The Dr Tanii Tragedy
(original essay written and compiled for this web page Jan 10, 1997)
BACKGROUND--MY PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT
This essay takes an unusual tack from the rest on this web site. Key emails got eaten in a systems crash, so I have to stitch things together from memory and the occasional email snippet. Instead of giving you the facts in chronological order, this post is written from a "making-of" point of view--where you see the background of how the very issue came into being--instead of the normal "observation, evidence/spicy anecdote, conclusion" tack. Why? I am 1) personally involved in this topic, and 2) the one responsible for making it public. The essay is a little long and does repeat a bit, and for clarity's sake it might be better to read the Los Angeles Times front-page article first. But please read on, and remember that it's instances like this which make one question the role of government in general.
I first came in contact with this issue in spring, 1993, during a visit from my parents to Sapporo. My dad, Dr Herbert Aldwinckle, then Director of the Department of Plant Pathology for the Geneva Laboratories, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Cornell University, asked me to do something for him. Little did I know how much a simple request can change one's view of things.
Said dad: "There's a person down in an experiment station in Hakodate [a city on the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, Japan] who's been a little slow in responding to our mail. Could you give him a call and remind him in Japanese to send us those Fire Blight samples?"
Sure. I called and talked to Dr Tanii briefly. He seemed a bit harried (I thought it was because of this sudden call from a gaijin speaking Japanese; it happens), but said he would get sending. Mission accomplished.
I thought no more of it for eighteen months, until I got an email from dad in late October, 1995. It said, in effect (original post lost in that system crash):
"Sad news. It seems Dr Tanii has died, and it looks like a suicide."
I went bananas. I felt somewhat involved, and asked him for as much information on the subject of Fire Blight and the Tanii case. Believe it or not, I even felt a need to run down to Hakodate, say a few words of condolence to Dr Tanii's widow, whatever. I just wanted to do something, anything, especially when I heard what had caused Dr Tanii's death:
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN POLITICS INTERFERES WITH GOOD SCIENCE
According to dad, Dr Tanii had been researching diseases of Hokkaido pears (which also incidentally affected apples, dad's forte). Dr Tanii found a disease which resembled Fire Blight, the scourge of orchards, within Japan, and, as is his job, reported it in a Japanese scientific journal.
This journal happened to get translated into English (not all of them do), and it caught the eye of Dr Steve Beer, a fellow pathologist of dad's at Cornell. The vitals resembled Fire Blight, so Steve contacted Dr Tanii asked for samples to test. This was before dad's visit here in 1992.
Dr Tanii tod Dr Beer that he would send the information and samples. But months went by with no answer. So that's why dad asked me to get in on the act.
The problem was that the Japanese government had suddenly been taking a keen interest in Dr Tanii's contacts. When a representative of the USDA visited Dr Tanii, a member of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Nourinshou, or MAFF) accompanied them and controlled the agenda. When samples of Dr Tanii's disease were requested from Yokohama, Yokohama said those samples did not exist because the disease itself did not exist within Japan's shores.
Why all the cloak and dagger? Politics. Apples, in particular Washington Apples, were a hot US-Japan trade issue. Washington State was aggressively trying to enter the Japanese apple market, which was just as aggressively being protected by the Japanese government. "America has diseases which don't exist in Japan, namely Fire Blight, so controls are necessary," said Japan.
And Japan's controls were draconian. Washington State's full cooperation with the Japanese authorities meant orchard redesign, chemical prophylackery, trade restriction to only two varieties of apple (rather tasteless ones, sorry), over a decade of on-site tests and trials (at Washington's expense), and other measures designed to raise costs and delay entry of American apples. In other words, Japan was erecting trade barriers in the name of health controls.
Read this in more detail, if you want, by skipping ahead to the text of the LA Times article here.
Imagine everyone's surprise when it turns out that the disease in question, Fire Blight (called officially "Apple Shoot Blight" to distinguish), in fact already existed within Japan's shores. Dr Tanii's research had opened a Pandora's Box.
