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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004



Discordant notes...

Staff writer

Bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), who became a star researcher with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, was a great man. He was so great that he is now the face on the new 1,000 yen bill issued Nov. 1.

Biographical books on great people for Japanese kids never fail to include Noguchi, who notably isolated the syphilis bacterium and was three times nominated for a Nobel Prize. As far as these books are concerned, the scientist -- who died in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) while doing research on yellow fever -- is comparable with Albert Schweizer, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and even with Christ himself.

But this diminutive man from Inawashiro in Fukushima Prefecture, who stood only 153 cm tall, was great in other respects too -- in particular, in his great propensity to spend . . . and his inability to save.

Telling vignettes

Perhaps, before awarding Noguchi his new global, 1 yen,000-note celebrity, those at the top of Japan's bureaucratic tree would have found it instructive to reflect on some telling vignettes such as those detailed in "Noguchi Hideyo Genkoroku (Acts and Words of Hideyo Noguchi)," a 98-page booklet by Osamu Hamano published by Sanseido Co. in 1939, based on "Noguchi Hideyo," a biography by Tsurukichi Okuma.

From here we learn that self-taught Noguchi contracted a penchant for indulging in women and wine while preparing for the government medical examinations -- and that his penchant was to persist for some time after he passed the exams.

"Seisaku [Noguchi's original given name], whose creed was to be thorough in all he did, was true to his principle even when he visited tenderloin districts," was how Hamano teasingly told it.

In addition, we learn, Noguchi would often send letters to friends and acquaintances pleading to borrow money, since, according to Hamano, "If he had money, he indulged in women and wine to the point of his wallet becoming empty."

His most outstanding spending spree, though, came toward the end of 1900, just before he departed Yokohama for the United States.

Then, despite having earned a mere 35 yen a month as a quarantine officer at the port of Yokohama, his wallet became rather fat. The wife of Sakae Kobayashi, Noguchi's mentor in Fukushima Prefecture, had given him the princely sum of 200 yen, which she earned through silkworm culture, as a farewell gift. Noguchi had also received 300 yen from a certain Mrs. Naito, the wife of a certain Fumio Naito, on condition that he became engaged to her niece and declared his intention to marry her.

But as Hamano put it: "Ahhhhh! What a foolish thing he did! For one night's extravagant pleasure, he spent most of the fruits of Mrs. Kobayashi's labor and most of the money from the Naito family.

"The place was the Shinpu-ro restaurant in Yokohama. There he threw a big party for dozens of friends (in the presence of geisha). But when he eventually sobered up and checked his wallet in the folds of his kimono . . . It was too late!"

Alas! Now virtually penniless, the man destined to be a 1,000 yen icon could not even buy a ticket for his steamship passage to America.

This time it was Morinosuke Chiwaki, a Tokyo dentist, who bailed him out, taking a high-interest loan of 300 yen to pay for Noguchi's liner ticket.

Afterward, Chiwaki's speech to him on the deck of the Amerika Maru on Noguchi's departure day, included the lines: "Wake up from the illusory world of the senses. Accomplish achievements that will wipe out the slur on your name. Only then come back."

But what about Noguchi's promise to marry Mrs. Naito's niece? From the first, Hamano asserts, he had never had any intention of marrying her, and ungallantly broke off their engagement with his departure for America -- leaving his loyal friend Chiwaki to pay back the Naito family's 300 yen.

National acclaim

Perhaps, feeling a belated twinge of conscience (though not, it seems, a terribly pressing one), in a letter to Chiwaki in 1904, Noguchi wrote: "I have determined to save however little or much I can from next year. I have also stopped drinking and smoking."

However, even after he had become a top bacteriologist at the Rockerfeller Institute and married one Mary Loretta Dardis, an American of Irish descent, in 1911 or 1912, Noguchi and thrift still appear to have been strangers to one another. As much is evident from a telegram he sent in 1915 to his friend Hajime Hoshi, the founder of Hoshi Pharmaceutical Co.

The unsubtle telegram read: "Haha mitashi. Nihon ni kaeru. Kane okure. (Want to see Mother. Going back to Japan. Send money)."

Hoshi was generous. He immediately sent 5,000 yen to Noguchi in New York, so enabling him to return home to national acclaim.

Despite his failings, Noguchi -- who was conversant with English, German, French, Chinese, Danish and Spanish -- worked so hard to attain his goals that a popular legend grew up in his lifetime that "Hideyo Noguchi doesn't sleep."

Perhaps that, after all, is why the face of this gifted sponger now graces Japan's new and most oft-used bank note.

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