Behind the Scenes: The Kyoto Prizes

David Braun in Tokyo
National Geographic News
January 17, 2003
Kazuo Inamori, founder of the Inamori foundation, talks with National Geographic News about scientific progress and the enrichment of human values. The Inamori Foundation bestows the annual Kyoto Prizes which are given in the categories of advanced technology, basic science, and arts and philosophy. Since 1984, Kyoto Prizes have been awarded to 60 people from 12 countries. Given not only for excelling in one's field of specialization, the award recognizes those who, in the course of their research, have made contributions to humanity and society.

How have this year's laureates embodied the principles of the Kyoto Prizes, which aim to combine scientific progress with the enrichment of human values?

The Kyoto Prizes are set up so that the laureates selected are not only people who have excelled in their fields of specialization, but also those who, in the course of their research, have made contributions to humanity and society. Once again, this year's laureates epitomize these two criteria.

Looking at the 2002 events as a whole, from the awards ceremony in Kyoto through the audience with the Emperor and Empress at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, please summarize the events and explain how they have added to the aura of the Kyoto Prizes.

The Kyoto Prize events began on November 9 with a welcoming dinner. The awards ceremony took place the next day, followed by workshops with the laureates and an audience with the Emperor and Empress. I believe that all three laureates were very pleased with the full program.

The laureates enjoyed wonderful fellowship and communication with the Emperor and Empress. As you know, the Emperor is a scientist in his own right, a biologist who is very much interested in the advancement of science. Breakthroughs in DNA research are of particular interest to the Emperor, so he and Dr. Hood had that in common, and shared a very enthusiastic conversation.

At the same time, all three of our laureates had the opportunity to express their views. The Empress, who is interested in education, spoke with the laureates and their spouses, especially with Mrs. Hood, and compared notes about educational assistance and problems in the United States and Japan.

All in all, I must say that this has been a very fruitful year for the Kyoto Prizes.

Two biologists who received Kyoto Prizes during the 1990s went on to receive Nobel Prizes this year. Do the Kyoto and Nobel prizes have the same objectives? Do they overlap or complement one another?

The two Nobel laureates to whom you refer received Kyoto Prizes in Advanced Technology, while they later received Nobel Prizes for their contributions to basic sciences. Originally, we established the Kyoto Prizes to complement the Nobel prizes. It was not our intention to compete with them.

I am an engineer who has worked in industrial settings. I thought it was important to recognize people who have made achievements in engineering. Therefore, we set up the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology as part of our trio of prizes, which also includes Basic Sciences and Arts and Philosophy.

However, we were a little bit surprised that the people whom we selected for Advanced Technology prizes have now also been awarded Nobel Prizes. But if you look at the reasons why they were awarded the Kyoto Prize and why they later received the Nobel Prize, then you will see that the reasons are different. The prizes were not given for identical reasons.

Two thoughts occur to me about this overlap. One is that the Nobel Prize judges are probably shifting their focus gradually to include advanced technologies. The second is that, as the sponsor of the Kyoto Prizes, I am very pleased that this is, in a sense, a validation of the value of the Kyoto Prizes. We have been very careful to search for the right candidates and we maintain very strict criteria for the Kyoto Prizes. Similarly, the selection criteria for the Nobel Prizes are very high, so this overlap demonstrates that the Kyoto Prize selection process is world-class.

The Emperor and Empress, political leaders such as President Bush and President Chirac and many other prominent figures have recognized the importance of the Kyoto Prizes. The Kyoto Prizes are well known in the scientific community. However, there is a perception in some Western countries, at least in some of the popular media, that the Kyoto Prizes are not as well known as the Nobel Prizes. This could be mainly because the Nobel Prizes have been around for a century, but I was wondering if you have plans to broaden worldwide awareness of the Kyoto Prizes.

The Nobel Prizes are certainly more widely known than the Kyoto Prizes. As you mentioned, the Nobel Prizes have a history of one hundred years, whereas the Kyoto Prizes are only in their 18th year. So, one might say that the Nobel Prizes should naturally be better known than the Kyoto Prizes. However, I would like for the Kyoto Prizes to be better known worldwide than they are today. We are counting on the mass media to help us achieve this goal, so that people around the world will know that these awards, the Kyoto Prizes, recognize people who have made wonderful contributions to humanity. To that end, I am particularly pleased that you asked me for this interview.

The Kyoto Prizes have been awarded for 18 years now, as you just pointed out. That makes a total of 60 distinguished scholars and thinkers who have been recognized. When you look back at this 18-year period, how has your vision unfolded and evolved?

The interesting thing about looking back through Kyoto Prize history is a realization that the very first year's ceremonies, in spirit, content, format and meaning, were much the same as the ceremonies this year. I am very pleased to see that the careful ceremonial structure that we planned 18 years ago continues to serve its goal, and that we have continued to replicate it year after year.

The world is a lot different in 2003 than it was when you started the Kyoto Prizes in the early 1980s. There is much tension between nations, and economies everywhere are in distress. Corporate ethics have been compromised. Young people seem unmotivated. Can you comment on this, in terms of how you perceived a whole generation ago that there would be this need that we have today for more spirituality and ethics in leadership? Also, what do you think we should be doing now to address these concerns?

Twenty years ago, as we were preparing to establish the Kyoto Prize program, I noticed that there were already problems with morality and ethics. To counter what I saw as a growing problem, I thought that it was very important to emphasize spiritual maturity and advancement along with scientific and technological advances, or else humanity would be in great danger. That was why I included spirituality in the mission of the Kyoto Prizes.

