Japan in the eyes of Arabs: from a neglected enemy to a legendary planet, what do you think about Ni
Author: Karim Moutchou
Medical Student, Fez Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy
Editor: Ozaki Akihiko, M.D., Yuki Senoo
History of Japan
Among all countries in the world, we can say that both Japan and the Arabic world have more stereotypic ideas and misleading thoughts about each other than any other two countries in the world would do. Both are located on opposite sides of the world, both seem mysterious to outsiders, and very different by comparison to the western cultures. The reasons for this difference are, however, not the same. But how is the relationship between Arabs and the Japanese culture? How did it develop over the last century? And how was it affected by social media?
The connection between the Arabic ? Othman empire and Japan started since the 19th century, and it did not go as smoothly as hoped for, mainly due to geographical remoteness and the huge difference in languages. There aren’t many historical connections between the Middle East and the far east of Asia except for some sporadic messages and symbolic gestures.
When the World War Ⅱ was over and Japan surrendered to the Allies, Arabs didn’t see this Asian country so much as a friend, but Japan’s economy saw a rise in the oil dependent production during the 60s of the last centuries. This resulted in having a natural trade connection between Japan and the Middle Eastern countries and this connection got stronger very fast. The GULF countries’ petrol was used in the Japanese production sites, and in return Japan sold a lot of its products in the Middle East.
The situation dramatically changed in 1973, when the Arabic countries that produce oil decided to stop exporting it to all nations that participated passively or actively on the Israeli side in the war between Israel and Egypt. This punishment hurt Japan so much that the country went through two major turnarounds: economically, Japan turned more towards technological products, and politically, Japan started taking a stronger stand, apparently in favor of the Arabic side in the Middle East conflicts.
This dramatic change in positions, paralleled with the rising economy of Japan, made the country in a friendly and a positive point of view for Arabs. The general population as much as the school textbook writers started to get more interested in the country.
High school students in Morocco learn about Japan in two geography lessons, respectively titled as “Japan, a technological superpower” and “Japan, a trade superpower”. Both start and end with the same way: statement of the geographical difficulties that Japan has/had to overcome and the huge step back in the World War Ⅱ, when the country experienced the two nuclear bombs on its land.
Students in the Middle East learn that Japan is an international superpower that overcame its history and geographical hardships to become what the country is like at present: a member of J7 nations and one of the strongest economies in the world.
In Ramadan 2011, a show called “Khawater Reflections” aired every day for the whole Muslim holy month and gave Arabs a new vision on Japan. The presenter got famous for similar seasons of the same show during which he traveled around the world to show positive aspects of different countries. He decided to make the whole season just about Japan.
Even though the episode was no longer than 15 minutes, it was enough for people to get hooked on the show, and discuss its events every day in school, work or public transportation. As the show dissected sometimes in great details the Japanese lifestyle, Arab viewers used to compare those details to their own lifestyle. The show started with two phrases written on the screen “we didn’t come to Japan to glorify or to copy, we came to learn all what could be useful for us”. And then went on to show how Japanese people ride trains, offered a huge library for blind people or read in public transportation while heading to work or personal appointments. Things that are missing in our own Arabic cultural.
And the presenter said his famous phrase “look, it’s either we live on a separate planet, or Japan is its own planet. But we (e.g Arabs and Japanese people) can’t be on the same planet.”
At the same time the Japanese anime shows were getting more popular in the Arabic world with the rise of illegal Internet download and they were getting more viewers than ever, with no filter of the TV networks. Almost all Arabic children grew up watching Anime, but on the TV networks, it was not the same as the original version, because such networks tried to hide some culturally unacceptable facts, by saying that alcohol is milk or a girlfriend is a wife or fianc?. This made the Internet a great way to access the unfiltered versions of Animes and mangas.
Japan became more popular than arguably any country for the Arabic population, because Japan has the opposite lifestyle from ours, and it basically has everything we would have hoped to have collectively.
Japan was also interesting for Arabs because unlike European and American cultures, they didn’t have a colonization or direct conflicts history, and the religious status of Japan is so mysterious that muslims don’t consider it in a contradiction with their own beliefs because they don’t know a lot about it.
The distance from Japan and the Arabic world made it really hard for anyone wanting to visit the country to do so and check all the dreamy things they have ever heard or read about the country which seems the exact opposite for them than their own countries.
With the devolvement of social media, it was inevitable for false news to take over the place of official information and data. And since the false narratives on social media are usually intended to amplify the common beliefs, for Arabs the wrong information about Japan was meant to compare what they don’t like about their countries, with what’s happening on the other side of the world.
Without filters and facts checking, we have seen a lot of fake news like: “the secretary of energy in Japan yields for 20 minutes to apologize for an electricity cutoff that went on for the same period “in Japan, students clean their professors’ feet to thank them”, “in Japan, the waste collector’s salary is the same as the prime minister”, “in 2017, there has been only one robbery in the whole country”. And so on, and so on.
With the fake news narrative and the official statements on textbooks glorifying Japan, empowered by the big distance between the Arabic world and that side of the world, and obviously the huge language barrier, with the very deep lack of Japanese ? Arabic translators from both sides of the isle, Japan became rapidly more of a myth, a legendary place with no problems, at least not like the ones in the Arabic countries, the name “yaban” pronounced in Arabic is now used as a way to self-criticize, or point out the Arabic governments or cultures’ fault.
It didn’t happen with bad feelings, the intentions behind it were not to spread false news to hurt any part of the equation as much as it was a very exaggerated glorifying respect mixed with low collective esteem.
For this reason, a group of young people from the Arabic world with collaboration with Japanese helpers started fighting this kind of false news about Japan using a twitter account called “Japan in Arabic” and using the hashtag “myths about Japan”. They share corrections to the false information about salaries, public transportation, the relation between the government and the voters and even historical facts.
Hassan, one of the creators of the twitter account told BBC news in an interview: our goal is to show the Arabic population that Japan is just like any other country, with its good sides and bad sides” then headed that they usually use beloved cartoon characters to get more attention online.
However, a lot of people refuse to believe those corrections, there are many tweets accusing the twitter account "Nippon_ar" of spreading false news to destroy the image that Arabs already have about Japan.
Even Aljazeera channel made an online video, which is watched by almost a half million people, designated to criticize the myth of “planet Japan” and making fun of the rhetorical presented by the show “Khawater Reflectinos” that made Japan look more of an out of this world place than just a normal country with its goods and bads.
What is sure of all this is that as the Internet has taken over the news, it became a certain necessity for both Arabs and Japanese people to work better on understanding the cultures and learn from each other. There is a major need for a better work on media news spread between the two parts of the world both officially and non-officially.
Arabic and Japanese cultures have a lot to learn about each other, but a lot of steps must be made from both sides to overcome the linguistic differences, the distance and the historical misleading beliefs that have been kept about each other for years, and have been even amplified and exaggerated with the recent world events and false news epidemic online. More accurate translation, more tourists and students exchanges and better facts checking institutions would take.