In Memoriam: Zuihō Yamaguchi (1926–2023)

Written by: Chizuko Yoshimizu

Zuihō Yamaguchi, a prominent Tibetologist, passed away on Saturday, April 15, 2023, due to pneumonia. He was 97 years old and had lived a long life, but we still feel the loss of a great pioneering scholar who devoted his life to Tibetology. He discussed not only Tibet’s history and language, but everything related to Tibet, including the calendar, Dunhuang documents, and Religion. His significant contribution to the development of Tibetan studies will be forever deeply appreciated.

He was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on February 21, 1926. He was sent to a temple managed by one of his relatives when he was a child, and “Zuihō Yamaguchi” was the name he was given there. After graduating from Kanazawa College of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering (he was very fond of any sort of machinery and was one of the first among us to start using a computer), he went on to the Department of Literature at Daiichi High School and then entered the University of Tokyo, where he studied Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit Literature, graduating in 1953. He studied the grammatical characteristics of the Tibetan language translated from Sanskrit under the great professors of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies, Naoshirō Tsuji and Hajime Nakamura.

After postgraduate studies, in 1958, at the age of 32, he moved to Paris as a researcher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), where he studied under eminent Sinologists and Tibetologists, particularly R. A. Stein and M. Lalou, and worked on ancient and medieval Tibetan and Dunhuang texts at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE) in Paris. He spent six years in France, partly with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. He was accompanied by his wife, Eiko, and their son was born there. At the time, students from Japan were rare in Paris, and so at times it must have been quite difficult for him. However, his studies under Professor Stein and others were extremely fruitful, and it was during this time that he developed his wide knowledge and critical spirit. In his own words, Professor Stein first charged him with two tasks: collecting the names of persons, places, and monasteries from Tibetan historical books and preparing an outline of the biography of the 6th Dalai Lama. While proceeding with these tasks together with Professor Stein and Jampa Gyatsho (i.e. Dagpo Rinpoche), whom Stein had invited to Paris, he developed a growing interest in the Tibetan calendar and the history of the Dalai Lamas’ regime. For a better understanding of the later history of Tibet, he thought it necessary to understand the earlier history of the Tibetan empire and started studying the Dunhuang documents. At this point, he also expanded his field of study from history to language and the calendar. His colleagues were A.-M. Blondeau, A. Spanien, Samten Karmay, Yoshirō Imaeda, and others, who have all left their mark in the field of Tibetan studies.

With Prof. Hajime Nakamura in front of the statue of J.-F. Champollion in the courtyard of the Collège de France.

He returned to Japan in September 1964 and started his academic career in Japan as a researcher at the Toyo Bunko (Oriental Library) in Tokyo. In 1970, he was appointed associate professor at the Institute for Cultural Exchange Studies of the Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo, and in 1979 he took up a full professorship there. The Institute for Cultural Exchange Studies was established in 1966 as a transdisciplinary research institute (the forerunner of the current Division of Cultural Exchange Studies, Center for Evolving Humanities, In the graduate school, he belonged to the Department of Indian Philosophy and Indian Literature, where he taught students together with Professors Minoru Hara, Jikidō Takasaki, and Sengaku Maeda. The first person to work as his assistant was Soshū Nishioka, followed by Kimiaki Tanaka. Nishioka, Tanaka, Ryūtoku Kimura, Katsumi Okimoto, and others gathered under his guidance at the Toyo Bunko to investigate the Tibetan documents collected by Sir Aurel Stein, and it became a center for the study of Dunhuang documents in Tokyo.

In 1979, Yamaguchi received his doctorate from the University of Tokyo for “Toban ōkoku seiritsushi kenkyū” 吐蕃王国成立史研究 (A Study on the Establishment of the T’u-fan Kingdom), a revised version of which was published in 1983 by Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, and it was awarded the Japan Academy Prize the following year. In February–March 1981, he was invited by the Collège de France to give a series of lectures titled “La fondation du royaume tibétain d’après les sources anciennes, tibétaines et chinoises.” His Japanese translation of R. A. Stein’s La civilisation tibétaine with Akira Sadakata (published in 1971) received the Japan Translation Culture Prize in 1972. He was nominated a membre d’honneur de la Société Asiatique, France, in 1985 and was also awarded the Nakamura Hajime Eastern Studies Prize in the same year.

