OONO, Japan — 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.