With the recent turbulence in the international arena, Japan's relations with its neighbors are becoming increasingly complex. On the other hand, one must not forget that East Asian countries have been interacting since ancient times within a single cultural sphere: the East. The late Ritsumeikan University Professor Emeritus Shizuka Shirakawa is the individual who redefined the concept of “the East" from the perspective of written culture, focusing primarily on Chinese characters.
The Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture is a research center that carries on the study of East Asian scripts and cultures that was pioneered by Dr. Shirakawa. To learn about the institute’s origins and its current activities, we interviewed Director Hiromichi Yoshimura (Specially-Appointed Professor, College of Letters) and Deputy Director Tohru Ohgata (Professor, Kinugasa Research Organization).
A center for reviving Eastern written culture centered on Chinese characters, as envisioned by Dr. Shirakawa
Dr. Shirakawa was awarded the Order of Culture in 2004 at the age of 94 for his research on East Asian cultures with a particular focus on Chinese characters. In the same year, he decided to establish a research center for East Asian written culture, and in 2005, he opened the Shirakawa Shizuka Institute of East Asian Characters and Culture (“Shirakawa Institute”) using his own funds.
At this time, Dr. Shirakawa invited Professor Yoshimura, now the Director of the Shirakawa Institute, to come to his home and listen to his vision for the new institute. Professor Yoshimura explained this episode to us as follows.
“In his later years, Dr. Shirakawa often talked about ‘reviving the East.’ He believed that Chinese characters, the international language of East Asia, would serve as the axis for cooperation among the peoples of the region. Chinese characters lie at the foundation of Japanese culture, but looking at the current culture of Chinese characters, we see that Japan uses joyo kanji, or Chinese characters for common use, China uses simplified characters for official use, and Korea uses very few Chinese characters, so historically and regionally speaking, the ties within this sphere of countries that use Chinese characters have weakened. Therefore, Dr. Shirakawa conceived the institute as a center for revitalizing the culture of Chinese characters, which he saw as something that permeated the East Asian region and would continue to do so well into the future.”
The Shirakawa Institute defines Eastern written culture as "the culture expressed in the East Asian world through the medium of writing by the people who created Chinese characters, the people who adopted Chinese characters, and the people who adopted Chinese characters alongside developing their own forms of writing.” “By researching Eastern written culture, we aim to promote exchange among the countries and regions of East Asia and to reconsider the richness of the cultures of each country and region,” explains Professor Yoshimura.
Although Dr. Shirakawa passed away the year after the institute was founded, the institute has continued to conduct research and undertake educational outreach activities in a way that carries on and expands upon Dr. Shirakawa’s vision. These achievements were recognized by the university, and in 2018, the institute was upgraded from a term-limited center to a permanent one.
Shirakawa Grammatology: A long view of Eastern history and thought dating back to antiquity
The field of research that Dr. Shirakawa established was so original and groundbreaking that it came to be known as "Shirakawa Studies" or "Shirakawa Grammatology.” We asked Professor Yoshimura what made this field so unique.
“When you mention Dr. Shirakawa, his research on Chinese characters is the first thing that comes to mind, but you can trace the origins of his work back to his interest in the Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) poetry anthology when he was a young man. Dr. Shirakawa had been reading the Shijing (Classic of Poetry), China’s oldest collection of poetry, since his teenage years, and sensed a connection between Japan and China in the wider cultural sphere of the East. In order to understand the Manyoshu and the Shijing, he felt it necessary to delve into the cultures and histories of East Asia underlying them, so he worked his way backward to ancient Chinese literature and came across ancient scripts like the oracle bone script, which was used from the late Shang to the early Zhou dynasty, and the bronze script of the Zhou dynasty. This marked the beginning of Shirakawa Grammatology.
What is noteworthy about Dr. Shirakawa's research is that he systematically studied not only the scripts, but also the underlying histories, peoples, cultures, and ideologies of East Asia. Using these elements as a foundation, he further explored the origins of Chinese characters by tracing the oracle bone script by hand one character at a time in an attempt to put himself into the mindset of the ancient people who conceived it.”
