There are awards given in recognition of outstanding achievements in academic research. Variety of awards in the field of medicine or bioscience also exist, but I would count Gairdner Award, Lasker Award, and Nobel Prize as the most distinguished of them.
The Nobel Prize was founded in the dawn of the 20th century, 1901, and is well known throughout the world. Announcement of the recipients in October every year creates big news that are covered in full by mass media. It can be said that the list of award winners represent the history and progress of 100 years of science from the end of 19th century throughout the 20th century. Last year four Japanese (I will leave it to each one of you to ponder on the definition of "Japanese".), Drs. Nanbu, Kobayashi, Masukawa, and Shimomura were awarded this prize in the field of natural science and it was a big topic that allowed us to restore confidence in ourselves.
Lasker Award was founded in 1945. Its main awards are clinical medical research awards and basic medical research awards. Basic medical research awards were given to Hidesaburo Hanafusa in 1982, Susumu Tonegawa in 1987, Yasutomi Nishizuka in 1989, and Yoshio Masui in 1998. Clinical medical research award was given to Akira Endo in 2008. Among those recipients, Dr. Nishizuka and Dr. Endo were the only persons whose work in Japan were recognized as the major basis for the prize.
Gairdner Awards is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. This year two scientist from Kyoto University – Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Mori – won the prize. Dr. Yamanaka is famous in and out of Japan for his research on “iPS”, but the work of Dr. Mori is also wonderful though it is not as conspicuous.
As you can see from the article in Asahi Shinbun (2009/4/10), the winner of Gairdner Awards in Japan are – besides Tonegawa, Masui, and Nishizuka who are also Lasker Award winners – Kiminari Ishizuka, his spouse Teruko Ishizaka, and Seiji Ogawa. Dr. Nishizuka and the two (Yamanaka and Mori) of this year are the only people who was awarded basically for their research in Japan.
It looks as though both Lasker Award and Gairdner Award are sensitive about how many Nobel Prize winners will emerge from their award recipients. There also seems to be subtle difference in criteria of selections so it would be interesting to imagine what kind of arguments have taken place at the occasions. Especially, a number of discussions appeared in Nature etc. on why Dr. Masui was not included in the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
The only Japanese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine is Dr. Tonegawa for the time being, but I look forward to see more winners in the future.
Dr. Seiji Ogawa is the only Japanese appearing on the list of 125 scientists who has contributed to the progress of science in the history of mankind. The list is in the "in binding" (if you by any chance find this on the web, please let me know…) of July 1st edition of 125th anniversary issues of "Science". He discovered fMRA theory which is now widely used in the research of human brain functions.