A free ride to the Middle East on an oil tanker may not be the flashiest start to a career. But for Waseda University professor Sakuji Yoshimura, the voyage he organized to Egypt in 1966 was the first step in what has become 35 years of archaeological exploration born from a childhood fascination with the tale of the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Returning to Japan in April 1967 after completing a general survey as a member of a five-student Waseda team, Yoshimura again went to Cairo to study and helped secure for the university in 1971 the first excavation rights granted to an Oriental party by Egyptian authorities.
But the 58-year-old professor, currently director of the university’s Institute of Egyptology, believes it is not enough to simply dig among the ruins, and has become a sort of public relations official for the Land of the Pharaohs.
“For me to conduct my own research, that’s a very self-centered thing to do, and yet many people have given me their support and encouragement. Such taking, though, should not be one-sided,” he said in a recent interview.
Yoshimura actively makes television appearances and writes books on a wide range of topics in the hope of presenting a more comprehensive picture of Egypt — both past and present — to the Japanese public. He also takes in Egyptians who study in Japan.
“It’s my attempt to give back some of what I have received.”
But in the eyes of the researcher, who through his and others’ archaeological finds has had more than a glimpse of the glory and wealth of ancient Egypt, present-day Japan seems to be lacking something important.
“The biggest problem is that while the Japanese have an abundance of almost everything and are materially wealthy, they are spiritually weak and poor,” Yoshimura said.
He also warned against making one’s viewpoint too narrow, and that it was imperative for people to see the wider picture and gain a better understanding of the world as a whole.
“The trend now (in Japan) is to shift toward what people have coined the ‘global standard.’ However, we need to understand that what is currently being discussed is, in reality, the ‘American standard,’ ” he said.
The need to learn from history is also something that Yoshimura said he feels strongly about in his desire to see Japanese people put things in a better perspective.
The building of the Great Pyramids of Giza was begun around 2690 B.C. — a period that coincides with the late Jomon Period in Japan, when people had not yet begun to cultivate rice.
He also explained that while historians and archaeologists may appear to be tackling similar issues, their studies focus on different things.
“Historians deal with the written word, which throughout history has been a tool controlled by the ruling class. As such, writings are often peppered with propaganda and lies, and it is the historian’s job to uncover the truth that lies beneath.
“Archaeology, on the other hand, is more a study of the common people, and we look at everything — letters, pictures, sculptures, tools, utensils. As such, archaeologists have a better chance of seeing the entire picture and the more items we study, the less the margin of error,” he said.
Yoshimura has often described archaeology as being a field of study that links the past with the present, and even the future, as it gives us insight into what humankind has accomplished during the thousands of years it has been in existence on the face of the earth.
“It is very difficult to make predictions about the future by just looking ahead,” he pointed out. “You need to have a good grasp of the past and the present and the longer the span of time taken into account, the more likely the forecasts will be correct.”
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