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  • In Memoriam: Jan Van Bragt (1928–2007)
  • James W. Heisig

Early on the morning of Easter Thursday, April 12, 2007, Jan Van Bragt passed away quietly at the age of seventy-eight.1 During the previous year his health had begun to deteriorate, until in the final days of 2006 he was obliged to leave Kyoto and take up residence with his religious congregation in Himeji. On February 21, he was hospitalized with lung cancer and was operated on some weeks later. After a brief period in a semi-comatose state, he regained consciousness but was never to speak again.

Jan was born in Flemish Belgium and entered the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at age eighteen. Six years later, he was ordained a priest. After receiving his master’s degree in philosophy, he entered the doctoral program and at the same time lectured at the congregation’s seminary. Five years later he received his doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Leuven with a thesis on Hegel and immediately set sail for Japan, landing in December 1961.

Jan undertook eighteen months of training in the language and then spent another eighteen months working as an assistant pastor at the Sakai Catholic Church near Osaka. In 1965, he was accepted as a research student at Kyoto University, where he spent the next six years studying with Takeuchi Yoshinori and Nishitani Keiji. In 1971, he was named provincial superior of the congregation in Japan, a post he held for five years until he was unexpectedly requested to serve as the first acting director of the newly established Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

For the next fifteen years Jan brought the fledgling institute to maturity, galvanizing the young and inexperienced staff into a community of scholars devoted to exploring the largely unknown and uncharted waters of interreligious dialogue in Japan. Among his first projects was the intermonastic exchange that brought leading Buddhist monks and nuns from Japan to European monasteries and vice versa. At a concluding symposium in Japan he served as chair, juggling Japanese, Flemish, German, French, and English with the skill and poise for which we all remember him. After a flurry of publications on the project, he left the project to others to carry on—as it has to this day, having reached a second generation, most of whom no longer know the inaugural role that he played.

Jan was also a key figure in the Japan Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, founded in 1982. In addition to bringing the central office of the society to the [End Page 141] Nanzan Institute, he served as president from 1989 to 1997. During his years at the Nanzan Institute, he was in demand around Japan as a lecturer or partner in dialogue. For many years he traveled around the world in the same capacity and was invited to teach in Canada, Belgium, the United States, and the Philippines. From 1985 to 1990, he served as a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In his thinking and writing, his study and reading, as well as in his moral concerns, Jan straddled any number of civilizations, histories, literatures, and cultures. In the end, however, it was in Japan that he felt most at home, where he found a loom on which to weave the things of life into a single view of the world.

At his funeral, Jan Swyngedouw, a fellow Flemish missionary and longtime colleague at the Nanzan Institute, delivered a thoughtful and touching tribute to a man who had always shied away from honors and recognition, preferring to let others stand on his shoulders and even accept the credit that was rightly his. Swyngedouw told of going through Jan’s library (the philosophical portion of which he graciously donated to the Centro Studi Asiatico in Osaka) and being struck by the number of volumes on mysticism. Like all of us, he knew of Jan’s academic interest in the Christian mystics as a bridge between religions, but as he read through comments in the margins he came to realize what most of us had never noticed: how deeply Jan’s own spirituality was rooted in...