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Golden Jubilee of Sri Lanka-Japan relationship

Japan - Lanka's friend in need 

(Reproduced from Daily News of February 19, 2002)

By Sisil de Pandith 

Before diplomatic relations began between Sri Lanka and Japan the famous San Francisco speech of Sri Lankan representative Mr. J. R. Jayewardene forever presides which built up a closer relationship between the two countries.

Significant among visits to Japan by Sri Lankan Heads of State were Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawela in 1954, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake in 1967, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1976, President J. R. Jayewardene in 1979. He visited for Emperor Hirohitho's funeral. Prime Minister R. Premadasa visited in 1980 and 1985, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga visited in 1996. Significant among visits by Japanese VIPs to Sri Lanka, were the visit of Prince Mikasa in 1956 to attend Buddha Jayanthi Celebrations. Prime Minister Kishi Shinsuke visited in 1957. Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess visited in 1981 on behalf of Emperor Hirohitho. Foreign Minister Kuranari Tadashi visited in 1987 and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu visited in 1990. Prince and Princess Akishino visited in November 1992.

The first Japanese national to visit Sri Lanka in history was a Buddhist monk - Rev. Shaku Kohen of Shigon Sect. According to documents in Tokyo University's Meiji Library, he arrived in Sri Lanka in 1886 and studied Pali and Sanskrit in a temple at Galle. He received his higher education in Malwatte Temple, Kandy in 1890 under the name of Konen Gunarathne. His teacher was Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera of Vidyodaya Privena. 

His uncle Rev. Shaku Unso was a friend of Mr. Hayashi Tadasu, then the Foreign Minister of Japan, who had helped him financially to visit Sri Lanka. He had gone back to Japan in 1893 and visited India as well. He met Anagarika Dharmapala in Colombo and exchanged fraternal greetings. In 1887 Dharmapala read an article on Japan in the issue of the Fortnightly Review and desired to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. Two years later, in 1889, it was fulfilled. 

The Buddhists of Japan, hearing of Col. Olcott's splendid services to the Dhamma in Ceylon, were eager that he should visit their country as well and therefore invited him. 

The emissary who was to escort the Colonel to Japan arrived in Colombo in December 1888. And after being entertained by Dharmapala was so pleased with the selfless young Buddhist worker that he extended the invitation to him as well. Col. Olcott seeing in the visit an opportunity of linking the Mahayana Buddhists of Japan with the Theravada Buddhists of Lanka decided to accept the invitation. He urged his young friend, who had accompanied the emissary Senshiro Noguchi to Adiyer, to go with him. Dharmapala came back to Colombo and booked passages on the S. S. Dheninah, a French liner. Col Olcott arrived soon afterwards and on January 9, 1889, the day before their departure, the Buddhists of Ceylon held a farewell function in their honor at the Theosophical Society hall. After delivering a splendid discourse, in the course of which he invoked the blessing of the devas and the Triple Gem on the mission, Sumangala Nayaka Maha Thera handed over to Col. Olcott a Sanskrit letter of good wishes addressed to the Chief High priest of Japan. 

This historic letter, may be the first official communication in centuries between a southern Buddhist dignitary and the heads of one of the most important branches of the Northern Buddhist Sangha, expressing the hope that the Buddhists of Asia would unite for the good of the whole Eastern world. 

With the precious document in their charge. Col Olcott, Dharmapala and Noguchi left Ceylon, and after calling at Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Shanghai (where Dharmapala began to suffer from the severe cold) the party arrived at Kobe, where the Chief High Priest of the seven leading sects of Japanese Buddhism had assembled on the jetty to receive them. The arrival was announced in newspapers like Kobe Yushin Nippon, Hinode Shimbun, The Japan Weekly Mail, The Naigai Shimpo and many others. 