Most of Yamaguchi’s articles in the period between 1954 and 1981 were devoted to the study of the ancient history and language of Tibet. Whereas the book mentioned above was the culmination of his research on ancient Tibetan history, the fruit of his studies on the Tibetan language was Chibettogo bungo bunpō チベット語文語文法 (The Grammar of Classical Tibetan; Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1998). This book is dedicated to R. A. Stein and Hajime Nakamura, both of whom had strongly encouraged him to complete it. Yamaguchi’s reading of all kinds of Tibetan texts provided the foundation for this book. Sample sentences were gathered from a great variety of works, including Dunhuang documents, inscriptions, history books, Buddhist writings, and indigenous Tibetan grammar commentaries, dating from the 8th to 18th centuries. A compact “outline” of Tibetan grammar, Gaisetsu Chibettogo bungo bunten 概説チベット語文語文典 (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2002), was also published for the use of students. His elucidation of Tibetan grammar is to a certain degree different from that of Western scholars and draws on Japanese grammar, for the Tibetan and Japanese languages have some similarities in their use of verbs and sentence structure.

Yamaguchi published more than 100 articles in Japanese and about 20 in English or French, among which the most notable are: “Sanjūju, Shōnyūhō no seiritsu jiki o megutte” 『三十頌』『性入法』の成立時期をめぐって, Tōyō Gakuhō 東洋学報 57-1/2, 1976 (English version: “On the Composition of the Sum cu pa and the rTags kyiḥ jug pa,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 47, 1989); “Denkaruma 824nen seiritsu setsu” 『デンカルマ』八二四年成立説 (The Compilation of the lDan dkar ma in A.D. 824), Naritasan Bukkyō Kenkyūjo Kiyō 成田山仏教研究所紀要 (Journal of Naritasan Institute for Buddhist Studies) 9, 1985; “Chibetto reki chijunhō teisū no imi to rekishiteki jungetsu nenpyō” チベット暦置閏法定数の意味と歴史的閏月年表, Naritasan Bukkyō Kenkyūjo Kiyō 13, 1990 (English version: “The Significance of Intercalary Constants in the Tibetan Calendar and Historical Tables of Intercalary Months,” Tibetan Studies, PIATS Narita 1989, Part 2, 1992); Shoōtōshi meijikyō no chosha to seiritsunen” 『諸王統史明示鏡』の著者と成立年, Tōyō Gakuhō 3, 1978 (English version: “On the Author and the Date of the rGyal rabs rnams kyi byung tshul gsal ba’i me long,International Conference on China Border Area Studies, Taipei, 1984); “The Conflict in Early Seventeenth-century Tibet and the Kokonor Mongols,” Naritasan Bukkyō Kenkyūjo Kiyō 16, 1993; “The Sovereign Power of the Fifth Dalai Lama: sPrul-sku gZims-khang gong-ma and the Removal of Governor Nor-bu,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 53, 1995; and “The Emergence of the Regent Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho and the Denouement of the Dalai Lamas’ First Administration,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 57, 1999. His later English papers were translated by his student Rolf Giebel, whom I also thank for improving the English of this obituary.

Yamaguchi also edited books, contributing articles of his own to them: Tonkō kogo bunken 敦煌胡語文献 (Dunhuang Documents Written in Non-Chinese Languages; Tokyo: Daitō Shuppansha, 1985) includes studies of documents in the Uyghur, Khotanese, Sogdian, and Tibetan languages by frontline Japanese scholars at the time, namely, Takao Moriyasu, Hiroshi Kumamoto, Asao Iwamatsu, Yutaka Yoshida, Noriaki Hakamaya, Shirō Matsumoto, Akira Saito, Toshio Hiramatsu, Soshū Nishioka, Katsumi Okimoto, Satoru Harada, Yoshirō Imaeda, and Zuihō Yamaguchi. To commemorate his 60th birthday, he supervised the compilation of the book Chibetto no Bukkyō to shakai チベットの仏教と社会 (Buddhism and Society in Tibet; Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1986), to which, in addition to some of those named above, his colleagues, students, and young Tibetologists contributed, including Taishun Ueyama, Ryūtoku Kimura, Shōrei Nakayama, Kimiaki Tanaka, Chizuko Yoshimizu, Kazunobu Matsuda, Shunzō Onoda, Yōichi Fukuda, Musashi Tachikawa, Kōdō Yotsuya, Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Yoshirō Imaeda, Rentarō Ikeda, Yasuhiko Nagano, Masahiro Shimoda, Junko Miyawaki, and Shinjō Kawasaki.

