Collaborative Research Leads to Suicide

January 16, 2013

Basis For Apple-Import Restrictions Is Shaken —
Japanese Researcher’s Suicide Leads To Claims Of A
Cover-Up
By Leslie Helm, Gale Eisenstodt
Los Angeles Times
JAPANESE BUREAUCRATS have long used the fear of fire blight – a disease that affects apple and pear trees – as a cornerstone of a trade policy that restricted apple imports from the U.S. Now, the discovery of a Japanese strain of fire blight has led to the suicide of the researcher who isolated it and to allegations of a government cover-up.
OONO, Japan – On the afternoon of Oct. 11, 1995, Akio Tanii staggered into his laboratory at the agricultural experiment station outside this small farming village. He was bleary-eyed and distraught.His colleagues were relieved to see him because his family had reported him missing and he had been under great stress. The 53-year-old scientist was sent home to rest.
Once there, he fell seriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died that night. He left a wife and two grown children. Police determined he had committed suicide by drinking pesticide.
His death passed without public notice. But according to Japanese officials, police, close associates and relatives interviewed here and in Tokyo, Tanii took his life after his research had placed him in the cross-fire of a heated agricultural trade dispute between Japan and the U.S.
Just two months earlier, Tanii had been listed as co-author of a paper presented by a U.S. professor that concluded that a distinct strain of the bacterium Erwinia amylovora – which causes a devastating disease called fire blight in apples and pears – was present in Japan.
In the world of apples, pears and trade diplomacy, that was a damning disclosure. Japan’s bureaucrats long had insisted that the nation was free from the disease. And they had used fear of its spread as a cornerstone of a trade policy that effectively barred apples imported from the United States, where the disease is endemic.
That claim began to crumble with the publication of the paper by Cornell Professor Steven Beer. Tanii’s collaboration with U.S. scientists made him a target for angry Japanese farmers and bureaucrats.Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials insist that the disease identified by Beer with Tanii’s help is not fire blight.Tanii’s tragedy illustrates how Japanese officialdom can bully those who stray from the sanctioned path. His story also suggests a pattern of bureaucratic dissembling among government officials and shows how politics
can pollute science when research becomes handmaiden to national and industry interests.
Friends remember Tanii as a quiet, gentle man and a solid, hard-working scientist. In the late 1970s, a lifelong colleague, Osamu Tamura, was asked by a farmers group to examine some diseased pear trees. He turned to Tanii, a plant pathologist specializing in bacteria, for help. After several years of research, the two concluded, in a paper published in 1981, that the pears were infected by a variant of Erwinia amylovora, the bacterium that causes fire blight.
A cousin of the bacterium that causes such deadly human diseases as the bubonic plague, Erwinia
amylovora is believed to have originated in America’s Hudson Valley two centuries ago. It made its way to Europe and then to the Middle East in the late 1950s and 1960s, causing extensive damage wherever it left its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. As a purely scientific matter, Tanii’s results were significant because Japan at the time was thought to be one of five countries – including Chile, South Africa, China and Australia – free of the disease. As recently as 1974, the government had said published reports of fire blight in Japan decades earlier were inaccurate.But Japan’s Agriculture Ministry scientists told the pair to discontinue their controversial research. As recently as 1974, Japan had denied reports suggesting the nation had experienced fire blight decades earlier.
Although Tanii wanted to identify what he had found as fire blight, associates say, he agreed to call it “shoot blight of pear,” the name Japanese officials now use to identify the disease.
Tanii’s findings, like most Japanese research, were published only in Japanese and did not reach experts in the West. Because it appeared to affect only a few farmers and the research was being discouraged, Tanii and Tamura stopped their work on the disease.
They sent all but two of the strains of bacteria they had isolated to the Yokohama Plant Protection Station, a central laboratory where scientists said they would do follow-up research. Tanii never heard back from the lab.
In 1992, Beer, a leading expert on the disease, was reading an English translation of a Japanese textbook when he came across the description of a disease similar to fire blight. He contacted the author, who introduced him to Tanii.Tanii sent Beer the original strains he had isolated in 1977 and drove four hours to the village of Mashike to collect new samples from trees with signs of the disease.
Beer and his Cornell colleagues tested both the old and new strains Tanii sent him and concluded that while the bacterium was not as virulent as American and European forms, it did cause fire blight. And contrary to Tanii’s earlier findings, it could infect apple trees as well as pear trees.
Last August, Beer presented the findings at a plant pathologists’ conference in Canada. In the audience were several Australian quarantine officials. In response, the Australians quickly moved to bar imports of pears from Japan.
Investigating the matter, Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials sought out the Beer report and immediately focused on Tanii’s role as collaborator. “I asked Tanii-san for an explanation. I told him he should get his boss’ permission next time he does something like this,” said Usao Yoshioka, a section chief in the Hokkaido government.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Agriculture Ministry set out to eradicate the disease, ordering farmers to cut down all pear trees within 40 yards of the infected areas. Farmers were furious at what they and many Japanese pathologists believe was a politically motivated decision, not one based on the actual threat posed by the disease. When farmers asked why such drastic measures were being taken, officials pointed to the Beer report, which had Tanii’s name on it.
Tanii became a scapegoat. Farmers asked why he had taken samples from orchards without the owners’ permission. A farmers group talked of suing him. Associates say the hostility from farmers pained Tanii, who had spent his career helping them. He offered to resign.
On Oct. 10, he called his boss, Fujio Kodama, director of the department of plant pathology at the Hokkaido station, to say he had received a copy of a second article by Beer that was to be submitted to Plant Disease, an academic journal. Kodama said Tanii was afraid the article would add to the tension. Tanii was also concerned about his meeting the next day with a farmers group in which he was expected to apologize for his research. On Oct. 11, he committed suicide. A week after Tanii’s death, the Agriculture Ministry enacted an ordinance requiring that researchers who wanted to take a sample of the disease outside of the affected region get the permission of no less than the agriculture minister. That made it virtually impossible for Japanese researchers to cooperate with overseas scientists. After Tanii’s death, in a tense meeting at the Agriculture Ministry, it was decided that three government affiliated organizations would try to repeat Beer’s experiments. Most recently, Japan has argued that although the bacterium in question appears to be Erwinia amylovora, the disease it causes is not fire blight – a conclusion that experts such as Beer say is untenable.

 

Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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