Eleonora Borisovna Sablina is an historian, teacher, candidate of historical sciences, researcher of Japanese Orthodoxy, and the author of a book on St. Nicholas of Japan.
—Eleonora Borisovna, you have been living and teaching in Japan for many years. Tell us, please, how you arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun? Where do you work?
—I have been teaching at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies for nineteen years. I am a candidate in historical sciences and professor. I also teach at the Tokyo Conservatory, and until March of this year I worked at the State University of Yokohama. Unfortunately, study of the humanities is being reduced in Japan today. It’s sad, but there’s nothing you can do—it’s a global trend.
I went to Japan straight from Moscow State University (MSU). I taught Japanese there. My specializations were as an historian-orientalist and as a translator. From 1978, when the world conferences of religious leaders began, I started working with the Russian Orthodox Church. I was invited as a translator. Vladyka Theodosy (Nagasima) would come to Russia and I would translate for him. I first learned about St. Nicholas when I started accompanying pilgrims. Of course, before that I had heard nothing about the saint because we lived in an atheist country; but the person of St. Nicholas interested me. In the end, I decided to go to Japan to study his activity and to introduce it to Russians. In 1992, after the fall of the USSR, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs created special educational programs, receiving students and researchers from Russia. I was there for a year on this grant, as a visiting researcher. I went around all of Japan and visited all the churches. I wrote several articles under the title “A Pilgrim from Russia.” A large compilation on St. Nicholas’ work was even published in English, including my articles and those of other scholars.
—And you have stayed working in Japan ever since?
—Yes, they kept me; because Vladyka Theodosy did not allow any Japanese into his archives, but he told me, “Do as you wish.” It was apparently also because my specialization was as a researcher in Russian-Japanese cultural relations at the end of the nineteenth century, and my main direction was the history of St. Nicholas and the Japanese Orthodox Church. In general, when you say in Russia that there’s Orthodoxy in Japan, everyone is surprised. But there is! And it’s firmly rooted. I thank the Japanese Foreign Ministry for giving me the opportunity to study Orthodoxy in Japan, because it is the basis of Russian-Japanese relations at all times, and the mutual understanding between Russia and Japan comes from the Orthodox. St. Nicholas was a great scholar and Japanologist. I thank God that I also wound up in this current of Japan specialists.
—That brings up a question. You probably didn’t come to faith immediately. It seems St. Nicholas greatly influenced your coming to the Church.
—I came to faith after I began to collaborate with the Russian Orthodox Church and I would go to the services. But I have childhood memories of faith. I remember how my nanny would take me to Rostov-on-Don to church. It was a Greek church. I remember stopping into the church sometimes and going there for Pascha with a lit lantern. And that was the end of my experience with faith. I didn’t hear anything else about faith. We even had a class at MSU on scientific atheism. But one day the Lord led me to the Committee for the Protection of Peace. My classmates were there. They called me and said, “There’s a conference, organized by priests. They need the Japanese language.” I was scared, but I went. From there a whole chain of events lined up, leading me to Japan. I believe everything was so easily managed by the prayers of St. Nicholas. I always felt he was leading me. I finally began my Church life there.
—What did you think of Japan on your first visit?
—I first went to Japan as a third-year student. The Expo 1970 world exhibition was there. The first thing I noticed was a different smell. They got us to Osaka in eight hours, and on the way I saw bananas lying out on counters, but we had a shortage of them. I was surprised by the unusual smell and the brightness of the fruit. The Japanese immediately seemed very friendly. We were working on building our Soviet pavilion, and I had to constantly translate for everyone—constantly traveling and talking. One elderly Japanese man even decided to invite us to some interesting places. He said he only had a little time left to live because he was sick, and therefore he wanted to show us young people his motherland. That’s when I first began to love the Japanese. They’re very compassionate people. I’m still friends with some of the Japanese who were at that exhibition then. The Japanese are not wasteful, but not stingy, not tight-fisted.
—How did you decide to write a book on St. Nicholas? Were there difficulties in writing it?
