PRAGUE – Petr Holy was a 16-year-old high school student when he first heard the Japanese language on the radio and television in what was then Czechoslovakia during the final phase of the Cold War.
His interest in Japan grew as he read modern Japanese novels by writers such as Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima.
Holy’s fondness for Japanese affairs developed when he read classic Japanese literature, such as “Makura no Soshi” (“The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon”), written by court lady Sei Shonagon in the Heian Period (794-1185), and “Hojoki” (“An Account of My Hut”), a brief work written in 1212 by the elderly recluse Kamo no Chomei.
In 1990, when he was 18, Holy entered Charles University in Prague, which has one of the largest Japanese studies departments in Central and Eastern Europe.
Now, the 28-year-old Czech conducts research on kabuki in a doctoral program at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“The end of the Cold War helped us get access to Japan. I was fascinated by kabuki when I first saw it upon my first visit to Japan in 1991,” Holy said in an interview with Kyodo News.
“When I learn Japanese traditional arts, especially when I perform noh, for which I’m currently taking lessons, I must forget the fact that I’m European,” he said. “The use of body parts, the movement of legs in particular, is significantly different from physical movements observed in European theatrical performances.
“I also think that noh makes viewers use their imagination, giving them a sort of world of mystery, whereas European theatrical performances show viewers everything from the beginning to the end.”
Holy says he hopes in the future to stage Japanese theatrical performances in Europe, and also to teach Japanese affairs at Charles University, from which he graduated in 1997.
The university, which began offering Japanese studies in 1947, has produced a number of prominent Japanologists. One of them was the late Miroslav Novak, who is widely considered the father of Japanese studies in the Czech Republic.
Novak translated into Czech “Makura no Soshi,” “Oku no Hosomichi” (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”), a travel diary written by Matsuo Basho in 1694, and “Tsurezuregusa” (“Essays in Idleness”), written by Yoshida Kenko in the early 1300s and one of the best-loved examples of classical Japanese prose.
“The government of (pro-Soviet dictator Gustav) Husak told scholars to become members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The party allowed the university to accept students for its Japanese studies course only once in five or six years in the 1970s and 1980s,” Jan Sykora, assistant professor of Japanese economic history at Charles University, told Kyodo News in Prague.
“But Professor Novak never yielded to such pressures and kept teaching in the country until he died in 1982,” he said.
Several Charles University scholars helped establish foundations for Japanese studies in Western countries during the Cold War.
Among them are Antonin Liman, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto in Canada, Miriam Jelinkova, the Japanese department chief at the University of Sheffield in Britain, and Jiri Neustupny, who helped set up Australia’s largest Japanese studies department, at Monash University in Melbourne.
They all fled what was then Czechoslovakia following the crackdown by Warsaw Pact forces on the “Prague Spring” democratic movement led by Alexander Dubcek in 1968, fearing they would not be allowed to conduct research freely under the Husak government.
Today, Liman, 68, teaches at Otemae University in Hyogo Prefecture, while Neustupny, 66, specializing in linguistics and the Japanese language, works at Obirin University in Tokyo.
Liman recently translated the “Manyoshu,” a collection of ancient Japanese poetry up to 759, into Czech.
Another Charles University graduate, Petr Geisler, who translated “Hojoki,” works in the Czech capital as a correspondent for a Japanese newspaper.
According to Sykora, 39, the number of young people from the Czech Republic and neighboring countries wishing to study Japanese affairs has risen sharply in recent years.
Charles University currently has some 100 undergraduate and graduate students studying Japanese affairs, up from only around 10 in 1990, he said.
“The students and graduates, including Petr Holy in Tokyo, are the country’s great assets as they help further develop ties with Japan,” he said.
“I hope the university will further serve as a center of academic and cultural exchanges between the two nations and between Japan and Central and Eastern Europe.”
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