Shu Hikosaka

by Vivienne Kenrick

Shu Hikosaka was born in Toyohashi in a Zen Buddhist temple where his father was the temple priest. Hikosaka’s three brothers were also born in the temple. His eldest brother succeeded their father as priest. This strong background in religion naturally shaped Hikosaka’s character and philosophy. He may yet, later on, become a priest. So far, though, he has seriously devoted his life to Buddhist studies.

With his course set early on, he entered Otani University in Kyoto to study Buddhism. He earned his first two degrees there. Then he went to India.

“I lived in India from 1976 to 1998,” Hikosaka said. “I love India very much, but studying there for me was very difficult. I began with Buddhist philosophy at Vishva Bharati University, and after a year shifted to the University of Madras. I couldn’t find a suitable adviser, and I asked around for help.”

His persistence and perseverance paid off. He settled to his work for his Ph.D., specializing in south Indian Buddhism and culture through Tamil literature. He received his doctorate in 1983.

During the course of field work in south India’s Hindu temples, Hikosaka found many Buddhist remains. “Especially stone statues,” he said. “Nobody cared about them. They were left by the sides of paddy fields or outside villages. I decided to protect them. That led to my investigating the Buddhist revival in India at the end of the 19th century, and its decline.”

Life in India cemented the coming together of Hikosaka’s Buddhist-based interests in archaeology, sculpture and history. Madras, now known again by its old name of Chennai, showed him its riches of ancient forts, temples and monuments. Hikosaka sought the collaboration of Indian and Japanese scholars, and solicited donations from Buddhists in Japan. His zeal was rewarded in 1982 when he established the Institute of Asian Studies in Chennai.

As the institute’s director of administration, Hikosaka leased government land in a southern suburb, and constructed the main building with financial help from the Japan Foundation. At the inauguration ceremony, more than 120 invited guests from Japan went to Chennai to mingle with more than 1,000 invited local people.

“There were no authentic reference books in English,” Hikosaka said. “The institute began to compile an encyclopedia in English of Tamil literature. The encyclopedia ran to 10 volumes. Preparing basic reference materials in English became one of the main aims of the institute.”

With grants from south Indian states and the central government, the institute expanded into different departments each of which undertook big projects. One department produced 20 volumes in Tamil on palm-leaf manuscripts, along with an archaeological map of Buddhist sites in Tamil Nadu, and English translations of Tamil folk literature. The institute hosted international seminars. In time, the University of Madras and the Central University of Pondicherry recognized the institute as a Ph.D. research center.

Hikosaka received reward of another kind while he was living in India. He met Yumiko Tanaka, a kindred spirit who was a student of Indian classical dance. He found that she, too, was a graduate of Otani University, where she specialized in Indology. The couple married in a Buddhist temple. Yumiko founded her own institute in Japan, and continues to perform and to teach.

Hikosaka’s 20 years of work for Japanese-Indian cultural exchange were acclaimed in a TV Tokyo documentary film telecast in 1996. By then he was known for his publications, participation in international seminars, and his lectures at European as well as Asian universities. Since then he has established the Institute of South Indian Buddhist Studies in Nasu, Tochigi, and translated into Japanese for the first time and published two major literary pieces.

He said, “These are the Japanese versions of the Tamil epics ‘Shilappadikaram,’ the tale of the anklet, and ‘Manimekalai,’ the tale of the renunciation of the girl with the magic bowl.” Known as the twin epics, these two are long stories with strong moral themes. Hikosaka added: “These stories describe old Tamil kingdoms and several famous south Indian places very beautifully, and depict south Indian music, dance and the life of the people. I am sure these stories will add to the interest of Japanese visitors to south India.” The two books received the National Tourism Award for excellence in publishing, being named by the government of India as last year’s best publication in a foreign language.