Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Ukrainians have long considered the Japanese as a model”

Keio University Professor Andrii Nakorchevsky on the prose and poetry of life in the Land of the Rising Sun
13 March, 2017 - 17:55

Andrii Nakorchevsky is a religion researcher, translator, and landscape architect. He has been teaching at Japan’s oldest Keio University since 1995. In Ukraine, which he visits regularly, he deals with landscape design and draws up, together with his colleagues, projects of integrated housing, under which buildings and the surrounding compound are planned simultaneously.

Kyiv recently hosted the exhibit “Inside Japan” under the supervision of Nakorchevsky. And the other day he displayed his own photo meditations – pictures with Japanese landscapes – at the “Dreamscape” exhibit. Besides, Samurai Songs, a book of Samurai poems translated by Nakorchevsky, was published in Kyiv two years ago. He is planning now to establish a foundation to sponsor the translation of important Oriental texts into Ukrainian. There are a lot of things to discuss with a person like his, but we focused on the particularities of the Japanese world-view that come up in the “points of contact” with Ukrainians.


A lot of thematic events are underway now as part of the Year of Japan in Ukraine. In general, such elements of Japanese culture as tea ceremonies, some writers, comics, and restaurants, are popular here. What do you think Ukrainians should know about Japan?

“Ukrainians have looked on the Japanese as a model of sorts for a very long time. I read some Ukrainian-language newspapers published in Western Ukraine, a part of Poland at the time, in 1904-05 during the Russian-Japanese war. They held the Japanese up as an example for Ukrainians. They wrote at length that the Japanese were well-educated, neat, and polite, cared about their homeland, and it was worthwhile to be like them.

“The Japanese are immensely punctual, keep their word, try to do their job in the best possible way, and have a deep sense of true responsibility. It is not a sham responsibility, as is often the case in our country, when, suppose, somebody turns away and you begin to do God knows what.”

What do the Japanese know about present-day Ukraine?

“Nothing. All the Japanese told me about Ukraine is that we have black soil; naturally, Chornobyl; and in the last while, the world’s most beautiful women.

“Ukraine doesn’t just know how to present itself. None of the Japanese know that we make rockets and the world’s largest aircraft. The state does not care about making it known.”

Are their Ukrainian communities in Japan? To what extent are they active?

“Ukrainians in Japan are the post-Soviet wave of emigration. The Ukrainian community is rather closely knit, by contrast with the Russians. There have been parades of embroidered shirts for four or five consecutive years. This event attracts 200-300 people who walk, wearing these shirts, down the central streets of Tokyo. The Ukrainians in Japan also hold other events, all kinds of concerts, etc. The community is trying to do something, but the state in no way supports these initiatives.”


You are planning to set up a foundation to sponsor the translation of Oriental – Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc. – classics into Ukrainian. What should be translated first of all?

“Any texts can be translated, for we have almost nothing of the kind. I am translating now from Old Chinese: the Osnovy publishers requested me to help translate the Tao Te Ching, the key text of Taoism. The same publishing house also asked me to translate The Book of Five Rings, a philosophical treatise on the attitude to life.


“Our research is on the rocks, and academics are as poor as church mice. A few people, who are prepared to invest in this, have endorsed my idea of the foundation. The goal is that all Orientalists make a joint effort. We want this organization to raise funds and issue translation grants, and we will draw up the list of texts to be translated with due account of who is doing what in Ukraine. But, to translate a certain work, one must know not only the language, but also the immediate context, and we don’t have enough experts in this field.”

You have translated 11th-20th-century Samurai songs. What role does poetry play in contemporary Japan? For, in the olden times, every educated person versified in that country.

“It is approximately the same now. The Japanese versification technique resembles the Lego toy set. It has certain ‘cubes’ to put together and make a verse. One should learn these forms, and it will be quite easy to compose poems. But, of course, a good poem is not only a poetical technique.

“Today, any educated person in Japan also makes a lot of verses, although it is not obligatory. There are national poetic competitions, and television broadcasts a weekly program that assigns a theme, viewers send their poems, the best of them are read out for the whole country to hear, and the winners receive awards.

