Japanese Hebraist takes his message across Asia

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Japanese Hebraist takes his message across Asia

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Takamitsu Muraoka

The hundred or so seats in classroom 304 at Torch Trinity Graduate University (TTGU) usually remain empty during the winter vacation, but on Thursday night the lecture hall was nearly packed to capacity. And all eyes and ears remained steadfastly on Takamitsu Muraoka, the soft-spoken, petite man at the podium.

The professor emeritus at Leiden University is one of the world’s most renowned Hebraists and his 90-minute lecture flowed easily, as if he had rehearsed it a million times.

His knowledge of the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, as well as his fluency in Greek, Hebrew and English - just a handful of the languages Muraoka commands - garnered a loud round of applause from the crowd, which included Korea’s leading theologians.

It was the curtain call on a free two-week teaching lecture course he provided at the English-language seminary located in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul. Starting next week, he’ll move on to Indonesia, where he will give another free teaching seminar to seminary students and theologians for four weeks.

The 75-year-old Japanese scholar has “tithed” at least five weeks of his time - about a 10th of the year - teaching students in Asian countries that suffered at the hand of the Japanese during the Pacific War, a resolution he has kept every year since 2003.

The project has already taken him to most parts of the continent invaded by Japan including Korea, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Muraoka’s idea bloomed at an international translation forum in Korea in 2003, when participants from different parts of Asia asked him to teach in their home countries. He said he was happy to return to Korea to help students at TTGU but acknowledged he had mixed feelings about continuing his “ministry.”

“If the Japanese government had done something really positive, there would not have been much need for this ministry,” he said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Wednesday. “I am a little sad that I’m back here.”

When it comes to Hebrew and biblical translation, Muraoka is a household name. The 1991 book “A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew” is his translation of a grammatical book by French scholar Paul Jouon and has become one of the most widely used textbooks in beginner Hebraic studies.

His calling to give back came after he realized that international views of Japan were not as favorable as he initially believed. His critical view of his government has only deepened as Japan has continued to deny its past.

On Dec. 26, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enraged other Asian nations by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses 14 Class-A war criminals along with those killed during the war. Abe attempted to justify his actions, arguing that he was merely paying his respects. However, in Muraoka’s opinion, Abe is being hypocritical.

He admitted that his ministry, which only reaches out to a small number of Asian students, could be limited in changing his country, though he hoped a divine miracle would make the difference.

“I am comforted by remembering the story in the gospels where 5,000 or more people were fed with just several loaves of bread and pieces of fish. So when those very meager offerings were made willingly, the Lord blessed them and multiplied them thousands of times over,” he said. “I am praying that that could happen with my humble contribution and will count in Heaven.”


BY MOON GWANG-LIP [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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