While there are numerous studies on the origins of Chinese characters, the persuasive power of Shirakawa Grammatology lies in its overwhelming breadth of vision. But this is not all Dr. Shirakawa worked on. He also made significant achievements in the deciphering of the Shijing and in the study of Japanese culture.
“Including his comparative study of the Manyoshu and the Shijing, Dr. Shirakawa explored culture and thought not only in terms of Chinese characters but also in the larger framework of East Asia, and this is what led to the development of disciplines such as Eastern Studies or East Asian Characters and Culture,” explains Professor Yoshimura.
So, how have written cultures connected the peoples of East Asia over the years? Professor Ohgata provided us with the following example.
“There is a story about Naito Konan, an oriental historian, who, when he visited China, corresponded with local literati using written Chinese characters. Naito's writing exuded his personality and learnedness, which earned him the respect of the local literati. Similarly, when the Korean envoys visited Japan, they exchanged Chinese literature and Chinese poetry with the Japanese literati. In classical Chinese, which is a written language that differs from the spoken language, it is customary to include a number of references in short texts. In this way, you can convey your learnedness and personality to others by entrusting something larger to just a few characters. In this way, I think the richness of the Eastern written culture is something that transcends national borders.”
Scripts, Chinese books, and Japan: The three projects of the Shirakawa Institute
The Shirakawa Institute is currently engaged in research projects that cover three major topics: research on Chinese characters in the vein of Shirakawa Grammatology, joint research on Chinese books in Japan, China, and Korea, and research on Japanese historical documents. Professor Ohgata, who is involved in the research on Chinese characters, reflected on what led the Institute to focus on these three fields.
“At the time, while working at Osaka Prefecture University, I was a member of an oracle bone script research group composed of researchers from several universities. At that time, Dr. Nobuyuki Kaji, the second director of the Shirakawa Institute (and now an advisor to the Institute), was looking for researchers who could handle oracle bone script and bronze script, so he contacted me. When I introduced him to the members of my oracle bone script research group, we ended up starting a new research society for Chinese characters with assistance from Ritsumeikan. Although not intentionally, this society ended up carrying on the research on ancient Chinese scripts that Dr. Shirakawa started. In 2013, we published the inaugural issue of Kanjigaku Kenkyu (Chinese Character Studies), the bulletin of our research society, and this led to our group combining with the Shirakawa Institute, so to this day, the Institute remains a premier center for the study of Chinese characters both at home and abroad.
In terms of our research network, we have ties with the World Association of Chinese Character Studies, whose secretariat is in South Korea, and the Japan Society for Cultural Studies of Chinese Characters, which was established by the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation. We continue to deepen exchange on script research by giving presentations in places like China and Germany and holding international conferences at Ritsumeikan.”
While Professor Ohgata is working on a project focusing on characters, Professor Yoshimura is conducting research on Chinese classics, that is, historical documents written in Chinese characters.
“In 2017, the Yu Wai Han Ji Research Institution at Nanjing University in China, the Institute of Chinese Characters and Korean Literature in Classical Chinese at Korea University in South Korea, and the Shirakawa Institute signed a partnership agreement to promote Chinese classics research while deepening exchange among the three countries by way of the East Asia International Academic Conference on Chinese Classics Exchange. The members are supposed to hold an exchange event every year on a rotating basis, but unfortunately, we have not been able to do so since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While online interactions continue, we look forward to the day when face-to-face interactions can resume.
Our current focus in Chinese classics research is Tang dynasty books brought through Korea, or research that traces the footsteps of materials that have traveled between and among China, Korea, and Japan. Chinese books that passed through Korea are characterized by the fact that only their covers were reworked in the Korean style. Some of them ended up in Japan due to Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea and via trade during the Edo period, some traveled from Japan back to China and Korea again, and still others ended up in the United States and Taiwan. We will steadily conduct field research in various sites to investigate the fate of Chinese books amid the changing currents leading up to the era of modern history. This is also a joint research project with Chinese and Korean researchers, but due to the pandemic, we will not be able to conduct full-scale research until sometime in the future,” explained Professor Ohgata.
