Yoichiro Sato is Professor of the Research Center for Japanese Food Culture at Kyoto Prefectural University, and Executive Director of the National Institutes for Humanities (NIHU). He was born in Wakayama Prefecture (the southernmost point of Honshu island) in 1952.
He studies the origin of rice from the standpoint of genetics, and more broadly examines the origins of agriculture, including rice cultivation, from interdisciplinary approaches. He also has a strong interest in food culture, particularly Japanese food culture (washoku), in relation to human health as well as “ecosystem health”.
1. Can you describe a turning point in your career?
Approximately 25 years ago, when I realized that the natural sciences by themselves, including genetics, cannot explain the origin of rice or other crops such as man-made plants. I realized the necessity of integration of the different fields of sciences including archaeology, historical sciences or other humanities. An inter-disciplinary research is needed for comprehensive understanding of such complex issues as the origin of rice.
2. What question are you currently exploring in your work?
To establish/develop an independent discipline studying problems concerning food as a whole, especially for "Japanese food" (washoku). Currently, problems concerning food or eating behavior have been studied from academic disciplines such as nutrition, agriculture, home economics, etc., from various methodologies, but this way did not comprehensively deal with the problems concerning food which human society faces. In addition, human knowledge about food is scattered in common society, and it has repeatedly tended "to be born and disappear". As academics, it is necessary to integrate this knowledge for the benefit of the next generation, but the current academy cannot fulfill this mission.
3. Which artist or writer has had the most influence on you?
Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I have published papers and books mainly in the Japanese language based on what I had learnt through my research about washoku. During this process, I realized the importance of selecting words to maximize the readability of sentences. I keenly recognized the power of Akutagawa's texts, which I had read when I was young. Although he was a novelist and not a researcher, I believe that the powerfulness of his writing can play an important role for researchers to widely ask the world about research results.
4. What do you think is the value of the humanities?
I think that the humanities play the role of the "keeper of a fan" for other academics. They are like a command tower for various other disciplines, including the field of natural science. This may be especially the case with philosophy. The engineer wants to utilize the technology he or she has developed - just like trying to cut things just because you have a sharp pair of scissors. But they should not be left to do this. For technology, just as with the military, civil control is necessary. I think that the humanities play the role of the command tower of civil control.
5. What does the future hold for your field?
Dialogue with citizens. For humans, what does it mean to eat? I am planning to continue my research in this theme in the future. Since eating is a common and inevitable action for all humans, dialogue with people in all related fields will be necessary. It will be important to study the act of eating based on further dialogue with citizens.