Western Asian studies in Japan:
Steps and achievements

Modjtaba Sadria

Professor of Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University, Tokyo


It's A long story

The field of Middle Eastern Studies, defined broad, is not new to Japan. It has a rather long history. If the primary source of knowledge of the Middle East was Chinese narration, very soon, in fact as early as the seventh century, direct encounters between the two extremes of Asia also took place(1).

The Imperial Treasures, a collection of items which had belonged to the Imperial household, contain many items from the Middle East. These interesting materials witnesses support Imperial chronicles dating the same era, an independent record record of those relations. Pre-modern relations with the Middle East continued, as demonstrated by an exhibition, in 1997 at the Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, of a coat made from a Persian carpet and worn by HIDEYOSHI Toyotomi (1536-1598), one of the three the Shoguns who helped found the Tokugawa regime (1600-1868).

Yet while these contacts go back more than thousand years,systematic studies of the Middle East in Japan did not emerge until the biginning of the "modernization process". Intensive modernization in Japanese (2) began with the Meiji restoration, that is the restoration of imperial power (as opposed to the Shoguns) in 1868. The almost one hundred and thirty years of relations that have existed since correspond to two historacal phases: the emancipating of Japan from the Western yoke, and the other establishment of Japan as a regional and then global power.


I- Mutating relations with the Middle East

The Meiji restoration had to address, among other things, a certain number of unequal treaties imposed on Japan by Western powers since 1854. The humiliation resulting from the sudden awareness (in the Opium War) of Western superiority over China, this historical center of Japanese cosmogony, and over Japan herself after the ultimatum of Commodore Perry in 1853, created a rather complex intellectual situation. One element of this situation, which later became the ideological foundation of the Meiji regime, was the famous Sonno Joi "Revere the Emperor and expel the Barbarians" movement. The aim of expelling "Barbarians" had two implications, one immediate and one long-term.

The immediate sense of expelling Barbarians had, beside the physical aim of removing foreigner from Japan, a very important political and legal exigency. Specifically, one of most tangible legal consequences of the treaties imposed by Western powers on Japan was a rather complicated judicial system. According a 1858 treaty between Japan and the United States, and later expanded to include Holland, Russia, England and France, citizens of the latter countries resident in Japan had legal immunity and could not be punished for crimes committed in Japanese territories.

Meiji officials undertook all kind of foreign studues in order to seek a solution to the countrie's crisis. Interested in pragmatic paths for the modernization-Westernization of their country, they looked for ways and models which could at least temper the implications of the capitulations signed by the late Tokugawa regime with the Western powers. This is how the Japanese government came to consider the Egyptian mixed court system, in which a combination of English and Egyptian legal codes were applied in the event of a crime committed by an english citizen in Egypt. It is within this general framework for the study of modernization undertaken by the Meiji, that the first official scholaly missions were sent to the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Persia (2).

New needs of Modernized Japan and the Middle East

The spectacular achievements of Japan's modernization led to its first victory over China, the 1902 alliance with Britain, and later the 1905 defeat of Russia andthe conquest and annexation of Korea. These events brought Japan to the center stage of world politics, and shaped, at least for the emerging elite, a certain world outlook. Both the power gained from the success of modernization and the new Japanese worldview had important implications for the Middle East.

The birth of a thirsty Japan

While Japan sought to import material raw materials of all kinds, energy was not least among them. Japan was confronted with a monopolistic alliance over the refining and tading of crude oil by Exxon, Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell. Thus from the seizure of Manchuria in 1931 until the attack to Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan was continuously engaged in efforts to gain at least some control over the refineries and oil supplies on which its national economy was already so heavily dependent.(4)

After 1934, Japan began to impose regulations on its home territory in order to generate an indigenous capacity for oil refining and a national oil stockpile. On the other hand, the United States maintained a strategy between the two world wars of providing Japan with enough oil to keep the country from feeling threatened, yet not so much as to allow it to build confortable stockpile. Japan's seizure of oil fields and refineries in Sumatra and Singapore during World War II was, in part, its answer to the American strategy of indirect containment(5). The Occupation of Sumatra and Singapore was also proof of Japan's emergence asto a world power with the status to challenge, contest, and menace Western powers and their interests. This could not take place without some effect on Japanese self-perception.

