Press Conference for Researcher Accused of Fraud Becomes TV Phenomenon in Japan

Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata, accused of scientific fraud, faces the media in Osaka.

Haruko Obokata had been a media favorite before questions arose about her research into stem cells.

TOKYO – Live broadcasts of scientist Haruko Obokata's press conference, in which she defended her groundbreaking stem cell research against allegations of data fabrication, were a ratings hit on multiple TV networks and online platforms on Wednesday.

The event in a hotel in Osaka attracted 300 members of the domestic and international media, and was broadcast live on most of Japan's major networks. Nihon Terebi (NTV) topped the ratings with 12.3 percent, with public broadcaster NHK in second with 9.4 percent and Tokyo Broadcasting Systems (TBS) in third with 6.8 percent, according to Video Research Inc.

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The press conference was scheduled to run for 30 minutes, but ended up lasting more than two hours, as Obokata, age 30, sometimes struggled to answer questions from hostile members of the media. TV networks extended news programs and shifted schedules to continue coverage.

TV Tokyo, famous for ignoring major news events and sticking with its regular schedule, went ahead with an episode of Law & Order, followed by straight-to-video Canadian action movie Recoil.

The Wednesday lunchtime event attracted more than 1.26 million to a live Ustream broadcast and 550,000 viewers to a live stream on Nico Nico Douga, a Japanese online video platform that allows users to post comments on-screen in real time. More than 690,000 comments were posted during the course of the press conference.

Around 112,500 Tweets relating to the events at the press conference were sent in two hours.

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Obokata, who had been hailed as a pioneer in Japan's male-dominated scientific world, was hospitalized on Monday suffering from stress, and faced the media against the advice of doctors.

In January, Obokata was hailed as a scientific star in the local media after what appeared to be groundbreaking stem cell research by a team she led was published in British scientific journal Nature. Stories about the researcher, who spent two years at Harvard, focused on her cute apron worn in place of a traditional lab coat, and how she had persevered in the face of adversity.

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However, by late March, doubts about the veracity of her findings, which appeared to have the potential to create relatively simple treatments for conditions such as Parkinson's, began to surface. No other laboratories could reproduce her results, and it emerged that part of her doctoral thesis had been plagiarized. The government-funded RIKEN institute where she carried out the research has withdrawn its backing for her findings, and suggested it contained "false research or fabrication" and "serious errors."

During the press conference, Obokata claimed to have successfully repeated her findings "more than 200 times," pledged to fight allegations of fraud and refused to withdraw her research paper.  

Twitter: @GavinJBlair