One afternoon last October, 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 safe because his family had reported him missing overnight and Tanii had been under great stress. The 53-year-old scientist was sent home to rest.
Once there, he grew short of breath and fell seriously ill. He was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where he died that night. He left a wife and two grown children.
Police determined that Tanii had committed suicide by drinking pesticide.
His death passed without public notice. But according to Japanese officials, police, close associates and relatives interviewed in Tokyo and here on the island of Hokkaido, Tanii took his life after his research had placed him in the cross-fire of a heated agricultural trade dispute between Japan and the United States.
Just two months earlier, Tanii had been listed as co-author of a paper presented by an American professor that concluded that a distinct strain of the bacterium Erwinia amylovora--which causes a devastating disease called fire blight in apple and pear trees--was present in Japan.
In the world of apples and trade diplomacy, that was a damning disclosure. Japan’s bureaucrats long had insisted that the archipelago 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 University professor Steven Beer. Tanii’s collaboration with U.S. scientists made him a target for angry Japanese farmers and bureaucrats. A record of solid scientific research and a life’s work of trying to help farmers was transformed into the grist for a twisted political drama.
Tanii’s tragedy illustrates how Japanese officialdom can bully those who stray from the sanctioned path. His story, told here for the first time, also suggests a pattern of bureaucratic dissembling among government officials. And it shows how politics can pollute science when research becomes handmaiden to national and industry interests.
Ultimately, in its effort to protect the economic interests of relatively few apple growers in Japan, officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries may have seriously undermined the credibility of the nation’s scientific and research institutions in the international community.
“We have been able to embarrass them by pointing out they haven’t been forthcoming,” said a senior U.S. government official, who requested anonymity. He said U.S. officials have tried to avoid publicity over the matter because “it makes negotiations more difficult. It irritates them. It makes them lose face.”
Meanwhile, officials with the Agriculture Ministry insist the disease identified by Beer with Tanii’s help is not fire blight. And a key ministry official dismissed the affair as a difference among scientists and seemed indifferent to Tanii’s suicide.
“I cannot comment,” Hiroshi Akiyama, deputy director of the plant protection division at the Agriculture Ministry, said regarding Tanii’s death. “He was not our employee.”
Friends remember Tanii as a quiet, gentle man and a solid, hard-working scientist. As a student at Iwate University, where he met his wife, Tomoko, and lifelong colleague Osamu Tamura, he loved to dance and he sang in a choir. He would break up a stiff work schedule with mountain hikes. In later years, he became a devout Christian.
After completing their educations, Tanii and Tamura joined the Hokkaido Central Agricultural Experiment Station, a local government research organization on Japan’s northernmost island. They were young researchers when the story began to unfold.
In the late 1970s, Tamura was asked by a farmers’ group to examine some diseased pear trees. He turned to Tanii, a bacterial plant pathologist, 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 the United States’ 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. Egypt lost 95% of the harvest of one pear variety in 1985 after an epidemic.
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.
The Agriculture Ministry scientists told the pair to discontinue their controversial research. 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 the bacterium 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.
Meanwhile, the disease was cropping up in another forum, thousands of miles away.
Apple growers in Washington state, faced with rising surpluses in the early 1970s, were seeking overseas markets. Although Japan technically was opened to imports in 1971, bureaucrats continued to keep out foreign produce on grounds that it would introduce pests and diseases.
Washington growers began wrestling with the scientific objections Japan raised in the mid-1970s, putting together a $100,000 fund to conduct research. Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they developed a way to fumigate apples, for example, to keep the troublesome coddling moth from being exported to Japan along with their crops.
But with each resolution, Japan raised new problems.
In the mid-1980s, Japan’s concern turned to fire blight. USDA scientists shared test results in 1988 and 1989 showing that healthy apples could not transport the fire blight pathogen even after the apples have been inoculated with the bacterium. Japan still wasn’t satisfied.
It wasn’t until 1993, when then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor threatened sanctions, that Japan finally offered a compromise. If U.S. growers followed a strict and costly regimen, two varieties of American apples, red and Golden Delicious, would be allowed in.
The Washington farmers reluctantly consented, and in 1994 they were cleared to begin shipping apples to Tokyo. But it hasn’t been working very well. After an encouraging start, sales have tumbled. And many growers are finding that the stringent Japanese demands are an albatross.
Mike Saunders of the Northwest Fruit and Produce Co., one of Washington’s largest growers, drives his pickup down a bumpy road through an orchard overlooking Eastern Washington’s top apple-growing region, the Yakima Valley.
He pulls his truck off the road and points to a 50-acre parcel lined with apple trees. The parcel is bordered on three sides by scrub brush. That’s because, according to Japan’s requirements, three times a year the company must pay the USDA to inspect every tree in the export zones as well as in a 500-yard buffer zone around the parcel to ensure they are free of fire blight.
In addition, his company must pay its share of the $417,000 cost to Washington growers of flying in four Japanese inspectors, housing them and covering their expenses for as many as 67 days a year. The inspectors observe the harvest and make sure the apples from the designated parcels are separately boxed and sent to a designated cold warehouse, where they are locked up for 60 days.
Then the boxed apples are dunked in higher-than-normal concentrations of chlorine--a step that causes damage to the packing plant machinery--as extra assurance no disease will be passed along by debris left in the boxes. The packing site is considered a quarantined area, and workers are expected to wash their hands every time they go in or out.
Growers did well in their first season of exports last year. With the help of a heavy promotional budget, low prices and intense Japanese media attention, they sold 500,000 42-pound cartons.
But this year, amid an unexpected onslaught of cheap Japanese apples and a flood of negative publicity, sales of American apples have plummeted by 90% from last year’s level.
