Hajime Nakamura

   15 August 2020

  Hajime Nakamura

 (1912 – 1999)

Area of Expertise: Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and History of India

The Book Selected: Sutta-nipata, Iwanami Shoten, 1984, and

Hannya-Shin-Sutra, Kongo-Hannya-Sutra, Iwanami Shoten, 1960

The Ancient India, Kodan-sha, 2004

Alma Mater: Tokyo University


Achievements: He translated Mahayana Muryojyu-Sutra and Amida-Sutra to Japanese from the original Chinese and Sanskrit texts following the progress of translations from the Sanskrit texts in Europe, which were named Sukhavativyuho nama mahayanasutram and Smaller Sukhavativyuha respectively. His translation works spread to other Sutras. In addition, he was most keen to learn the History of India as the background of his study by travelling the historical sites of Buddhism-related area of Ganges river basin and to Nepal, then, very thoroughly, to many parts of the Indian sub-continent. With his constant inquiries and extraordinary linguistic capability, he was also interested in the original texts of the most traditional Theravada Buddhism Sutras or Sutta-nipata and translated it directly from Pali. Professor Nakamura deemed it as the most important documents for understanding the Buddhism in general, despite the fact that most of these Sutras were never introduced to China.

What does this all mean? It means, this exceptional researcher concentrated on the critical religious subject with many years of his time and investment by putting them all in India, finally produced the series of books that demonstrated the essence of all about Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. And the implication of his findings is not only increasingly important for the religious aspects of many intellectual Buddhists in Japan, but also its political implications of Japan and the world today.

For your own perusals in mind, our principal findings in brief are as follows:

For Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism already had existed as the most influential religion in India including Indo-European-style supreme god Dyaus, which was the equivalent of Zeus in Greece and Ahura Mazda in Persia. Together with Vedas and Upanishads, there were other religious, scientific and philosophical traditions in India. For the cultural aspect, he agrees with the Western scholars’ views on Caste that it coincided with the Indo-Aryan immigration to the Ganges river basin and the increase of mixed marriages with the natives. Importantly, while King Ashoka promoted Buddhism, he also addressed the freedom of religion. 

For instance, in reading, Sutta-nipata, the readers could immediately capture that this Sutra was written in the greater framework of Hindu religious arguments. In Indian term, Buddha was born in a rich family of Kshatriya in Nepal but he left them to be a Brahman in India. All these original details were ignored and forgotten, rather Buddha became a sort of human god in the Chinese/Japanese Buddhism. As for the decline of Buddhism in India, Nakamura found a tragic fact that once flourished activities of Buddhists in India were ended by Its own Mahayana sect who was depraved by tantrism.

On the contrary, the Sutras of Chinese Buddhism were rather detached from Hinduism. Regarding the principles of Mahayana/Chinese Buddhism, he warned us that the original Indian Buddhism texts had to be modified during the process of translation into the Chinese texts. A lot of technical terms of Chinese Buddhism could be misunderstood from the more-accurate Japanese translations, he provided. He also raised a doubt on the authenticity of the famous historical translators such as Kumarajiva and its provided meanings, which were already disputed in the academic society. Simply, it was not thoroughly scrutinised by the people. Furthermore, Mahayana means Great-Vehicle and there was little communication with Small-Vehicle of Theravada Buddhism.

Then, a sort of stunned admiration was immense and overwhelming among the aristocracy in Japan (and also in Korean states) toward the global empire of Tang China and its technologies, international culture and politics. And the new religion placed in the centre of its unprecedented power was absolutely irresistible for them to import. As a jumbled political reality, however, Tang China was getting the upper hand over India only up to 751. The decline of Tang began afterwards until its eventual fall in 907. Since then, the Japanese Buddhism was further expanded without this continental links but with its own self-generating functions. During this period, the Japanese Buddhism played a positive political role to expand the Japanese territory solidly to the Tohoku region by the 12th century.