This new Japanese definition of self as non-Asian in an intellectual context tinted strongly with social Darwinism, and based on voluntary, and for some excessive, acculturation, created the peculiar situation in which the most arguable products of 19th century Western Orientalism became part of the Japanese worldview regarding Asia in general, and the Islamic world and the Middle East in particular. Paradoxically, later, at a more advanced stage of the same process, a new turn was taken in the official definition of Japanese identity. Japan became a champion of Asianism. This is how between the two world wars, modern Japan's interest in the Middle East, and in a broader sense the Islamic world, took on new meaning. More specifically, Japan's sympathetic view of Pan-Islamism became part of the larger Pan-Asianist project of the inter-war period(6). It could therefore be argued that Japan's support of Pan-Islamism, along with her Pan-Asianism reflected the first systematized independent ideology for Japanese supremacy over Asia.

During the post World War II American occupation of Japan and the early reconstruction of the nation's economic structure, "Japan found her-self again in pre-war situation in which [non-Japanese] firms provided the crude oil and dominated the refining and distribution system of Japan...Tied to foreign companies, purchase of oil reach[ed] 80 % of Japan's oil import by 1962(7)" Until then, and throughout the post-war era, the necessity of access to cheap oil was crucial enough to make the oil industry the exception to the rebuilt post-war Japanese state-controlled economy. With the 1970's, the gradual securing crude oil supplied also became a key issue. The dual considerations of cheap oil and secured oil seem to continue as the basic approach to Japan's energy policy. Since the world's second economic power imports 81.7% of the energy it consumes, the vital aspect of oil and its interest in the Middle East is obvious.

Along with energy and other economic factors, political issues have also affected Japan's Middle Easter policies and aims. The Japanese establishment, since its defeat in World War II, has considered it advantageous, nationally as well as internationally, to make its military alliance with the United States the cornerstone of Japan's political integration into the world (8). The Japanese establishment has capitalized on every aspect of the nation's might in order to maintain and expand, where possible, this militarily based political alliance. This strategic choice, while not excluding conflicts and competition with the United States in policies concerning the Middle East, reveals the nature of the aims that Japan has been pursuing in that region.


II-Post-War dynamics of Middle Eastern Studies in Japan

As Japan was rebuilding it self in economic terms the academic reconstruction also took shape. Though the economic and diplomatic presence of Japan in the Middle East got its momentum right after the San Francisco treaty of 1951(9), it was only in 1960 s that Middle Eastern studies began to expand dramatically.

Post-war Japan had already its new brand of Middle Eastern scholars, who in collaboration with pre-war experts established in 1962 the Association for Islamic Studies in Japan, which a year later began to publish its journalThe World of Islam. In 1964, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies set up the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. The first multi-disciplinary research project concerning the Middle East in post-war Japan was organized within the Institute's project called " ‘Islamization' and ‘Modernization' in Asia and Africa"(10).

The 1970s represanted a quantitative shift in Japanese Middle Eastern studies. During this period, Japan began the consolidation of her status as a regional power in East and Southeast Asia. The first post-war open conflict with the United States in trade(11) as well as foreign policy(12) had already taken place when the 1973 oil crisis erupted. The OPEC embargo, instead of solely prompting a new oil policy, became an opportunity for Japan to show its potential and might in shaping independent role in international arena(13). The Japanese will in presenting independent foreign policy in the Middle East was strong enough to resist the pressure brought by Henry Kissinger on Japanese decision makers to prevent them from recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, or from requesting the end of occupation of Arab territories since 1967 war with Israel. Indeed, the response of Japanese authorities, particularly MITI, which requested the United States to guarantee Japan's access to oil(14), were proof of renewed political interests in the Middle East. This, in turn, created a new, favorable context for Middle Eastern studies.

