South Korea currently holds the title for highest proportion of Ph.D.’s per capita in the world. China is a symbol of rapid technological and economic growth. Despite these impressive achievements, both countries have been unable to produce any Nobel laureates in science or medicine until recently. Every year, the Korean and Chinese scientific communities heatedly debate their country’s Nobel Prize chances, while in Japan, 16 scientists have already received the coveted honor. What factors can help explain this surprising inequality? In contrast to Japan, South Korea and mainland China arguably suffered from a detrimental “latecomer” status in industrialization, the implications of which continue to persist even in the present day. Consequently, the two countries developed in a way that emphasized catching up through imitation rather than innovation. The resulting lack of creativity is still reflected in their current education systems and has led to an environment in which originality and inventiveness are stifled.

Due to Rangaku—the concerted effort to learn Dutch language as a means of understanding Dutch scientific knowledge—as well as early exposure to the West during the Tokugawa period, Japan has historically been much more open to the adoption of foreign science and technology. As a result, it was able to achieve a radical and successful modernization with relative ease and emerged as the leading power in East Asia for many decades. In contrast, both South Korea and China remained isolated in the past and were initially resistant to the importation of Western knowledge. Over the years, the technological gap between Japan and the other East Asian countries steadily widened. By the time China and South Korea finally developed a keen interest in modernizing during the early 20th century, they were “tragically too late.”

In an environment that stresses speed and practicality, reproduction of existing models was adopted as the key to achieving rapid growth.

Due to their delayed start in industrialization, South Korea and mainland China have developed a mentality of “catching up” with the West as quickly as possible. Thus, the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in its early years was dedicated to the principle of winning markets before winning Nobel Prizes. Very little attention was given to basic science simply because it was considered irrelevant to the interests of Korean companies. In China as well, scientific research that offered slow returns was often abandoned in favor of more profitable projects. Therefore, the problem with late industrialization is that it “relies on learning rather than inventing or innovating.” In an environment that stresses speed and practicality, reproduction of existing models was adopted as the key to achieving rapid growth.

This points to a fundamental factor inhibiting the rise of Nobel Prize winners in South Korea and mainland China today: namely, that a strong emphasis on imitation has led to a lack of creativity. The problem is exacerbated by an education system that values memorization over innovative problem solving. While the South Korean and Chinese governments have not failed to invest considerable funds into education in hopes of fostering scientific development, this is only a superficial solution and does not solve the larger issue. Rather than more funds, greater structural reform of the educational system is needed. Winning a Nobel Prize is not determined by what has been learned or memorized, but by the way these skills have been applied to create something new.

In contrast, Japan has repeatedly demonstrated an ability and desire to contribute to scientific knowledge for its own sake. Instead of focusing on better production techniques, Japanese research is more inclined towards theoretical science. By focusing less on purely utilitarian goals, Japan has successfully created a dynamic, innovative environment in which scientists can flourish. As a result, it does not suffer as much from the problem of “brain drain” or “lost brain” syndrome that South Korea and China currently face. A quick examination of statistics reveals the implications of this trend: while the majority of Chinese Nobel Prize winners are American-born or American-educated scientists, most Japanese Nobel Laureates were awarded for their work conducted in Japan.

In many respects, it is creativity that has set Japan apart from its East Asian competitors. Instead of simply remaining a passive recipient of Western knowledge, science and technology in Japan successfully advanced past the imitation stage and learned how to innovate on imported models. In order to truly emerge as world powers and earn the symbolic achievement of a Nobel Prize, South Korea and mainland China must similarly abandon their traditional emphasis on “copycat” methods. The fact remains true that the majority of Nobel Prizes are awarded to work done in basic science. However, both South Korea and mainland China have spared little time or resources for development in this field, instead favoring investment in more practical industries. Moving past this entails learning to incorporate greater creativity into education, research, and societal views. The race for the Nobel Prize comes down to a willingness to abandon the “safe” way and adventurously forge new frontiers.