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Japanese tragedy on the minds of Kyoto winners

The normally celebratory opening festivities of the Kyoto Prize Symposium had a more somber and contemplative tone Monday morning, as the recent Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters were on the minds of organizers and prize winners alike.

"It was particularly shocking to hear the news from Japan after having had a beautiful visit in November and having gotten to love that country," said Dr. Laszlo Lovasz, the mathematician who won this year’s Kyoto Prize for basic sciences. "It was, I believe, after a few days when I learned that people we met at the Kyoto Prize ceremony and later for a workshop in Tokyo -- even those who came to that workshop from the northeast (of Japan) -- have been unharmed, but still the general situation was shocking."

Lovasz, as well as Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, the winner for advanced technology, and William Kentridge, who won for arts and philosophy, were each presented with their prizes in Japan last November. The symposium, in which the winners each give lectures, is taking place at universities around San Diego this week, including Point Loma Nazarene University, where the laureates met with students Monday.

The Kyoto Prize has a strong connection to San Diego, as it is granted each year by Dr. Kazuo Inamori’s Inamori Foundation. Inamori is the founder and chairman emeritus of locally based semi-conductor maker Kyocera.

With Inamori and his wife in attendance, as well as other Japanese nationals, including prize winner Yamanaka, the symposium organizers invited students from Mount Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos to show off banners they made in support of Japan. The students of that school held a pep rally recently to raise support and awareness for the disaster, and created banners offering encouraging messages, written in both English and Japanese, that they plan to send to damaged regions.

Student Tyler Kidd organized the pep rally and banners. He said he got the idea after hearing about a high school in a severely damaged area of Japan that was serving as a shelter for rescue workers. The students of the school decorated it with messages of thanks and encouragement to the workers, and Kidd wanted his school to show their support by sending along similar banners.

"I thought we could do something like that, and send a message of hope," he said.

Authorities are currently estimating that upwards of 30,000 people were killed when a 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeastern coast on March 11, triggering a tsunami. The disaster also caused significant damage at four nuclear power plants, contaminating surrounding areas with uncertain but noticeable amounts of radiation.

Kentridge, a native of South Africa who won for his film technique that blends charcoal drawings and animation, said that art is a way people learn to understand each other. The fact that a Japanese foundation gave him an award for his work, which often dwells on the social strife of his own homeland, gave him a sense of kinship with Japan, and made him feel the disaster more acutely.

"When this disaster did happen, the tsunami, the earthquake and the nuclear problem at the power plant, it did give me a new sense of closeness through the award and through the connection of Japanese people seeing the work and making a common point through that," he said. "That was a very important moment."

Yamanaka, who won for his discovery on how to grow pluripotent stem cells without the use of embryonic stem cells, thanked the United States for its support of Japan through the disaster. He said the tragedy strengthened his resolve to work together with his fellow scientists to help better the human condition.

"What I can do at this moment is just to offer science," he said. "That’s what I am talking (about) with my students and my colleagues."

Each of the laureates also said they were humbled to be in the same company as some of the past winners of the Kyoto Prize.

The prize includes a gold medal and a cash gift of 50 million yen, which is approximately US$600,000.

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