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Japan congratulates Nobel Prize winner

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October 12, 2000 


TOKYO (AP) - Japan's latest Nobel prize winner, chemist Hideki Shirakawa, said he was a bit overwhelmed Wednesday as news of the award brought front-page headlines, a telegraph from the prime minister and a congratulatory visit from a representative of the Swedish Embassy.

"Honestly speaking, I feel as if the sky fell in," Shirakawa said in front of his house in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo. "I was wondering who was going to be the winner, thinking it would be nice if a Japanese was chosen."

Shirakawa was cited for his work with conductive polymers. He shares this year's award for chemistry with Alan J. Heeger, 64, of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Alan G. MacDiarmid, 73, a New Zealand-born American at the University of Pennsylvania.

Shirakawa, 64, is the ninth Japanese to win a Nobel prize, and the first since Kenzaburo Oe won for literature in 1994. He is Japan's second laureate in chemistry after Kenichi Fukui in 1981.

The news was the top story nationwide Wednesday.

"Congratulations, Mr. Shirakawa," the national newspaper Asahi said in an editorial. "Amid growing concerns that more young Japanese are moving away from the sciences, the award is the first in quite some time to provide hope and to challenge the dreams of young people."

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori sent Shirakawa a telegraph, calling him "Japan's big pride." A representative of Sweden's ambassador paid a visit to Shirakawa later Wednesday with a gift of a large bouquet of flowers.

Shirakawa's achievement started out from what could have been a simple mistake in the early 1970s, when a graduate student accidentally made an error in test procedures.

As a result, a polymer that had only been believed to exist in powder form turned into a film, and Shirakawa immediately grasped its significance.

At Tsukuba University, the college north of Tokyo where Shirakawa is a professor emeritus, reporters, students and neighbors gathered to offer congratulations.

"We have a sea of people here," said Kazuo Yoneyama, a university spokesman. "I hope we can handle this so students won't be distracted too much from studying."

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