In the process of translation, at least one or two Indian or Persian experts, many Chinese had to be involved, where the original text was bound to be sinocised. New Sutras or ideas had to be also created from the viewpoint of Chinese politics, as he noticed. For instance, the famous praying phrase of Jyodo-sect – ‘Namu-Amidabutsu’ in Japanese, which might have been discussed, in front of Frois and Nobunaga, was originally a Chinese invention by Monk Shandao. He simply preferred to put Taoist’s magical meaning to ‘Namu’ – invoking or calling – and no Chinese could have blamed him.

Indeed, not only Hokke sects but also Shinto sects used this word for their own religious inventions, suitable to the further political use in Japan. Some Japanese intellectuals were put off by the superstitious magic power of Taoism but many of them believed, Buddhism was different. The different misleading technics had been used in this process. According to Nakamura, no Chinese/Japanese can understand the ending phrase (written in many complicated but meaningless Chinese characters) of the most popular Sutra in Japan, Hannya-Shin-Sutra, which he himself was the translator. Of course, there were the meanings in the original Sanskrit texts.

Yet, the Buddhist texts were still important for the ancient Japanese to learn Chinese language for the diplomatic communications. It was not only for the sake of Japanese language itself due to its original link, but also practically Chinese remained as the most important foreign language until Japanese modernisation in the 19th century. However, we must also recognize on this specific front that the changes experienced both in China and Japan since then, have been absolutely enormous. 

Meanwhile, such ancient politico-economic requirements have been completely vanished from Japan and China today, due to their irreversible economic Westernisation and the growing international trade-obligations in both countries. From the ancient ideological viewpoint, both the suzerainty of China and quasi-suzerainty of Japan have been lost by globalisation and its newly-established business networks.

In the ancient period, China took the leadership for East Asia by providing economic model of Chinese-originated system and its advanced technologies. In the time of modernisation, however, Japan had to take the lead with its own export economy and the Japan model was duly accepted/exported to Korea and China. However, after the three decades of downward trend in Japan, it is obvious that this model had a serious defect in its management theory. It comes all from the ancient political core.

In this strictly-controlled political environment, all the Japanese critics, including all foreign correspondents and dignitaries (inclusive of the ‘mightiest’ US president), had to start the argument from this ‘defined’ starting point that Japan was already a modern country. In another words, everybody had to accept the status quo of on-going global catastrophe. From this moment of compromise onward, all the serious problems in Japan were actually hidden and the important subjects were decided for the benefits of the old divided power for further inactions. Under the circumstance, it is rather doubtful that such ‘ancient’ Japan can ever have an access to the capitalist economy itself, even on the theoretical basis.

Directly contradicting to this ‘ancient’ reality, however, no one could deny the Japanese constitution that states the adaptation of the modern principle in Japan. The principles were also accepted on behalf of the Japanese nation by Emperor Hirohito at the time of the Japanese surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945 – precisely speaking, 75 years ago. In the following year 1946, he duly declared; ‘I am not a god.’ – by breaking all the harmful ancient traditions and its malfunctions in modern times. Upon which, an unperturbed historian, Kiyoshi Inoue commented; ‘Somewhat funny but pathetic.’ Then, who wants more clarifications from the Emperor? Disregarding his decision, however, the ancient unreasonable politics had to go on and continued unstoppably. 

On the other hand, can their politicians/senior bureaucrats without power/authority be really serious to take on such profound commitments and responsibility? They need to recall with pity and sorrow all the pre-war Japanese leaders including experienced diplomats who had to take such a disastrous role. As appeared almost every day in the Japanese press, there have been no political leadership in Japan, and every sensible Japanese knew it for long time. The elected prime minister must be given the power in the parliamentary democracy. But no Japanese prime minster ever had power. From where has this kind of irresponsible mechanism arrived with a sort of ‘legitimacy’? What was the logic behind this existing political inertia? – Japanese cannot be indifferent on these questions any longer, as their society is now falling apart. 

