an interview with the Edison of Japan…
Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats holds the record for inventions, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with over 3,200 to his credit—three times that of his closest rival, Thomas Edison. Dr. NakaMats’s inventions include the floppy disk, the CD, the DVD, the digital watch, Cinemascope, and the taxicab meter.
All of these accomplishments inspired me to consider interviewing Dr. NakaMats. However, when I realized that he came up with almost all these brainstorms while swimming underwater, I knew I had to personally meet this man and share our creative secrets.
The NakaMats method of invention involves diving underwater without an oxygen tank or snorkel and staying below the surface for as long as possible until an idea bubbles up. Upon resurfacing, he then writes down the idea on a dripping-wet Plexiglas tablet. When asked if all that underwater breathing was dangerous to his health, he said yes, but that dying was not part of his research.
NakaMats, doesn’t mind being called eccentric. He is a graduate of the University of Tokyo and completed a doctorate program in engineering. Now seventy-eight years old, NakaMats refers to himself as a middle-aged man, thanks to his theory of longevity, which emphasizes equal attention to five basic elements: spirituality, food and drink, muscle training, sleep, and sex.
His most creative time is between midnight and 4 a.m., and then he gets four hours’ sleep. NakaMats believes that if you sleep more than six hours in any twenty-four-hour period, your brainpower decreases. He eats only one meal a day—at dinner—with a maximum of seven hundred calories. He also photographs every dish he eats to recall the stimulating ones.
NakaMats doesn’t drink or smoke, and does daily weight lifting and swimming. He is a big advocate of the twenty-minute power nap in the special Cerebrex chair that he, of course, invented.
He has appeared on American TV shows, such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Late Night with David Letterman, and has been given the distinctly American honor of throwing out the first pitch at a major league baseball game (in Pittsburgh).
NakaMats’s inventive career started at five years old, when he came up with the idea for a landing stabilizer for his model airplane. A few years later he saw his mother struggling to pour kerosene out of a big container, so he devised an automatic pump. His mother was a schoolteacher and encouraged her son to build models of his inventions and then helped him apply for patents.
His biggest success came in 1950 when, as a student at the University of Tokyo, he manufactured the floppy disk. After six of Japan’s leading corporations turned down his request to have them produce the floppy disk, he granted the sales license for the disk to IBM, which now holds the patents for sixteen of his inventions.
While studying or working on his inventions NakaMats usually listened to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on 78 rpm records. He kept getting distracted by the hissing sounds from dust and popping sounds from scratches on the records. So he realized he must create a higher quality recording device and the CD was born.
NakaMats’s latest project is a revolutionary house that is energy self-sufficient and has themed rooms that either relax or stimulate his mind. In his home, NakaMats uses three areas to spark his creativity. First, there is a “static room” with a rock garden and running water to provide a serene background for free thinking. Second, there is a “dynamic room” with special audiovisual equipment to play music to refine his ideas. Finally, he spends hours underwater each day in his pool jotting brainstorms down on his Plexiglas writing pad.
Dr. NakaMats’s new home is filled with three hundred of his inventions and dominated by a home-theater system with a two-hundred-inch (508cm) screen. The home also features white NakaMats floor tiles with special energy-regulating properties to keep the room’s heating and cooling to a minimum.
Dr. NakaMats is also an idea promoter. He can be seen on Japanese television demonstrating his “Bouncing Shoes” to improve athletic performance or his “Perfect Putter” that is almost guaranteed to hit that little white golf ball into the hole.
There’s a “techie” adage in Asia that the nail that stands up in Asia gets hammered down, while the nail that stands up in Silicon Valley drives a Ferrari and has stock options. Having developed a complete ideation process of freedom, expression, creation, and action, Dr. NakaMats is a nail that keeps standing taller with each new invention.
Now here is my interview with Dr. NakaMats, in which he describes his unique theories of creativity and freedom.
NakaMats: In my country, the drive to succeed—and the competition—is unbelievably intense. From early on, Japanese children are under enormous pressure to learn. I was fortunate that my parents encouraged my natural curiosity, along with my academic learning from the very beginning. They gave me the freedom to create and invent—which I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.
Chic: What are the teaching methods used to prepare Japanese children for the strong competition they face? And how does this affect creativity?
NakaMats: One method is memorization. We teach our kids to memorize until the age of twenty, for we have discovered that the human brain needs memorization up to that point. Then young people can begin free-associating, putting everything together. That’s how geniuses are formed. If a child doesn’t learn how to memorize effectively, he doesn’t reach his full potential.
Chic: So you feel that creativity comes from a balance of regimentation and freedom?
NakaMats: Yes, and freedom is most important of all. Genius lies in developing complete and perfect freedom within a human being. Only then can a person come up with the best ideas.
Chic: We have a difficult time in this country because we don’t allow ourselves that kind of freedom. We have what we call the Protestant work ethic that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” To me, trying too hard stifles creativity.
NakaMats: That’s unfortunate. It’s crucial to be able to find the time and the freedom to develop your best ideas.
Chic: Then tell me about your routine to spark creativity. I’ve heard that you come up with ideas underwater!
NakaMats: Yes, that’s part of a three-step process. When developing ideas, the first rule is you have to be calm. So I’ve created what I call my “static” room. It’s a place of peace and quiet. In this room, I only have natural things: a rock garden, natural running water, plants, a five-ton boulder from Kyoto. The walls are white. I can look out on the Tokyo skyline, but in the room there is no metal or concrete—only natural things like water, rock and wood.
