Karen Hamada

Karen Hamada: ‘Nerses Shnorhali’s Words Worked as Therapy for Me’


YEREVAN / TOKYO — Karen Hamada is a Japanese theologian. She studied at the University of Tokyo, Department of Area Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, currently works at University of Tokyo, Komaba Campus. Being interested in theological and literary interactions in the Christian East, she studied Armenian, Syriac and Georgian. Recently Karen Hamada published One Christ, One Church: The Theology of the Armenian Church between the Byzantines and the Crusaders, which primarily refers to the Armenian church figure, theologian, poet, musicologist, composer, historian, Catholicos of All Armenians, St. Nerses Shnorhali (Nerses Klayetsi, 1102–1173).

Dear Karen, first let me congratulate you with publishing of your book about Nerses Shnorhali. It is the first book about the Armenian Apostolic Church to enter the Japanese-speaking world.

Thank you very much, Artsvi. Thankfully, since I posted the news about my publication to FB, I received a lot of kind messages from my friends and those I hadn’t known. Strictly speaking, a group of Japanese scholars who have been conducting surveys on the Armenian church architecture have already published some books with very beautiful photos of Armenian churches in 2019 (Shiro Sasano, Arumenia Junrei (Pilgrimage to Armenia), Tokyo, Sairyusha, 2019). However, as far as I know, my book is the first Japanese book about the Armenian “Church” not as a building, but as the religious tradition of the Armenian people.

Do you have already some feedback about your study?

Yes, I had some feedback in SNS. Some posted positive comments on my book. As they are just personal opinions, now I am waiting for critics and book reviews on academic journals, which takes time to appear. Though it is not a kind of best-seller, I can say that it has a certain impact that a book on this topic has been published in Japanese.

You focused on a topic that is not explored often: Nerses Shnorhali in Russian theological literature.

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Yes, I worked on that topic when I studied at the Russian State University for Humanities in Moscow (2009-2010). Then I realized that Nerses Shnorhali is the first Armenian theologian whose work was fully translated into Russian. An Armenian diplomat and translator Alexander Khudabashev translated his encyclical letters in 1847 and it had an important role to prove the orthodoxy of the faith of the Armenian Church, because at that time Russian theologians considered the Armenian Christianity as a heresy. Since then I became interested in Nerses Shnorhali and tried to read his works, first in translation, then in original grabar (Classical Armenian) text. Especially I was impressed by his poem “On the Heaven and its Ornaments.” Only first some stanzas of this poem were translated into Russian during Soviet era and I found it accidentally in a library. Though the translation was not accurate, but I was fascinated by its unique style that the heaven talks about himself and explains how the world was made by God.

Do you intend to translate Shnorhali and other medieval Armenian authors into Japanese?

Yes, I do. Chisen Shokan, the publisher of my book, has already asked me to translate Nerses Shnorhali’s theological letters. I also intend to translate works of other medieval Armenian authors, such as Grigor Narekatsi and Yovhannes Erznkatsi. It will be a long-term project.

What could a modern Japanese person find interesting in studying medieval Armenian literature?

It depends on people’s own concerns. Most of readers of my book are academics — Byzantinists or Medievalists. They are interested in medieval Armenian literature because they are rich sources of their own study. However, I think it will be interesting even for non-academic readers because it contains emotions and experiences that can be linked to current situation. For example, Nerses Shnorhali wrote “Lament on Edessa” to console people in deep grief when Edessa was seized by Muslim troops in 1144 and many citizens, including Armenians, were killed and captured. Moreover, Nerses himself was a refugee, who escaped from his own homeland to Hromkla because of war. When the war in Artsakh and later in Ukraine broke out, I was so deeply depressed and hurt, but Nerses Shnorhali’s words worked as therapy, at least for me.

What is the origin of your name?

It is complicated. My name was taken from a city in Taiwan, Hualien. Japanese use the same Chinese character as Taiwanese, but the pronunciation is different. Hualien is pronounced as Karen in Japanese. My father was in Hualien for business trip when I was born in Japan. He got a phone call that the baby was born, and his Taiwanese colleagues held a grand party to celebrate my birth. My father was so impressed by their hospitality, and became a little bit drunk, promised them to give his daughter the name of the city. Maybe I have a special connection with welcoming people like Taiwanese and Armenians.

We met 10 years ago first in Yerevan, then in Venice where you participated in Armenian summer course. What are your most interesting memories?

I have a lot of interesting memories and it is difficult to choose the best one, but I have to say that what impressed me was an experience in San Lazzaro monastery in Venice. I asked a monk who works as a librarian to read some books in their library. They generously allowed me not only to read books, but also use a place in their garden of monastery for reading. It was very quiet and peaceful moment – there was only a sound of waves and a breathtaking view of the blue sea. And I imagined that many great Armenian scholars did the same here. It is unforgettable experience.

Do you see any prospect for further development of Armenian studies in Japan?

It is sad to say that humanities are now in very difficult situation in Japan. In many universities reduces budget for humanities and my university is not an exception. However, as I already mentioned, we can learn a lot from the long and uneasy history of the Armenian people. It is a long process that a research field flourishes, and it never can be done by effort of a few people. However, at least I have already sown a seed and will take care of it until it sprouts.

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