As an archaeologist, Professor Takao Sato analyzes animal bones and shells excavated from ruins in Siberia and northern parts of the Japanese archipelago in order to understand the historical relationship between humans and nature. But he is also the chief priest of Kotoku-in, a temple in the Hase area of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, home to the famous open-air statue of the Great Buddha of Kamakura, also known as the Kamakura Daibutsu. We spoke with him to learn more about his diverse career as archaeologist, professor, and priest.
Professor Sato specializes in zooarchaeology and has conducted numerous excavations in Siberia and in the northern Japanese archipelago. His interest in living things seems to have grown from his childhood in Kamakura.
"I grew up in Kamakura, surrounded by nature, so I was interested in animals from an early age. From the moment I could walk, I was collecting insects and catching crayfish, and as a junior high school student, I had an aquarium at home where I kept the gobies, pufferfish, and sea slugs that I caught in tidal pools. I liked history, too. What attracted me to zooarchaeology may be related, at least to some extent, to my interests as a child.”
The Great Buddha is the most recognizable symbol of Kamakura, a landmark that has stood for 765 years. While originally housed indoors, today the Great Buddha of Kamakura still remains relatively unscathed after more than 500 years outdoors and is designated as a national treasure, attracting visitors from around the world. Professor Sato is the chief priest of Kotoku-in, where the statue is enshrined and where he greeted former US President Obama, who visited the temple for the second time in November 2010.
What led to you becoming the chief priest of Kotoku-in?
"Nothing out of the ordinary. I succeeded my grandfather, who had served as chief priest prior to me. After my father passed away in 1998, I became a priest in order to support my elderly grandfather while working full-time as a professor. In 2002, after my grandfather’s passing and on the 750th anniversary of the construction of the Great Buddha statue, I was appointed as chief priest of Kotoku-in."
"Because I work as both a priest and university professor, colleagues often criticize me for biting off more than I can chew. [laughs] And I actually used to feel the same way when I was younger. There were times when I felt that I couldn’t strike a balance between the two and wanted to quit one to focus on the other. As my research through the Faculty of Letters has been closely linked with natural science, I at first felt that my work at the university, which argues for reason based on conclusive evidence, was at odds with my work at the temple, which preaches concepts and ideals. Recently, however, I have felt that there is no real difference between the two. They both sustain me as an individual and feel consistently connected and complementary.”
How could two jobs that seem so different be so connected? The answer to that question begins to make more sense as we hear more about Prof. Sato’s work as an archaeologist and his perspective on research.
“Today, researchers across all fields are looking for ways to go beyond the existing knowledge systems built by modern Western science, which is rooted in monotheistic thought and has long distinguished ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ and ‘human’ from ‘animal,’ establishing specialized fields to study each. The departments and majors of today’s universities, too, are structured around this academic system. However, I don't think that any one field of research alone can fully grasp these concepts, which are inextricably linked to one another.”
“This becomes obvious when we come into contact with an indigenous cultures and their ways of thinking. For example, I have become familiar with the Ainu over decades of fieldwork in Hokkaido. They regard the animals they hunt as incarnations of benevolent deities. For indigenous people on the northwest coast of North America, animals are totems that represent a people’s spiritual origins and ancestors. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who studied indigenous myths, referred to these knowledge systems that are fundamentally different from those of Western civilizations as the ‘savage mind’ (Lévi-Strauss 1962).”
"Of course, minds that link different concepts are recognized not only by indigenous peoples but also by civilized peoples who are familier with modern Western science. This ‘mind’ is mostly readily evident in literature and art in particular. This is especially holds true in the metaphor and metonymy often used in literature. Metaphor is underpinned by thought that correlates unrelated concepts, exemplified in expressions like ‘skin as white as snow’ and ‘a face like an angel.’ We see something similar in expressions of metonymy when members of the National Diet are referred to as ‘gold badges’ or when yakuza bosses are called ‘silver badges.’”
In light of these phenomena, "symmetrical thought", as described by B. Latour and Shinichi Nakazawa (cf. Latour 1991, Nakazawa 2004), is a fluid intelligence that finds relevance between different concepts—equally possessed by all Homo sapiens—and is now thought to form the basis of the human mind. If this is correct, any research related to human activities must go beyond the existing frameworks created by modern Western science to engage holistically across the disciplines.”
"Fortunately, as I continue studying the history of human-animal relationships, I have had many opportunities to work with people across many different fields. Indeed, over the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to lead interdisciplinary teams of researchers in diverse fields including geology, geomorphology, biology, genetics, anatomy, chemistry, physics, and engineering. The more interdisciplinary research I work on, the more I realize that archeology and anthropology are indispensable in the comprehensive, multilateral research that can provide answers to French painter Paul Gauguin's three-pronged question: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"
Latour B. 1991 Nous n'avons jamais été modernes : Essai d'anthropologie symétrique. Paris, La Découverte
Lévi-Strauss C. 1962 La Pensée sauvage. Paris, Plon
Shinichi Nakazawa 2004 Taishosei Jinruigaku. Tokyo, Kodansha
Prof. Sato’s transdisciplinary and holistic approach to research is even aiding investigations and studies into the Great Buddha. With the Great Buddha a subject of such a diverse body of research, Prof. Sato begins to talk of a “mandala of research.” As we listen, we start to more deeply comprehend the ties between his work as professor and priest.
