Japan's 87-Year-Old Patent King Is Trying to Invent Treatment for His Own Cancer
Since being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, prolific inventor Dr. NakaMats hasn't stopped working.
Yoshiro Nakamatsu, aka Dr. NakaMats, thinks his days are numbered. Two years ago, Japanese doctors diagnosed the 87-year-old inventor with terminal cancer, snuffing his plans to live to 144 years of age and produce up to 6,000 patents (he already has over 3,500). His demise, they predicted, would fall around 31 December 2015.
"I only have 15 days left to live," Dr. NakaMats, told me solemnly in his basement Tokyo office, strewn with his past inventions, when I went to visit him on 17 December 2015.
But if the inventor has his way, he will prolong his lifespan the best way he knows how: inventing his own treatment. He's already made it to see the new year in.
Dr. NakaMats is an eccentric Japanese inventor and self-professed polymath whose biggest single claim to fame is for licensing the floppy disk to IBM corporation in the 1970s (though IBM disputes details of the story). An engineering graduate from Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo, he is the world's most prolific patent holder, and among his 3,500 patents and rising, you'll stumble across everything from bizarre inventions such as the "Pyon Pyon" boots that contain springs to give your run an extra bounce to an alternative to Viagra dubbed "Love Jet," which he claimed he made to "save the Japanese nation" by encouraging people to have more sex.
In Japan, the inventor is best known for his television appearances and his numerous failed attempts to win political office, as well as for his first patent—for a pump (Shoyu Churu Churu) he invented when he was just 14 years old. Nakamatsu created the pump for his mother when he saw her struggling to transfer soy sauce from a huge keg to a smaller container in the cold, and the device is now known more broadly as the kerosene pump.
Despite suffering from ductal carcinoma, a malignant tumor that affects his prostate, Dr. NakaMats looked in good health, if a little sullen, when I met him. At the time of our interview, he was still nose-deep in patent applications and barking orders at his long-serving employees, and scolded me for not complimenting him on his attire.
"I'm enjoying my last days," said Dr. NakaMats, his dapper yellow tie and black suit contrasting his blood-red office walls. "But I'm still inventing."
Since being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Dr NakaMats has focused on inventing his own therapy and pursuing four life goals. These include finding an alternative to nuclear energy, inventing a new form of public transport, making Big Data more manageable through a device that allows for easier information storage, and coaching the world's youth to become better inventors.
Although Dr NakaMats remained tight-lipped about the inventions that sought to provide alternative energy, storage, and transport systems, he disclosed details of his battle with cancer at length.
"I'm thankful that the heavens gave me this incredibly difficult form of cancer, they gave me the chance to invent my own cure and help both myself and others," he told me. "If it were stomach cancer I would have been angry as that would have been easier to treat."
At a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo on 24 December 2015, Dr. NakaMats explained that when he initially found out about his cancer, he doubted the diagnosis and sought medical opinions across Japan. Realizing that both radiation therapy and operations were out of the question given his age, he settled on devising a bullet point list of Dr. NakaMats-style therapies.
The treatments sound both eccentric and scientifically tenuous. Examples include a cancer-beating super-food, an immunity-boosting tea, a way of singing that would trigger cancer immunity in the brain, and a robot that could beat the disease. Dr. NakaMats has already developed and is using products such as "Gangan Oishii" and "TwenTea"—a kind of food and tea he claims could boost immunity—while the others seem to just be ideas or prototypes at this stage.
It's worth noting that Dr. NakaMats's popularity is based mainly on his colourful character, number of inventions, and status as a cult figure. One Japanese researcher I spoke to said that few in the academic realm take his inventions seriously. But chatting with his fans and employees, it became clear that Dr. NakaMats nevertheless commands a certain level of recognition and respect both in Japan and abroad.
He takes pride in winning the Grand Prix award at the International Invention Contest 41 times and in possessing more patents than famous American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison. In 2005, he also won an Ig Nobel award for nutrition. A Ig Nobel is awarded to those who "make people laugh, and then think," and raise the public's interest in the sciences; Dr. NakaMats won his for photographing and analyzing every single meal he ate for 34 years and counting.
"Everything I invent, I do out of love," boomed Dr. NakaMats, who told me that his theory of invention is fueled by the emotion, and built up like a tiered pagoda. First comes the theory (suji), which outlines the basic idea. This is followed by the flash (pika), which contemplates the idea's profitability, then comes its practicality (iki).
Aside from work on his new therapies, Dr. NakaMats has just published a new book chronicling his life's achievements, and gives lectures on the philosophy of inventiveness to students in Japan and the US while also checking up on the sale and distribution of his past products. The savvy businessman even proposed me with a discount on Love Jet if I became the product's London distributor.
As Dr. NakaMats's "last days on Earth" were jam-packed with numerous social engagements, it fell to his long-time employee and events and sales coordinator Natsuyo Matsu to take me on a tour of the Dr NakaMats library—a kind of cabinet of curiosities where all his past inventions are stored.
Natsuyo Matsu flicked the light switch, instantly bringing to life Japan's most eccentric inventor's treasure trove full of glass boxes brimmed with inventions spanning several decades. Walls were plastered from top to bottom with posters and cartoon strips detailing Dr. NakaMats's life and achievements.
Surprised by the sheer volume of artefacts, I asked Matsu if any of these objects were still on the market. "Yes, the Pyon Pyon boots and Love Jet are still selling," Matsu told me. "We have a lot of orders from abroad for Love Jet. For example, someone from France ordered it just the other day. We also have monthly orders from [Tokyo shopping district] Akihabara. They tell us that quite a lot of Chinese people purchase Love Jet and take it back home with them," said Matsu.
"When I explain how the product works to young men, they become red-faced because it's an erotic product," she added. "I tell them that they have to spritz it on their private parts."
Matsu explained that the inventor is currently working on a kind of olive oil and wine that supposedly contain cancer-beating elements.
"The more you find out about what Dr. NakaMats has invented, the more incredible he seems. It was surprising to find out that he had quite a lot of fans," said Matsu. "Dr. NakaMats is like a God to us. [...] I'd really like to understand how his brain is wired."