Prof T Kosuge, Cawthron Fellow

Prof T Kosuge, Cawthron Fellow

I spent an afternoon last week with Deirdre Mackay, who’s been commissioned to write the history of  the Cawthron Institute.  Lot’s of stuff is coming back to me, so get ready for a string of Cawthron stories.

It’s successful turnaround in the early 90s owes a lot to many different people. One of them celebrated his 70th birthday a few years back, an occasion we thought important enough to celebrate with an appropriate gift. We chose to give the commission to Darryl Robertson, another painting on ceramic:

Again, the back story is fascinating. Read on if you are interested.

My first year at Cawthron Institute was spent almost entirely in crisis mode. We were still making large financial losses, most of the remaining liquid assets had already been sold and, not surprisingly, staff morale was very low. In the middle of this mess, we had a visit from a person who over the next few years was to make a very great contribution to Cawthron.

Professor Takuo Kosuge was an acclaimed chemist and pharmaceutical researcher, former head of the Pharmaceutical Sciences faculty of the University of Shizuoka. (He is also the named inventor on the original patent for Greenshell mussels as an anti-inflammatory agent – see here).  He also did significant work in identifying carcinogens, for which he appeared on the front cover of the American Journal for Cancer Research in 1991. As I recall, when I first met him he was president of that University, a position from which he was soon to retire. His son was living in Nelson and I think he was expecting a grandchild. At the time we had 32 staff rattling in a building that could accommodate 60 or more. So it was no great hardship to offer the Professor office and laboratory space, an offer which was accepted. So Kosuge-sensei came to spend the next three years dividing his time between Nelson and Japan, in three-month blocks.

I learned that Kosuge-sensei had spent decades researching traditional Chinese medicine.  His goal was to understand why these traditional medicines were effective. He knew they worked, but the technologies and philosophies had remained unchanged for several thousand years, confined to the materials available to the Chinese back then. If we could understand them, then the principles could be applied to a much broader range of materials. Especially marine organisms, a particular interest for him.

His financial contribution to Cawthron came in the form of an outrageous rental for laboratory space and office services, funded from his new ‘Maripharm’ project. It was enough to make the difference between profit and loss at that critical time. Although it was never discussed directly, I’m sure this was his intention.

His indirect contribution was even more important. A new research project was started in 1990, “MedinzaHerbs”, a joint venture with four partners: the NZ Trade Development Board, the Crop Research Division of DSIR, MAF Technology and Cawthron. Its aim was to develop a new industry for New Zealand growing eastern medicinal crops. The annual research budget was more than $500,000. Cawthron received $67,000 of this to provide marketing support and develop quality assurance techniques. We quickly found that the world market for such crops was a dangerous place for small players. The best strategy was to find a significant end user: trustworthy and large enough to take all of New Zealand’s production.

Rather surprisingly such a user did actually exist. A company called Tsumura had about 80% of the Japan market for medicinal herbs, a turnover of around $2 billion with about 70% of their sales into hospitals. The president of the company at that time was Akira Tsumura, from the founding family. Our Kosuge-sensei was a great friend of the president’s father and had been instrumental in persuading the company to enter this market 20 or 30 years earlier. His introduction was a guarantee that we would always be treated fairly and honestly. That was demonstrated on many occasions in subsequent years.

For me personally, the chance to share morning and afternoon tea with someone of such wisdom and experience was a wonderful opportunity to learn about Japanese culture and Japanese ways of doing business. An example came when I visited Tokyo on behalf of the MedinzaHerbs partners to sign a research agreement with Tsumura. As we waited beside the elevator in Tsumura’s imposing building in downtown Tokyo, Kosuge-sensei came over to me quietly and said “when we go up, you walk as you own whole building”. “Really?” “Yes, I think so”. So when the elevator doors opened at the top floor to reveal a Picasso, I said to myself “I’m really glad we bought that painting, it’s been a good investment”. Turning left, we passed a giant Bruegel. “Pieter Bruegel’s always been one of my favourites” I thought to myself. I walked into the giant boardroom with the New Zealand trade commissioner as my flunky, got through the signing ceremony and managed to get back to the ground floor before the adrenaline let down kicked in. “Very good ” was the comment from Kosuge-sensei. Phew!

