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Celebrating 385 Years: Ryukoku University Blends Buddhist Wisdom with Modern Innovation

Interview - June 19, 2024

Ryukoku University marks its 385th anniversary by championing the integration of Buddhist teachings with contemporary education and global initiatives. Amid its rich history, the university emphasizes a holistic approach to education, addressing social and environmental issues through unique collaborations and international partnerships. Highlighting their innovative "Nature-Positive" declaration, Ryukoku remains committed to fostering global change, inspired by the synergy of ancient wisdom and modern science.

TAKASHI IRISAWA, PRESIDENT OF RYUKOKU UNIVERSITY
TAKASHI IRISAWA | PRESIDENT OF RYUKOKU UNIVERSITY

The year 2024 marks Ryukoku University’s 385th anniversary. We have faced many challenges since our founding in 1639, particularly in the transition from the Edo Period to the Meiji Period, during which time Japanese Buddhism experienced great growth. It was also the first opportunity for our university to turn its attention to the West. In the Christian world, there were theological schools based on Christian principles, and we took note of the educational systems being implemented there. The newly established Meiji government also sought to adopt Western ideas and catch up with the Western world, part of which involved introducing a Western-style education system. Therefore, there was an impression during the Meiji era of a competition taking place between our university and the government in terms of educational systems.

At that time, Ryukoku University placed a strong emphasis on language learning and sent many students to Europe. Among them were students studying at prestigious institutions like the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, as well as others studying in Germany and France. It was the most globally oriented period in Ryukoku University's long history. However, while the Japanese government was inclined to accept Western society as a model, our university did not simply imitate Western educational values and methods. At the core of Ryukoku University lies the teachings of Buddhism. Students at Ryukoku University were amazed by the greatness of Western civilization. At the same time, students rooted in Buddhist teachings felt threatened by the rapid evolution of civilization. We focused on integrating the positive aspects of Western education with the spirit of Buddhism. We believe this style of integration constitutes a significant characteristic of our university.

On the other hand, if we examine the present day, the United Nations announced their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. I assumed the position of University President in 2017, and shortly thereafter, the former UN spokesperson, a Palestinian refugee, visited Ryukoku University from the UN headquarters in New York and delivered a lecture on the SDGs. This provided our students with an opportunity to engage with the serious risks and dangers facing the world. In a subsequent discussion, I explained how the SDGs concept of "leaving no one behind" already exists within Buddhism. He was delighted to learn that there is profound wisdom in the East. At the same time, he conveyed that many challenges are emerging which cannot be addressed by traditional Western values. It was that moment which inspired me to combine the SDGs with Buddhism. This follows the example of our university in the Meiji era, when we integrated the positive aspects of the West with the spirit of Buddhism. The reason for combining the SDGs with Buddhism is that I believe achieving the SDGs requires changing individual consciousness and behavior. What fosters transformation in both consciousness and behavior is Buddhism.



Ryukoku University, as a Buddhist university, was the first to establish faculties of science and technology, as well as agriculture. Our Faculty of Science and Technology was established in 1989, coinciding with Ryukoku University's 350th anniversary. The reason for establishing such scientific faculties at a Buddhist university is as follows: If civilization were likened to a car, I believe science would correspond to the accelerator. Science has sometimes run rampant throughout human history. Just as a car would run wild with only the accelerator, I consider religion to play the role of the brake. In other words, we contemplate the ideal future of humanity and society by combining science and religion. During the 350th anniversary, we declared "Humanity, Science, Religion" as our slogan. We have continued to embrace that spirit to this day.

Ryukoku University is currently striving to create new values. Social issues such as poverty, conflict, and providing education to all, represented by the SDGs, are becoming increasingly severe. I aim for the university to become a hub for social change. The means to solve various social problems can be achieved through collaboration with government agencies, businesses, other universities, and various organizations. Here's an example of our initiatives: An eight-story building is scheduled to be completed in front of Kyoto Station in 2027. This building will serve as a hub for Ryukoku University, corporations, and financial institutions, to nurture individuals who aim to solve social issues. Participants in this project are Kyoto Shinkin Bank from the financial sector, Osaka Gas Urban Development Corporation as the developer, and Ryukoku University. The first and second floors will be the area of Kyoto Shinkin Bank and will house Le Cordon Bleu, a well-known French culinary academy, and Warehouse TERRADA, renowned as an art space in Tokyo. The third and fourth floors will be managed by Ryukoku University, while the fifth and sixth floors will accommodate Ryukoku University's student dormitories, where some international students will also reside. The seventh and eighth floors will have condominiums for the general public, managed by Osaka Gas Urban Development Corporation. These won't be ordinary condominiums, however; it is our hope for the residents to be comprised of entrepreneurs tackling social issues, who will in turn have a positive influence on our students. On a global level, this may seem like a small-scale project. However, I am confident that such a collaboration of financial institutions, corporations, and universities who are jointly addressing social issues will make it one of the rare projects worldwide.



