Institute for Liberal Arts News
Professor Eisuke Wakamatsu, Human Culture, History of Modern Japanese Spirit
I’m in charge of Human Culture Studies.
My course comprises studying poetry and philosophies and contemplating life and death. For that purpose, maintaining the right mindset to deal with words is crucial. But it’s not only about asking, “How does one use words?” but also going more in-depth to “What are words, to begin with?” which is a less-presented inquiry.
So what are words? Sometimes, they are like warm torches that shine their light to guide people; at other times, they can be cruel, heart-slashing blades. Then, behind words, there are these hidden “sub-words” that are invisible. They cannot be verbalized but are surely working to connote something specific. The first step is to learn about those words and sub-words. We then go deeper into the essence of the activity called “learning.”
Learning requires four kinds of activities, reading, writing, speaking, and listening, all of which cannot be done without words. Namely, those four verbal activities make learning possible.
However, balancing these four abilities can be very hard. Some are good at listening but not at speaking, or some love reading but hate writing. But it’s all right if you have weaknesses because that will tell you what to do to overcome your weak points.
Another crucial point in my class is to “perceive things as entities in constant motion.” Since many courses are teaching concepts and theories, you may tend to see things as something conceptualized, but they are stationary and motionless. Conversely, things in this world—everything, including people, Earth, and the universe—will never cease to change, even for a moment, and have not done so since the beginning of time. That’s why we need a dynamic, flexible perspective to see things as they truly are. The same approach applies to people, and seeing each one as existence in motion can make a difference in understanding them.
Let’s talk about what it is, precisely, that we do in the class. First, we read poetry and then write some ourselves. Many Tokyo Tech students probably haven’t written or even thought of writing poems, even though they might have read some.
Of course, some of you may feel you are substandard writers. Your lack of writing skills leads to a lack of confidence. But you don’t need to write excellent poems. If you think you have done very well, then yours may not be unique; it may remind us of someone else’s work.
Bearing that in mind, when you are really engrossed in the exercise, you may feel a moment of astonishment as you perceive that some force or existence beyond words is working within you to generate your poetry.
Writing poetry is an activity that allows us to share sub-words with others through words. When we have achieved something that is rendered in sub-words in others’ minds, we can say that we have genuinely interacted with them, and it’s time to begin to conceive our own unique verbal expressions, activating something that can move people. That is an experience I want to share with students through creating poems.
Another activity is understanding philosophies in Japanese. It’s not about learning Japanese theories but rather trying to understand various ideas in the Japanese context, using the simplest Japanese words possible. Therefore, we also study overseas philosophies through Japanese perspectives using Japanese, which may allow us to explore the new hidden source of creation.
Why learn foreign-based philosophies in Japanese? The reason lies in the inevitable nature of translation, which can transfer the cultural dimension of the source language to the target language. For example, the flower in English is not the same as the flower in Zeami’s quote, “Flower, if it’s hidden.” Considering many cases where Western philosophies have been learned through translated materials, understanding them in Japanese may lead to enhanced possibilities. By doing so, I think we can apply philosophical questions not only to philosophies but also to literature and art.
Lastly, “How to face death” is the ultimate philosophical question. Unlike other issues of life that can escape from serious thinking, death is inevitable for everyone. You may perceive death in four different ways: experiencing the deaths of your loved ones, seeing other people die, remembering dead people, and thinking about your own death. In the class, we will try to reach the core of this issue through contemplation, eventually preparing ourselves to be able to face it.
Learning is a long-term activity. It’s not something completed in a 90-minute class. However, we don’t talk here about a limit in terms of time such as 90 or 100 minutes. To precisely define learning, it is indispensable to have a perspective based on the idea that it’s a lifelong process.
