One thing that seems to happen all over the world, are hoaxes and frauds, like Piltdown Man, crop circles and Justin Bieber being a lizard, to name but three. Some have been subtle, and yet others were put on display almost as challenge hoaxes, such as those by entrepreneur P.T. Barnum. Many fall somewhere in the middle. Is there a difference between a hoax and a fraud? I’m going to say a fraud is pretty much a hoax in these situations, but where someone has intentionally benefited either financially or through reputation. Let’s say that shall we? Here then, are four hoaxes/frauds from Japan over the last couple of decades.
When is a stem cell not a stem cell?
Early 2014 was an interesting time in Japan with the rollercoaster scientific ride which was RIKEN and Obokata-san’s announcement they could re-program adult cells to become stem cells in a process called STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency). This was an exciting announcement, given with great fanfare in January 2014, making Obokata a celebrity in Japan, right down the apron she claimed to get from her grandmother which she wore during the experiments (and later proved to be largely untrue).
This news of a simple way to create stem cells was published in Nature magazine in fact – not a lightweight outfit in itself. The Japanese media lapped it up.
Quickly though, many peers became unimpressed, initially citing doctored images, and by April 2014, these doubts had made Obokata quite irritated, and so the press rallied to support her, given the pressure being put on their allegedly photogenic star scientist.
However, it was all for naught. In July, Nature retracted the paper as Obokata could not recreate the results she claimed to have been able to do 200 times, neither could any other lab; her mentor – Yoshiki Sasai – tragically committed suicide just a few months later, in August. It all came to a close in December when Obokata resigned, after six months working with an independent team and still not managing to recreate her results.
Like most hoaxes/frauds, this one took a lot of time in the checking and unraveling which could have been better spent researching in what is a very worthy field, so I label this one a fraud, and given allegations Obokata hadn’t been entirely honest on her doctorate submission either, we await if she can make a comeback in the field.
Not The New Beethoven-san
It seemed that for years a man called Mamoru Samuragochi had been earning a fairly tidy living being known as a deaf composer, indeed a modern day Beethoven – except that he wasn’t actually writing the music. Also, he might not even be deaf.
The music was actually being written by another composer, a music teacher named Takashi Niigaki, who effectively was ghostwriting for the rather more flamboyant and charismatic Samuragochi.
This all came out in February 2014 (a good time for these things in Japan it seems), when the composition “Hiroshima Symphony #1” was about to be used by one of Japan’s Olympic skaters at the Sochi Olympics. In fact the truth was outed by none other than Niigaki himself. I expect since this was on an international stage, Niigaki decided it was time to get some personal credit for his work.
Incidentally, the New York Times called Samuragochi ‘beloved’, and referred to the incident as a hoax, but I’m going to have to call fraud on this one. The two were in cahoots for 18 years, and whilst I don’t doubt either of them had talent, they needed each other – would Niigaki’s work have received the same attention it had done if it was he doing the PR for it, or does it get more attention to have a hippy looking, deaf ‘composer’ fronting the works?
Sadly I can’t find any details of how it works under copyright, but Niigaki claims he’s received 70,000USD for his work with Samuragochi, and with his tune soon to be getting massive exposure in Japan with the popular skater Daisuke Takahashi, I have to assume the timing was related financially.
That Samuragochi may not be totally deaf is just another twist on this, as claimed by Niigaki and others, and even the man himself admitted, “The truth is that recently I have begun to hear a little again.”
The proof in this one is the calibre of future works by either of them.
I’m Your Biggest Fan!
It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that may not be the case when the other person doesn’t know you’re doing it, you’re claiming it as your own, and accepting awards and money for it.
In 2006, Yoshihiko Wada received a fairly prestigious award in Japan – the “Education, Science and Technology Minister’s Art Encouragement Prize”, except that, following an anonymous tip, it was alleged that Wada had in fact copied some of ‘his’ works from an Italian artist, Alberto Sughi.