In 1974 the Chuto Keizai Kenkyusho (Economic Research Institute for the Middle East ) was created with the task of analyzing the contemporary political and economic situation in the region. Though a private institution, it serves as a meeting space for government and corporate officials who come for study leaves during which they engage in research on a by-country or by-issue(e.g. energy, defense etc.) bases. The staff of the institute often go on to join faculties of different Japanese universities. Acting as a productive think-tank, the Institute publishes Gendai Chuto Kenkyu ( Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies) and in English, JIME Review. In addition to the head office in Tokyo, the Institute maintains an office in Cairo.

In 1975 the Institute of Developing Economies sponsored a new large scale-project called " Middle East Consolidated Studies" with three main focus being Survey of Economic development, Educational problems and translating "important relative materials(15)". This Institute started the publication Chuto Sogo Kenkyu ( Middle Eastern Comprehensive Studies). Different projects concerning the Middle East have been the occasion of producing the most in depth studies on the Middle East as well as some of the best researchers that the Japanese Middle Eastern area studies has.

In the second half of 1970's the research branch of National Museum of Ethnology ( NME located in Osaka) organized a two years project with the title " Interdisciplinary Studies in Islam and the Social Changes in the Middle East" mobilizing many of the Japanese scholars involved in the field. Since then the research activities of the NME concerning the Middle East have been the occasion of important field works as well as the space for encounter with scholars of other countries involved in the Middle Eastern studies.

At end of 1970's was established, with private initiative, the Middle Eastern Culture Center, a research institute and museum, under the directorship of H.I.H. Prince Mikasa Takahito, which has become involved actively in archeological, historical, and cultural research in the Middle East. The Institute which has an impressive collections of archeological object has been another prove of Japanese interest for Middle Eastern Studies.

1970's also witnessed the undertaking of a systematic inventory work in regard of the existing primary sources concerning the Middle East existing in Japan main Oriental library(16).

The variety of initiatives taken and institutions created during these few years should prove the amount and vigor of efforts which were done in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. Nevertheless there was not yet a quality change, a real break through . The core of Middle Eastern Studies in Japan was still quasi philological.

A certain number of outside factors helped to enlarge the scope of the debate in the Middle Eastern studies, which other wise would have been stagnating in incorporating European and American scholars works(17). Among those factors one could cite, the impact of l' ecole des Annals in Japanese approach to historical studies in general and Middle Eastern history in particular(18), the Iranian Revolution, and Edward Said' s Orientalism .

Considering the main protagonist of Said' s argument, Western scholarly work concerning Middle Eastern or Muslim world, it might seem strange to single out Said' s Orientalism as having had important impact on Japanese Middle Eastern studies. Some remarks concerning Said' s argument could be useful.

Even tough in fact Orientalism became accessible to Japanese readers rather late(19). Indeed the book came as an important catalyzer of Japanese Middle Eastern, as well as Asian studies.

SUGITA Hideaki singles out some of the issues involved, in a chapter that he added at the end of the first edition of Japanese translation of Said' s Orientalism (20). He developed some of the significance of Said' s arguments for Japanese scholars.

According to Sugita different levels of Orientalism can be seen in relation between Japan and the Middle East. He particularly mentions the role of Japanese Mass Media in portraying Middle Easterners with borrowing the Western, more precisely US Mass Media's stereotypes portraying Islam or the Middle East. He also shows the relevance of Said' s arguments by the choice done in Japan, of the books concerning the Middle East and translated from Western sources. He also signals the way that American Orientalist academic discourses have been repeated in Japanese academia(21).

