Japanese scientist kills himself


Dr. Yoshiki Sasai, a 52-year old renowned scientist at Riken institute in Japan has recently committed suicide following retractions of two controversial papers on STAP cells. The lead author of these papers is Dr. Haruko Obokata. Obokata is a beautiful young Japanese woman scientist so Japanese media treated her almost like a celebrity when Nature published Obokata’s two papers showing groundbreaking discovery.

Nobody imagined Nature’s two retraction notices would turn into a huge scandal that drove Sasai to commit suicide. ¬†Following retractions, Riken formed the investigative committee to find out whether Obokata has violated scientific ethics by falsifying the data.

It was reported that woman scientists make up only 14% of the total number of scientists in Japan so when Obokata became famous, Japanese media treated Obokata as if she was a celebrity and she became famous for her stylish appearance and the media focused more on her fashion than her actual research.

Soon enough..other researchers started to complain that they could not replicate the STAP cells that Obokata allegedly succeeded in reproducing stem cells over 200 times. Based on the investigation, Obokata is found responsible for falsifying the research data and basically she was found guilty of committing academic misconduct and Sasai, who was the deputy director at RIKEN was also accused of his oversight. Although Sasai was not directly involved in generating the data Obokata fabricated, he failed to catch the errors (or misconduct) before submitting these two manuscripts to Nature.

This news went viral not only in Japan but also in other countries. Obokata held a press conference and made a tearful apology to public at the conference which was broadcasted on TV. She was still contesting that she did not have malicious intent to falsify the data and she truly believes that STAP cells exist and all she wanted was to prove that there was a simple procedure to generate stem cells that could have lead to the cure of various diseases.

This news has damaged the credibility of Japanese scientists and Japanese science in general and permanently damaged the reputation of RIKEN, which is affiliated with Japanese government. Sasai was under enormous pressure and stress, and was hospitalized for one month for his condition.  RIKEN constituted an investigative committee and also ordered Obokata to redo the experiment and to prove her method. Obokata failed to do so and this must have pushed Sasai to the edge.

What is so troublesome about this incident is that this embarrassing academic misconduct caused Sasai to take his own life by hanging in the staircase areas at his work place. Sasai was found by the security guard and although he was rushed to nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead after two hours. Police confirmed that Sasai died due to apparent suicide and he even left notes to his colleagues that include Haruko Obokata.

Why did Sasai choose to commit suicide at his work place? There are unanswered questions but he wanted to deliver some message to his employer.

I just wonder..what If he chooses to live with the mistakes he and his mentee had made? What would have happened to him? Sasai was probably dismissed from his position and his credibility as scientist was damaged severely but because Sasai had already accomplished the impressive record of his research, he could have eventually returned to science and because of his record, he may have even be hired by another research institution or by university. But Sasai chose to end his life rather than living with embarrassment. Obokata was notified of Sasai’s untimely death over the phone and she has been in very unstable mental state and she is currently being supported by two staff and one colleague at RIKEN.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and honorable suicide was often committed in Japan historically and we are assuming that Sasai’s suicide was his way of atoning his mistakes. It sounds insane to Americans and people from the rest of the countries who are unfamiliar with the concept of honorable suicide. This incident reflects Japan’s enormous cultural and societal pressure imposed on people especially employees.

This is a tragedy and my heart goes out to Sasai’s family. Sure, he has made serious mistakes but he could have just focused on proving the world wrong or to start planning a plan B for himself. He instead took an extreme measure to deliver his message to the RIKEN institute because he chose his work place to commit suicide.

Although growing up in Japan and I understand the level of pressure Sasai must have felt, ending one’s life is not always the answer. I feel sympathy for Sasai who chose to escape by ending his life rather than coming back stronger with other research or other areas. He was a renowned scientist after all. This incident reflects Japanese society’s lack of forgiveness in general. In America (since I have lived here for many years), people are generally a little more open to giving someone a second chance. Of course it all depends on what kind of crimes or mistakes people have made. Suicide rates are lower in America because America is an individualistic society as opposed to Japanese society being a collective society that values the membership of the group an individual belongs to in society. Japanese employees are extremely loyal to their employers because of life time employment system. So if you see from the perspectives of Japanese culture, Sasai’s ultimate decision to end his life is unacceptable yet understandable. I doubt that he was involved in manipulating the data but he was probably too busy to properly supervise Obokata’s work and he also wanted to be the first team of scientists to make this huge discovery.

Don’t die,,choose to live. No matter what happens, we must live through difficulties and things happen for a reason, I believe and this could have a test for Sasai to grow as a human being further but he chose to end it all.

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