So, what kind of research is being conducted on the third major project that focuses on Japanese historical documents? We asked Professor Yoshimura to answer this question as well.
“This research project was initiated by our former director, Professor Takao Sugihashi, and focuses on Chinese characters and words used in Japanese historical documents. Most recently, we have been exploring the topic of what kind of Chinese classics the court nobles of the Edo period studied, using the materials of the Konoe family, the first of the five regent houses, as well as a related collection of Chinese poetry composed by the Zen monks of Daitokuji Temple, which is held in the Yomei Bunko, an archive not far from Ritsumeikan University. Research on the literature of the Edo period has so far been treated mainly as a topic for the field of Japanese literature, so there has not been much research on the Chinese classics. However, since kana characters were originally derived from kanji (Chinese characters), Japanese culture and kanji culture are inseparable. The depth of Dr. Shirakawa's thinking lies in the fact that he proposed the concept of Eastern written culture to encompass all of these elements.”
A unique approach to communicating the appeal of Chinese characters to society
Another aspect of the Shirakawa Institute is its educational outreach activities. In addition to holding Kanji Expedition, a hands-on course for both children and adults, the Institute has been actively engaged in a range of unique activities such as the development of kanji teaching materials for elementary school students, certification courses for kanji educators (which certify the ability to teach kanji), and the free distribution of the Shirakawa Font, a font of ancient characters. Professor Yoshimura explained this to us as follows.
“Hiroyuki Kubo, a staff member in the Kinugasa Office of Regional Planning and Partnerships and a member of the Shirakawa Institute Steering Committee, has been playing a central role in our educational outreach activities. In addition to running the Kanji Expedition classes, he gives many guest lectures throughout Japan and promotes the Institute’s kanji educator training course.”
Professor Ohgata adds, “Dr. Shirakawa authored three dictionaries: Jito, a dictionary that traces the origin of kanji, Jikun, a dictionary of ancient Chinese words, and Jitsu, a Chinese-Japanese dictionary. The Jito and Jitsu trace the origins of Chinese characters all the way back to the oracle bone script, and they are designed to deepen your understanding of Chinese characters as a whole because when you look up one character, it makes you want to learn about other characters. There were no dictionaries that could trace characters back to the oracle bone script before Dr. Shirakawa’s works were published, so these dictionaries broke with conventional wisdom and presented a new way of looking at Chinese characters. Our mission is to spread the appeal of Chinese characters and Shirakawa Grammatology."
The spirit of Shirakawa Grammatology is also being applied to the classroom. Until recently, elementary schools in Fukui Prefecture, where Dr. Shirakawa was born, incorporated Shirakawa Grammatology studies into their kanji education curriculum. Mr. Kubo, who was mentioned above, was also invited to lecture at several of those schools.
The future of Shirakawa Grammatology
The Shirakawa Research Institute is now in its fourth year as a permanent facility. “We only have three divisions, so the first thing we need to do is enhance our research framework,” says Professor Yoshimura about the Institute’s future prospects. “At the same time, we want to increase opportunities for young researchers to present their research and focus on training the next generation of researchers.”
According to Professor Yoshimura, Dr. Shirakawa once told him before his death to “go beyond what I have done.” Meanwhile, Professor Ohgata described the future of Shirakawa Grammatology as follows:
“With regard to ancient Chinese scripts, many new materials have been discovered in recent years, including some that provide new interpretations for the oracle bone script and bronze script. Naturally, these are materials that Dr. Shirakawa never saw. We do not treat Dr. Shirakawa’s work as a bible; rather, we plan to expand upon and evolve it going」 forward.”