Japan’s constitutional peace guarantee was, and still is, the main cause of Dr. Hubert Durt’s admiration for this country. It was the magnet that drew him here.
“Moreover,” he said, “in the late ’50s, Buddhist studies, including the texts in Chinese, were possible only in Japan. China was closed, and India did not include Chinese Buddhist texts in its curricula.”
Durt, born and educated in Belgium, became a French citizen in 1976. A devotee of Buddhism, he concentrated on classical and Buddhist studies, obtaining his doctorate from the University of Louvain.
“My first orientation was towards art history,” Durt said. “Much of the attraction of Buddhism came through fascination with Buddhist art.”
On a Belgian scholarship he left for Japan in 1960, “following in the footsteps of the Buddha, via Iran, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka,” he said.
In Japan he studied at Kyoto University and Tokyo University. He began his work for the Buddhist Hobogirin Dictionary.
This dictionary, Durt explains, is a longtime project, launched in 1926, of the Maison Franco-Japanese in Tokyo. The project consists of the dictionary’s volumes, in French, and of updates of the Taisho Repertory. “This massive Japanese edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon is now sponsored by the Institute de France and the Japan Academy,” Durt said.
He has devoted much of his career to the Hobogirin project, wherein his main publications appear. Living in Kobe, he became a researcher of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, a school with a Kyoto branch where the Hobogirin Dictionary was compiled.
The EFEO is now hosted by the Italian Cultural Center of Kyoto. I am still attached as director of associated studies.”
In 1996, Durt was reaching retirement age from his French connections and was appointed to teach in a newly founded Tokyo institution, the International College of Advanced Buddhist Studies. This gave him more active access to the Asiatic Society of Japan, the esteemed body for which he acts as vice president.
At the 2007 New Year meeting of the Asiatic Society held in the theater of the Canadian Embassy, Durt was named recipient of this year’s Prince Takamado Award for scholarship and service. The society’s honorary patron Princess Takamado made the presentation to Durt.
Durt maintains strong ties with Belgium and with the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels, and is secretary for its institutional publication. He is married to stained-glass artist Michiyo Morimoto.
He and his wife promote the protection of beautiful old Japanese houses. “I have been delighted by the Japanese house, made of wood, clay, straw and paper,” he said. “I consider it one of the major contributions of Japan to human culture.
“However, I witness the incredible destruction of the Japanese architectural patrimony.”
So far, he and his wife have saved three Japanese houses. They rebuilt one as their own residence in Shioya, on a hillside overlooking the sea.
“I have seen much of Japan’s beauty disappear during my long stay here,” says Durt.
“I am grateful for many precious memories but I have to send out an SOS about the conspiracy of money, of megalomaniac tendencies and of unawareness of the past. They threaten what is left here of Japan’s and the world’s unofficial treasures.”
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