“Incidentally, versification used to be compulsory at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Any student was to know how to make verses – an ode or something else. It is, of course, open to question whether those verses were ‘talented,’ but still everybody was to know how to do this. That’s why we can say that this culture has just disappeared in Ukraine but remained in Japan.”


Tokyo is one of the world’s largest megalopolises. There are a lot of parks there, and people care about nature. What forms this attitude to the environment?

“Any society that has achieved a certain level of welfare begins to think over not only what to eat and wear, but also over what is around. It is an absolutely universal story. In the 1970s, Japanese traffic policemen wore oxygen masks, for it was impossible to breathe well because of the smog.”

You are the main consultant of the competition to create Japanese-style gardens at the National Mykola Hryshko Botanical Garden. What is the main condition for a Japanese garden?

“A Japanese garden is radically different from the ones we know – it is in fact a 3D installation. Landscape architects usually draw top-view plans very well. It is important to me – and I learned this in Japan – what I will see, for example, from this window. In other words, I create a garden as a picture. I usually show customers the photo collages of what they can really see from the garden’s key points. The Japanese landscape design is, first of all, thinking by means of 3D pictures.”

Kyiv has hosted an exhibit of your Japan landscape pictures called photo meditations. Why did you choose this formulation?

“I love traveling alone, especially in the mountains, and I carry a photo camera only. I can live alone in the mountains for days and look at them at night and in the morning. The meditating condition is the calmest and best-balanced on the borderline of day and night, and I think the mountains look the most beautiful at this very moment. So I consider this as sort of meditations. I record and try to convey this.”

What is your favorite place for this kind of travels?

“It is Nikko. In Japan, there was a deep-rooted tradition of hermit monks who wandered through the mountains to acquire divine energy there. There are places that presumably concentrate as much energy as possible. Monks were and still are doing their practices there. But while Nikko used to be closed for the general public, and many were afraid to go there, now it is completely open. It is a very picturesque place and I feel very well there. Whenever I want to get purified physically and spiritually, I travel there for a few days.”


Den’s editor-in-chief Larysa Ivshyna pointed out in the article “Identity and Modernization” (Den, No. 203, November 22, 2007) after a trip to Japan that the Japanese had shown the world how to recover from disasters and learn to live carrying a heavy past. This could be a good lesson to Ukrainians, who have a pronounced syndrome of a victim. In what way do you think the experience of Japan could help us?

“The Japanese take a particular attitude to certain things. Religion does not regulate their societal morality. This morality is based on the feeling of shame towards the others, above all, the community for doing something wrong. But outside the community, where there is no inner regulation, the Japanese may behave not so courteously. This is why, unlike the Germans, they do not consider themselves guilty of the crimes they committed during World War Two – they only say it was a particular situation. This is the main reason why Japan has not yet settled its relations with the countries it did the gravest damage to during WW II, i.e. Korea and China.”

What still puzzles you in Japan’s life after so many years of working there?

“The way the Japanese make decisions. I can’t understand at all how they manage to reach a consensus. I worked at a big Japanese company and work at a university now, and I must say that all our bureaucratic meetings are nothing in comparison with Japanese meetings which may last for many hours on end. The Japanese need to accept emotionally what is already clear on the rational level – and this takes time. They need to think over and feel it. The way it occurs remains a big puzzle to almost all people of Western culture.”

To what extent has Japan changed in the past two decades?

“To no extent. When I came there in the 1990s, it was the end of a period of rapid economic growth based on such a strong feature of the Japanese as cohesion, when they gather into a big team and quickly solve a problem. But when the world began to change fast under the influence of computer technologies, when the computer can allow a person who, figuratively speaking, sits in the garage to implement any ideas and do without a large number of other specialists, they began to falter a little.

“The Japanese themselves admit that they are very good at bringing someone else’s ideas to perfection. But almost all the Japanese Nobel laureates made their discoveries outside Japan, working in a different academic milieu. Japanese society remains traditional and hierarchic. For this reason, the Japanese model has fewer opportunities to realize its ambitions in the homeland in comparison with other countries.

“There has been certain stagnation in Japan for almost 20 years, without any noticeable growth or decline. The Japanese have reached a stable level and are so far unable to find incentives for a new economic growth under the existing culture. It is perhaps their greatest problem now.”

By Maria PROKOPENKO, photos by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day