But maybe where Sugita pushes further Said' s arguments is when he involves Japanese East Asian studies as being Orientalist(22). The most radical conclusion of Sugita is when he states that NIHONJINRON, overemphasis on Japanese cultural particularism, or uniqueness, is itself another kind of Orientalism(23).

This has been the context for the qualitative turning point in Japan's Middle Eastern studies, which took place in 1980's. The one scholar who has pushed, consistently and systematically, for a vigorous Middle Eastern Studies since beginning of 1980's is ITAGAKI Yuzo. With two important texts that he published at the beginning of 1980's, he helped to define the conceptual ground for a new approach to Middle Eastern studies(24). The next step was the creation of proper structures to push, in a broad sense, for Middle Eastern Studies in Japan.



Japanese Association for Middle Eastern Studies was created in last days of 1984 with the objective clearly defined as "to promote and foster Middle East studies within the framework of area studies(25)". Next year in May 1998 the XIV annual meeting of the Association will be held. Annual meetings have been the occasion of presentation of works of researchers concerned with great variety of issues in the Middle East. A consistent policy of encouraging the deepening and broadening of the scope of investigation has brought spectacular results in topics and issues presented in each annual meeting. If one would want to have tangible indications of the achievements of the Middle Eastern studies during the 1980's, one should look at the quality, as well as the quantity, of the contributions of Japanese colleagues in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Urbanism in Islam(26).



JAMES publishes every year the Annals of the Association (AJAMES)and newsletters that has become more and more regular. If the recent attempts in making an English version of the Newsletter facilitates access to the activities of the Association the Annals has other interesting feature in this perspective. Language Editorial policy of the AJAMES has been to publish articles concerned with the Middle East in Japanese, English, or any of Middle Eastern languages, with the request of a summary either in Japanese or in English. This flexibility in the usage of languages within the Annals pages creates condition for larger dialogs among those involved in Middle Eastern studies.

Towards an East Asian Association of the Middle Eastern studies

Among important initiatives of JAMES has been, from the beginning of 1990's, the initiative of encouraging, actively, the dialog and exchange between Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, and South-East Asian researchers and scholars involved in Middle Eastern studies. The task, though not easy within the general political context existing in East Asia, has brought noticeable results such as mutual participation in annual congresses of above countries Middle Eastern studies associations or even more encouraging the creation of such an association in the case of lack of it. These initiatives of Japanese scholars involved in the Middle Eastern area studies, if they continue and grow, might lead to the creation Asian Association of Middle Eastern studies. Such a new continental association of Middle Eastern studies can only enrich the work on the Middle East and eventually help to create a more pluralistic cultural foundations for Middle Eastern studies in general.

Active and original approach to area studies

The initiatives taken by JAMES in the field of area studies have brought tangible results. In fact Middle Eastern studies in Japan have come a long way from the situation that in 1973 Bernard Lewis could describe "...despite there being a reasonably large number of Middle Eastern scholars active in Japan, the basic problem facing them was a lack of interest concerning fieldwork in and scholarly exchanges with Middle Eastern countries as well as inferior research conditions(27)".

To measure the giants steps taken by area studies in Japan, in which Middle Eastern studies have been, in more than one regards pioneers, one should look at the theoretical and conceptual contributions of Japanese scholars in Japan-USA Area Studies Conference(28). One of the concrete results of these efforts has been the creation of Japan Center for Area Studies(JCAS), which is posed to expand Middle Eastern studies as such as well as Area Studies in general. The beginning of a new major Islamic Area Studies project can be the occasion for new progress in this field.

JAMES has opened its membership to non-Japanese by birth researchers. In each annual congress of the Association guest lecturers take the main stage. Visiting researchers concerned with Middle East, from the Middle Eastern countries as well as other scholars from around the world, are often invited to take part in different projects related to the region. Any person involved in Middle Eastern studies is amazed by the active presence of Japanese researcher in most unexpected fieldwork, or the fact that Japanese Graduate students specializing in the Middle Eastern studies can be seen at almost every world major specialized institution.

