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Interview with Michiko Koyasu

Michiko Koyasu has been a professor of Germanics at Waseda University in Tokyo since 1968. She has written several very successful books on Waldorf education. So far, depending on the book, between 100,000 and 400,000 copies have been sold. With her daughter Fumi she also made a film on Waldorf education that has been shown several times on Japanese television. This dedicated, active literary scholar with a sparkling sense of humor has been working for Waldorf education in Japan since the mid-1970s. She lived in Munich, Germany for a total of seven years. She travels to Europe regularly to cultivate her contacts.

How did your relationship to Germany arise – particularly to the German language?

My father was an economist who translated several German books into Japanese. He was very fond of Germany. He had wanted to go to Berlin for further training, but then the war broke out. When I was 16 years old (in 1949) my father took me to a celebration of Goethe’s 200th birthday at his university, where I heard a reading of Goethe’s "Erlkönig". I did not understand German at that time but the mood, sound and rhythm of this poem fascinated me. It was followed by Schubert’s music for the same poem, which also moved me deeply. When I began my university studies at age 18, I wrote "Germanics" as my ideal choice of study on a piece of paper. Japan was still very poor, and I did not dream that I would one day go to Germany myself. But I wanted to learn as much as possible; I wanted to be able to teach the language. I was able to read quite difficult books with ease, but everyday speaking was difficult. So I attended the Goethe Institute in Tokyo. A few months later I received a stipendium for Germany. I went there for half a year, first to Bad Aibling, Bavaria, then to Munich. I left my husband and three year-old daughter behind in Japan. My strong wish, however, was to take my family with me the next time. This I was able to do a few years later, in 1971.

Did you encounter Waldorf education while looking for a school for your daughter Fumi?

Yes. I met the writer Angelika Mechtel at a reading in a bookstore in Munich. She recommended the Rudolf Steiner school for Fumi. Initially I had heard of Rudolf Steiner only fleetingly as a Goethe researcher. I did not even know if this Goethe expert was identical to the founder of the school.

So you met anthroposophy through having your daughter in the school?

Gradually. At first I found the school interesting but then it began to mystify me. Why this kind of education? Why such a curriculum? Why so much artwork? I began to look into its background.

Was it strange to you?

At least not very familiar. But this changed with time, especially when we went back to Japan for four years and Fumi attended public school there. Waldorf education is so different. I noticed this particularly in relation to the Japanese exam system. I gradually realized how different Waldorf education is. The riddle grew for me. I began reading "Theosophy", then "How to Know Higher Worlds" and "An Outline of Esoteric Science". I did not understand everything immediately, but I kept feeling, "Oh, yes, I knew that somehow life makes more sense that way." Slowly, gradually, things became clearer.

You then wrote about your experiences with Waldorf education.

Yes. Since these school experiences were so interesting to me, I wrote a book about how it had been to have my daughter at the Munich Waldorf school.

Is the book still relevant?

It is, because I deliberately wrote it as a travel experience and not as educational literature. Most people read it as educational literature, however. I believe my book (and therefore Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education) became so popular because of the book’s essayistic form.

How has Waldorf Education been taken up in Japan?

I received many enthusiastic letters from readers, of course, and many wanted to found a Waldorf school in Tokyo right away. But always I answered, please, not so fast. This education has a deep background. We grown-ups must first study anthroposophy more, to create a basis, before we open a school. So there are study groups and practical workshops for adults at Rudolf Steiner House in Tokyo. Examples of courses I have taught there are "Theosophy," "Study of Man," "Michael Ende’s Momo from an Anthroposophical Point of View," "Japanese Literature from a Spiritual Scientific Point of View," and "The Fairy Tale Research of Friedel Lenz."

Interest in Waldorf education continues to grow. Children’s classes in painting and eurythmy are now offered in many cities. Two or three full day schools are planned. The first real, state accredited Waldorf school will probably open in Tokyo in 2002. We are working hard for this.

What is your particular aim for a Japanese Waldorf school?

That German be taught as a foreign language. As a literary scholar I have often thought about which literary work the 12th graders should read in their final term of German. I have searched and searched and in the end I decided it has to be Goethe’s "Faust." Every 12th grader should read "Faust." Also in translation. But even if they read it in translation, they should know German, to be able to read certain passages in the original. "The Sun intones, in ancient tourney," for example, or "All earth comprises is symbol alone," and "Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast." Those are clear, understandable German passages; Japanese 12th graders should read them in German.

How has anthroposophy been received in Japan?

Its reception is still passive. But I hope that we will become a bit more concrete in the future – particularly now that the Anthroposophical Society in Japan has been founded.