The visitors were then conducted to the Tendai Sect temple in Kobe. Above the main gate the Buddhist flag fluttered in the icy wind, bearing huge Japanese characters which Noguchi translated as "Welcome to Dai Nippon". Col Olcott and Dharmapala next left for Kyoto, where they witnessed the celebration, which attended the promulgation of the New Japanese constitution (Dai Nihon Tekoku Kempo) 11th on February 1889. Not long afterwards a convention of Chief High Priests was held in a Jodo Sect temple, and Col. Olcott addressed them on his mission. 

Dharmapala was now suffering from rheumatic fever and had to attend the convention in an invalid’s chair. But in spite of physical suffering so great was his elation when Col. Olcott read Sumangala Nayaka Thera's Sanskrit letter of goodwill to the Buddhists of Japan, a Japanese translation of which was presented to each High Priest. 

The bearded American Theosophist and the slim, ascetic young Sinhala Buddhist realized that they were playing the leading roles in one of the most important scenes in the great drama of modern Buddhist revival, marking as it did the first official contact, which had taken place between the hundred branches of the Buddhists world for nearly a thousand years. 

But when the curtain had fallen on this historic scene, Dharmapala was forced to enter the Government Hospital at Kyoto for treatment, while Col Olcott embarked on his triumphant tour of Buddhist Japan. Doctors, priests, students, writers, philosophers and businessmen poured in an endless stream to his bedside, so that by the time he was ready to leave the hospital Dharmapala had not only added to his knowledge about Japan but also become an enthusiastic admirer of the Japanese. A few days before his departure from Japan, the officers and students of the Bungakushu, the Japanese Military academy, several of whom had attended to him during his illness with the utmost devotion, invited him to witness a huge military parade which was to be held in his honour. Hundreds of students participated in the parade. The five colour Buddhist flag fluttered above the gathering and the grounds were decorated with lanterns. 

The representative of the Chief High Priest, together with other representatives of the Honganji Sect, attended the function. During the remainder of Dharmapala's visit bouts of illness alternated with brief periods of lecturing and sightseeing and eventually he was forced to leave the country sooner than he wished. 

A farewell address was given by the Chief High Priest of the Japanese Buddhist Sects, who handed over to Col. Olcott a reply to Sumangala Nayaka Thera's Sanskrit letter of goodwill. The letter reciprocated the High Priest's fraternal greetings, expressing the hope that in future the two great divisions of the Buddhist world might know each other more intimately and described with satisfaction the wonderful success that had attended the mission. 

All Kyoto was decorated for the occasion, and in the evening, at a meeting attended by the Governor and other high officials, Col. Olcott spoke about India and Ceylon and Dharmapala poured out his love and gratitude to Japan in a highly emotional speech, which was widely applauded.

Diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Japan were established in 1952, and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Japan was set up in May 1953. 

Japan traditionally maintains friendly relations with Sri Lanka. The Economics and Technical co-operation between two nations has grown. Sri Lanka is the largest per capita recipient of Japan's bilateral aid. Along with economic co-operation, Japan has been providing cultural aid to Sri Lanka since 1979. Japanese co-operation programs to Sri Lanka started in 1954. Japan is a major support country to the Asian Region and accounts for 40 per cent of Sri Lanka's bilateral aid packages. Japan has a substantial value of loans invested in the region estimated to be around a third of total foreign lending in the region. 

In the past few years the overall trade transactions have witnessed a rapid expansion. Growth in exports from Sri Lanka to Japan that reached a record high value of US $ 256.4 million in 1996 rapidly decreased to US $ 234.2, 191.95 and 162.3 in 1997, 1998 and 1999 respectively. There has been a large increment of exports to Japan over the last 20 years of with an import increment of 113.7 per cent from Japan.

This being the Golden Jubilee of diplomatic relations between the two countries many events have been planned to celebrate the occasion. Among them are a proposal to open up a Japanese Garden at Sri Jayawrdenapura, which is to be built voluntarily by the peoples of Sri Lanka and Japan. 

The garden being a part of the growing need to preserve the environment has been widely supported since it will be a place of learning and enjoyment for the peoples of Sri Lanka. This would be a landmark in truly bringing together two old friends. 



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Last Updated Date: September 25, 2003 .

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