One summer in Japan
By Elia Weber
My PhD project in Iranian Studies at Freie Universität Berlin with the working title “The ritual practice of animal sacrifice in pre-islamicate Zoroastrianism” envisages a systematic comparison of this Old Iranian ritual practice with the Old Indic sources and rituals, which are assumed to stem from a common “Indo-Iranian” ancestor religion. It is this premise that led me to apply for a research stay at the Department of Indological Studies/Institute for Research in the Humanities of Kyoto University. I am here as a fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Summer Program (JSPS), which allows pre- and post-doctoral researchers from Germany, France, the UK, Sweden, Canada and the Unites States to spend two to three months in Japan at a research institution of their choice under the supervision of a Japanese host researcher. I have been able to do just that with the support of my second thesis supervisor, Kyoko Amano, all while spending a wonderful time in Kyōto and Japan in general.
Japan has emerged as a center of Vedic studies in recent years, with dozens of scholars all over the country working together to better understand the rich Vedic textual materials and the culture surrounding them. Departments of Indological Studies, where researchers also tend to focus on historical Indo-European linguistics, can be found in several universities besides Kyōto University, such as Ōsaka University, Hiroshima University, and the University of Tōkyō. I have been able to visit all these universities and meet the researchers of my field there.
During this stay, I wanted to learn more about Vedic ritual and to work on an English translation of previously untranslated passages containing the description of animal sacrifices in the oldest Vedic prose text (not counting the prose-parts of the Atharvaveda), the Maitrāyaṇī Saṁhitā, whose oldest layers date back to approximately 900 BCE. The subject of Vedic animal sacrifice has been systematically treated by Julius Schwab in his 1886 dissertation, which serves as a basis for my work. However, this dissertation is almost exclusively based on a much later collection of texts, called the Śrautasūtras, which aim to summarize and systematize ritual practices. So far, the addition of insights from the older Maitrāyaṇī Saṁhitā has proven fruitful, and I am about to complete the first preliminary translation of the treatment on animal sacrifice in this text (3.9.2–3.10.7). The twice-weekly reading sessions with Kyoko Amano have been indispensable to achieve this task. Based on the editions of von Schroeder (1885) and Sātavalekar (1941–1942), Prof. Amano has been working on a new edition of the Maitrāyaṇī Saṁhitā, which serves as the textual basis for my translation.
Given my background in historical Indo-European linguistics, I have thus been able to gain philological knowledge in Indology, while discussinglinguistic issues familiar to me from a different standpoint. The provided insights into the research culture of a Japanese university have also proven most fruitful and I have had many interesting conversations with other students in the department about the topic of my dissertation, as well as student life in Germany and Europe in general. I was also given the opportunity to present my dissertation project to a large audience of Japanese Indologists, which led to interesting conversations and new questions in light of potential Old Indic comparanda for the Old and Middle Iranian texts my PhD project focuses on.
Besides working on my dissertation at the university, I have been able to travel quite a bit within Japan by using the efficient public transportation network the country is world-famous for. The gorgeous landscapes, as well as the rich cultural heritage have impressed me in many ways on my visits to numerous temples and shrine sites in Kyōto, as well as Hiroshima, Ōsaka, Nara and (next week) Tōkyō.
Just 90 minutes from Kyōto by Shinkansen-highspeed train, Hiroshima offered interesting sights in art, culture and landscape, such as the Hiroshima Museum of Art, the atomic bomb dome, which stands as a somber reminder of the atomic bombing which took place on August 6th 1945, and the close-by Miyajima island, famous for its natural beauty and the Shintō shrine with its floating Tori-gate (unfortunately it is under renovation right now). I also visited the University of Hiroshima, situated in a nearby town called Higashihiroshima, which incorporates Saijō, one of the sake-producing towns of Japan.
On an excursion to the temple city of Nara, Japan’s first capital, I was seriously impressed by the large statues of the two guardians of the Buddhist Tōdaiji-temple. The “Niō” (two guardians) of Tōdaiji were carved out of wood in the 13th century by famous sculptors Unkei and Kaikei. Everywhere, hungry deer roam the streets of Nara Park, eagerly awaiting to be fed. I encountered a family with cubs on my way to Kasuga Taisha shrine. While in Osaka, I enjoyed breathtaking views over the modern city center from the futuristic-looking Umeda tower.
This is the first year since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic that the “Gion Matsuri” festival was held in Kyōto. Started in 869 during an epidemic, the procession was held on the orders of Emperor Seiwa as part of a ritual to fend off pest and disease. Traditionally, the floats are shown in public during the celebrations in anticipation of the big procession, which took place on July 17th. The two nights before the procession are celebrated by closing off the streets to traffic and people visiting the lively food and drink-stands between the many floats. Musicians play the flute and hit drums during the procession.
Before leaving Japan, I will visit the capital Tōkyō and the University of Tōkyō. Also, JSPS arranged a home-stay experience for me, where I got to spend a weekend with a Japanese host family. I can only say that it was a wonderful, immersive experience, and I am very thankful for my host family’s generous hospitality. I am very grateful to JSPS for allowing me to experience Japan and its culture for the very first time in this wonderful way. I certainly plan on coming back in the future.