At the University of Tokyo, Yamaguchi had three classes: Tibetan grammar for beginners, an undergraduate seminar on Tibetan historical literature, and a seminar for graduate students. The textbook for Tibetan grammar had been handwritten by Yamaguchi himself, for his grammar was first published in 1998. At that time, the only dictionaries available were Jäschke’s and Chandra Das’s Tibetan-English dictionaries. There were many words that were not included in these dictionaries, and so Yamaguchi served us as if he were a living dictionary. In the undergraduate seminar, he read what he wanted to read. We read biographies of the 3rd to 5th Dalai Lamas continuously until his retirement in 1986. He had the students write their translations on the blackboard and cheerfully corrected them in his distinctive voice and intonation, saying, “That’s completely wrong.” Eventually students from the University of Tokyo disappeared from this class, and Junko Miyawaki and Yumiko Ishihama joined from outside. In his last year, I was the only student. With graduate students he read the Grub mtha’ of lCang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje. He pestered the students with questions because he said he was not a specialist in Buddhism. Everyone enjoyed the debates, and lCang skya became a special figure for the students. Noriaki Hakamaya, for instance, said that lCang skya appeared in his dreams. Students received a solid training in how to read Tibetan texts of various kinds.

In January 1986, Yamaguchi retired from the University of Tokyo and moved to Nagoya University. After three years there, he became professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo in 1989 and began commuting to the Naritasan Institute of Buddhist Studies, in which he had been involved as a visiting researcher. This same year, 1989, was the year when the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies Conference was held at Narita, and he was instrumental in bringing the Seminar to Narita.

August 1989, at the 5th IATS (Narita View Hotel); from right to left: H. Uebach, R. Emmerick, Zuihō Yamaguchi, Shoseki Tsurumi (abbot of Naritasan Shinshoji temple), and Chizuko Yoshimizu.

Yamaguchi worked at the Naritasan Institute until about 2016 as well as at the Toyo Bunko. His last appearance in public was May 22, 2016, at a talk event titled “Dr. Zuihō Yamaguchi talks about Tibet and himself,” which was organized by Kawachen Bookstore to celebrate his 90th birthday. He talked about some good memories of R. Stein and his own studies. After the talk, we joined him at a Tibetan restaurant in Tokyo, and I was relieved to see that his appetite was as good as ever, for he really enjoyed his food.

With Kelsang Tahuwa of Kawachen Bookstore, May 22, 2016.

In 1987–1988, Yamaguchi published the two-volume book Chibetto チベット (Tibet; University of Tokyo Press), aimed at general readers interested in Tibet, and it received the Mainichi Publishing Culture Award. This book incorporated all his knowledge of Tibetan studies and became a classic that will be read and enjoyed for many years. I remember that he was always and anywhere reading some Tibetan text, not only in his office but even on the train. He greatly enjoyed and loved reading the Tibetan language. He visited Lhasa once when he was over the age of sixty. Although he suffered from altitude sickness, he enjoyed his stay, for as he repeatedly told me later, “A picture is worth a thousand words” (百聞は一見に如かず). This was the moment when what he had learned from texts came to life before his eyes.

His last book was Hyōsetsu Indo Bukkyō tetsugaku shi 評説インド仏教哲学史 (A Commentary on the History of Indian Buddhist Philosophy; Iwanami Shoten, 2010), in which he brought together his own interpretations of Buddhism. After turning sixty he became obsessed with Buddhist philosophy. His favorite Buddhist masters were Nāgārjuna, Śāntarakṣita, and Kamalaśīla. The Suttanipāta and the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras also provided him with essential sources of Buddhist thought. Although his interpretation of Buddhist philosophy has not attracted much attention, his deep consideration of the fact that our cognition is based on representations of external objects and verbal constructions detached from the flow of time is useful, especially for understanding Madhyamaka thought, and deserves to be listened to. He grew up in a Sōtō Zen temple and through Naritasan also became familiar with the Shingon Buddhism of Kūkai, and so it may have been only natural that he devoted his final years to Buddhist studies.

He told me that when he was young, he had once been impressed by an article he happened to pick up in the library of the Toyo Bunko. He said, “If someone someday comes across an article of mine and is impressed by it, I will chuckle from beyond the grave” (俺の論文もいつか誰かが見つけて、こんな論文があったのか、と感心してくれたら、そのときは草葉の陰で笑うんだ). I wonder if he is chuckling now. Or is it still too soon?