When I heard that the professor’s 70th birthday was coming up, I immediately thought of Darryl Robertson. Darryl had created a work for an earlier gift and had a strong Cawthron connection. More importantly, I knew that he had been to Japan several times and worked in the studio of one of their “national treasures”.  So I provided Darryl with various reseasch papers by the professor and asked him to prepare a suitable gift.  The result, shown at the start of this post, was a wonderful mixture of Japan and New Zealand. A very Japanese, evening sun illuminates the depths of the ocean and the various organisms down there.  What about the title?  I remembered when I had asked the professor for some Japanese characters for our 1990 annual report. “My favourite word” was his description when he handed me a piece of paper on which he had drawn these characters:

Shizen” means nature,  he explained.  The image above is Kosuge-sensei’s calligraphy used directly in that annual report. We managed to find a local Japanese calligrapher to put the title on Darryl’s painting.

The actual presentation was quite an elaborate affair.  It took place at the birthday banquet in Shizuoka: over 230 guests, most of whom were former Ph.D. students of Kosuge-sensei, plus a scattering of pharmaceutical company presidents and university professors. It was an honour for me to be there at a wonderful celebration of the life and work of a great man!

By the way, I mentioned in an earlier post how the ‘mana’ of Darryl’s works went up when our Prime Minister chose one as New Zealand’s gift to the Emporer of Japan.  That happened only six months or so after the banquet.

Postscript: a joke nearly goes wrong
We were very excited when we learned that Tsumura wished to send a delegation to New Zealand to talk about a joint research project. The visiting group would include Dr Nagasawa, a director of this very large company. I pulled out all stops for a dinner in Nelson. The guest list included two mayors and a bishop (all members of the Cawthron trust board). Dr Nagasawa was the guest of honour, seated next to the Bishop, while as the lowest ranking person I was put on the opposite side of the large round table, next to Kosuge-sensei.

During dinner, I noticed that the professor was not eating everything on his plate. At home he was required to eat his vegetables but when dining out he could please himself, so preferred to avoid them. As a joke, I leaned across and said quietly “eat your vegetables!” Unfortunately, at that moment there was a lull in the conversation so my instruction was heard by everybody at the table. (Shocked looks from Dr Nagasawa and the other members of the Tsumura team.) “No!” was the reply in a loud voice. That really surprised me. They never said the word “no”, I didn’t even learn the Japanese word for it until lesson 5 or 6 of my Japanese language classes.  “What on earth is going on here?” I wondered. Then I thought I understood. “Eat your greens!” I said firmly. “Well, half of them?” was the reply. “OK, half of them”. And the professor did eat half of them.

What I had not realised at the time was that we had the pecking order all wrong. Dr Nagasawa had actually been Prof Kosuge’s Ph.D. student, so he too used the term sensei (master). Not only that, Kosuge-sensei’s friendship with the founding family of the company gave him a special status. He out-ranked everyone in the visiting team, by a long way. So my joke could have been a major gaffe (and the gamble I took in continuing with it had a higher risk attached than I realised at the time).

It was a year or so before I managed to bring myself to ask Kosuge-sensei about that night. Yes, I had got right, we were indeed on the same wavelength. By his response, he was saying to them “Look here, you would never dream of treating me with such disrespect. But I am OK with it. This is New Zealand, people behave quite differently from what you expect in Japan. Remember that when you do business with them!”

So his use of the incident to help facilitate future communication certainly saved my bacon. Not only that, my status with the Japanese team immediately rocketed. So much so that it took a lot of effort on my part before Nakamura-san, their official contact person, could unbend and relax sufficiently for us to interact anywhere near normally.

Can you understand why I am so fond of Kosuge-sensei?

Professor Takuo Kosuge

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