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Netherlands and Japan united by a tradition of mutual curiosity

The Netherlands and Japan share a long and unique history with knowledge exchange playing a leading role. And knowledge exchange still proved to form the basis of the strong ties between the two countries during a visit to Japan by a delegation from Leiden University at the end of March.

While preparing for the visit to Japan Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl noticed parallels between Dutch-Japanese relations in the past and present. ‘The main focus of the relationship was -- and still is --sharing knowledge. The Dutch who lived at the Dejima trading post [see below] made an annual trip to the court of the shōgun in Edo, for example, as part of the diplomatic agreement between the Japanese and Dutch. The Dutch used these trips to gain knowledge about the nature, art and customs of Japan. And Japanese scholars were particularly interested in Western medicine, technology and academic texts. This mutual curiosity is a strong foundation for many fruitful collaborations.’

Dejima trading post

For over two centuries, from 1641 to 1859, the Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to trade with Japan. This was from Dejima, a man-made island close to the port of Nagasaki where up to 20 Dutch people were allowed to stay. The island, which is about as big as Dam Square in Amsterdam, was connected to the mainland by a single bridge and could not be left without official permission from the Japanese.

Leiden University has been successfully collaborating for years with Japanese partners, including 22 Japanese universities. The cooperation takes the shape of student exchanges, for instance in Japanese Studies. Leiden University is the only university in the Netherlands and one of the few in Europe to offer Japanese Studies. But there are also strong ties in European Studies and Medicine. The LUMC works with the University of Tokyo in the field of cell and chemical biology and on developing a malaria vaccine. During the trip, the delegation expressed to various partners the university’s wish for more multidisciplinary collaboration in, among others, the STEM subjects.

International law and geopolitics

Another field in which knowledge is already being exchanged is law and geopolitics. The reason for the trip to Japan was the second edition of the Owada Chair at the University of Tokyo. This chair focuses on the interaction between international law and geopolitics in an interdisciplinary perspective. This year’s theme was memory and reconciliation and academics discussed how different groups can have different memories of the same event in history. And how people and countries can reconcile with the past despite these differences. For more information, read an article about this edition of the Owada Chair on our website.

Sixty alumni meet up

The trip was also a good opportunity to meet alumni in Japan. At the alumni meeting on 20 March around 60 alumni met at the Dutch Ambassador’s Residence in Tokyo. There was a large group of Japanese Studies alumni who have kept in close contact with one another. Alumni of other programmes came to see friends or lecturers, to network or to practise their English or Dutch. Bijl was proud to see the alumni’s strong ties with their alma mater. ‘They are the ambassadors of our university.’

Surprise for staff

At the Ambassador’s Residence, Bijl also paid tribute to the staff from the Leiden University Office Tokyo (LUOT) for all the work that they do. Bijl’s warm words came as a pleasant surprise. Some of the staff have been working at LUOT or its predecessor for decades. Although the office in Tokyo is now closed and LUOT now meets as a digital office, the staff continue to support students and researchers who travel to Japan or the Netherlands. They also help with research into Asia and relations between the Netherlands and Japan.

Visit to four universities

Some of the delegation visited various partners in Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto and Nagasaki to look at areas into which the collaboration could be extended. They met the presidents of four universities: Keio University (in Tokyo), University of Tokyo, Kobe University and Nagasaki University. In contrast to here in the Netherlands, very few students were on the campuses in March. This is because the Japanese academic year starts in April. The students who were there were all smiles. They’d just finished their degrees and had got dressed up for graduation.

Chance to meet donors

A networking lunch gave the delegation the chance to catch up with partners from other universities in Tokyo and meet and thank some of the university’s donors, such as the Japan Netherlands Academic and Cultural Exchange Foundation, which provides financial support for the Owada Chair. The delegation also met Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, which facilitates the Numata Chair in Buddhist Studies. They agreed that they would look together at ways to further develop the study of Buddhism.

Memorandum of understanding

After years of collaboration with Nichibunken, the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, it was time to seal this with a memorandum of understanding. ‘In Leiden we are very broad in the field of Japanese Studies, so it is good to be able to work together with a research centre that shares this broad perspective,’ said Professor of Arts and Cultures of Japan Ivo Smits. ‘There are already individual collaborations with Nichibunken but I am pleased that this agreement is moving us to a more structural level.’ Once the document had been signed, the delegation was given a tour of Nichibunken’s beautiful vast library in Kyoto, which includes rare books on the Dutch East India Company.

Visit to the Ailion family grave

Bijl and Smits ended the trip in the mountains near Kobe with a visit to the grave of the Ailion family, who left their estate to the university. The resulting Ailion Foundation aims to promote Japanese Studies and cultural activities between the Netherlands and Japan. It is customary in Japan for families to regularly visit family graves. The university might not be family, but as an Ailion heir it has taken on the duty of washing the grave when the rector is in Japan.

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Text and photos: Dagmar Aarts

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