Japan’s most famous — and most colorful — inventor/politician/author is coming to Boston this week, returning to the scene of his highest official honor.
He boasts more than 3300 patents, and dozens of books. He has repeatedly run for high political office, easily attracting more press coverage than most of his competitors. He is better known in Japan than any American inventor is in America. He is widely believed to be among the wealthiest persons in Japan. His manner is always masterly, commanding, and deadpan hilarious. He is, I think, the nearest humanity will ever see to a real-life Wizard of Oz.
He is Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu, aka Dr. NakaMats.
Dr. NakaMats came to Harvard in 2005, where he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for nutrition, for having photographed every meal he had eaten during the previous 34 years (and counting).
In truth, that was among his minor accomplishments. A New York Times profile, ten years earlier, began:
Who invented the computer floppy disk? The digital watch? Ask Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats, the man known as “Japan’s Edison,” and he’ll be glad to tell you it was none other than he.
While some might dispute his claims, it is a fact that Mr. NakaMats holds the all-time record for patents — over 3,000, or three times as many as Thomas Edison, who holds second place.
Many of the inventions are serious, many are amusing, many are stupefying, as you’ll see upon touring his web site.
Do not be put off when you see that it’s written in Japanese. Dr. Nakamats speaks excellent, impressive English. His web site speaks, in a sense, some kind of universal language that is bafflingly impressive no matter what language you don’t read. If you do visit the site, don’t miss the Super Jumping Shoes.
In 2012, Smithsonian magazine profiled Dr. Nakamats. This passage captures some characteristic Nagamatsian inventiveness:
Nakamatsu — Dr. NakaMats, if you prefer, or, as he prefers, Sir Dr. NakaMats—is an inveterate and inexorable inventor whose biggest claim to fame is the floppy disk. “I became father of the apparatus in 1950,” says Dr. NakaMats, who conceived it at the University of Tokyo while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. “There was no mother.”
Though Dr. NakaMats received a Japanese patent in 1952, this virgin birth is disputed by IBM, which insists its own team of engineers developed the device in 1969. Still, to avoid conflicts, Big Blue struck a series of licensing agreements with him in 1979. “My method of digitizing analog technology was the start of Silicon Valley and the information revolution,” Dr. NakaMats says. His voice is low, slow and patronizing, solicitously deliberate. “I am a cross between Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci.”
In 2009, Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder gave the world a mesmerizing documentary called “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats.” You can see the entire documentary on Hulu.
Schröder is now making a second documentary, part of which will show Dr. NakaMats delivering the keynote address at this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, which happens this Thursday night, September 18, at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. The ceremony will be webcast live, beginning at 6:00 pm. Nearly all the Japanese television networks are sending crews here to cover Dr. NakaMat’s keynote address.
There’s a new, bittersweet twist to the story. Earlier this year, Dr. NakaMats was diagnosed with a form of prostate cancer that, his physicians tell him, gives him about another year or so to live.
Dr. Nakamats responded to the news in upstanding Dr. NakaMats fashion, holding a press conference. The Japan Times reported:
Eccentric inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, popularly known as Dr. NakaMats, has revealed that he has terminal cancer and is expected to live a year and a half.
Nakamatsu said at a news conference Thursday that he was diagnosed with ductal prostate cancer in December and was told by doctors that he was expected to live no longer than until the end of 2015.
“The life of someone who published a paper proving that if you take care of your health properly you could live to be 144 is going to end soon. I was just shocked,” he said.
But he also said the diagnosis prompted him to seek new innovations. “I’m going to discover a new treatment,” he told reporters.
Dr. Nakamats is still in fine fighting form. The day after Apple proudly announced its new product, the Apple Watch, Dr. Nakamats matter-of-factly emailed me these two photos, with the Nakamatsian reminder that he invented the “wrist phone” in 2003 and the “hand smart phone” in 2012.
Dr. NakaMats will, in addition to keynoting at the Ig Nobel ceremony on Thursday night, deliver a free public talk this Saturday afternoon (September 20) at the Ig Informal Lectures at MIT.
Come meet him while you can. You will almost certainly never see another like him.