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Japanese Hieroglossia

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Jean-Noël Robert

Introducing Jean-Noël Robert

Inaugural lecture delivered on Thursday 2 February 2012

Pierre Corvol
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Texte intégral

1Mr Ambassador,
Dear colleague,
Dear Jean-Noël Robert,

2You are an example of an early vocation for Oriental languages. Very early on you were drawn to Chinese, which you studied independently at first and then in classes at the Montgeron pilot high school. You subsequently studied in Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese at the Langues O’ and the University of Paris-7 and completed your PhD on “The doctrines of the Tendai Japanese school in the early 9th century”. You then became a researcher at the CNRS and, in 1990, were appointed research director at the École pratique des hautes études in the Religious Sciences section.

3Starting off from a highly specialized topic, Buddhist scholastic life in the Middle Ages, the focus of your work opened onto a wide-ranging research objective: to study the development and propagation of Buddhist ideas up to the modern era, and to show the extent to which they constituted the core of Japanese representations, way beyond the religious domain.

4Here philology transcends the narrow definition that Nietzsche gave it: “the slow reading of texts”. It is the means for grasping the shift from one language to another – here, from Chinese to Japanese – in all fields: poetry, religion, literature and philosophy. You thus highlighted a regular system of correspondence through which, from the 9th century, Japanese scholars transposed Chinese culture within Japanese literature. You demonstrated how Japanese Buddhist poetry was the backbone of this process, and how Japanese poetic themes incorporated complex Buddhist elements from Chinese thinking.

5Buddhism, you argue, was instrumental in the identification of Japanese culture with regard to Chinese culture. To exaggerate slightly, we could say that there has been no period in Japanese culture devoid of Chinese culture, even if, over time, the Japanese language, which conveyed a distinct culture, developed into a form that was perceived as equal to and independent of its model.

6You are an enthusiastic investigator, searching for irrefutable traces of the Chinese heritage in Japanese texts, additions of one culture to another. For instance, in The Tale of Genji, the equivalent in Japanese culture of our Don Quixote or The Divine Comedy, you identified regular processes in Buddhist poetry that were incorporated into Japanese writing.

7Your research goes further than the cultural and religious links between China and Japan through Buddhism. It provides a comprehensive and dynamic picture of Far Eastern civilization as a translation of knowledge between India, China and Japan, the “three kingdoms” that ancient Japanese historians spoke about. And, more generally, it shows the power of a philological approach, in the broad sense of the term, for analysing the mechanisms of the construction of a country’s and a nation’s identity.

8The significance of your work has been recognized by the supreme authorities of Japan, since you have been raised to the dignity of the Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver Stars, and in France you are a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. Thanks to your participation, we are proud to renew the grand tradition of Japanese studies at the Collège.

© Collège de France, 2013

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