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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Nobel Winner Lights the Way

Apr. 27, 2015

Today’s focus is on a trailblazing Japanese scientist. Shuji Nakamura won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics with two other scientists for contributing to the development of the blue light-emitting diode, or LED. That goal was once regarded as impossible to achieve. Nakamura used to work at a Japanese firm. He later moved to the United States and co-founded a venture company. He visited Japan recently to promote his firm’s latest products.

NHK World’s Miki Yamamoto spoke to him about his passion for invention.


Shuji Nakamura’s company, Soraa, manufactures his revolutionary LEDs. The devices consume much less energy and give off more natural colors than earlier LEDs.

Nakamura left Japan for the US 15 years ago. He became a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s now a US citizen.

Yamamoto: What does it mean for Soraa to get into the Japanese market?

Nakamura: I’m very happy to come back to Japan to sell our company’s product. Because Japanese are very, very strict on the quality of the product. You know, if we succeed in selling the product in Japan, we can sell all over the world easily.

Nakamura was working for a Japanese company when he began his ground-breaking research. Some of his managers complained it was a waste of money. This angered him, but he used the emotion to motivate himself.

He shared the experience in a speech he delivered a few hours after winning the Nobel Prize.

Nakamura says, “When I was in Japan, my incentive to work very hard was anger. Anger is my incentive. Without anger, I cannot do anything.”

He was completely devoted to his research. He didn’t answer the phone or attend meetings. He just focused on finding a breakthrough. After struggling for nearly 5 years, Nakamura succeeded in creating bright blue LEDs in 1993.

The invention completed the set of 3 primary colors that make up white light -- red, green, and blue. It was applied to many devices, including large, full-color display screens, smart phones, and Blu-Ray Discs.

After this groundbreaking achievement, Nakamura decided to go to the US to realize another goal.

Nakamura: I wanted to start a company. But in Japan, it’s almost impossible to for the salary man, for the general people to start a company, because in Japan there are basically no venture capitalists. In Japan, when we want to start a company, we have to go to a bank to borrow money. If the business fails, we have to give our house and our land to the bank. But in the United States, even if the company fails, the responsibility is solely on the venture capitalist. If we fail, venture capitalists lose their money. That’s it. The scientist doesn’t lose anything.

As a senior scientist, he encourages younger researchers to become pioneers as well.

Nakamura: I think young researchers have to take a risk. Risk. Risk. Because I think research is almost like gambling. If all people select the safe way, all people go this direction, you know, even if you succeed, many people will succeed at the same time. That means no breakthrough. But if one person goes this direction, you know, it’s very dangerous, but if he/she is successful, then it’s only one person. It’s a big breakthrough, no?

Yamamoto: What kind of advice would you give to those researchers who are stuck in a dead end right now?

Nakamura: Research is like solving a quiz. A problem always happens, and we have to solve this problem. After solving this problem, the next one happens. Endless problems happen, endless solving of problems. So I love to solve those problems. It’s like solving a quiz.

Yamamoto: So you mean you have to love the problems, you think?

Nakamura: Yes, solving problems, I love it, yeah.

Nakamura’s passion has influenced his students and colleagues. One student says Nakamura gives them the freedom to explore what they think best as researchers.

James Speck, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says Nakamura teaches them to believe in themselves and their dreams and just go for it.

Nakamura believes his LEDs will drastically reduce both energy consumption and global warming.

Nakamura: This technology is very popular in developing countries where there is no electricity. And that’s because people conventionally they use the kerosene lamp -- kerosene means oil lamp. But kerosene emits a lot of carbon dioxide. But our technology is a very safe, very clean technology.

Yamamoto: So you think you can help out the world, you can change the world with your innovations?

Nakamura: Yes, especially in developing countries.

The Nobel laureate will be 61 years old in May. But age and worldwide recognition haven’t mellowed him. He wants to continue to improve the efficiency of his most famous invention.

Nakamura: LED lighting, you know, its efficiency is 50 or 60 percent. But Soraa’s one is about 80 percent. Our goal is 100 percent efficient LED lighting. That is our dream.

Nakamura is determined to continue his effort to make the impossible possible, to realize a brighter future.