Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Forgotten Relationship between Japan and Islamic Art

Japan and Islamic art

Dana Hourany

Considered one of Japan’s most prominent mosques, the Tokyo Mosque, built-in 1938, sits in the heart of Yoyogi Uehara district. With its large blue dome, off-white facade, and Ottoman interior, the mosque stands as a testament to the Tatar Muslim heritage. Once migrants escaping the Russian revolution, the Tatar would become the largest Muslim ethnic group in Japan as of the 1930s.

Meanwhile, an influx of Indian-Muslim migrants entering Japan around the same time brought their faith with them as well as other cultural influences. As a result, the Nagoya and Kobe mosques were erected in 1931 and 1935, respectively.

In 1966, the Islamic Center of Japan was established. The post-WWII Muslim institution currently runs the Yuai International Islamic School, not far from the Tokyo mosque, where students are schooled in the arts of Islamic studies, Arabic, Karate, and calligraphy.

Although Islam and Japan are not considered as intertwined traditions, history reveals a closer connection than one may assume. Islam’s teachings and impact, according to Japanese scientists and social observers, may be seen in existing cultural traditions dating back several centuries. Furthermore, the MENA area has a sizable fan base for Japanese art, notably Manga and Anime.

History of cultural exchange

 Historians have a propensity to study Japan in the context of East Asia, limited to its proximity to China, and Korea. However, experts argue that the influence on Japanese culture widely surpasses the limits of its neighbors and includes Eurasian roots.

When the Mongol empire rose to prominence during the medieval era, Japan had its first brush with a large-scale political development beyond its frontiers.

The Mongols, commanded by Genghis Khan, set out to conquer the continents in 1206, beginning in China and concluding in Iran in 1220 CE and Iraq in 1258 CE. The Mongol empire’s violent expansion led to the invasion of Japan between 1274 and 1281 CE, leaving an indelible mark on Japanese culture.

Mongol converts to Islam promoted graphic story-telling throughout the Middle East and Central Asia during the Pax Mongolica era, a period of relative calm in Eurasia under the Mongol Empire during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Illustrated manuscripts, such as the emakimono, which were initially introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 12th century, were already popular at the time. The texts explored a range of topics, including politics and spirituality. These works would later evolve into what is now known as manga.

The term itself, manga, is composed of two words; man, meaning whimsical, and ga, meaning pictures.

Despite the fact that these types of storytelling were embraced in East Asia, they were widely shunned in the Muslim world because of their human likeness. The creation of something of human semblance, such as illustrations, is generally frowned upon and even prohibited in some traditions of Islam.

Visual story-telling, on the other hand, became heavily woven within Sufi storytelling tradition. As a result, modern Japanese scholars used the art form to educate and introduce Sufi religious concepts to the Japanese people.

Now, in 21st-century Japan, Islamic and Japanese arts continue to influence one another and this influence may be found in a variety of genres and platforms.

Sufism and Manga

Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto, an assistant professor at the Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University, is a Muslim convert since 2010 and an expert in Ottoman Tasawwuf (Sufism) and traditional Japanese culture.

Yamamoto first discovered the similarity between manga and Sufism during a trip to Istanbul. At first, the expert said, he struggled with preserving his Muslim identity in his homeland, where the image of Muslims was largely distorted by the media.

“Sometimes, but not often, I was faced with questions like, are you a terrorist or member of al-Qaeda?” he told a Turkish magazine.

The drawback of his newly found faith was resolved once he began his studies in Sufism and was able to curtail the distance between the seemingly distinct cultures.

For instance, when Yamamoto found out that Turkish people loved the popular manga, Naruto, he dismissed the reason as a mere appeal to “exotic ninja manga.” However, he would later discover that Turks were greatly affected by concepts of “sensei” (teacher/murshid) and “shugyou” (working spirit/sayru suluk), which are prominent themes in Naruto. In addition to these two concepts, repentance (tawba) and guidance (irshad) are major themes found in Islam and used in Naruto and all other shounen manga.

The latter is a genre of manga that spotlights character development; the lead characters are met with a slew of adversity and hardships to overcome. This, according to Yamamoto, attempts to instill a sense of morality in the younger generation.

Therefore, many of the MENA region’s youth and young adults developed an emotional attachment to manga in general, and anime (Japanese animation), in particular.

Anime’s influence on MENA

 Anime was first introduced to Middle Eastern societies in the late 1970s through Arabic-dubbed anime series on one terrestrial TV channel. Fast-forward to the early 2000s when the Dubai-based Spacetoon children’s TV channel would seize this role and help raise an entire generation of anime fans.

For 22-year-old Lebanese student, Salem Daou, who would spend his childhood days in Kuwait watching anime, the medium’s significance surpassed entertainment.

“For many of us residing in the Middle East, anime saved our lives. It added meaning and gave us a sense of orientation, which we generally lacked in our upbringing,” Daou told Fanack.

He went on to explain that the storylines are plentiful in life lessons that one can implement in real-life situations. For instance, in the anime Attack on Titan, he says that the protagonist, Eren Yeager, stops at nothing to defeat all obstacles that cross his path.

“Anime helps you adapt and escape at the same time. You also feel less alone and more understood because anime offers a comprehensive detailing of mental illnesses and how to approach them – a topic often dismissed in our societies,” Daou said.

Anime undermines materialistic goals that societies and families often fawn over, and emphasizes instead humanitarian values such as friendships, unity, and spirituality, Daou added.

With the development and propagation of NFTs in the most recent years, Asian artists such as Korean Kim Sin-ae have further bridged the gap between East Asian cultures and the MENA region.

Sin-ae told the Korea Times that living in Qatar for seven years, enriched her knowledge of MENA cultures and the diversity present on political and social levels.

Inspired by Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” Sin-ae presents her rendition of the artwork by drawing an NFT series of couples in various MENA traditional clothing, embracing one another. The artist said that for this project, her knowledge of the region’s traditions and cultures is deepened through exchanges with local residents over social media.

“The reason art is a great tool is that it transcends nationality, language and religion. I think Arab people appreciate my work because to them I’m an outsider from Korea. But my works encompass Arab culture. My art gives them a new perspective to reexamine their culture and find the beauty inside it,” she said.