—No, there were no special difficulties. I first wrote a thesis on him, and I had all the documents. Besides, I wrote with my heart. Before going to Japan, I got a blessing from Vladyka Vladimir in St. Petersburg, whom I had befriended at conferences in Japan. He really loved Japan. One time, Vladyka and I went to a monastery where His Holiness (Patriarch Alexy II) was. They had trapeza in the evening, then everyone went up for a blessing. I approached the patriarch last, and he said, “And where are you, Eleonora Borisovna?” Ten years had passed and he still remembered me! I told him I’d already been in Japan for two years, and told him I was going to write a work about St. Nicholas. He wished me success. And in 2006, when my book came out, I presented it to him on the commemoration day of Holy Hierarch Alexei. He would then often ask, “How is your Japan?” and always asks me to convey his bow to Japan. I thank God that life has led such people to me, including Anthony of Sourozh. At the Local Council, when I translated for him, Vladyka was sitting on a step below us, and it was making me very uncomfortable. However, he said, “No, no, don’t interfere.” And in the end, I got a bouquet of red roses from him.
—You studied the life of St. Nicholas of Japan, went to all the churches where he served, and spoke with people connected with Vladyka in one way or another. What, in your view, led to St. Nicholas having such missionary success in Japan?
—Vladyka had a good heart, mind, and education. When he arrived in Japan in 1861, Christianity was still forbidden there. He was a regular priest at the consulate for eight years, and this whole time he attentively and heartily studied Japan—its history, literature, and most importantly, language. He studied Japanese for eight hours straight every day. He alternated with three different teachers. Just imagine, what productivity! Such a desire to get to know the country and language that many have said was created by the devil himself, since it’s so difficult. But Vladyka overcame it all.
St. Nicholas’ path to Japan was not easy, but providential. While he was still in the St. Petersburg Academy, when he went to the seminary’s evening prayers, he saw in one classroom a sheet saying that they were asking for a priest for the consulate in Japan—and not just a priest, but a missionary priest. Vladyka would later say, “I went to the service, prayed about this proposition, and by the end of the service my heart, my soul already belonged to Japan.” No one thought that he, a handsome and funny man, would wind up so far away and become a great preacher.
But the Lord judged otherwise. It’s interesting that the future holy hierarch met Metropolitan Innocent in Irkutsk, also later numbered among the saints, who was returning from America. St. Innocent sewed a velvet cassock for his young comrade, saying that he, Nicholas, should appear in all glory before the Japanese. He also gave him a pectoral cross and said, “You should come down the ladder from the boat with such a look.” Obviously, Vladyka well understood how important a missionary’s first impression is. And indeed, after the amazing conversion to Orthodoxy of a Shinto priest who had come to kill St. Nicholas, the Orthodox community began to grow by his fiery preaching in the Japanese language, and by 1880 there were more than 5,000 believers and 6 priests.
—As you know, St. Nicholas founded a seminary and theological schools. How did Vladkya prepare people for priestly service; how did he instruct and educate them?
—Yes, you’re referring to the Tokyo Seminary, which had its first graduation in 1882. Vladyka strove to give seminarians there a very good and diverse education and invited various teachers. St. Nicholas always paid attention to the seminarians’ manners and their attitudes towards people. Some were expelled because they were drunk, some for foul language. Every day, Vladyka recorded how everyone was in church, school, and at work. St. Nicholas also paid great attention to the students’ health, because they were very poor and hungry in Japan at that time. Therefore, the seminary even organized a dacha in the mountains that the seminarians regularly visited. In the summer they went to the seaside. They tried to provide them all with good food and made them play sports and keep up their personal hygiene. Vladyka also demanded that the seminarians keep a journal, talking about trips home, who they preached to, and what difficulties they experienced. Such an attentive, deeply human approach to those around him, inherent in many Japanese, of course greatly drew them to the personality of St. Nicholas.
—Since you’ve hit upon the question of mentality, I would like to ask, what would you, having lived in Japan for so long, identify as the key features of the Japanese mentality?
