One Professor’s Rediscovery of India

Dr. Hiroshi Yamashita undoubtedly loves his kurtas, a traditional garment from India. If you ever meet him, there is also a chance where you can see him flashing his shirt with caricature of Rajnikanth (a famous film actor from south India) printed on it. Over the years, he has become a fascination for people in the state of Tamil Nadu back in India. A professor at Tohoku University, his undying romance with Sanskrit, Tamil and oriental culture takes him down the memory lane.

“It was at school when I got interested in Indian philosophy. I had a teacher at Sendai Niko school who taught us philosophy and was from Kyoto,” he recollects. “Back then, I was very pessimistic about the world around me and certainly did not enjoy Japan’s increasing inclination towards the west.” His interest in Buddhist philosophy naturally led him to India. Those days, when he joined Tohoku University as a student, ‘Indology’ as a subject was offered which was based on Sanskrit and Pali languages. It was obligatory to master the Tibetan language as a part of it. After this, he began studying more about the Sanskritic philosophy in ancient India but soon decided to change his subject focus.

“Sanskrit focuses majorly on ancient Indian philosophy and not the modern aspects of it,” he says. In late 1970s, western and Japanese archaeologists assisted in the excavation of new sites belonging to the Indus valley civilisation. “Though divided but, archaeologists believe that probably the civilisation was Dravidian and not Aryan. It was then I decided to study the Dravidian religions, languages and cultures,” he says.

Dr. Yamashita sports an Indian kurta which is amongst his favourites.

Even though Dr. Yamashita took a major step in changing his focus, Japan at that time, did not have any department offering Dravidian languages. It was around that time he used to visit a family from the Tamil Brahmin community in Tokyo to learn the language. The family then introduced Dr. Yamashita to the Madras University’s department of philosophy which he believes had better academic standards than today. “With the caste movement, the majorly Brahmin professors were replaced even though Sanskrit has been traditionally a language spoken only by Brahmins, the upper caste community,” he reminisces.


After spending 6 years in Madras University, he was appointed as an associate professor at Yamagata University before he joined Nagoya University.

But, with changing times, subject focus needed a shift. “Not just in Japan but all over the world, the emphasis on classical studies has fallen. Today, Greek and Latin philosophies are no longer popular. Research has become more pragmatic,” he says. He soon shifted his focus to contemporary India and in the process, he made many Indian friends. He finally wrote his thesis on pre-Bhakti literature in Tamil Nadu.

Though his research is India-centric but it took him to several places around the world. “My research then took me to places where Indians are settled to study about the Hindu diaspora and how it has transformed from the place of origin,” he says. “In south east Asia, Hinduism has been preserved in its original language and no record of influence from the local languages have been found,” he explained. “NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) are extremely strict about observing the rituals,” he added.

Like Dr. Yamashita, there are several researchers studying the southern Asia in depth. “Previously, the disciplines were divided but, with the establishment of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies (JASAS), these disciplines have come under one umbrella,” he explains. With JASAS, the interdisciplinary research approach was facilitated. Now, researchers in the field of south Asian economics and politics are also collaborating under this umbrella.

This year, JASAS completes 30 years since its founding in 1988. To commemorate this event, a symposium is being held on May 26 of this year at Tohoku University’s Kawauchi campus. People from different areas ranging from anthropology and musicology to yoga and media studies are expected to gather for the event. Dr. Yamashita is steering this ship to its destination.

When asked if the Japanese population is interested in knowing about south Asia, Dr. Yamashita said,” Traditionally, Japanese people have embraced Buddhism with about 98% people associating themselves with it. With India growing economically on the global platform, people are getting interested from various perspectives.” Yet, the interest levels amongst the population of majorly agricultural Tohoku region, about south Asia is low. “It has a pro-west inclination,” Dr. Yamashita notes. On the contrary, the interest about India is growing rapidly amongst the people in Nagoya.

In 2015, the then education minister of Japan, Hakubun Shimomura, had sent a letter to all the 86 national universities of Japan which asked them to take active steps for the abolishment of social science and humanities organisations or convert them to serve areas that better meet the society’s needs. Yet, Dr. Yamashita feels that it is still not difficult to get funds for research centred around India. “Japanese government provides funds for important regions of the world. It is third-easiest to obtain funds related to research in south Asia followed by middle eastern and Chinese studies,” he explains.

In the future, Dr. Yamashita would love to see enhanced interdisciplinary approach such as in areas combining business and philosophy. He is excited for the event this weekend and he definitely brings the flavour of fragrant spices both in his research and interaction.


Poster for 30th anniversary JASAS Symposium


Event : JASAS 30th Anniversary Symposium

Date : Saturday, May 26, 2018

Time : 13:00 – 17:00 Hrs

Location : Room 206 – Multimedia Hall, Multimedia Education and Research Complex, Kawauchi Campus

Map :

Program details (in English) :

Program details (in Japanese) :月26日開催-日本南アジア学会30周年記念連続シンポ/

As spoken to The Sentinel.