Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats is said by many to be Japan’s most prolific inventor. Take an in-depth look at his astonishing background in what is his most revealing interview ever.
Interview with Inventor Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats
Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats is said by many to be Japan’s most prolific inventor. His documented patents include some of the most significant inventions of our time including 16 patents related to the floppy disk which he sold to IBM, and many other inventions including retractable landing gear, the digital watch, the digital display and in total 3,368 inventions. Dr. NakaMats sat down with Tokyo Journal for an in-depth look at his astonishing background in what is his most revealing interview ever.
TJ: How many patents do you currently have?
Dr. NakaMats: 3,368. Thomas Edison had 1,093 inventions and he passed away at the age of 84. My 84th birthday has come and gone and I am still inventing.
TJ: What was your very first invention?
Dr. NakaMats: My first invention was at the age of five. It was an automatic center of gravity adjuster for airplanes that I invented in 1933. This invention is still used by Boeing and other major aircraft companies.
TJ: So this automatic center of gravity adjuster is used in Auto Pilot. Did you patent that invention?
Dr. NakaMats: No, because I was only five years old. I couldn’t fill out the patent application. This is a model airplane that I made by myself. Here is a photo of me holding the airplane at the age of five and if you look closely at this part here, this is the automatic center of gravity adjuster. I still have this original model that I made by hand in 1933 in my museum in Tokyo.
TJ: What was your very first patent and how old were you at the time?
Dr. NakaMats:I was 14 years old and I patented a kerosene pump and siphon.
TJ: Was that a Japanese patent?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes. A Japanese patent. I filled out the patent form myself and took it to the patent office.
TJ: Wow! That kerosene pump is used widely throughout Japan and all over the world for that matter. So you were a child prodigy! Did you excel in school?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes, let me show you. Here are copies of my actual grade reports. As you can see from elementary school through university, I had no absences, I was never late and I always had the top score.
TJ: I noticed a picture here of you with Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. Where is this picture taken at?
Dr. NakaMats: That photo was taken in Prime Minister Yoshida’s private home. I was demonstrating a prototype of the floppy disk. I had invented a special paper that when run through a special machine could produce sound and images, and Prime Minister Yoshida used this invention to communicate secret messages between the Japanese and U.S. governments. This was the predecessor to the floppy disk that I later invented.
TJ: I see you studied at the University of Tokyo. What was your major?
Dr. NakaMats: Engineering and Law.
TJ: So which school did you graduate from? The School of Engineering or the School of Law?
Dr. NakaMats: Both. I did a double major. In order to invent you need to understand both engineering and law. So I spent six years as an undergraduate student pursuing both.
TJ: What were you learning about in your engineering program?
Dr. NakaMats: I studied airplane design in both University and in the Military academy.
TJ:As I understand it, your family is related to the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Dr. NakaMats: Yes, but the Tokugawa Family His astonishing story through his most revealing interview ever is not really named Tokugawa. The actual family name is Matsudaira. My family was in the center of the Matsudaira family. Matsudaira means “pine plane” and NakaMats means “center of the pine.” So my family lived inside the Edo Castle for 400 years and controlled Japan. During the Meiji Revolution, our family moved to the Sendagaya / Aoyama area where I was born.
TJ: So after graduating from the University of Tokyo, what did you do?
Dr. NakaMats: I entered Mitsui & Co. As you may know, at that time Mitsui was not strong. After the war, the zaibatsu (family-controlled corporate monopolies) were broken up and Mitsui was fragmented. I could have entered stronger companies such as Hitachi or Toshiba and received a much higher salary, but I selected Mitsui because I had an uncle in top management at Mitsui and he asked me to join.
Another reason that led me to Mitsui was because they had an aircraft division as they were an agent of Douglass Aircraft. At the time the occupational forces stopped all production of aircraft in Japan. Since I had studied aircraft design in both university and the Military Technology Academy, I was looking for a way to work with airplanes, and Mitsui, being the only company with an aircraft division, provided that opportunity. As the occupational forces had stopped the production of all aircraft, I decided to define aircraft as “fixed-wing aircraft” and then I started making rotating wing aircraft. In other words, helicopters. Therefore, I received my license as a helicopter pilot and an in-flight engineer, a job I also did during the War while in the Navy.
During this first big project with Mitsui, I made many inventions in order to sell the helicopters. I created an aerial wiring system and an aerial duster as you can see from this photograph. This application caught on with farmers who were trying to protect their crops from harmful insects. Before you knew it, I was the #1 salesman in Mitsui. I continued finding applications and ways to sell aircraft, including creating a new company Mitsui Aerospace, which was an independent company from Mitsui. I asked Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries to help create the aircraft, and in order to produce customers to purchase these aircraft, I established an airline company, which is All Nippon Airways - ANA.
TJ: So you were the founding President of ANA?