NakaMats: No, just the opposite! I go into the room to free-associate. It’s what you must do before meditating, before focusing on one thing. I just throw out ideas—I let my mind wander where it will.
Chic: I call that naïve incubation.
NakaMats: Yes, it’s my time to let my mind be free. Then I go into my “dynamic” room, which is just the opposite of my “static” room. The “dynamic” room is dark, with black-and-white-striped walls, leather furniture, and special audio and video equipment. I’ve created speakers with frequencies between 12,000 and 40,000 hertz—which, you can imagine, are quite powerful. I start out listening to jazz, then change to what you call “easy listening,” and always end with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For me, Beethoven’s Fifth is good music for conclusions.
Chic: And finally you go to your swimming pool . . .
NakaMats: Exactly—the final stage. I have a special way of holding my breath and swimming underwater—that’s when I come up with my best ideas. I’ve created a Plexiglas writing pad so that I can stay underwater and record these ideas.
Chic: That seems to fit very well with the strategy I teach in my creativity workshops: Discover and use your “idea-friendly times.”
NakaMats: Yes, but in doing this, you must prepare your body. You can only eat the best foods. You cannot drink alcohol.
Chic: I’ve heard that you’ve come up with your own “brain food.”
NakaMats: Yes, these are snacks I’ve invented, which I eat during the day. I’ve marketed them as Yummy Nutri Brain Food. They are very helpful to the brain’s thinking process. They are a special mixture of dried shrimp, seaweed, cheese, yogurt, eel, eggs, beef, and chicken livers—all fortified with vitamins.
Chic: How many people—technicians, researchers, and assistants—do you employ to help with your inventions?
NakaMats: In all, I have 110 employees.
Chic: And what exactly do they do?
NakaMats: They work with my ideas, make prototypes, and give other assistance with details.
Chic: Do you come up with ideas at night?
NakaMats: I come up with ideas anytime! I only sleep four hours a night.
Chic: That’s interesting—that’s very similar to Thomas Edison. Do you take naps as he did?
NakaMats: Yes. Twice a day I take twenty-minute naps in a special chair I’ve designed—the Cerebrex chair. It improves memory, math skills, and creativity, and it can lower blood pressure, improve eyesight, and cure other ailments.
Chic: How does the Cerebrex work?
NakaMats: Special sound frequencies pulse from footrest to headrest, stimulating blood circulation and increasing synaptic activity in the brain. Twenty minutes in my chair refreshes the brain as much as eight hours of sleep.
Chic: So, like Edison, you’re awake most of the time. Do you agree with Edison’s claim that ideas are 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration?
NakaMats: No, now it’s just the opposite! Now it’s 1 percent perspiration and 99 percent “ikispiration.” Now, more than ever, we have to have ikispiration. This means I encourage myself to go through my three elements of creation: suji—the theory of knowledge; pika—inspiration; and iki—practicality, feasibility, and marketability. In order to be successful, you must go through all three stages and make sure that your ideas stand up to all of them, which is ikispiration. Also, these days, the computer saves time and cuts out the 99 percent perspiration.
Chic: Do you find that most research-and-development firms take themselves through your three stages?
NakaMats: Most are very thorough with suji, or theory, but don’t concentrate on the iki, marketability. Hardest of all, of course, is pika, the creative inspiration. Researchers often have trouble with pika because they’re too focused on one particular element. A genius must be a well-rounded person, familiar with many things—art, music, science, sports. He or she can’t be restricted to only one field of expertise.
Chic: Well, you certainly appear to practice what you preach. You know so much about music, about art, about sports.
NakaMats: That’s what genius is, when you’re able to discuss, and to be good at, many things. As much as I enjoy hearing about the things you [Chic] have invented during your chemistry career, about your teaching, about your video programs, I’m most fascinated by the fact that a person who can be a chemist and a teacher and a speaker can also be a cartoonist. And at such a young age!
Chic: Well, people do kid me about looking young, but I could say the same thing about you.
NakaMats: That comes from eating the right foods and participating in the right athletics. Certain activities I believe aren’t good for creativity. To be creative, you must have perfect freedom. I don’t believe sports like jogging, tennis, and golf are conducive to the brain waves for creativity. Swimming is the perfect sport for freedom.
Chic: Hmm. I know a lot of people who feel they come up with their ideas when they go out jogging. Maybe, for Americans, because we don’t allow ourselves to have perfect freedom at work, we can get part of the way there by jogging or golfing—that’s the only time we give ourselves permission to be free enough to come up with new ideas.
NakaMats: Maybe so, but they won’t be your best ideas—you’re not at your peak creative performance if you have to use athletics or techniques to get your ideas. It’s only when you have perfect freedom that your best ideas come out.
Chic: I’m very impressed by your openness to discuss and to spend so many hours with me. So many people who have one or two good ideas don’t share them with anyone. They’re afraid that people are going to steal them.
NakaMats: My rationale is very simple: We need to open up the world. We need to share and interact. I always tell young inventors to forget about the money and create ideas out of love for benefiting mankind. Love is the mother of invention. And, by inventions, I don’t just mean visible inventions. There are invisible inventions, too.
Chic: Invisible inventions???
NakaMats: An invisible invention is something you can’t see but you can use. It’s a new way of teaching something, a new way to spark creativity in others. Invisible inventions are just as powerful and far-reaching—if not more so—than visible inventions.
Chic: How empowering it is to consider a great classroom teacher as an invisible inventor!
Thank you, Dr. NakaMats, for such a wonderful afternoon. My brain is alive with invisible ideas and I hope that my sharing this interview will generate the love for mankind that I hear in your voice.