Universiteit Leiden
  home   contact      

Archief > Forum 6/06 > Interview


Interview with Professor Hisashi Owada
"I have been trying to learn Dutch but so far with little result."

In July, Prof. Dr. Hisashi Owada took office at the Faculty of Arts with his inaugural lecture The Encounter of Japan with the 'Community of Civilized Nations'. Owada, who has an impressive career as professor at various prestigious universities, as well as being a diplomat and working as the permanent representative of Japan to the United Nations, is now one of the fifteen judges to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In Leiden, Owada occupies the special chair of Professor of Japan-European Diplomatic Relations. 'My primary purpose is to give some intellectual stimulus to the students.'

by Hanneke Riedijk

Hisashi Owada
(photo: Hanneke Riedijk)

What is your connection with Leiden?

Leiden is one of the oldest universities in the world and I find it a very exciting idea to be part of it. Leiden, for me, has had a special connection in the intellectual sense of the word. Since the seventeenth century, there has always been intellectural interaction between Leiden and Japan. Every Japanese citizen knows of Von Siebold, for instance. The first professorship of Japanology in Europe was created at Leiden University in 1855. And besides that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the initial period of the modernisation of Japan, many Japanese intellectuals came to study at Leiden University, for instance Nishi Amane and Tsuda Mamichi. They studied under Professor Simon Vissering such subjects as government, politics and the legal system. When they got back to Japan, they contributed greatly to the establishment of the modern Japan. So, in that general sense, Leiden University has always had a special meaning for me.

More specifically, I have a personal link with Leiden University. Since I first came to this country as a judge at the International Court of Justice, I have been involved in the creation in Leiden University of a course on Japanese art. The idea is to expose students of the university to the broader world by opening their eyes (intellectual eyes if you like) to different cultures from different civilizations.

What is it about?

This new course aims at approaching different branches of traditional Japanese art, such as woodcut printing, calligraphy, sumi‑e painting, pottery and traditional Japanese music, by inviting Japanese artists eminent in the field who will organise the class through organically integrating the history, philosophy and actual craftsmanship of the art in question. This approach will hopefully enable students of Leiden University to grasp the true essence of traditional Japanese arts in a broader cultural context, which learning from textbooks cannot give. Thus the goal is to combine three things: first, a student should know the historical background of the art in question; then, in order to understand the essence of the art, one has to be familiar with the philosophy involved. Art in Japan, as everywhere, is closely related to the way of thinking. But third, I believe it is essential to involve the student so that they create artwork with their own hands. When one has seen how it is done and then goes back to the theory, to the philosophy, it has an enormous added value. Mixing the three elements together is the purpose of this initiative. Last year there was a class on woodcut printing by a world famous artist from Japan, and this was very successful. During the current year, in the second semester, a well‑known calligrapher will be coming to Leiden. I feel very excited about it.

Have you given any lectures yet?

It was only in July that I gave my inaugural lecture. In my present position, I cannot commit to a regular course, such as teaching once a week or so. What I can do is to come to Leiden when I have time to give a series of lectures in a row about wide‑ranging subjects, for instance at the beginning or at the end of each semester. I was delighted when Leiden University offered me the chair, but I have not yet thought about the practical application of it. Since I am a full-time judge I have to be in the Court most of the time. As long as there is no conflict with my official engagement in the Court, I am happy to give some lectures. It is on this condition that I have accepted the offer. When it comes to actual scheduling, though, it is not an easy problem to solve.

What do you think your role in Leiden University should be?

My primary purpose is to give some intellectual stimulus to the students. Nothing beyond that has been decided, such as the form and frequency of my lecture. In view of my professional background, the obvious field would be international relations, but in my present position the field relating to international law or culture would be appropriate. In this respect, one area which can be interesting and useful in Leiden University will be the process of introducing international law into Japan.

What differences do you find in university education in different countries?

