Japan Owned Everyone at Coupling Catalysts in the 1970s – Why?

In a slightly distracting science blog crawl, I came across something really interesting. I was looking at the Everyday Scientist’s past Nobel prize predictions and was wondering who the Sonogashira he predicted to win and was surprised to see excluded from the Nobel. The Everyday Scientist predicted Kenkichi Sonagashira would be included in the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry if it was for the study of coupling reactions, a class of chemical reactions catalyzed by metals that help link together hydrocarbon chains, along with Richard Heck and Akira Suzuki. The prize did end up being award for the study of coupling reactions, but it went to Heck, Suzuki and Ei-ichi Negishi instead of Sonagashira.

Negishi is Japanese, but born in the Japanese puppet state in China called Manchuko in the 30s, got his PhD in America and spent the rest of his career in America. Suzuki did a post-doc in America, but after that, he did all his work in Japan, mainly at Hokkaido University. Heck is an American. None of them were at the same university, at least from cursory glances at their profiles, so I’m really curious about whether or not they collaborated (obviously, you don’t need to be at the same institution to collaborate in scientific research, but it tends to be really easy if that’s the case).

What’s really interesting is looking at the list of specific coupling reactions that have been researched, and the discoverers of each.

Reaction Year Discoverer 1 Nationality Discoverer 2 Nationality Discoverer 3 Nationality
Kumada coupling 1972 Makoto Kumada Japanese Robert Corriu French
Heck reaction 1972 Richard Heck American Tsutomu Mizoroki Japanese
Sonogashira coupling 1975 Kenkichi Sonogashira Japanese Yasuo Tohda Japanese Nobue Hagihara Japanese
Negishi coupling 1977 Ei-ichi Negishi Japanese
Stille cross coupling 1978 John Stille American Toshihiko Migita Japanese Masanori Kosugi Japanese
Suzuki reaction 1979 Akira Suzuki Japanese Norio Miyaura Japanese
Hiyama coupling 1988 Tamajiro Hiyama Japanese Yasuo Hatanaka Japanese
Buchwald-Hartwig reaction 1994 Stephen Buchwald American John Hartwig American
Fukuyama coupling 1998 Tohru Fukuyama Japanese Hidetoshi Tokuyama Japanese Satoshi Yokoshima Japanese
Liebeskind–Srogl coupling 2000 Lanny Liebeskind American Jiri Srogl Czech

As you can see, there are a lot of Japanese researchers on this list. Few of them are from the same institutions according to their Wikipedia profiles or easy Google searches. And the 1970s show a  flurry of activity. It’s not weird for an initial discovery to quickly kick off a lot of related research and lead to other discoveries, which seems to be the case here, or for one country to end up having a leading edge in a certain field of research, but the combination of both in such an originally niche field seems fascinating, especially because of the small degree of institutional overlap. (Also, it’s interesting that no name appears on the list twice, which you might expect in related discoveries). I’m not super familiar with organic chemistry, so is having a reaction named after you not as a big a deal as I think it is?

Was there something unique about the nature of organic chemistry in Japan at the time that led to such an efficient expansion and application of knowledge? New journals that came out to help spread knowledge in the community? A new push in research focus by funding agencies? Did some conferences or scientific organizations help encourage collaborations on a broader scale?

I’d love to see someone take this on an as some sort of case study in the history and/or sociology of science. I feel like there would be something fascinating here. What’s also interesting, as referenced in this New York Times article on the Nobel prize, is that many of these reactions didn’t catch on in industry until the 90s, so applications probably weren’t behind the original breakneck pace.