Real learning is never done within the classroom, and it starts after you leave the class. In other words, it can happen anywhere as long as the teacher and students remain connected in consciousness. To that end, my most significant role is to throw out a question that can make students mindful of seeking answers, from the moment they leave my class until they open the classroom door a week later. Luckily, Tokyo Tech students have the ability for lengthy and deep contemplation, and indeed, they perform outstandingly in this aspect.
Staying easily accessible to students even outside the class is my style. For example, I prefer relaxing at a public space, such as on the campus lawn or inside the Centennial Hall, to closing myself up in my lab. Then, they feel more comfortable to address me than in the classroom where they have to raise their hand to say something. A casual chat that goes like “Hi, Mr. Wakamatsu,” “Oh, what’s up?” will start. That may be one way that the rigid borderline of classroom or teacher-student relationship is removed, which would relax them enough to voice whatever they couldn’t do otherwise. I think that’s how true learning starts to unfold. I believe it’s not something given by a teacher to students. It happens for the first time when the teacher and students can share the same point of view.
Learning takes time to bear fruit. I experienced some amazing incidents when I was about to join Tokyo Tech. I happened to see one of the students I once taught temporarily in another university on the street, who greeted me and said, “For a long time, I’ve wanted to say thank you to you, Mr. Wakamatsu. You guided me to be able to think in my own words, finally.” Miraculously, the same thing occurred several days later: I encountered another ex-student of mine and received the same appreciation. Considering that both of them were my students more than three years back from then, I renewed my conviction that education indeed was a long-term process. However, once settled and formed as part of their being after lengthy deepening, what they have learned would become a lifelong guidepost. That was something those students have taught me in return.
I’ve been with the Institute for Liberal Arts since September 2018. Until then, I had never taught undergraduate and graduate students full-time while serving as a part-time teacher or lecturer at universities or open classes for the general public. My pre-Tokyo Tech career was mostly related to writing rather than teaching. Then, what brought me to education? It was the death of my mentor.
He was a Catholic priest named Yoji Inoue, who showed me the meaning of life, guiding me always since I was a teenager. Upon hearing the news, deep sadness struck me, but at the same time, an uncontrollable strong wish that it was my turn to guide the youth welled up in my mind. That was when I learned about a position at Tokyo Tech.
The strong impulse I felt then was similar to my feeling when I decided to become a writer. Writing had been my favorite activity since my youth, and the first publication of my work was when I was 22 years old—quite an early success. But after that, for as long as 16 years, I had not been able to write anything significant.
My life was fruitful as an excellent salesperson, entrepreneur, and passionate businessperson. The exception was writing. Despite my best wishes and effort, I somehow could not write. But I never gave up on being a writer. Then, one day, a miracle finally happened. On November 23, 2006, a day I will never forget, I felt a powerful urge: “I must write today or never!” From that moment, I wrote frantically for four days, completing a review work entitled “Literature for Spiritual Path Seekers: Yasuo Ochi and His Era” (translated title), which would later receive the Mita Literature Rookie Award in 2007.
Thus, my life as a writer started. Yasuo Ochi (1911-1961), whom I described in my book, had passed away when I was born; therefore, I did not know him in person. But his words made me experience a close bond with him, and I sincerely appreciate this connection. I believe my book is an extension of his legacy. He was an excellent critic but died of illness without leaving a single book. The writer inside me, who had been caught up in a standstill until that point, suddenly started to move. That movement was connected to Yasuo Ochi’s unfinished lifework. That was truly an amazing experience, where my unknown self promptly revealed itself, was verbalized, and blossomed.
That was the reason why, as a writer and teacher, my wish is, “May words survive, not the writer’s name.” Because words of truth will persist and live forever, whoever the utterer may be. Leaving such phrases is my ultimate goal in life, and I hope my daily practice of writing and teaching would eventually lead to that ideal.
Here, let me talk about two decisive reasons why I chose to teach at Tokyo Tech. One of them is related to the infamous reference to the university concerning Minamata disease. Specifically, it was a theory announced to a government organization by a Tokyo Tech professor that the cause of the symptom was not organic mercury derived from nitrogen, but organic amines. That inappropriate idea, issued by a renowned university, was influential enough to delay the identification of the cause.