Against my background of having taught at universities in different countries, such as Japan, Europe and the United States, I can say that there are many differences in academic education in different countries, and especially between Japan and the United States. In Japan, university has traditionally been a place where one is expected to pursue a more in-depth study of a subject, and one's attitude essentially has been focused more on absorbing knowledge. As a result, professors tend to engage in lecturing, while students tend to develop a degree of passivity, listening and taking notes. Students in the United States are at the other end of the spectrum. There is active interaction between the teacher and the students, and the dialogue between the two is important. The famous Socratic method, which is widely used in law schools in the United States, is typical in this sense. Through the dialogue students develop the capacity to think and to explore, rather than what to learn and to memorise, whereas in Japan the emphasis still tends to be on the storage of knowledge. I believe the system in the United States is better for higher education.

I have no experience yet with Dutch students, but I have the impression that Europe is somewhere in between the Japanese system and the system in the United States.

What is most difficult in your present work?

The most difficult part of my work at the International Court of Justice is that I am always short of time. There are many cases to dispose of and they are all extremely complicated cases. It is not easy to find where justice lies in that particular context. For a judge, it is important not only to believe in justice and to maintain a spiritual attitude of impartiality. One has to dig deep into the material submitted by the parties and on top of that apply one's professional skill and expertise based on one's own research. Therefore I am constantly reading articles and monographs, looking up the jurisprudence, and engaging in a lot of reflection. All this requires a lot of time. I always wonder whether I have done enough to be able to be comfortable with my conclusion.

Judge Owada
Photo: Piet Gispen, courtesy Internationaal Gerechtshof.

How do you look back on your first three year period?

Those three years have been exciting and I have learned a lot. As you know, I have never been a professional judge, although, in substance, the work I am doing is closely linked to what I have been doing throughout my career as a professor at universities such as Tokyo, Waseda, Harvard, Columbia, and so forth, teaching international law, as well as being a diplomat, working at places like the United Nations. The work of the Court relates primarily to issues of public international law, and this is the field I have been working in most of my life. However, being a judge is an entirely new and challenging experience for me. I am very excited about this experience I have had.

Is there any conflict with your earlier work?

There is not exactly a conflict, but the work as a judge requires a new approach to one's thinking. When one is in government, one is supposed to work for the government. One's line of thinking is always linked with the national interest of the State that one represents. Working with the ICJ, one is engaged in the public service of the international community. Being a judge, impartiality becomes the most important quality.

The difference between the two is that when one is working in government the legal work is primarily for one's client, while in the Court one represents justice and engages in the quest for truth in an impartial, general manner.

Can you give an example? Does it affect your personal life?

I have been the permanent representative of Japan to the United Nations. When one looks at a particular problem in that capacity in the United Nations, one looks at the issue from the viewpoint of the country that one represents. The primary aim is to seek a peaceful settlement of the dispute which comes before the United Nations. When one is faced with the same problem or a similar problem at this Court, one's primary purpose is not to strike a good compromise but to find out what the truth is and where the justice lies in the particular context of the case.

What drives you?

It is the feeling that I am doing something useful to society, to the international community and to humanity. Also, I have a very strong sense of intellectual curiosity and this is also a useful stimulus that keeps me going. It is amazing that one can be curious about almost anything around one. Sometimes it is distracting, since one may be interested in too many things.

What is your experience with Dutch culture?

I live in The Hague but frankly, working at the International Court of Justice, I have very little exposure to Dutch society. I have been trying to learn the Dutch language but so far with little result, because everyone speaks English in this country. One might say that I am being discouraged in this sense in my efforts to use the Dutch language. I have lived in many foreign countries in my life. In my experience, the Netherlands probably is one of the easiest countries in which to live. People do not interfere with the style of life that one likes to live. Each person is separate, independent. Perhaps this phenomenon may also be a problem of this society as well. My feeling is that this society is perhaps easy to settle in but difficult to be fully part of.

vorige pagina top pagina