This is a story of a young aspiring scientist from Waseda who went to Harvard and back, got published in Nature, became the pride and envy of millions, then was publicly shamed

and character assassinated by the Japanese media and Riken, a prestigious Japanese academic institution. Everyone loves to talk about her, but her greatest contribution was the light she shed on the scientific culture gap, politics, and the money behind science.

Most Japanese have zero to no literacy in her research or regarding science in general. No one is able to judge her for her work, not even the media. So during her public execution by the very media inept at science, no one really knew what they were talking about beyond reporting the events and the public sentiment as it all transpired.

She is the beautiful young starlet genius who got caught cheating. It's, "Ah, poor thing." vs, "Nah, she deserves it."

Men are generally sympathetic. Some say it's because they're the sympathetic gender, but others are quick to say it's clearly because she's "kinda hot" (for a lack of a better term). For women, many despise her not for her science, but for the sympathy she garners from men presumably just for being "kinda hot". Some would say women are just jealous, but of course, women who feel their disapproval is justified objectively would all take offense to that, as would the men who feel their approval is objective.

However, both genders appear to agree that she has been unfairly made an example of. The paper in question is not her work alone, yet she is the only one at the forefront being punished. Of course, when she became famous, she was the only one at the forefront, so maybe it makes sense on a personal karma level. But scientifically, it absolutely does not. The journals who published her work, the peer reviewers, and everyone involved in sponsoring and encouraging her must all be guilty if she "cheated". They must all take responsibility if responsibility is to be taken. But this is where culture, politics, and money come into play.


No one apologizes for bad science in the west. They do what they do and are simply ignored. There is no cheating. There are those paid to do botched research, there are those that chase government money, and there are those that simply suck at it. But in the west, it's all fair game. It's all part of science. Why? Because real scientists are immune to bad science. The premise of science is that findings are objectively justifiable. Experiments are repeatable. Findings are reproducible. So when news breaks of some exciting new "method" they all try it. If it doesn't work, they move on. There is no shaming in science. Your work speaks for itself, and if it sucks, well, you earn no respect... That's about it. For better or for worse, just as you're entitled to your own opinion, you're entitled to your own science.

But in Japan? This:

This is cultural. And it is distant from any scientific culture elsewhere. She didn't kill a patient. She just mislabeled some diagrams and shuffled some numbers. In Japan, you are not entitled to your own opinion or your own science. This is the Japanese sense of objectivity, and it is cultural. You are not entitled or empowered because of science or the objective value of your work. You are entitled and empowered because of other scientists, the institutions, and being a part of their advancement. Your misconduct shames the group. Hence, the un-shaming of the group is done through the ritualistic shaming of yourself. This is how order and balance is restored in their universe.

But why the fireworks?


Given her case, you would think plagiarism is rare and punished harshly in Japan, but it is the exact opposite. Students copy and paste all day, and professors don't even read the papers that land on their desks. For the most part, no one cares. Most students just want to graduate and get a job, and professors and their institutions facilitate. But what is worse for young students is that professors will also steal their work. Maybe "take credit for" is the proper term, but to a scientist, to not be able to claim your own work is working for no reward. And this too is an epidemic. This forces students to leave and work for corporations, or transfer to the US to never return.

Of course, all this is wrong. Anyone can see it, even the Japanese. And in good traditional Japanese fashion, appearance or tatemae must be maintained. For this, they give us Dr. Obokata's severed head on a stick in a ceremonial press conference. What she did was so wrong. If you get caught you will be shamed and forced to take responsibility. This is the message, the tatemae. This is the balance that is struck. At this point, the truth doesn't matter, and it is not the reality that counts. These gestures with significant social consequences is justice. This is her seppuku (honorable suicide).


This is the side less talked about, and it makes sense if you consider the media was manipulated also. But let's just look at the facts. The truth in Japan is always ugly and it is always on 2ch.

When her paper was published in Nature, related bio stocks spiked.


セルシード (7776) +23.67%
新日本科学 (2395) +19.33%
JCLバイオ (2190) +16.77%
DNAチップ (2397) +16.18%
免疫生物研究 (4570) +9.98%
コスモ・バイオ (3386) +8.79%
トランスジェニック (2342) +6.93%
イナリサーチ (2176) +4.87%
メディネット (2370) +4.62%
ジャパンティッシュ (7774) +4.52%
理経グリーン (9992) +24.54%

Cellseed, Inc., one of the top beneficiaries, is owned partially by Prof. Teruo Okano of Tokyo Women's Medical University, which also has strong ties with Waseda. The smoking gun here is that the 2014 Nature article was not the first time Cellseed gained from Dr. Obokata's published paper. It did so in 2011 with a paper published in Nature Protocol. This paper was about one of Cellseed's products, yet "The authors declare no competing financial interests". And there are plenty more examples of their attempted manipulation. [1][2]

Dr. Obokata made the news and got investors interested in bio stocks in a way no one else could. She was a perfect tool. If her paper was botched, and insiders knew this, you would know the stock would sky rocket, then tumble down ahead of anyone else. Not only would they want her success to hit the news big, they would also gain from a tragic and tumultuous falling from grace -- exactly the kind she orchestrated herself by calling her own press conference.