Unfortunately, and contrary to our hopes, the world has suffered further deterioration in every respect. We have seen a decline in ethics and an increase in moral and financial corruption at all levels in every part of the world. Even worse— we are still moving toward the exact opposite of love. We see hatred and jealousy all over the world becoming manifested in the form of terrorism. And, it continues to grow worse as we move forward.

So I have to make my voice even louder, to try to bring sense back to humanity. We have to ask people to look back at the history of the human race and say, "Didn't we all possess a pure and beautiful heart at one time? Shouldn't we use those pure hearts again to rebuild the world?" This is the message that we must convey to humanity and the world.

This pure and beautiful heart that humans once had is a heart that thinks about other people by putting ourselves in their place. There is a special word for this in Buddhism, which means loving our neighbors. We look at others and see what they need; then we go and try to help them. This neighborly love once filled the world, but today all that exists is a need for instant gratification and an attitude that asks "what's in it for me?"

I am asking for people to forget about who wins and who loses. Instead, replace that scorecard with neighborly love, so that we can help each other and be more considerate of each other. That is where we should return, and this is the message that I would like to broadcast to the world.

I have started a campaign to bring this pure and beautiful heart to every citizen. Recently, I was in Yokohama for the last of ten lectures that I gave throughout Japan, for the purpose of asking ordinary citizens and friends to listen to me. Altogether, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people listened to my lecture. It's a very tiny effort, but I believed it was something I could do to help people reclaim this pure and beautiful heart with which we are born.

The Kyoto Prizes are associated with the University of San Diego's Institute for Peace and Justice. How do you see the Kyoto Prizes contributing to what we have just been talking about, the love, sincerity and harmony, as you have written, among nations? And, since there is no specific Kyoto "Peace" Prize, can one in fact say that the Kyoto Prizes as a whole, all three of them, work toward a better world that exists in peace and harmony? Could one, in other words, see the whole Kyoto Prize concept as a process of peace?

Several years ago, Dr. Alice Hayes, president of the University of San Diego (USD), attended the Kyoto Prize ceremony in Kyoto and was so impressed that she asked me if there was a possibility that USD could help make this award better known. Dr. Hayes did not believe that the Kyoto Prizes were accorded recognition worthy of their value, especially in the United States.

She felt that USD could work with the Inamori Foundation and contribute to publicizing the Kyoto Prizes. At the same time, she mentioned that USD's Institute for Peace and Justice had established a new building that would be appropriate for this purpose. Since my personal motto has always been love, sincerity and harmony, which is also the aim of the Kyoto Prizes, I thought it was very appropriate to have a Kyoto Laureate Symposium at the Institute for Peace and Justice.

You have devoted much of your personal fortune and a great deal of your time to sponsoring the Kyoto Prizes, and you have just told us about your lectures. What other new projects are you working on for the betterment of humanity?

I hesitate to say that I have made any major accomplishments, but to answer your question, right now I am concentrating on trying to help small-to-medium-sized businesses because they are in a very difficult business environment. I'd like to teach them about healthy management. A movement that I started for this purpose, about the same time that we started the Kyoto Prizes, is now almost 20 years old. This movement, called Seiwa-Juku, currently has about 3,500 members in Japan and is divided into 55 chapters. Each chapter consists of the leaders of small- and medium-sized businesses.

This Seiwa-Juku movement has spread beyond Japan to Taiwan, China and Brazil.

This is something that I started as a volunteer, with no compensation for myself. It is something I do to help society. Since we've been doing this for 20 years we have actually had some success stories, in the sense that 70 or 80 companies have had an IPO, and they remain viable small businesses. Another 80 or so are preparing for an IPO. This one example, I think, should answer your question.

I'd like to mention one other thing. Japan is currently facing some serious family stability problems, specifically with regard to child and infant abuse. This happens when mothers, who must work, leave their children at home by simply locking them, all alone, in the home. There is a Japanese expression in the media that refers to these children as "key kids," meaning that they are left behind locked doors.

The divorce rate is rising in Japan. Divorce increases the incidence of child abuse, and, in some cases, of child abandonment. Horrible incidents like this are happening more and more. I want to do something about this, so I have announced the construction of a large center to care for children who have been abandoned or are suffering abuse. It is something I am funding privately, and it is my goal that the center will provide the best possible care for children from infancy to the age of 18.

In an earlier answer, you spoke of a noticeable deterioration in our world. Some of the Kyoto laureates have mentioned that with scientific progress new challenges have arisen, such as issues surrounding the human genome and other advances. My last question is a very philosophical one to you as an engineer, a philosopher and a peacemaker. Are you fundamentally optimistic for the world, given the deterioration and the challenges facing us, or are we living in a dangerous time?

Right now I am not feeling particularly optimistic. I am really, extremely concerned about the severity of the situation and how much worse it is going to get. On the other hand, you might say that I am ultimately optimistic, or hopeful at least, that the human race throughout its history has created problems but has also managed to save itself before it was too late.

I think that although my voice is small, I want to shout out loudly to see if other people will join me. Together, we can awaken humanity to the situation and stop short of a major catastrophe by changing our course. If we shout loud enough we can reach people who have the intelligence and wisdom to know what is the right thing to do as human beings. Together we can divert this trend and heal our decaying society. So you might say that I am, in a sense, optimistic. I do think that there is still hope for the human race.

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