Dr. NakaMats: No. I appointed the first President. He worked for Asahi Newspaper and was the Chief of their Aircraft Division. I had tried to sell him aircraft in the past, so I knew him. As you can imagine, the newspaper company had to transport their newspapers around the country so they had their own aircraft and he had experience, so I appointed him President of the new company, All Nippon Airways.
TJ: So ANA is a division of Mitsui and was established with Mitsui’s money?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes. Mitsui Aircraft Division made the company. I started them out with six helicopters. I am still a big stockholder of ANA shares. When JAL found out I owned significant stock in ANA, they approached me but my JAL stock went with JAL’s bankruptcy. However, I am still a very large shareholder in ANA and Fujitsu.Because of my aircraft sales, I was the top salesman in Mitsui and the company started keeping an eye on me - the “strange young man in the aircraft division”. I received a lot of attention.
I was later transferred to the General Affairs Division where the company put together a small five-member team of top-level employees under my direction. The mission of this team was to develop a project that would bring the Mitsui companies back to the Mitsui Group and make it one of the strongest companies in the country again.
At the time, the war had ended and President Eisenhauer was speaking of the peaceful uses of nuclear power. One of my team members heard the speech and informed the team of it. We decided that nuclear energy could be this project that Mitsui was looking for. So we decided to build Japan’s first Atomic Energy Power Plant, which eventually resulted in the building of Fukushima Dai 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
TJ: What was your role in building the plant?
Dr. NakaMats: Well, first I asked Toshiba and IHI to help build it, but this was 1950, and they had no knowledge of how to do it. Therefore, I worked with General Electric and imported their technology. I established a power plant company with some people from Mitsui, some people from Toshiba and some people from TEPCO. I designated Dr. Seto, my Professor from the University of Tokyo as President of Japan Atomic Enterprise Company (Nihon Denchi Roku Jinyo KK). Toshiba and IHI joined Mitsui in investing in this project.
TJ: In 1950, did you imagine an earthquake could cause this type of disaster?
Dr. NakaMats: Although I was involved in this project from the very beginning, our group was not involved in selecting the location, and the location that was selected was a mistake.
TJ: So it was their project?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes, it was their money. We were responsible for the product and design but they were responsible for the location and building it.
TJ: Did GE advise you on the location?
Dr. NakaMats: GE had little knowledge of earthquakes and tsunamis, and one of their key mistakes was that they didn’t realize that their design was not suitable to withstand a large earthquake, and TEPCO was ultimately responsible for choosing the location.
TJ: Do you still have friends at GE? What did they say about the Fukushima disaster?
Dr. NakaMats: Soon after the tsunami, maybe the very next day, I received a call from an engineer from GE I worked with on this project. Although he was an employee of GE at the time and he proposed that the company improve the design, the company did not accept his proposal. I had also insisted that design flaws be fixed by GE before it reached implementation, but my concerns fell on deaf ears. So, he called me to suggest that TEPCO sue GE for the design flaws.
TJ: So were you with Mitsui when the construction was complete?
Dr. NakaMats: No. I had stepped down from my position at Mitsui to become an independent researcher and I returned to the University of Tokyo. So I was involved in the design, but not in the construction.
TJ: How do you think the government handled the nuclear disaster?
Dr. NakaMats: Very badly. After the disaster occurred, time was of essence. A nuclear accident is like a stroke. There is very limited time. If you take the correct actions right away, things may be ok. If they would have come to me within four hours, I could have suggested ways to fix it.
TJ: What would you have done? Release pressure?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes, of course. I would have done several things to cool it off.
TJ: How about putting salt water in? Was that a good idea?
Dr. NakaMats: No, it was a very bad idea. Amateurish. Lots of salt. Very bad.
TJ: So, if there were another earthquake right now, is the situation dangerous?
Dr. NakaMats: Yes, of course. If there were another large earthquake or tsunami the situation would be very dangerous.
TJ: What would you do with the debris?
Dr. NakaMats: I am currently doing very important research to find a way to clean this radioactive debris. As you know, I was selected as one of the five greatest scientists by the U.S. Science Academy. So on this trip to the U.S., I am going to the U.S. Science Academy to talk about this very topic and to propose a way to get rid of the radioactive material.
TJ: What do you think about the nuclear disaster in Fukushima?
Dr. NakaMats: I think the present day nuclear reactor technology is very poor and outdated. I am working on inventions that will help ensure safety while providing us all the power necessary.
TJ: What is your latest invention?
Dr. NakaMats: This one here. The world’s smallest air conditioner. This is a prototype. (Holding up a 1.5 cubic inch electronic gadget)
As this article goes to print, Dr. NakaMats has thrown his hat into the ring in the race for Tokyo Governor in which he will undoubtedly attempt to apply his innovative thinking to solve the challenges that Tokyo faces. It will be refreshing for everyone to have a new governor in town, and regardless of the results we can be sure of one thing, invention #3,369 is just around the corner. tj
This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.
To order Issue 270, click here.