By Laksiri Fernando –
After I last wrote about “Shotaro Noda’s Visit to Colombo from Japan in 1980” (Colombo Telegraph, 8 September 2014) some interesting comments and dialogue ensued. These were important in mapping Japan Sri Lanka relations from a true historical perspective, preferably a student/researcher of history should follow up. Those valuable comments were by Manel Fonseka and Dr. Janaka Goonetilleke. The purpose of my last article was (and even this one is) limited to reveal what Japanese journalist, Shotaro Noda, said about Ceylon during his visit to Colombo on his way to Turkey in 1890. The importance of revealing this story was its originality since I obtained a translation thanks to Dr. Michael Penn of what Noda wrote to Jiji Shinpo, a prominent newspaper in Japan then.
I have already revealed what Noda said about Ceylon and its people in general and his visit to the Turkish Consulate in Colombo and Arabi Pasha’s residence in, as he said, Kollupitiya. He had quite a grasp of Sinhala place and personal names. What I promised to reveal in this article was his visit to the Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda and further on Buddhist relations.
Probably it was on the 18th November 1890. Noda paid a visit to the Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda and met Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera, and was extremely impressed by him. He said, “Okuzen Shaku studies at the school at Maligakanda under the guidance of Sumangala, the number one high priest of Ceylon.” He added with admiration that “This high priest studies very hard and lives a pure life wearing only simple clothes and eating simple foods.” It was quite a praise on Ven. Sri Sumangala and there should be some records of this visit at Vidyodaya Pirivena archives if they are intact.
A major focus of Noda was Buddhist activities in Ceylon, some of which we have already traced in the last article. “In Colombo, there are seven Buddhist priests from Japan,” he reported and gave the following names.
1. Okuzen Shaku, Apprentice of Tokyo Mejiro Shin-Hasedera.
2. Norihiko Zenren of Echizen Bukkoji.
3. Onjo Higashi of Higo Nishi-Honganji.
4. Ryotei Koizumi of Echizen Seishoji.
5. Ryosho Asakura of Echizen Higashi-Honganji.
6. Sadanobu Kawakami of Higo Nishi-Honganji.
7. Chiezo Tokuzawa of Nishi-Honganji.
As he said Okuzen Shaku was a Samanera (apprentice) studying at the Vidyodaya Pirivena under Ven. Sumangala. “The other Japanese priests study in the True Wisdom Church of Olcott,” he reported. What were they exactly studying or doing in Colombo? My conjecture is the following. These six priests were not apprentices like Okuzen Shaku. They had come to Colombo after Colonel Henry Steel Olcott’s visit to Japan from January to May 1989 for a definite purpose. Olcott’s mission in Ceylon is well known and it is not related here.
According to an article published by H. P. Blavatsky, popularly known as ‘Madame Blavatsky,’ in August 1890, entitled “Recent Progress in Theosophy,” “The Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhists [had] presented Colonel Olcott with a complete set of Chinese versions of the Tripitakas in 418 volumes, on silk paper.”
According to the same source, Olcott had also obtained previously a “complete set of Pali versions of the Tripitakas engraved in palm leaves, and comprising sixty volumes, with nearly 5,000 pages, from Mrs. Dias Ilangakoon, a Buddhist lady Theosphist of Matara.” By the way, she was the mother-in-law of ER Gooneratne of Galle to whom we will refer to later.
It is my view (subject to possible correction), based on several indications of other sources, that the ‘Japanese priests were copying the Chinese version and comparing it with the Pali version’ in Colombo while engaged in other theosophical studies. Undoubtedly they were studying Pali and Sanskrit. The originals then were transferred to the main Adyar Library of the Theosophical Society, based in Madras, now Chennai.
Noda said, “All of them study original texts in [Pali] and Sanskrit day and night. These wonderful priests speak freely and in an unconventional manner. I feel that they will one day return to Japan and bring them into the country new knowledge and wisdom.”
Noda and the Priests
Noda and the priests became fond of, and friendly with, each other. They visited Noda the following day at his hotel, GOH or Galle Face and most probably GOH. “I spent the time in my hotel speaking with these fine priests, so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even have time to write this chronicle,” he complained. Noda had not exactly noted which hotel he was residing. The GOH was much closer to where the priests were studying, the True Wisdom Church of Olcott at Pettah or Pitakotuwa.
Noda called Olcott, ‘Pitakotuwe Olcott’ which the translator could not understand, and thought ‘Pitakotuwa’ to be an obscure honorific Japanese term. The amazing matter is how Noda got all the local nuances within three days of stay. In Ceylon, or even today in Sri Lanka, people are often called their name, prefixed by the place name, where they are famous for. Olcott was famous at Pitakotuwa, therefore he was called ‘Pitakotuwe Olcott’ with reverence and gratitude.