While science enriches people’s lives, it may sometimes make them vulnerable. Mistakes in science can deprive people of their lives. This fact must be firmly understood and carved in the minds of budding scientists. That was why I wanted to join the teaching team at Tokyo Tech.
Whenever and whatever science is applied, influences on people must be considered before making any decisions or actions. My motto of education lies in coexistence with weaker people, but that doesn’t mean the attitude of trying to understand the weak. Instead, it’s about learning from them. I believe the Institute for Liberal Arts also values this aspect: focusing on those in less advantageous positions.
The second reason was other teachers who would be my colleagues. The moment I met them, I was sure that I was ready and happy to spend a fair amount of my life together with them.
Compared with a friend of mine, who happens to be with another university and says that his interaction with his peers is minimal, the comradeship I enjoy at the Institute for Liberal Arts is just splendid. Close and creative exchanges, regardless of our fields, are active both in and outside the campus.
Liberal arts open the doors to freedom. Being free makes you ready to face the truth. Knowing the truth is not necessarily pleasant. Often it can be painful because everything, including someone else’s pain, becomes yours.
Imagine that a storm has hit a village in a certain country, and people have died. And suppose that you are eating fruit that has originated from that very region.
What if the fruit in your hand might have been harvested by one of the victims? It may sound far-fetched, but this could be a reality. Whether you are aware or not, you may be connected with someone in an unknown place. Embracing this sort of aspect is not always fun. But sadness and pain deserve more sharing than pleasure does. In that sense, liberal arts learning feels so solid and tangible. After all, it’s not about competing for the speed or amount of knowledge acquisition. Instead, it’s about enjoying the rewarding weight of learning as a human.
Research Fields: Human Culture, History of Modern Japanese Spirit
Born in Niigata Prefecture in 1968. Critic and essayist. Graduated from the Department of French Literature, Keio University, and joins Pigeon Corporation. After serving as the President at Pigeon Quality of Life Co., Ltd., founds Synergy Company Japan. Editor-in-chief at Mita Bungaku from October 2013 to December 2015, the current position since September 2018. Receives the 14th Mita Literature Rookie Award in 2007 for Literature for Spiritual Path Seekers: Yasuo Ochi and His Era. Received the 2nd Junsaburo Nishiwaki Academic Award for 叡知の詩学 小林秀雄と井筒俊彦 1 (Poetics of wisdom: Hideo Kobayashi and Toshihiko Izutsu) in 2016. The 33rd Poetry and Literature Museum Award for 詩集 見えない涙 1 (Poetry collection: Invisible tears); 16th Kadokawa Foundation Award and the 16th Rennyo Prize for 小林秀雄 美しい花 1 (Hideo Kobayashi: Beautiful flower) published by Bungei Shunju in 2018. Authored books include 井筒俊彦 叡知の哲学 1 (Toshihiko Izutsu: Philosophy of wisdom) published by Keio University Press, イエス伝 1(Biography of Jesus) published by Chuo Koron Shinsha, 魂にふれる 大震災と、生きている死者 1 (Touching the soul: The great earthquake and the living dead) published by Transview, 生きる哲学 1 (The philosophy to live) published by Bunshun Shinsho, 霊性の哲学 1 (The philosophy of spirituality) published by Kadokawa Sensho, 悲しみの秘義 1 (The esoterics of sorrow) published by Nanarokusha, 内村鑑三 悲しみの使徒 1 (Kanzo Uchimura: The apostle of sorrow) published by Iwanami Shinsho, 言葉の贈り物 1 (The gift of words), 詩集 幸福論 1 (Poetry: The theory of happiness), 本を読めなくなった人のための読書論 1 (Reading theory for people unable to read books anymore) published by Aki Shobo.
1 Published in Japanese