishina, who had taken over from Masatoshi Okochi following the end of the war, that ultimately saved the Japanese research institution from closing its doors altogether. Kelly and Nishina formed a strong relationship of trust, and together brought RIKEN back from the abyss, reorganizing and re-founding it under the name "KAKEN" on March 1, 1948. Nishina praised Kelly and thanked him for saving RIKEN. "His name," Nishina said prior to his death in 1951, "should long be remembered in the history of this institute."
KAKEN, however, did not last for long, falling into a vicious cycle of poor business performance. By 1958, Japan's newly-renamed pure science research institution had gone bankrupt, but it was resurrected again with public funds, this time under its former name of RIKEN. With its new status as a public corporation, RIKEN was able to return to the forefront of Japanese science and technology.
The creation of RIKEN's satellite institutions
RIKEN's original site in Komagome was the birthplace of modern Japanese science, but it had been destroyed by an air raid in 1945, and by the 1960s RIKEN's president, Haruo Nagaoka, had decided that the institute had no future there. The search for a new site soon led to a 2.34 km2 plot of state-owned land in Wako, in the outskirts of Tokyo. RIKEN relocated to Wako in 1967, marking the start of a new era in Japanese science.
With its new headquarters secured, RIKEN moved to establish satellite institutions at other locations in Japan. The plan for these institutions, hashed out by the president's advisory committee in the late 1960s, constituted a totally new model of research organization in Japan. Modeled on the Max Planck Society in Germany, the satellite institutions were to be located across the country, each focusing on specific fields of research. Tsukuba Institute, opened in October 1984 to promote gene research, was the first of these satellites. More followed in quick succession: at Sendai, Nagoya, Harima, Yokohama and Kobe, and overseas at RAL in the United Kingdom, and BNL at MIT in the United States.
The satellite institutional structure that RIKEN has today stands out in comparison to the "small science" of its postwar period, when the majority of government's science budget was funneled toward the big projects of atomic energy and space exploration. From a long and proud tradition of creative small science projects, RIKEN launched itself into big science, with projects including SPring-8 and XFEL at Harima Institute and the Next Generation Supercomputer in Tokyo. Thanks to the satellite system, RIKEN today conducts research across all fields of science, from physics and chemistry to engineering and life sciences, and from basic research to practical applications.
The Noyori Initiatives
In October 2003, nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori assumed the presidency of RIKEN just as the institution was reorganized as an independent administrative institution under the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. President Noyori's first move was to propose a set of initiatives aimed at fulfilling RIKEN's mandate to "conduct research in all fields of science and technology, and to disseminate the results of that research." These initiatives are: (1) to boost the visibility of RIKEN, both domestically and internationally; (2) to maintain RIKEN's outstanding record of achievement in science and technology; and to strive toward a RIKEN that (3) motivates its researchers, (4) is useful to the world, and (5) contributes to culture.
The Noyori Initiatives are part of an overall process of internationalization at RIKEN, as the institute increasingly orients itself toward the global stage. "The biggest issue in the 21st century will be the co-existence of civilizations and cultures," President Noyori has said. "Right-minded science and technology are at the core of civilization and are a source of national strength." With a growing set of collaborative projects spanning the globe, RIKEN finds itself today in the midst of this meeting of civilizations and cultures.
1Tomonaga, Shinichiro. (Ezawa, Hiroshi, ed.) Kagakusha No Jiyū-na Rakuen [A Free Paradise for Scientists]. Iwanami Shoten, 2000.
2Dees, Bowen C. The Allied Occupation and Japan's Economic Miracle. Routlege, 1997.