TOKYO—Age and recognition haven't mellowed Nobel physics laureate Shuji Nakamura. He and fellow Japanese Hiroshi Amano and Isamu Akasaki shared 2014's physics award for developing a blue light-emitting diode (LED), which was at the center at a bitter patent dispute more than a decade ago at about the time Nakamura left Japan. At a press conference here on Friday—the first in his native country since he picked up his medal in Stockholm last month—Nakamura lashed out at the way Japan treats technology pioneers and criticized what he says is a failing education system.
The Nobel Prize committee cited the development of the blue LED as leading to a new, more efficient, and environmentally friendly way "to illuminate the world." Amano and Akasaki laid the groundwork by getting gallium-nitride, a notoriously finicky material, to emit a dim blue glow while working together at Nagoya University in the late 1980s. In 1993, Nakamura, who held only a master's degree and was toiling practically on his own at a small specialty chemical manufacturer in rural Shikoku, cracked the fabrication challenges to get a bright blue LED that was commercially viable.
In the early 2000s, Nakamura had a falling out with his employer and, it seemed, all of Japan. Relying on a clause in Japan's patent law, article 35, that assigns patents to individual inventors, he took the unprecedented step of suing his former employer for a share of the profits his invention was generating. He eventually agreed to a court-mediated $8 million settlement, moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and became an American citizen. During this period he bitterly complained about Japan's treatment of inventors, the country's educational system, and its legal procedures.
During a visit to Japan last week, Nakamura, now 60 and still at UCSB, gave a press conference where he was asked about Japan’s research environment in light of his Nobel recognition. A summary of his comments, edited for brevity and clarity, follows.
On whether Japan has changed in terms of rewarding inventors: "Before my lawsuit, the typical compensation fee [to inventors for assigning patents rights] was a special bonus of about $10,000. But after my litigation, all companies changed [their approach]. The best companies pay a few percent of the royalties or licensing fee [to the inventors]. One big pharmaceutical company pays $10 million or $20 million. The problem is now the Japanese government wants to eliminate patent law article 35 and give all patent rights to the company. If the Japanese government changes the patent law it means basically there would no compensation [for inventors]. In that case I recommend that Japanese employees go abroad."
On why Japanese companies have lost ground internationally: "Japan is very good at making products—semiconductors, cell phones, TVs, solar cells. But they could sell only in the domestic market. They couldn't sell outside of Japan. Their globalization is very bad. The reason is probably the language problem. Japanese are the worst [in terms of] English performance."
On Japanese and Asian education: "The Japanese entrance exam system is very bad. And China, Japan, Korea are all the same. For all high school students, their education target is to enter a famous university. I think the Asian educational system is a waste of time. Young people [should be able] to study different things."
On Japan's courts: "The Japanese legal system is the worst in the world. If there is a lawsuit in the U.S., first there is a discovery process. We have to give all the evidence to the lawyers. In Japan there is no discovery process. If there is a lawsuit, we have to throw away all the bad evidence. Next: deposition. In the U.S. you can depose everybody. But in Japan there is no deposition. In Japan, the judge cannot find out through [examining] evidence which side is bad because there is no evidence. Without any evidence, judges prefer settlements. That is the reason that for intellectual property lawsuits companies go to the U.S."
On economic and educational reform in Japan: "I think that until the Japanese economy collapses, no changes will happen at all. Just like after World War II, everything changed [because] Japan collapsed. I think first Japan has to collapse economically."
On the benefits of winning a Nobel Prize: "I don't have to teach anymore, and I get a parking space. That's all I got from the University of California."