Interview

Interview with Nakamatsu

One Creative Genius
An Interview with Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu

Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu holds more than 2,300 patents, more than double the 1,093 held by Thomas Edison. The next closest competitor holds just 400. For the past seven straight years, Dr. Nakamatsu has won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Inventors in New York City.

Dr. Nakamatsu invented the floppy disk and licensed the technology to IBM. “Does he get a royalty on the millions of disks sold every year?” I wondered; I discovered later that he does.

Among his many inventions are the compact disc, the compact disc player, the digital watch, a unique golf putter, and a water-powered engine.

When I began work on What a Great Idea!, it occurred to me that a way to begin might be to find the “most creative person in the world” and interview him or her.

Soon afterward, I read an intriguing article in Success magazine about Dr. Nakamatsu. I picked up the phone and called Success. The people there graciously provided me with Dr. Nakamatsu’s business phone number. Checking the differences in time zones, I then waited until the appropriate Tokyo time and placed my overseas call. A receptionist answered. I explained my desire to talk with Dr. Nakamatsu, fully expecting to be put off. To my great surprise, the receptionist simply put me on hold, and in a very brief moment, Dr. Nakamatsu answered the phone

I was impressed and put at ease by his immediacy and openness. The first thing out of his mouth, after saying hello, was “What’s your fax number?” In this preliminary, long-distance meeting, I described my company-Creative Management Group-my creativity workshops, and my plans for this book. We agreed to share information immediately through our respective fax machines.

Within a few days after my initial call, Dr. Nakamatsu called back and said he would be in Pittsburgh in April to unveil his latest invention. Pittsburgh provided another lure, however. An avid baseball fan and former collegiate pitcher, Dr. Nakamatsu had been invited to throw out the first ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ opening game. I immediately requested, and felt very fortunate to receive, an interview.

When we met in Pittsburgh, I was struck by the man’s balance: he was formal when he needed to be formal, but he also knew how to be comfortable. In fact, when I first met him, he had just bought his first pair of Dock-Siders and began asking me all about American clothing. On reflection I found it very significant that the idea man wasn’t so much telling me things as asking me questions.

What began as a half-hour interview turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my life: a five-hour conversation with the most creative inventor on the globe today! Graciously, he permitted me to include highlights of that interview here.

We sat side by side in stuffed chairs in the dimly lighted, luxurious “trophy room” of an old private club-the Duquesne Club, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the large, walnut-paneled space, decorated in richly hued fabrics, it was just he (the inventor), I (the writer), and his wife (the recorder, who got part of the interview on camcorder).

I’d seen his picture in newspapers and magazines, but still he was much younger looking than I expected. Most striking was his combination of youthful enthusiasm and attentive wisdom.

 

The Interview

Nakamatsu:

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?

Nakamatsu:

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?

Nakamatsu:

Yes, but 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 and try again.” To me, trying too hard stifles creativity.

Nakamatsu:

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!

Nakamatsu:

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 and rock and wood.

Chic:

So you go into your “static” room to meditate?

Nakamatsu:

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 “naive incubation.”

Nakamatsu:

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 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...

Nakamatsu:

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. I call it “creative swimming.”

Chic:

That seems to fit very well with the strategy I teach in my creativity workshops: discover and use your “idea-friendly times.”

Nakamatsu:

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.”

Nakamatsu:

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?

Nakamatsu:

In all, I have 110 employees.

Chic:

And what exactly do they do?

Nakamatsu:

They work with my ideas, make prototypes, and give other assistance with details.

Chic:

Do you come up with ideas at night?

Nakamatsu:

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 like he did?

Nakamatsu:

Yes. Twice a day I take thirty-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?

Nakamatsu:

Special sound frequencies pulse from footrest to headrest, stimulating blood circulation and increasing synaptic activity in the brain. An hour 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?

Nakamatsu:

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 American research-and-development firms take themselves through your three stages?

Nakamatsu:

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.

Nakamatsu:

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.

Nakamatsu:

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. Sports like jogging, tennis, and golf, I don’t believe, are conducive to the brain waves for creativity.

Chic:

Hmmmm. I’d really like to see your research on that, because 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.

Nakamatsu:

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:

What are some of your suggestions to American executives on ways to become more creative?

Nakamatsu:

I’d like to see the work ethic in the United States more geared to creativity. We need more creative people and more creative leaders. Governments as a whole must learn to be more creative. I’ve just written a book called The Invention of Government. I’m trying to show that through the creative process, governments-not just individuals-can be more innovative. Among my goals right now are working in political reform in Japan and improving our relationship with the United States. I want Americans and others to understand that many of the perceived barriers between nations-trade barriers, cultural barriers-aren’t as strong as people think they are. It’s just that we don’t understand each other as well as we should, and that means we must become more open with each other.

Chic:

In that regard, I’m very impressed by your openness to discuss and to spend so many hours with me. So many people in the United States who have one or two good ideas don’t share them with anyone. They’re afraid that people are going to steal them. And here you’ve opened up an International Genius Convention-for everyone to display their ideas.

Nakamatsu:

No, so let’s invent a product together. What would you buy today if it were available?

Chic:

I’d buy a recording device, about the size of a credit card, that could fit in my shirt pocket. Every time I had a flash of an idea, I could just record it. It would be voice-activated, with a very large memory, and have a voice-activated filing system for idea management.

Nakamatsu:

What would you call it?

Chic:

I’d call it “Flash”- because it would just be flashes of ideas, which you could then download onto a computer system.

Nakamatsu:

Very good.

Chic:

[He then gave me a ten-minute education on micro technology and a grilling on what I thought of the idea’s market potential.]

Nakamatsu:

This will be our first product together, so when I get home, I’ll turn it over to my research department. Let me thank you. You seem to have the ability to network and to learn from others all the time. That’s what it takes to succeed. And, for every meeting, I like to keep a visual record. That’s why my wife has been taking pictures and recording our conversation on the camcorder. When something is on video, I can go back and reference the face and the voice, not just written notes. Now, would you please type in your name?

Chic:

Excuse me?

Nakamatsu:

Type in your name on this infrared recorder, and it will appear directly on the photographs that we took, along with today’s date.

Chic:

I’ve never seen anything like this!

Nakamatsu:

I know. One of my recent inventions.

 

This interview was recorded April 29, 1990, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Duquesne Club.