If you look at two of the items side by side, they do look a little more than similar – that’s assuming you can find images as they seem a little scarce nowadays.
It’s not as if Wada had just randomly found the images either – he’d met Sughi whilst in Italy, studying, and claims to have worked with him, which might be stretching it a little, since that’s not how Sughi remembers it – he thought Wada was a fan and remembers he took a lot of photos of his work.
“I never knew he was producing works like this. They’re stolen” – Sughi
This then, has the added wrinkle of plagiarism to it, making this the only one here most definitely not a hoax. Wada also lost the award – and the tidy sum of money associated with it, and given his defence argument, it’s not difficult to see how:
“I borrow others’ compositions and add my own ideas,” he insisted. “Only artists who’ve studied abroad can understand the subtle differences in nuance.” – Wada via BBC
I’m not sure where he’s going with that, and neither it seemed, did his peers. It seems like he thinks it’s OK because it was outside Japan, so no one inside Japan would notice? Perhaps he underestimated the global nature of modern art.
The sad thing here, like most artistic frauds, is that Wada seems to be a fair painter in his own right, a body of work which is now likely to be discredited or even ignored after this.
Making up History
I’ve saved one of the older hoaxes till last, because for some reason, I find this one the most annoying.
Shunichi Fujimura was an amateur archaeologist who participated in over 180 digs around Japan, and was responsible for making incredible finds which raised huge questions about when humans had first arrived in the archipelago, and thus how and from where they had come. At each dig it seemed he’d find stone objects in ground strata which suggested they were much older than expected.
In late 2000, he and a team had been working at a site near Tsukidate in Miyagi Prefecture, and after a few decent finds, Fujimura announced they’d found proof of human dwellings almost 600,000 years old. That’s a significant difference to what was then believed – most estimates put it at around 40,000 years ago that people had arrived in modern day Japan, via land bridges from mainland Asia.
It seemed almost unbelievable – and indeed, it was. The man had his doubters, and it seems they were correct when Mainichi Shimbun released photos of him actually burying the finds before they were excavated. They then did an interview with him, and he tearfully confessed that pretty much all of his most impressive finds were fraudulent, some going back to the 1970s.
That someone would do this to aggrandize their standing in a community may be understandable, for it did gain Fujimura a great deal of respect and drew admiration from peers, with the Japan Archaeological Association [JAA] and even local and national governments, some of which themed tourism campaigns around the finds.
It’s not clear though as an ‘amateur’ archaeologist, how much this financially benefited Fujimura, or whether it was just the adulation he craved. The man himself, by way of explanation said something along the lines of ‘being tempted by the devil’. This perhaps parallels that he was sometimes referred to as having ‘divine hands’ when it came to finding exciting artifacts.
Eventually, when he was outed by the Mainichi, he seemed to come clean as to the scale and duration of the lies, meaning much of his work could be quickly debunked, and updates were made in many textbooks to reflect that various sections they contained were now known to simply not be true.
So why does this one annoy me? Mainly because some scholars based years – decades – of research on his findings, trying to figure out and piece together the history Fujimura’s finds suggested, and the generation of archaeologists who would have to unlearn his findings from their textbooks. That’s a lot of other people’s time wasted for an ego boost. Some suggested he did it for vague nationalistic reasons, but I think was just an average man who got swept up by fame and forced himself to make the next ‘find’ even more incredible than the last, perhaps not appreciating the knock-on effects these finds had internationally. A review by peers found that the JAA was also somewhat at fault, in not checking for tell-tale staining and other environmental effects on the finds, which should’ve raised questions earlier.
So there are four hoaxes from the Japanese archipelago over the last few years, which join the thousands of others from around the world. Some hoaxes are sometimes started as a bit of fun, such as the crop circles, but as with many things, many seem to have more serious intent, either for fame or simply money. Having looked at these four, I came away at least thinking they should have taken a leaf out of P.T. Barnum‘s book and managed to put on a bit of a show with some of these!