In September 2023, I had the opportunity to provide a lecture at National Taiwan University. During that lecture, when I discussed the plans for this project, many Taiwanese students showed interest and expressed their desire to live there. I feel that there is an increasing number of young people who are willing to tackle difficult social issues. I believe that such young people will be the driving force for change at universities in the future.

For example, we are faced with serious and complex issues, such as the current situation in the Gaza Strip of Palestine. We often only catch a glimpse of these issues through television or the internet. However, there is an increasing number of young people who are starting to seriously consider these problems and contemplate what they can do to help. There is a growing movement to ponder what is lacking in the world, as well as the essence of living.

At Ryukoku University, we have been accepting students from Ukraine as exchange students. It began with the signing of a student exchange agreement with Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv shortly after Ukraine declared independence. Amid the attacks their country is currently facing, we collaborated with this partner university to facilitate acceptance for students who wished to study in Japan. The first Ukrainian exchange student to arrive expressed a desire to study haiku. This was the moment when I first learned that Matsuo Bashō’s haiku had been translated into Ukrainian. I was surprised to see how such Japanese culture has spread widely across borders.

Currently, there are twelve students from Ukraine enrolled at Ryukoku University, and one returned to their home country last year. Before her departure, she expressed gratitude for the university's hospitality and mentioned how much she loved the atmosphere here. Existing ranking systems do not evaluate a university’s atmosphere. However, I believe that the atmosphere of a university is a crucial element in education. Last year, when a major earthquake struck Türkiye, our Ukrainian students organized and led a donation drive for disaster relief. They had previously received much assistance from others and felt it was their turn to offer help. This act of reaching out to those in need demonstrated their kindness, and I believe they were influenced by the atmosphere at Ryukoku University.

It is very clear from what you have said that collaborations and having these understandings with the international global audience play an important role in Ryukoku University. As you mentioned, you have students from Ukraine studying here and you were one of the first universities to have an agreement with Ukraine. You also gave a very good collaborative example of your institution partnering with financial and private institutions to create this all-in-one building that you described earlier. This has been a very important role for many institutions in Japan. For example, when we spoke to the Tokyo University of Science and Agriculture, they talked about how finding MOUs and collaborations were extremely important to increasing their influence and network and helping people across the world.



Going forward, are you looking to find more international partnerships and MOUs to increase the help that you bring to the global audience?

Yes, we are eager to strengthen our efforts in this field. Let me provide another concrete example. Ryukoku University has a strong interest in addressing urgent environmental issues such as global warming and climate change. To this end, we have entered into an agreement with the Ministry of the Environment, and to support us they have assigned a staff member to serve as an assistant to our University President. Environmental problems such as the destruction of nature are primarily caused by humans. According to Buddhist teachings, humans are inherently selfish beings, often unaware of this nature and typically assuming they are right. This anthropocentrism, in which the sacrifice of nature for human needs is taken for granted, is prevalent worldwide.

There exists a word in Buddhist terminology, shujou. This term refers to "all sentient beings" or "all living beings." Humans are only a small part of all living things. Today, nature is being destroyed due to human actions, and some species are facing the threat of extinction. Without seriously facing this reality, problems related to nature and the environment cannot be solved. On March 1st, 2024, Ryukoku University announced "Ryukoku University’s Declaration on Nature-Positive." Previously, on January 27th, 2022, we announced "Ryukoku University’s Declaration on Carbon Neutrality," and on February 23rd, 2022, the "Ryukoku University Declaration on SDGs." However, we do not intend to stop here. As a prerequisite, researchers have been addressing these issues and have already achieved results. While the term “Nature-Positive” is garnering global attention, no such declaration has been made by any other university in Japan. We believe that it is precisely because we are a university based on the spirit of Buddhism, that we should tackle these issues head-on. So far, we have introduced some of the efforts that Ryukoku University is making to create new values. However, the efforts do not end here.

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