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Kyoto University: a treat and a must

Date:22 September 2016
Author:Wout van Bekkum, Professor of Middle East Studies
prof. Wout van Bekkum in Kyoto
prof. Wout van Bekkum in Kyoto

A visit to Kyoto is time and again a great experience and a wonderful treat. My reason to come to Kyoto for the eleventh time is a very good one: my close colleague Naoya Katsumata is a professor of Jewish studies at Kyodai, the Japanese name of Kyoto University. He lectures about Judaism in past and present, and he has a number of doctoral students who speak Modern Hebrew. Katsumata has a room in a large building at Yoshida South Campus, crammed with books, quite familiar to both of us, in Hebrew but also in Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac.

Since 2006 it is our plan to compose a lexicon of words that only medieval Jewish poets used in their hymns. From the beginning we agreed to publish each part of our ongoing research separately, resulting in a variety of publications as well as a book that we edited in 2011.

How is it to be in Japan? My visits are usually short, but every time there are new impressions: teachers and their teaching methods, students who only seem to come to lectures to doze or sleep, doctoral researchers who have much to discover without regular feedback. In short, the educational situation does not seem ideal to me.

But then there is the city of Kyoto: a place of hundreds of temples and gardens and alleys, with inhabitants who are defined by others as introvert, although I do not know how to rate introvert attitudes on a Japanese scale... Those like me who do not read the signs and do not speak the language, remain outside, I am the outsider who will always ask a lot of explanation in order to be able to get a bit closer to the spirit of the city.

How wonderful is it to walk on a sunny winter day or on a sweltering Sunday in the summer through the smaller streets where there is an atmosphere of serenity and tranquility. In Kyoto you can listen to the silence - I am surprised about this in a city with some 1.5 million inhabitants. However, it gets busier every year: international tourism has reached Kyoto, but tourists focus almost entirely on fixed locations: the railway station, the Gold and Silver Pavilions, the garden of the Heian Temple where the famous actress Scarlett Johansson jumped from stone to stone in the movie Lost in Translation  – oddly enough, thousands of tourists imitate her all the time.

Back to education and research: I once walked past a window where an American lecturer addressed his students with a shouting voice. I was shocked: what can students learn from such a lecture? I have given a number of lectures and visited the talks of others. Senior students and doctoral students are often very entrepreneurial in the fulfilment of their assignments, their English becomes better, and they have a lot of factual knowledge. As a ‘European professor’ I have an advantage: Japanese universities like to adopt the image of a European university: Kyodai Clock Tower resembles the tower of Cambridge University Library, and the central campus of Tokyo University is very similar to some Oxford colleges.

The friendliness of the teachers and students, their commitment to study and research, the eagerness to overcome certain obstacles in mentality and character – these are signs of a new vocation at Kyodai. It will not be easy, but Kyoto University, highly ranked among universities in Japan and abroad, wishes to find its way to international cooperation. In this respect I consider myself a representative on behalf of Groningen University for the sake of Middle Eastern research in the Far East. 


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