But Japan need not to be panicking as the answer for this question is simple, and even familiar to its own history. In fact, most surprisingly, the solution was and still is in Japanese history itself – All the Japanese politicians in the post-war period actually had been acting exactly like ‘court nobles’ due to its ‘tradition’. Under the circumstance, the Japanese politicians had to ask Shogunate, or in today’s term, state bureaucracy, or further down to warlords (regional politics without a proper devolution strategy) or even the armed Buddhists (so many gigantic developments in a short-sighted plan but no people’s castles or town planning for long-term strategy) to act for them, despite the new political role defined by their new modern democracy. In other words, this invisible split of ancient power is still absolute reality in the 21st century Japan.

Indeed, the lack of understandings of this fundamental historical attempt, and the diversified misinterpretations of this ‘failure’ of Nobunaga in the Japanese society afterward, were the main cause for the absence of its functioning modern politics. We must be also aware of the fact that the Japanese modernisation was made, after a large gap of 260 years of its closed state system afterwards. Despite the modernisation efforts for 160 years, since the time of the second encounter with modern nations and the following political adjustment by the Meiji Restoration, Japan could not fill in this gap to catch up with further advanced world. 

Even disregarding the horrific failure of anachronic militarism in the pre-war Japan, the Japanese must realise that the current inexplicable stagnation also comes from the continuation of this inevitable reality. To offset seemingly impossible another 100 years, only way to match this gap is to go straight to the theoretical issue of modernisation. In order to accomplish this, therefore, Japan need to concentrate on its fundamental social infrastructure, above all, establishing a solid legal system and practice in order to strengthen its own democracy to a global standard level.

If so, there is only one solution for this mishap. To repair this malfunction or to stop this chronicle ‘modern’ disaster, Japan needs a belated religious reform, pending since the 16th century. Luckily, there is neither court nobles nor armed Buddhists today to confront this national move by force. Furthermore, all the politicians in Japan perhaps must face up to such damaging reality of the post-war Japanese politics, as testified by their most capable and conscientious leaders, instead of dodging the column for ever in pretence. 

To break this stalemate, Japan need to consider appointing a fully-modernised prime minister for the first time in their history, who could make decision with his capable advisers and own serious and rational determination, somebody like Nobunaga. But of course, Japan need a drastic reform on its workable practical structure for its real politics to function before doing so, as Mr Hashimoto had once proposed. Then, in the modern parliamentary democracy; even if he fails, or whenever he becomes inefficient, the voters can switch to appoint another capable leader.

Finally, the fundamental question still remains for our explanation. Why then Nobunaga had to rely on Christianity? Did he make any mistake here, as many had believed so then in Japan? No. He was absolutely right. Nobunaga simply had no other choice in terms of modern politics. You cannot have Chinese Buddhism/Shintoism that were subordinated by the ancient power politics without any credible philosophy in place, but existing and cuddled only in a militaristic determination. Can you explain something to someone, if he or she only believes on magical power and superstitions in this digital on-line age? But of course, many could still do it in the 16th century Japan, and we cannot blame them for that mistake.

The issue was all about the principle of human progress. It was unreasonable to refuse this reality and the hero simply couldn’t do it. If Nobunaga did, he would have killed this most brilliant part of Japanese history by himself, in changing his tale to another activities of money making first and shameful corruptions, existed then, and still happening excessively in Japan. As Nobunaga would have then thought, the religious philosophy must rule over the real politics but not vice versa. Why did he know it? Excellent question but difficult to answer. He was perhaps the one who experienced most about ephemeral nature of military successes. Or do you have any other idea?

In any case, all these issues in consideration, Japan now must take its own political initiatives for the first time in modern politics, to rectify the historical decision made by the old concept in its own history. If they could achieve it, the country definitely deserves a better status in the world, in particular, for the future of Asia-Pacific. On behalf of the entire ancient East Asia, Japan could perhaps provide a new economic model based on democracy to reform its own disastrous economy and the rest, and also in order to save Global Capitalism itself, which exists only as a fake-mode as of today. 

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