Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japanese Culture Transcends Japanese Borders
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

December 25, 2018
Honsenji is a temple in Shinagawa, Tokyo, which belongs to the Daigo sect of the Shingon school of Buddhism. Over the years, the temple’s Great Bonsho – Buddhist bell – has come to be known as a “most extraordinary bell.”

Presented to the temple as an offering by faithful followers, the Bell was cast in 1657 with six bodhisattva Kannon figures carved in relief on its surface and the text from one of the scrolls of the Kannon sutra. Since then, the Bell has followed an interesting history.

As was the fate of numerous traditional craft and art work during Japan’s tumultuous period of transition from Edo to Meiji, the Bell was taken outside the country and its whereabouts became unknown. However, it was later discovered in the Musée Ariana in Geneva, Switzerland, and was publicly returned to Japan in April 1930.

It must have been quite a sensation at the time. A ceremony marking the homecoming of the Great Bell was held at the Hibiya Outdoor Theater in Tokyo, reportedly attended by a packed audience of five thousand citizens.

As for myself, what was “most extraordinary” was meeting Mr. Philippe Neeser, who first told me about the Great Bell of Honsenji.

I was in Geneva this past July to retrace the footsteps of the Iwakura Mission in Switzerland. When we met, Mr. Neeser appeared with a copy of “A True Account of the Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary's Journey of Observation Through the United States of America and Europe.” I was enthralled by his account, not only of the delegation, but of the entire history of exchange between Japan and Switzerland since the Tokugawa period, presented in impeccable Japanese and colored by an exquisitely rich vocabulary. The story of the Great Bell had been one of the episodes he recounted.

If there ever was a “most extraordinary Japan expert” it would be Mr. Neeser, whose brief resume is enough to convince you.

“Served as Deputy Commissioner-General of the Swiss Pavilion during the Aichi Expo, and had the honor of providing a guided tour for the Emperor and Empress upon their visit on July 11, 2005.”

“Upon request from the Daigoji Head Temple of the Shingon Buddhist Sect, and granted use of the tea name “Sôsui” from the Urasenke Headmaster, performed a tea offering during the memorial service marking 1,250 years since the completion of the giant statue of Buddha at Todaiji Temple in Nara on October 16, 2002.”

Mr. Neeser’s relationship with Japan goes back many years. At the age of fourteen, he was fascinated by the sense of transience that permeates Japanese culture, and began reading translations of classical Japanese literature in English and French. Convinced that they would be even more wonderful when read in the original language, he started learning Japanese and came to Japan on a scholarship from the Ministry of Education in 1973.

He studied international public law at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies and Kyoto University, and upon graduation in 1975 joined a well-known Swiss pharmaceuticals company and set up the legal affairs department at its Japanese subsidiary. He lived in Japan for more than three decades, during which time he served as the Chairman of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Japan and was decorated with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, in 2008.

He was a businessman and a tea master. Even a well-versed Japanese would find it difficult to match Mr. Neeser’s extensive knowledge of classical literature, performing arts, fine art, craftwork and Japanese culture. He was driven by fascination, but one can only imagine the many hours of hard work that went into his studies. That night, I thought to myself about how Japanese culture does not belong only to the Japanese. After all, the return of the Great Bell itself would not have been possible without the understanding and cooperation of the Swiss.

Having ended his days as a businessman, Mr. Neeser returned to his home country, where he has continued to study Japanese culture and history, while engaging in related social and cultural activities. He is currently compiling a catalog of his collection of tea ceremony utensils, which he had donated to a foundation in Geneva. In October this year, he gave a lecture on Japan at a museum in Paris.

As a Japanese, I found parts of the lecture text somewhat difficult to understand, perhaps because it was intended for a French audience. Nevertheless, I could not but admire the broad range of topics – both old and new – that he covered in his lecture, from his first encounter with Japan to the tea ceremony, noh and even “Gakumon no Susume (An Encouragement of Learning), written by the educator Fukuzawa Yukichi in the 1870s.

It is said that the Japanese do not attach themselves to things as much as Westerners, and Mr. Neeser offers a fresh perspective on this point: “With respect to a treasured item, the Japanese view themselves not as much as its owner, but as a keeper entrusted with handing it down to the next generation. Herein lies the source of their generosity.”

His other views are also worth listening to. “I have been involved with Japanese culture for more than half a century,” he says. “Over the years I have either read or heard about how the Japanese are perceived as a people, such as: the Japanese are different; they have no individuality; they don’t express their opinions and feelings, and so forth. Most of these observations are hasty judgments and are superficial in nature. I am convinced that once you overcome the language barrier, you will find that the Japanese share the same humanity as Europeans.”

He concludes his talk with much esprit: “As Zeno of Elea from ancient Greece said, I am well aware that ‘God gave men two ears and one mouth.’ However, I am a chatterbox, and find it rather difficult to confine my talk titled ‘A Sense of Japanese Culture’ to a mere thirty minutes.”

In my opinion, a man like Mr. Neeser should be appointed “Evangelist and Ambassador of Japanese Culture,” and given the unlimited right to talk to his heart’s content.

Keiko Chino is a freelance journalist and Guest Columnist of the Sankei Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2018年 12月 25日
















一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japanese Culture Transcends Japanese Borders