—They are, of course: responsibility, collectivism, and, most importantly, love for their country—the Japanese often say, “I am happy to have been born in Japan.” In terms of love for their homeland and probably collectivism too, Russians and the Japanese are very similar. The climate is rather harsh in Russia, while in Japan they have almost constant earthquakes, fires, tsunamis—how could they get by without collectivism? But the most important thing in Japan is human relations. That is, if you don’t get along well with people, you will fall out of society. Do you know who one of the most beloved fairytale characters is in Japan? You’re going to fall out of your chair. It’s our Russian Cheburashka. Why? Because he is friendly with everyone—it’s very important. Also, everything must be balanced for the Japanese—this is foundational for their worldview. There should be nothing sharp, nothing broken, and nothing destroyed at all. The Japanese, oddly enough, very rarely say the word “no” or categorically refuse anything.
—In your view, what is the most valuable thing in the Japanese educational system? How traditional is it?
—The educational system in Japan is being gradually reformed—unfortunately, often not in a positive direction. Sometimes, for example, they reduce the humanitarian subjects in favor of the technical. My co-workers with whom I worked for many years as a professor say that this used to be a good university, and now it’s more like a strong vocational school. Of course, due to the low birth rate, there are fewer students and teachers. But it’s very difficult to get a job at a university without a degree now. It’s also good that universities now have obligatory full-fledged scientific societies.
—Japan is a very high-tech country, but at the same time, tradition plays a rather strong part in Japanese life. How do modern Japanese combine tradition and modern technology? How do they support the institution of the family?
—The preserving of tradition and the institution of the family is a big problem in Japan today; although, there are Japanese who surely have positive experiences in this regard too. There are many divorces today, and people get married late or don’t start a family at all, preferring a career path. But they’ve at least started making good family films in Japan. In Russia, the films are mainly about criminals and corruption. I’m ashamed of our television, of our country, because it’s pure garbage pouring out of the TV onto people. But there they have historical dramas, and far more good family films. Perhaps many of them are naïve, but they’re a positive example for the youth.
—How do ordinary Japanese people feel about Russia and Russian culture?
—Of course, everything depends on the specific person, but overall, they have a good feeling about it. Even Russian food seems tasty to the Japanese. I went to Germany, for example, and my co-worker said, “Where are you going? They have such terrible food there!” Food is very important for the Japanese. Their favorite word is “oi si,” meaning “delicious.” Russia has the most delicious food. And most importantly, there are hospitable people there. They also love Italy—everything Italian is beautiful to them. Italian cordiality also attracts them.
—Many think that the Japanese have a closed character. Would you agree?
—No, they are not closed. They’re just shy. See, from their mother’s milk they absorb the idea that you mustn’t cause any inconvenience for anyone. Thus, the children especially do not scream. You should always behave properly. Until recently, it forbidden to keep even a dog or cat in a multi-story building. What if the cat suddenly starts meowing or the dog starts barking? The Japanese are very law-abiding, but, most importantly, they respect one another. That’s not being closed, but restraint, modesty. Sure, they don’t open up immediately before a stranger, but if they began to trust him, then they will reveal their entire soul. They’re also very trusting.
—And the last question: What is the state of the Orthodox Church in Japan today? Does it have any prospects?
—Thank God, the Church is alive and growing. Of course, we are very short of priests. There are only two or three students in seminary, and they only take people with a higher education. We need to work with the young people, to educate them and engage them in Church life. The external environment is very aggressive right now.
The Japanese Orthodox Church has many great and great-great-grandchildren of those who were baptized by St. Nicholas. In general, Vladyka’s spirit and tradition is still preserved there. There is communality everywhere. The faithful hold Bible Studies. There are active sisterhoods. For example, we collect quality items and give them to a charity or send them to countries suffering from catastrophes. Everyone goes on pilgrimages together and celebrates Old Calendar Nativity. There is always a common meal after every Liturgy, as St. Nicholas established. Therefore, despite the problems and difficulties, thank God, the spirit of a living Christian community has been largely preserved.