Noda did make few mistakes though. Referring to the newspapers he said, “since the Buddhist and Muslim newspapers are written in Tamil [!], I cannot understand them.”
He had all praise for the local English newspapers. “The English-language newspapers, not to mention the Buddhist and Muslim newspapers, praised our mission greatly.” “The articles in the Ceylon newspapers were particularly elegant and strong,” he added. Noda was well versed in English and translated a passage from Ceylon Times, with much ease it appears, for his readers in Japan about the fate of the Ertugrul, the Turkish frigate that had foundered near the coast of Japan’s Ohshima Island, exactly two months ago on 16 September 1890.
“As the Hiei and the Kongo were anchored extremely close to the land, it was quite a glorious and beautiful sight to see the Japanese flag waving there. The people of Colombo came to the coast to gaze at us and they were greatly surprised.” He was probably walking along the Galle Face green along with the priests and some others. Noda had his patriotism intact throughout his narrative and said referring to the feelings of the Japanese priests as follows.
“Had there been some danger they could now see the national flag waving on the mast and could take courage in knowing that seven hundred men under arms were there to help them. I can’t imagine their feelings in suddenly going from being outcasts to having these two warships arrive.” Had they made any complaints about the treatment they received or misunderstandings occurred during their stay? Those were possible as they had to live suddenly in a different country.
There were many Japanese it seems passing by Colombo, or stayed there for a while. They were of different status and backgrounds. There were diplomats, military men, bureaucrats, businessmen or women, scholars, simple tourists and even prostitutes. Noda recorded the following with some contempt.
“Two or three months ago some low-class Japanese ladies came to this place from Singapore. However, upon learning that prostitution is illegal in Colombo, I hear that they headed for Aden. When the Turkish officers heard this, they joked that these ladies would probably arrive in Constantinople before long.” Then Noda added, “When you compare the boldness of these ladies with the standard ‘stay-at-home’ mentality of the Japanese male, it is truly deplorable situation.”
With the priests he went to his ship, Hiei, one afternoon. “At the time there were a group of sailors on the gangway, and upon seeing so many Japanese faces after such a long time the priests practically danced with joy.”
The priests boarded both ships, Hiei and Kongo, and “preached sermons on the decks of the ships, giving great encouragement to the crews.” Perhaps the priests came to bid farewell to Noda on the last day. He wrote, “As for those who are remaining here, I asked them to write letters to the Jiji Shinpo so that Buddhists could learn about the condition of Buddhism in Ceylon and that laymen could get some uncommon information.”
Did the priests write to Jiji Shinpo or any other newspaper about Ceylon or Buddhism in Ceylon? I leave it for future students of Japan Sri Lanka relations to investigate.
“At 2 pm on the 20th, leaving smoke and glory in Colombo, the two warships headed for Aden,” Noda concluded.
When did Japan Sri Lanka Relations Start?
This narrative is wholly incomplete if I fail to refer to some of the pertinent matters raised by Manel Fonseka and Janaka Goonetilleke with reference to Japan Sri Lanka relations in general in their comments to my last article. Referring to two priests, Shaku Konen and Shaku Soen, sponsored apparently by ER Gooneratne, before the arrival of the seven priests that I have mentioned in this article, Goonetilleke stated “The emotional connections between Sri Lanka and Japan was started by these two priests much before J R J’s speech. His speech would not have made any sense to the people of Sri Lanka if the emotional connections by these two priests between the countries had not been in place. People to people friendship has been high jacked by politics that analyses the relationship in terms of geo politics.” He further asked the question ‘When exactly did Japan Sri Lanka relations start?’
These questions have much validity in the context of ‘people to people relations’ whether in respect of Japan or any other country. Japan Sri Lanka diplomatic relations formally started, one would assume, in 1952 after JR Jayewardene’s speech in the previous year at the San Francisco Peace Conference. Prior to independence in 1948, Ceylon was officially represented in Japan by the British government. However as numerous interactions between Buddhist priests and organizations since early 1880s reveal, ‘people to people relations’ had already started and these need to be recognized in an unequivocal manner as part of history. Two key figures in establishing these contacts might be, Tadasu Hayashi from Japan’s side, and ER Gooneratne from Sri Lanka’s or Ceylon’s side. If not for these relations, Noda’s visit in Colombo or what he said about Ceylon does not make much sense.