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Sunday, June 28, 2009
Jokichi Takamine: a man with fire in his belly whatever the odds
When I had tummy ache as a child, my mother would say, "Take a diastase." So, I naturally thought — as did my mother — that what I was putting into my mouth was a "diastase."
What I was actually swallowing, though, was a product known and widely used in the United States called Taka-Diastase. My mother was saying "take a" instead of "taka," a natural mispronunciation, seeing as taka is not an English word.
In fact, taka comes from the name of the Japanese scientist, Jokichi Takamine, who invented the method of producing this effective medicine for dyspepsia.
Takadiastase, the scientific name, is a kind of diastase. These are enzymes that catalyze the breakdown of starch. Takamine developed his diastase from koji, a fungus used in the manufacture of soy sauce and miso. Its Latin name is Aspergillus oryzae, and it is a "designated national fungus" (kokkin) in Japan. Other countries have national flowers, but I doubt any has a national fungus.
When I downed my diastase, little did I or my mother know that I was swallowing a product invented by a Japanese scientist. When I was growing up in the 1950s in Los Angeles, we knew absolutely nothing about Japan. We often ate Chinese food at restaurants, but if you wanted a Japanese meal you had to go to Little Tokyo, a place rarely visited by non-Japanese-Americans.
Back then, too, no one bought Japanese cars or appliances. "Made in Japan" was generally taken to be indicative of shoddy goods and cheap toys. All I knew about Japan was that it was a country of fanatic soldiers, pilots who had attacked Pearl Harbor, and a people who were cruel to any Americans they captured in World War II. That was how American war movies depicted Japan and the Japanese.
If Americans at the time had known that when they were taking a diastase they were swallowing a diastatic enzyme devised by a Japanese, it might have been so upsetting as to make their inner woes worse.
In fact, Taka-Diastase was the world's first digestive enzyme preparation. It had been in use for a few years in Japan before it took America by storm. In 1899, Takamine was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Engineering by what is now the University of Tokyo. The novelist Soseki Natsume took the potion every day for his ulcer. It even appears in his most famous novel, "I Am a Cat." (The novel's hero takes it begrudgingly, much as Soseki apparently did.)
Born in Takaoka, present-day Toyama Prefecture, in November 1854, Takamine spent his childhood in Kanazawa, capital of present-day Ishikawa Prefecture in central Honshu. Considering his background, it is no surprise that he became an inventor in the world of koji: His father was a doctor; his mother a member of a family of sake brewers.
The story of how he studied in Glasgow (Scotland is famous for producing physicians and natural scientists); went as co-commissioner of the Cotton Exposition to New Orleans in 1884, where he met Lafcadio Hearn and Caroline Hitch, his future wife; and spent his life making such important discoveries that he surely qualifies as one of the fathers of biotechnology is one of the most fascinating biographies of a Japanese in the modern era.
In fact, Takamine also established the first superphosphate plant in Japan to fertilize rice, and he invented a method of crystallizing the adrenal-gland hormone, which he patented in 1901 under the name Adrenalin (now usually termed adrenaline).
Not only was he a brilliant scientist, but — as the holder of the first patent on a microbial enzyme and the first, too, on a purified hormone — he was also an extremely shrewd businessman. By marketing these through American companies, he became a millionaire in a relatively short time and by the early 20th century was estimated to be worth $30 million.
But all was not pleasant in Takamine's life, and yet his determination to overcome difficulties he faced in both Japan and the United States makes him an example for us today. His mother was violently opposed to his marriage to Caroline, an American who was blond with blue eyes. Caroline, too, disliked life in Japan at the end of the 19th century, and convinced her husband to return to the United States.
There, Takamine was barred by the racist laws of the time from taking U.S. citizenship. In addition, in his everyday life he often faced undisguised racism, which can be particularly virulent when the target is successful. Jealousy and racism are a deadly combination.
Takamine went to work in Peoria, Illinois, trying to convince people there that koji could be useful in the beer industry. He invented a process using barley bran rather than malt to rapidly bring about the production of a mash for fermentation. But the labor unions were not well disposed to him because he was an "Oriental," or to his process. A distillery in which he had an interest was burned down in what was probably an arson attack, and Takamine lost a small fortune.
Despite these hardships, he persevered with his discoveries and patents and eventually succeeded again. He and Caroline built a Japanese mansion they named Shofuen, in Sullivan County, New York (the same county that hosted 1969's Woodstock Festival). Then, in 1912, he put up the money to have 3,000 cherry trees sent to Washington, D.C., where they and their profuse spring blossoms remain to this day a symbol of beauty and friendship between Japan and the U.S.
Takamine died in a New York hospital on July 22, 1922, and is buried in a mausoleum in the city's Woodlawn Cemetery — which is also the final resting place of jazz greats Duke Ellington and Miles Davis; America's most famous popular composer, Irving Berlin; and "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville. There is stained glass in the Takamine mausoleum depicting Mount Fuji.
Of all of the photos of Takamine I have seen, my favorite is one taken in the sumptuous garden at Shofuen. He looks dignified and imposing in traditional Japanese dress, while Caroline stands on a raised area beside a large stone lantern, clad in a kimono.
Life must not have been easy for these two people, who were, it is said, madly in love with each other. Despite the era and the trials of invention and investment — and whatever those jingoistic war movies may have chosen to portray — Takamine's life symbolizes the best qualities of Japanese perseverance, dedication and originality.