IV- New linkages to Middle Eastern Studies

The end of the 1980's have been the beginning of two new sets of issues that somehow are linked with Middle Eastern studies.

Central Asian momentum

The collapse of the Soviet Union has brought into focus those Japanese scholars who had come to Islamic or Middle Eastern studies via Russian-Slavic studies. Some of them were among the rare scholars in the world to have predicted the movements towards ethnic or religiously expressed nationalism among Muslim populations of the former Soviet Union.

The field of Central Asian studies has also attracted many new comers. Eventually other factors than the end of an area of closure in which researchers did not have easily access neither to the field nor the documents, and which has become recently opened to investigation, should be taken into consideration of this new popularity of Central Asian studies. One could notice the existence of some sort of stimulus, or incentive for researchers formerly involved in Turkish, or Iranian studies, to take with positive eyes at a new Central Asian specialization.

The existence of world richest old and natural gas reserve in countries around the Caspian sea has brought more Japanese involvement's into Central Asian . Japanese government and business community strategic options have been very soon active involvement in the former Soviet Unions Muslim Republics. Generous Official Development Assistance to almost all newly independent countries were among the first steps taken, followed by high-ranking official visits. The rising amount of Japanese investments, and the visit by the official delegation of KEIDANREN in September 1997 to the countries of Central Asia are all part of the growing active interest to the region which can encourage more studies about this expansion of Middle Eastern studies.

Iranian immigrants

Within few years, in late 1980's a growing number of young Iranians, taking advantage of the liberation of travel abroad with the end of the Iran-Iraq war came to Japan. Overstaying the period of three month allowed by the agreement between Japanese and Iranian governments, at the Shah's time, a new phenomenon of Middle Eastern immigrants took place in Japan. The impressive number of these " illegal foreign workers" which at its pick reached more than 40000, became a social issue. Aspects of Middle Eastern cultural, social, or political problems became Japanese internal problems. To the Middle Eastern specialists, scholars from different fields, e.g. sociology, urban planing, law and security came to the Middle Eastern studies in order to deal with this new Japanese social issue.

Though both governments of Iran and Japan willingly stopped the application of the visa agreement between the two countries, and many of the Iranians, voluntarily or forcefully were send back to Iran, the social aspects of their coming has not been evaporated. On the contrary thousands of mixed marriages, and their children, have become a new element of push for studying the Middle East.

* * *

Japanese Middle Eastern studies in its core and in its periphery has been constantly growing. With what has been achieved only in last two decades, and what is undertaken now, it wont be surprising to see Japan becoming the space for one of the more creative Middle Eastern studies of the world.


*- This is a developed version of a short paper that has to appear in English in the Middle East Report.

1- SUGITA Hideaki Nihonjin no Chuto Hakken ( The Japanese Discovery of the Middle East) Tokyo, Tokyo University Press, 1995.

2- I underline intensive because different policies at different period of Tokugawa era(1600-1868) were aiming at modernization of aspects of Japan.

3- NAKAOKA San' eki, in his many publications on the issue of Meiji missions to the Middle East has given a rather comprehensive view of the scope and approaches of those investigators. For particular case of late Ottoman Empire and Early Meiji Look till Russo-Japanese war see Umat Arik A Century of Turkish-Japanese Relations, Tokyo, Gyosei Tsushin, 1991, pp. 17-47. For the Iranian-Japanese relations in long perspective see Hashem Radjabzadeh' s publications .

4-Raymond Vernon Two Hungry Giants, The United States and Japan in the Quest for Oil and Ores, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 89-92.

5- I. H. Anderson The Standard -Vacuum Oil Company and United States East Asian Policy, 1933-41, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975).