Back to my phone-call mission. When Dr Tanii's samples actually arrived at Cornell (months after my call, after more prodding), they were contaminated--something which just doesn't happen in regular scientific exchanges. But Cornell managed to isolate the disease, test it, and report that it was in fact a variety, but similar enough to the American version of Fire Blight. At a Canadian symposium, Dr Beer announced that Fire Blight existed in Japan, and the scientific community took note.
But so did the Australians attending the conference. They reported this back to their government, which became incensed, for Australia (also Fire Blight-free, but for real) was importing pears from Japan. This meant that Japan's deception to maintain their closed market could enable Japanese Fire Blight to contaminate their shores. Australia officially boycotted Japanese pears, and an international flap ensued.
Domestic scapegoats were sought and found. And the results were tragic. Dr Tanii drank pesticide and died October 11, 1995. Police ruled it a suicide.
WHERE I CAME IN:
PUBLIC RELEASE OF THIS INFORMATION THROUGH THE INTERNET
I was in a bind. I wanted to do something with the information I had. Dad was worried about losing his research contacts in Japan, so he was lukewarm about talking to any reporters. My wife was worried about some governmental backlash (losing my job--the ministries do talk, and the Ministry of Education is axing its foreigners, especially the old or unruly), so she (and her family) advised against my telling anyone at all, for reasons outlined below.
But I strongly felt a crime had been committed by the Japanese government. So I bided my time, and waited for the right opportunity to announce something on Fukuzawa.
It came. There was a debate on the Japanese attitudes towards suicide on Fukuzawa, so I sent this email:
EMAIL Date: Mon, 11 Dec 1995
From: Dave Aldwinckle
Subject: Suicide and it's treatment in Japan. What should I do?
There's a topic that's been burning inside of me for some months now, and Jocelyn's posting may be just the right timing for this.
TREATMENT OF SUICIDE IN JAPANESE SOCIETY
I can't give you too many details on this because it's an international incident and it might have unexpected repercussions, but let me give you the bones of the story:
An acquaintence of mine committed suicide last October, and it's bothering me a great deal.
The departed was a scientist who had some data on a disease that the Japanese government (Nourinshou), in its infinite wisdom, decided to claim did not exist within Japan. This was to keep Washington state products out of this country (for fear of contamination). But the scientist, acting as a scientist in the name of research, let it be known to other scientists overseas that the disease in fact did exist in Japan, and he was contacted by a US friend of mine who requested some samples. After a long period of time, no samples came (suspicions of govt interference), so my friend in the US called me and asked if I would interpret and have the samples sent. I contacted the scientist and he assured me that he would. That was my level of involvement--a simple phone call.
This was about 3 years ago. The samples did get sent, the results got published in an international journal, and POW! Fushouji! The denials of the Japanese government caused a flap with the Australians (who really did not have the disease within their country), after they found out they could be importing the disease, and halted Japanese exports of the fruit.
Japanese farmers got hurt and looked for a scapegoat. Somehow the responsible Japanese scientist's name got leaked out to them and trouble ensued. A few months ago, I found out the scientist had committed suicide (snip).
I was profoundly saddened by this event, and my first reaction was to go see the widow. But upon reflection and consultation with people in the know about the attitudes towards suicide in Japan (my family), they vetoed this by saying:
1) if you go you might not be welcome. She might even blame you in her anguish for her husband's death. Court cases directed against me? Who knows? (I'm not convinced but I can't rule out its implausibility).
2) you are not directly responsible. If you represent the American research facility, okay, or if you get asked by somebody in writing to fill an official capacity, then go. But otherwise going as a private citizen is yokei na shinpai and only invites trouble.