What does anthroposophy mean in your life? What has changed for you?

I became conscious of my life’s path. When I was younger, I was very goal-oriented in my career and family life. I planned everything in advance. When something did not work, I blamed the others and myself. This tendency to nervousness has become less and less with the years. Now I think, if my plan does not succeed as I have pictured it, this might be important for another reason. This change in attitude certainly came of my long occupation with the idea of karma. Not through accepting it theoretically but through testing it in life.

The idea of karma is also part of Buddhism.

Yes. I had heard from my grandmother’s generation that there is a teaching of karma. But hearing about it in my youth I had the impression that this idea did not make me free. Karma seemed unchangeable, a predestined fate. It was practically identical with resignation. Anthroposophy’s idea of karma, in contrast, makes me freer. Although everyone lives karma, each of us also has freedom at any given moment. This is a decided difference for me. We must recognize our own past as a necessity, but not everything is predestined. The Buddhist idea of karma tended to weigh me down. The cycle of karma is not eternal, it says, the human being should free himself from the chain of repeated earth lives. As long as he does anything sinful in this life, though, he must keep returning to the earth. So Rudolf Steiner’s idea of karma opened up a surprising new aspect for me. Karma does not require that we renounce human action. Earthly incarnation is not a tragedy. There is active meaning in living in a physical body. You know that you come to develop yourself and all of humanity. This is our mutual task.

How strong is spiritual life in Japan today? Are Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Shintoism still active?

The religions are still alive in Japan. They are not conscious in every-day life, in every moment, though. The religions are not so separate there. Our myths and legends of the gods come from Shintoism. Buddhism came later. So we have Shinto baptisms and marriages, while funerals are Buddhist. This is not felt to be inconsistent. Very deep in the soul there is something purely spiritual in our people.

The various religions live side by side. Is this possible because people realize that religions have a mutual source?

Yes, you could say that. Only certain people – extremist groups, new cults – are hostile towards other religions. For most Japanese all religions are essentially one. Few Japanese are aggressive and say that any particular teaching is false. This may be why they seem passive – they have a peaceful attitude.

It is significant that many Japanese from the 1900s onwards have a strong connection to European culture, as you do.

Rudolf Steiner once said that some individualities who lived in Europe in the 4th to 6th centuries would be reborn in Asian countries – particularly Japan – in the 20th century.* When I first read this passage about 15 years ago I wondered if it were true. But the fact that Japanese keep going to Europe, often returning to Japan as anthroposophists, has reminded me of it often.

Can one say that you are a mediator between Japanese culture and European, or German, culture?

Oh, I would not like to make so much of myself. There are many mediators between Japan and Germany, between Japan and Europe. Many Japanese who consider themselves to be mediators between East and West believe that "European" and "German" have to do with logic. Europe is logic, Japan is feeling. They think that this logical European way of thinking has to be transposed to Japan. However, we Japanese anthroposophists see that it is not enough to import German logical thinking. This modern attitude along with its values should not be allowed to merely continue its one-sided course. We feel responsible to watch out for this.

Can you explain that a bit more?

The intellectuals in Japan think that logic and materialism are modern, advanced and positive, that this is the sole direction we need to develop. This was the case particularly up to five or six years ago. But now people are slowly beginning to realize that we cannot go on this way, also not for economic reasons. I am beginning to notice this in our youth who are no longer satisfied with the accepted way of thinking, who are looking for something new, something spiritual. We must not forget that materialism is necessary. I would like to be a little bold and say that the Japanese configuration of soul tends to be more "sentient soul." Japanese are softer, more permeable and more flexible than the Western Europeans. That is why they always understand the sentient soul effortlessly when they read about it in "Theosophy". They also understand the mind soul. But the step to the consciousness soul sometimes causes confusion; it seems to be "against" the mind soul. There is a danger of rejecting everything intellectual and returning to the sentient soul. It is a difficult but unavoidable task in the schooling of each one of us, to progress from (and with) the sentient soul, through the mind soul as a stage, in order to experience the battle of overcoming it within us, and reaching the consciousness soul. A lighter, more flexible inner constitution can be a very receptive vessel for anthroposophical exercises, but we should engage our ego forces more strongly, applying our thinking (in the sense of "The Philosophy of Freedom"). This places demands on us as Japanese anthroposophists. It is another reason why there is a burning need for Waldorf education here. And we want to deepen our work in anthroposophy.


Michaela Spaar interviewed Michiko Koyasu in April, 2000
This interview originally appeared in Anthroposophy World Wide, 8/2000

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