6- For a detailed chronological view of the relations between Japan and the Arab World between the two World Wars see Ryo Taisen Kikan no Nihon to Arabu Shokoku, Tokyo, Japan-Arab International Relations Joint Research Domestic Committee, 1981. Concerning relations between Japanese Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism see elMostafa Rezrazi " Impact of Meiji Constitution, Russo-Japanese War and Tokyo's 1906 Religious Conference on the Muslim Public Opinion" unpublished Research Student Fellowship Report, Tokyo University, 1995.

7- In 1962 MITI started a very slow process for regulation of this exceptional sector of the Japanese industry. See Raymond Vernon OP.Cit. PP. 92-93.

8-Post-cold war era continuous expansion of the rim of this military alliance between the two countries is there to prove the preeminance of its primerly political functions in the specific process of integration of Japan into the world that has been chosen.

9- As can witness the non-respect of British Embargo against Iranian oil by Idemitsu oil company and the judgment in 1953 by Tokyo tribunal in favor of the latter and against British Petroleum co.

10- SHIMADA Johei History of West Asia and North Africa, Tokyo, The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1974, p1.

11- See the textile dispute with Nixon administration

12- Japanese government will and might concerning policy towards China.

13- Modjtaba Sadria, ‘Le Japon et le bon usage du monde' The Study of International Relations, vol. 22, Tokyo 1995

14- Which Kissinger refused to do.

15- HACHIOSHI Makoto Japanese Studies on Modern and Contemporary West Asian And North African Studies 1973-1983, Tokyo, The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1987, p. 1.

16- Which led to three volumes A Bibliography of Arabic Language Sources and Related Books Contained in the Toyo Bunko and A Bibliography of Turkish / Ottoman Language Sources and Related Books Contained in the Toyo Bunko and finally A Bibliography of Persian Language Sources and Related Books Contained in the Toyo Bunko

17- HACHIOSHI Makoto, Loc.Cit,. p.2

18- Would one consider the massive predominance of historians, or those with the background of historical studies, among Japanese Middle Eastern scholars, one could better realize the impact of this factor.

19- If one compares that Said's Orientalism published in English in 1978, and came out in French in 1980, in German and Arabic in 1981, one might consider that the coming out of its Japanese version in 1986 was not too soon.

20- SUGIYA, HIDEAKI, Orientalizumu to Watashitachi( Orientalism and us) in E. Said Orientalism (Japanese translation of) Tokyo, Heibonsha, 1986pp.358-372.

21- Ibid, pp. 362-367)

22- Ibid, p.368.

23-Ibid, p. 369.

24- ITAGAKI Yuzo, Toho mondai Saiko, ( Re-considering oriental issues) Rekishi Hyoron (Critical Historical Studies ) no. 393, January 1983, pp. 3-22, and ITAGAKI Yuzo, Rekishigaku to dai san sekai, ( Historical studies and the Third World) Rekishigaku Kenkyu ( Historical Studies ) n0. 517, June 1983, pp. 2-8.

25-Part II of Rules of Japan Association for Middle East Studies ( emphasis by this author ). JAMES is not the only association involved in Middle Eastern Studies. Japan association of Orient studies is another, older association. Orient which will be holding its 39 Th. annual congress this year, though having in its annual meetings or publications, can not be qualified specifically as a Middle Eastern area studies association.

26- YUKAWA Tadashi(ed.)Urbanism in Islam. Proceedings of the International Conference on Urbanism in Islam , Tokyo 1989. The Conference, which was hold from October 22 until 28 October 1989 in Tokyo, was at the end of a Research Project "Urbanism in Islam, a Comparative Study". The Project itself was a Priority-area Research Project Group supported by Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture, which could be another indication for Middle Eastern studies in Japan. See Modjtaba Sadria, Japanese Perceptions- Remarks on the International Conference on Urbanism in Islam AJAMES, no. 5, 1990, pp. 403-413.

27- HACHIOSHI Makoto, Loc. Cit., p. 1.

28- MATSUBARA Masatake, John Campbel (eds.) International Area Studies Conference I. Japan-USA Area Studies Conference Osaka, JCAS, 1997