China has complicated feelings about Japan winning so many Nobel Prizes

Another one in the bag.
Another one in the bag.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Japan is a country that never strays far from China’s mind. This time, Chinese people are asking how it is possible that Japan has won so many more Nobel Prizes than China.

Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine this year. The prize was won by Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou in 2015. But Japan has now won 25 Nobel Prizes since 1949, and China only three—including the Peace Prize to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, which sparked an ongoing diplomatic freeze between Norway and China. Japan has won the second-most science Nobel prizes after the US.

Physicists Li Zhengdao and Yang Zhenning (paywall) both left China before the Communist Party came to power in 1949, and shared the 1957 physics prize while working in the US. They later became American citizens.

State-backed nationalistic tabloid Global Times summed up the national mood over Japan’s win as “bitter introspection.” An article titled “How can Japan win so many Nobel Prizes?” has gone viral on China’s social media. The original article has been viewed nearly 60,000 times (link in Chinese) as of Oct. 10 on WeChat, China’s most popular chat app. It examines what Japan is doing right:

  • Japanese children are taught to be inquisitive about nature and science from a young age. Ohsumi himself supposedly said he was fascinated by bugs as a child. Japanese people are raised to feel a sense of pride and closeness to their natural surroundings.
  • Chinese parents care too much about the material satisfaction of their children. On the other hand, Japanese children are encouraged to be independent—for example, though Japanese parents typically pay for their kids’ college tuition, Japanese students are expected to work to earn money for living and spending.
  • Scientific research in Japan is more independent and largely free from government interference. Japanese scholars do not feel pressure that they could lose their jobs if they suffer setbacks in their research, allowing them to devote themselves fully to their work over a longer period of time.
  • Japanese scientists have a much broader global vision than Chinese scientists because of frequent exchanges with scholars in other countries. Japan also has world-class facilities for scientific research, strongly supported by government funding.

One user writing on Weibo (link in Chinese, registration required), China’s version of Twitter, offered the following historical explanation for the discrepancy in awards:

“It’s quite normal for Japan to win so many Nobel prizes because most scientific achievements we see today were initiated two to three decades ago when Japan was rich and willing to spend money on scientific research… China, however, just launched its reform and opening up policy in 1978, not to mention China had just ended the ten-year Cultural Revolution… where a lot of talented people were persecuted.”

Another criticized (link in Chinese, registration required) China’s education system, and said it was “killing students’ independent thinking as most children are living a dull life. They only go to school and then go home everyday and do tons of homework. This is strangling their imagination.”

Others questioned the importance of the Nobel altogether. One Global Times reader called Jin commented, “Frankly, some of these Nobel prizes are also questionable… What China needs to do is to discover ways and means to improve Chinese lives and livelihood. Whether Chinese receives Nobel prize or not is immaterial.”

Still, Sino-Japanese rivalry in any field seems to be an issue that is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.