3) if you tell the widow something that she didn't actually know and word gets out, I could get implicated as a snitch by the Japanese government. Who knows if this won't in fact have an impact on my job? (to which I argued back that if I knew the truth about some conspiracy (say, the JFK assassination), which is more important--getting the truth out, or watching your skin? My wife argued that from her standpoint of guardian of our family that I should watch our skin. True. But jiichan for once didn't countrerargue--he too felt the need for pride and principle.)
4) there is a huge amount of shame in Japanese suicide. This scientist knew what he was doing when he gave out the information, so why didn't he stand up for himself better when the flap came? Killing himself (for reasons, granted, we don't understand) only looks weak, at least to jiichan. Nobody would like my going and giving condolences (okuyami) because they aren't deserved in the case of suicide...
This reason is the most convincing, but I need more evidence. DFS is the best source I know for frank discussions of topics of this sort. This is less a cultural issue and more a crie du coeur.
Should I do as my conscience dictates: go and see the widow (after first, of course, consulting with the scientist's associates) and offer my condolences? Or stay away because of the shameful circumstances?
My motives: I respect this scientist's motives and feel for him. He was only doing his job yet became a victim of Fortress Japan. And I am in a way connected. My American friend [dad] would like me to visit.
DFS--please give me some advice on this. Much, much obliged.
As you can see, my email wouldn't give names or go into too many specifics, as people around me advised. I got a couple of responses, mostly offering condolences, saying trust what my family says, and one even with a "Damn the torpedoes and follow your conscience!" I ended up not going to Hakodate.
AND THIS TIME THE ISSUE CATCHES ALIGHT
As Fukuzawa's topics are constantly shifting, people started talking about trade barriers. Apples became the case to study, and the question was: why the precipitous drop in apple sales this year?
After a terrible false start in 1993 (where the Japanese government even barred sample Washington apples from a promised trade fair--all the Americans could to was show the packing crates and display a banner (in English): EMPTY BOXES, EMPTY PROMISES). But1994 was a bumper year, where I could even find Washington apples in Sapporo. However, by 1995, Japanese producers cooperated to dump their overpriced apples on their own market, coupled with a media push to say that American apples are dangerous (my baachan is still convinced that America legally has no pesticide or chemical controls over its fruit--thanks to Seikyou supermarket pamphlets and propaganda), and demand for Washington apples predictably plummetted.
Japan, with crocodile tears: Sorry, there is no demand for your apples in this country, so there is no need, as we said, to import them.
Fukuzawans wanted the real reasons why demand fell so suddenly. Some posited that it was the American's fault (stupid marketing), some the Japanese (government intervention). But basically all the comments were wide of the mark, says an official representative of the Washington State apple industry. You can read those Fukuzawa debates here, and read comments from Brent Evans, Asia Marketing Director, here.
But then some pedant wrote something to Fukuzawa saying something like, "Hey, you conspiracy theorists, where's your evidence that Japan has a government-level boogeyman?" I got annoyed, so here's what I wrote:
EMAIL Date: Thu, 2 May 1996
From: Dave Aldwinckle
Subject: apples and GOJ boogeymen--a case study
Okay, since people are chowing down on the apple debacle, I thought I should describe a real boogeyman in the GOJ (govt of Japan)--the MAFF--and provide a real case study for you to use as you will.
NON-TARIFF BARRIERS IN THE FORM OF JAPANESE RESEARCH: APPLES
I have family which does research for the apple industry in Upstate New York (and grew up eating apples that are far, far superior than the Washington State variety in terms of everything but size). They have friends who do research on pathology, i.e., finding ways to breed apples so that they are naturally resistant to bacterial and fungal infections such as scab, rust, and blights (and thus don't require extra labor or chemicals to sterilize the orchards).
For years, the GOJ prevented imports of Washington apples because of a particular disease called "fire blight", which the MAFF maintained was nonexistent on Japanese shores. They had lied. A researcher in a major apple research facility let an international forum know that there was a variant, which was judiciously called "apple shoot blight" (instead of shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre), affecting Japanese tree fruits.