Money made (cha-ching):

And, money made (cha-cha-ching):

Where is her team? Where are all the other scientists involved with similar research? Why is she crying?!

Dr. Charles Vacanti

All stereotypes and conspiracy theories aside, Dr. Obokata does not look like a typical scientist. It turns out most of her paper was about the research she did with Dr. Vacanti. Sound familiar?

This is the Vacanti Mouse. That isn't an ear growing on the back of a mouse. It's a mold inserted under the mouse's skin to make it look like it. With this mouse he got everyone buzzing about STEM cell research in the late 90s and had some thinking we were already able to grow body parts like fruit. Maybe he didn't intend to deceive, or maybe he did it for a chuckle. Either way, it doesn't help Dr. Obokata at all for her mentor to be the creator of a mutilated mouse.

Bad science aside, Dr. Obokata herself seems oddly clueless about science and objectivity in general. If her paper were sound, then she wouldn't have to defend it. For,

Science defends itself.

And you never heard her delve into any technical details whatsoever. "STAP cells exist," was her explanation, that she saw them, and that she could reproduce them at any lab. She would claim she had a technique or kotsu which is not scientific at all. Of course, the instructions were simple yet no one was able to reproduce the results. That was the only problem. The science was unable to defend itself.

As it turns out, though the integrity of the science conducted by Dr. Vacanti is suspect, at least he conducts himself as a scientist. Though he denied reviewing the final draft of Dr. Obokata's paper (probably to dodge responsibility), he was quick to defend its contents on his blog [4]. And he appears to be the last standing defender of STAP cells, which makes sense if it was his work. He can explain technical details and to this day he continues to promote the validity of his research. But more than anything, Dr. Vacanti is unapologetic. Professional western scientists know not to apologize. If there is one thing you don't do in America, it is admit to wrong doing. It's "stupid" and it's suicide.

What is odd however is although he acts as if the data claimed to be falsified was his, why was it published in a paper under Dr. Obokata's name instead? This is Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. For him to claim he never reviewed the paper is puzzling, unless he planned that as part of his defense.

Speaking of Money, Again

Dr. Vacanti does not pay for his research out of pocket, and like many researchers, needs funding to survive. So it is incredibly common for scientists to compromise to survive to do the research they find interesting. There is botched research on global warming, smoking, marihuana, cancer drugs... and there were high-profile economists that misrepresented the risks which lead to the global financial crisis. This isn't to say everyone involved is a fraud or is a fraud full time. Most bad science is done by good scientists. It's just that everyone has their price.

In response to Dr. Vacanti's updated instructions for the STEP cell experiment on his blog, there was a researcher in Hong Kong that claimed it worked. But of course, there are plenty of financial interests in play in Hong Kong and China as well as big pharma invests in STEM cells and related businesses. So it shouldn't be surprising if one of those "researchers" came out of the wood works thinking it was okay to back this man up, even when every other respectable lab in the world continues to discredit Dr. Vacanti's work.

So the bottom-line is you can't really trust what any of these people are saying or doing. But you don't have to. That is the beauty of science. And the real scientists are busy with their science. They don't have time to point fingers.

The Science Behind Science

After a certain point, disorder cannot organize itself. In other words, a million chimpanzees cannot write Shakespeare by coincidence, let alone one scientist an invalid valid sounding research paper!

Science is intentional. Especially botched science.

So it's hard to say who's guilty or not. But if any scientist claims to have missed dotting an "i" or crossing a "t" they are either working on something so unsophisticated that it wouldn't matter, or they are lying. No exceptions. If you're guilty, you know it.

That fake ear did not get there by accident.

That is the hard truth about the profession of science. If you can't get recognized doing real science to make a living, this is how you get by. Be it ear molds in mice or manipulating company stocks with your pull in the science community, these are the murky consequences of the profit motive, and the capitalist condition. So in the end, everyone is just doing their job in a way. Even Dr. Obokata. She played her role. It wasn't up to her to know if her paper was botched or not because, heck, she didn't write it. Her lack of confidence in "her" work and her apology is evidence that she is not a real scientist and she does not even understand how science works.

What does that make her? That makes her a typical Japanese phD student that got taken for a ride because she happened to have a pretty face -- no more, and no less. Blaming her is meaningless because she is not the cause of anything that happened, but the institutions need you to so that they can cleanse their image. And in old traditional Japanese fashion, most people in Japan know this -- even Dr. Obokata and especially her colleagues. For if it were about justice in the traditional western sense of the word, they would all apologize and share responsibility. Yet in the Japanese sense, what happened was perfect. The witch has been burned.

In the end, if this fiasco did indeed make people close to her rich, hopefully she got some of it too. If she didn't, now THAT would be unfair -- even by Japanese standards.

[1] 小保方晴子のSTAP細胞論文の疑惑: 岡野光夫
[2] 小保方晴子STAP論文問題 岡野光夫教授のセルシードとの利益相反などに飛び火
[4] Interview with Charles Vacanti on STAP Cells: Link to Spore Stem Cells & More

Browse photography at Denver.Gallery.