First, tiny traces of a fungicide were found on some apples. U.S. and Japanese officials agreed the amounts were harmless, but consumer groups, allied with farmers’ organizations, used traditional scare tactics against food imports to suggest all American apples were poisoned with chemicals.
“When that hit, it destroyed our sales,” said Jim Archer, head of the Northwest Fruit Exporters Assn. in Yakima.
American farmers also discovered that the only varieties Japan allowed into the country were the two least likely to appeal to the Japanese taste for sweet dessert apples. And Japanese growers--who previously had withheld smaller apples from consumers in favor of the biggest and best fruit, which fetched $5 a piece--suddenly began dumping smaller apples on the market to compete with the imports.
American growers now complain that Japan’s insistence on demanding special measures on apple imports has made it tough to turn a profit.
“It’s ludicrous,” Saunders said. “We ship all over the world. What makes Japan so superior?”
Well, for one thing, Japan was continuing to insist in official forums that it was free of fire blight and intended to keep it that way. But that myth soon was shattered.
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 was putting in long, lonely hours at work and apparently was flattered by the attention.
“It is considered a great asset for a Japanese scientist to develop a network of contacts in the U.S,” said Tanii’s boss, Fujio Kodama, director of the department of plant pathology at the Hokkaido station.
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. He also suggested that Beer contact the Yokohama lab for the rest of the strains.
Beer was pleased with Tanii’s help but surprised when the Yokohama lab said Tanii’s strains were “not available.” Beer and other scientists say it is extremely unusual for a laboratory not to keep such strains and make them available to researchers.
Meanwhile, Rodney Roberts, a researcher at the USDA’s Tree Fruit Research Laboratory in Wenatchee, Wash., was intrigued by reports from Beer and other colleagues of a new Hokkaido strain of fire blight. He arranged with Japan’s Agriculture Ministry to tour the affected sites and meet with Tanii.
Ministry officials insisted that the disease isolated by Tanii was not fire blight and had, in any case, been eradicated.
Nevertheless, Japan agreed to show Roberts the affected area. In June 1994, he said, he was taken on a tightly controlled tour of selected sites in Hokkaido, accompanied by a ministry official.
Although Roberts was shown orchards previously stricken by the disease suspected to be fire blight, he said his escort refused to let him take home samples from trees that showed symptoms of the disease. The officials insisted that Japanese labs would conduct the necessary tests. They later reported that the results were negative for the bacterium but offered few details. About the same time, a government scientist published a separate report claiming the fire blight-like disease Tanii identified had been eradicated.
“We don’t know how they did the tests,” said Herb Aldwinckle, a plant pathologist working with Beer at Cornell. Japan’s refusal to discuss its methods “makes you question their science,” he said.
Indeed, such behavior is out of step with international scientific practice. In the past, when countries such as Israel, Egypt and Turkey had faced similar problems with the disease, they sought the cooperation of leading U.S. scientists.
“With Japan,” Aldwinckle said, “there has been no contact. No openness.”
A Japanese official said he twice tried to contact Beer to seek his cooperation. Beer said he was never contacted.
But 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. The action was seen by the Japanese as a slap in the face.
Investigating the matter, Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials sought out the Beer report and immediately focused on Tanii’s role as collaborator. They angrily asked for an explanation from his bosses, who couldn’t reach him for three days because he was on vacation. On his return, he faced a barrage of questions and his phone rang late into the night.
“I asked Tanii-san for an explanation. I told him he should get his boss’ permission next time he does something like this,” recalled Usao Yoshioka, a section chief in the Hokkaido government.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Ministry set out to eradicate the disease, ordering farmers to cut down all pear trees within a 40-yard radius 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 convenient local 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 to take responsibility for the trouble.
On Oct. 10, he called his boss, Kodama, 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, a wiry man with gray hair, 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.
It was still dark on the morning of Oct. 11 when Tanii, apparently unable to sleep, left his modest home in this tiny village and drove off in his car. Aware that he was under pressure at work, family and friends notified police and a search began.
That afternoon, a desperately ill Tanii turned up at the lab. That night, he died.
Today, Kodama is contrite. “In the end,” he said sadly, “I couldn’t protect Tanii.”
A week after Tanii’s death, the Agriculture Ministry enacted an ordinance requiring that researchers who want 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. Beer’s request for an introduction to another scientist to collaborate with him was turned down.
But from Cornell, Roberts went through official channels to request further samples of fire blight from Hokkaido. Finally, in June, he received the strains. He was surprised to find the test tubes contained a mixture of bacteria, suggesting they might have been contaminated. The poor samples complicated the task of characterizing the bacteria.
Still, when Beer inoculated apple shoots with the new bacteria strains this month, he was able to confirm that they did cause fire blight.
Meanwhile, the U.S. side is trying to show that neither the American nor Japanese varieties of the disease should affect the apple trade since the disease cannot be carried by healthy apples. If Japan refuses to consider that evidence, U.S. officials say they may go to the World Trade Organization.
And the Japanese government is scrambling to get a handle on research by Beer and Tanii, seeking to fill in the hole left by a decade of deliberately avoiding the matter.
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 while the bacterium in question appears to be Erwinia amylovora, the disease it causes is not fire blight--a conclusion experts such as Beer say is untenable.
While the debate rages, Tamura ponders what to do with the wealth of research left by his old friend, Tanii, stacked in cardboard boxes in the office of their boss.
“I know I should sort through this,” he said. “But I can’t bring myself to do it yet.”
Times staff writer Helm reported from Seattle and special correspondent Eisenstodt from Japan.