A researcher in an Upstate New York pathology lab asked for samples, and the Japanese researcher said he would send some. After a long initial delay (I was asked from the US to call him up and see what was going on) which many assumed was due to GOJ interference, the samples arrived in the US and tests were made. The results were announced that yes, there were significant similarities in the US and Japanese strains, and thus good science was done.
Now came the political dimension. After decades of denial of domestic disease by the MAFF and subsequent exports of Japanese fruit upon unsuspecting countries that trusted the GOJ, the Australians last year cried foul. Australia really doesn't have fire blight within its shores and realized that it could be importing contaminated fruit. So it boycotted Japanese pears and people got hurt.
Then came the domestic backlash. Somebody let slip that a Japanese researcher had actually broken ranks and valued good international scientific exchange over protecting Japanese markets from foreign fruit, and people wanted names of those responsible. Somehow the name of the researcher fell into growers' hands.
And last year that Japanese researcher committed suicide.
MAFF still denies that fire blight exists in Japan. Sounds like there's a govt-level boogeyman to me.
I know this is repeating what you already know, but for the record, that is how it happened.
I got a few public flames, some accusing me of abusing the Internet by making broad claims with only half-assed information. One, a Mr J.O., even said, simply,
"Names, Dates, and Sources, please."
Hamstrung between saying too much and too little, I could only answer publicly: "Sorry, you're just going to have to trust me when I say I'm telling the truth."
Fortunately, flames were not all the responses. Fukuzawa by now had a lot more journalist members, and a Mr Leslie Helm from the LA Times contacted me privately to ask for more information. After consulting a still-lukewarm dad, I gave Leslie the same song and dance, but with a few hints, as if I were talking to Woodward and Bernstein in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.
Leslie then had enough to go on--Cornell, Hakodate, apples, Fire Blight, Aldwinckle family. He and his contacts started digging, calling Cornell and Hakodate, and eventually uncovered everything necessary, and more, themselves.
Two months later, on the front page of the July 22, 1996 LA Times, column one, the Tanii debacle and government coverup became common knowledge. Read it, if you haven't yet, here.
Five days after this came out, we escaped on our Eurotrek, so we missed the reactions on Fukuzawa and in the media. My wife and I joked that maybe MAFF will be waiting at the border and won't let us back in--the ultimate trade barrier.
But one nice message came from Mr J.O.:
Date: Tue, 17 Sep 1996
Subject: suicide of researcher
I saw your post in August of the story from the L.A. Times. It was quite an article. I'm glad to see that it has become a matter of public record. If you remember, I criticized the original post for its lack of sources. I can see from the article that much of story was witnessed by you firsthand- something which wasn't clear in your post or in your replies to me.
I wonder what repurcussions the story will have. I didn't see it covered elsewhere, perhaps you did.
You know, now that you have succeeded in taking the story this far, you might consider working it into a book. It is more than a story of the tragedy of one courageous man, and more than a story of government fraud. It is illustrative of a number of "oddities" in the Japanese system. For one thing, the incident involving fire blight could be used as a springboard for discussing some of the flaws in the culture of science here. How was it possible that a government agency could dictate the conditions of samples in a scientific study? But then, in Japan, meek obedience to such a directive is just what one would expect. Because the idea of "science" hasn't fully taken root here, I think.
Anyway, perhaps you could post to the DFS some time an update on what you think the consequences of the fire blight affair have been, -hopefully there will be some.
To which I answered:
Date: Wed, 18 Sep 1996
Subject: Re: suicide of researcher
We'll see what I can do. Meanwhile, I want to thank you for being in touch with me. I wasn't sure how to respond to you ... but I'm pleased we resolved this issue between us which did niggle. The balance of truth and timing spiced with the wishes of the victims--pretty tough unless you are a man who is charged with the duty of reporting, which I am not.
Who was I to get involved, anyway? Just a guy with a conscience who witnessed what happened and couldn't keep quiet about it.