Obituary: Kunihiko Kodaira

A natural bent for mathematics can be seen at all levels of daily life in Japan. In fish and vegetable markets, sellers tot up figures at high speeds: calculators are too slow and clumsy for them. Children practice the soroban (abacus) and partake in nationwide competitions, in which their ability triumphs over the computer. Japan has produced many mathematical geniuses, none more renowned that Kunihiko Kodaira. But their excellence in that branch of science finds recognition abroad rather than at home, especially when they work in the field of pure mathematics.

Certain younger mathematicians, after emigrating to major American universities, played a significant part in the almost never-ending progress of finding a solution to Fermat's theorem, a task in which they were encouraged by the much older Kodaira. This problem had baffled scholars of number theory ever since the mid-17th century, when Pierre de Fermat first posed it in a scribbled note in the margin of one of his books. Amir D. Aczel's book Fermat's Last Theorem: unlocking the secret of an ancient mathematical problem, clearly and elegantly written, was deservedly one of the best- sellers when it was first published in the United States in 1996. It reads like a brilliant thriller.

Among Kodaira's "disciples" involved in the solving of this theorem were Goro Shimura and his close friend Yutaka Taniyama, who were both at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies with Kodaira, and posited the Shimura-Taniyama conjecture that was an important step towards the solution of the problem.

There was a good deal of rather underhand in-fighting among the contestants for the honour of being the first to discover the answer, particularly among ambitious and highly gifted French mathematicians and this may have contributed to Taniyama's suicide on his 35th birthday. Certainly all the researchers were under very great strain and Andrew Wiles, who eventually cracked the formula almost by accident after years of struggle, spent the previous months in a nervous daze.

Modern Japanese mathematics may be said to date from the founding in 1877 of the Tokyo Mathematical Society. One of its latest fruits is Sugaku Jiten (1985), published in English in 1990 as Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Mathematics. Kodaira played a prominent role in its editing and publication.

He had already published a large number of books and scholarly papers on such themes as harmonic analysis, differential operators, complex analytic manifolds and above all algebraic geometry, a field in which he helped Japan to become a world leader. He was the first Japanese to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, and another of his students, Shigefumi Mori, won the same distinction in 1990 for solving problems in the classification of three dimensional algebraic varieties.

Another of the younger mathematicians, Heisuke Hironaka, won the Fields Prize in 1970 for research into algebraic manifolds and the resolution of singularities in analytic spaces. Much of this innovative work would not have been accomplished without Kunihiko Kodaira's exemplary groundbreaking work.

Kodaira took a degree in Mathematics at Tokyo University in 1938 and followed it with a degree in Physics in 1941. In 1944 he became an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at his Alma Mater. After the Second World War, Japanese mathematicians despaired of any kind of official advancement in Japanese academe and soon there was a steady "brain drain" in all fields of scholarly endeavour to Europe and the US. Kodaira got the call from Princeton in 1949 and was one of the first Japanese to take up a post there. He became a basic influence on 20th-century mathematics. He taught also at Harvard, Stanford, John Hopkins.

He did not return to Japan until 1957, to accept the Order of Culture Prize from the Emperor, and the Japan Academy Prize in the same year. In 1967 he became full professor at Tokyo University and also taught at Gakushin University.

He was elected a Japan Academy Member and "Foreign Member" of the American Science Academy. He had played the piano since childhood, to concert standard, and married the girl with whom he used to play duets, a gifted young violinist. In later years, he protested against the standardisation and regimention of the young in Japan's grinding new education system, accusing the Ministry of Education of crushing individualism, and eliminating creativity and initiative in children and university students, the full horror of which development is all too plain to see today in Japan.

Kodaira wrote some good popular books about mathematics including Journal of a Lazy Mathematician and I Could Only Do Maths.

Kunihiko Kodaira, mathematician: born Tokyo 1915; died 26 July 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most