Okazaki fragments

In 1989-90, I lived for a year in Okazaki (岡崎市) a small Japanese town in Aichi Prefecture. Close to Nagoya, this city is home to the Institute of Molecular Science (and the National Institute for Basic Biology) where I was a visitor for a year. After having spent many years in the US as a student and postdoc, this was my first sabbatical abroad, and in a very new and different alien environment…

It turned out to be my year of magical living, a year of discovery and rediscovery. Among other things a time of learning an assortment of things that included, in no particular order, large scale molecular dynamics, eating properly with chopsticks (or even more properly, hashi), biking, appreciating calligraphy, ukiyo-e and the Japanese approach to aesthetics. This is pretty much what the gaijin do, so the list goes on. But perhaps above all I learned to appreciate the importance of paying attention to detail. Years later, when I went back for a visit, I could not resist taking a photograph of the manhole covers that depict their firework festival in July, something that the city is justifiably famous for!

This experience, that year abroad, made a deep impression on me… Okazaki, as it happens, is where Ieyasu the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns was born in 1543. From the time he took charge Japan was under the control of the Tokugawas until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s, three centuries when there was no contact with much of the outside world.

Japan still carries the baggage of that period in so many ways, particularly in attitudes and customs. A recent lecture by M S Valiathan at the Andhra Pradesh Akademi of Sciences meeting in December 2011 brought back some thoughts of Okazaki, with its schoolchildren looking like they might have stepped out of a Prussian academy of the mid-1800’s when many Japanese went to Europe to learn the culture and bring it back to Japan. It got transmuted into something different of course, but also it has stayed in a peculiar time warp.

Valiathan who was speaking of planning for growth and development in the Indian context recalled Maeda Masana, one of the architects of Kogyo Iken, Japan’s ten year Plan. Maeda had spent time in Paris, returning to Japan in 1878. The basic point that Professor Valiathan made- and why he was quoting Maeda- is that when asking as to what the most important component in the efforts of the government in building up our industries. It can be neither capital nor laws and regulations, because both are dead things in themselves and totally ineffective. The spirit or willingness sets both capital and regulations in motion….If we assign to these three factors with respect to their effectiveness, spirit or willingness should be assigned five parts, laws and regulations four, and capital no more than one part.

It’s tempting to look at our own situation and ask where and if this analysis is at all relevant. Comparisons can be odious, but still… one hopes that the spirit and the willingness is there in the ongoing efforts at development in the country, particularly on the academic front, since that concerns us all. And given the amount of money that is invested in the higher education sector and that remains unspent at the end of each of our five year plans, the cynical view that here capital is assigned five parts out of ten, laws and regulation two, and spirit and willingness no more than three… But that may not be too harsh an indictment of a system that seems to believe that pumping in a lot of money without an underlying infrastructure will yield dividends…

The biologists among you will, of course, know that Okazaki fragments are really small bits of DNA that are produced in the cell nucleus during replication… My choice of the title for this post was prompted by a set of rambling thoughts on a wonderfully cool winter Sunday of kite flying near the Golconda fort that brought back some disjointed memories of another time, another place.