“The Great Buddha is a national treasure and an extremely precious cultural property, yet it sits outdoors, so its preservation requires constant attention. Additionally, as chief priest of Kotoku-in, I have an important responsibility to understand the current condition of the Great Buddha, which is a statue of our principal deity Amitabha Buddha, and do what I can to preserve it. That is why in 2016 we received government funding to conduct a physical examination of the Great Buddha—the first in over half a century—to inspect damage and make large-scale repairs.”
“Over my career I've developed not only a broad network of experts, but also an interdisciplinary, holistic approach as a professor and researcher. Those things, together with my experience leading transdisciplinary teams, all coalesced to make the project possible. The leader of the 2016 effort was a fellow researcher who I met 17 years earlier when we served as the secretariat at an academic conference. I feel like my profession has afforded me these fortuitous connections—or en, as we might say in Japanese,” Prof. Sato continues.
“Interestingly enough, not much is known about the history surrounding the construction of the Great Buddha. All that exists is a date in the historical chronicle Azuma Kagami, written in the 13th century. In it, the Hojo clan, a ruling family and regents to the shogun, records that casting began on August 17, 1252. While there are many hypotheses as to the statue’s origin, the details surrounding its sculpting and casting remain largely unknown. Judging by its scale, we can assume that the Great Buddha was a national venture, yet the ruling Hojo clan’s omission is a medieval mystery that we have yet to unravel. Over the past 25 years, Kotoku-in has conducted multilateral research and investigations to reveal the Great Buddha’s history.”
“Excavations in cooperation of the Kamakura City Board of Education in 2000 and 2001 revealed important archeological findings in terms of casting and the environment in which the statue was built. From the identified remains, the Great Buddha was, without a doubt, cast where it sits to this day, protected by a Great Buddha Hall (daibutsuden).”
“Even prior to the subsidized renovations of 2016, the statue had already been the subject of numerous physicochemical and engineering analyses and research. And as we continue such diverse explorations and reaffirm the Great Buddha’s importance as a subject of research for so many academic disciplines, I feel the gap between my roles as priest and professor grow progressively smaller.”
In fact, most research that can be done on the Great Buddha falls under some academic discipline taught at university. I have created something that resembles a mandala of research around this concept. The Great Buddha sits in the center, where two axes intersect: one of past and future, another of nature and science.” (Fig. 1)
Prof. Sato was born into temple life and raised a Buddhist, which he says has greatly influenced his perspective as a university professor and researcher. The more we listen, the more we come to understand the real meaning behind his thoughts that the university and the temple are really not so different after all.
“I feel that I owe my holistic approach to research to my upbringing at a Buddhist temple and a familiarity with Buddhist thought from such a young age. Polytheism lies at the heart of Buddhism, which separates it from other major world religions and makes its ways of thinking decidedly different from the monotheistic thought that is so ingrained in modern Western science.”
“The Buddhist thought of reincarnation states that those who fail to reach Nirvana can be reborn as animals, which is one reason why Buddhism teaches its followers to embrace a deep compassion for all living things. Here we recognize the inseparable ties between humans and animals. To further this point, Buddhism makes no distinction between the self and the other. The Jataka tale of the Prince Sattva, who sacrificed his own flesh to feed several starving tiger cubs, clearly illustrates this concept.”
“Prof. Shinichi Nakazawa, whom I mentioned earlier, has picked up on the characteristics of the religion, praising Buddhist thought as ‘the most advanced stage of the savage mind.’ He has also noted that Buddhism is the only world religion that pursues the possibilities of "symmetrical thought" which we currently strive to attain. In light of Nakazawa’s appraisal, I feel my familiarity with Buddhist doctrine from such a young age may have influenced my attitude to pursue diversity and comprehensiveness as a researcher.”
Lastly, we asked Prof. Sato what he would like to tell students based on his own diverse experiences.
“Come to think of it, the en, or fortuitous connections, which are valued so much in Buddhist thought, could be interpreted as finding similarity within difference. These connections also led to the founding a modern version of volunteer terakoya, a type of after-school educational program first provided by Buddhist temples in the Edo period, which we began in Kamakura fifteen years ago. At first, I simply wanted to fulfill our responsibility to society as a public institution and give back to the community. But my involvement in the terakoya program has not only broadened my horizons as a professor and researcher, it has helped support me as an individual.”
“After nearly a quarter-century as a professor and more than fifteen years as chief priest, I now feel that there is nothing more important than discovering the relationships between concepts that may at first seem unrelated. That's precisely why I hope that students studying at Keio will also explore outside of their majors to broaden their horizons.”
1986 – Graduated from the Faculty of Letters with a Major in Archaeology and Ethnology, Keio University.
1988 – Completed the Master's Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Keio University.
1994 – Withdrawal from the Doctoral Program with the completion of course requirements, Graduate School of Letters.
2001 – Associate Professor at Faculty of Letters, Keio University.
2009 – Full Professor at Faculty of Letters, Keio University.
2011 – Graduate School Committee Member, Graduate School of Letters, Keio University.
2015 – Vice Dean, Faculty of Letters, Keio University.
2000 – Assistant Chief Priest, Kotoku-in.
2002 – Chief Priest, Kotoku-in.
2009 – Advisor to Kamakura Terakoya (NPO) and the Terakoya Network (NPO).
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.