Although direct encounters between the two extremes of Asia began in the seventh century [1] and the Imperial Treasures contain many items from the Middle East dating back more than a thousand years, systematic study of the Middle East in Japan did not emerge until the “modernization process” of the Meiji period, which began in 1868. [2] The Meiji restoration addressed, among other things, a number of capitulation treaties signed by the late Tokugawa regime with the Western powers. As part of their efforts to minimize Western influence, Meiji officials undertook numerous foreign studies. The Japanese government came to consider the Egyptian mixed court system as a model for dealing with crimes committed by a citizen of a Western country, thus providing the impetus for the first official scholarly missions to the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Persia. [3]

The spectacular achievements of Japan’s modernization led to its first victory over China, the 1902 alliance with Britain, the 1905 defeat of Russia and the 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 new Japanese self-definition as “non-Asian.” Thus the most ethnocentric features of nineteenth-century Western Orientalism became part of the Japanese worldview regarding Asia in general and the Islamic world and Middle East in particular. Later, between the two world wars, an entirely new turn was taken in the official definition of Japanese identity. Japan became a champion of Asianism and Japan’s interest in the Middle East and the Islamic world changed accordingly. The elite saw pan-Islamism as part of the larger pan-Asian project. [4]

Japan’s need to import oil (as well as other raw materials) kept the country dependent on the West because of the monopolistic control of oil by such large corporations as Exxon, Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. After 1934, Japan began to develop an indigenous capacity to refine oil and to accumulate a national oil stockpile. It also sought to establish direct control over petrochemicals by seizing oil fields and refineries in Sumatra and Singapore during World War II. Direct control of oil was, in part, its answer to the US strategy of indirect containment. [5] Nonetheless, the US occupation of Japan after World War II reestablished Japan’s prewar dependence on imported oil via Western oil companies. Throughout the post-war era, oil was the weak link in the Japanese economy. Since Japan imports 81.7 percent of its energy, its interest in the Middle East is obvious.

Academic reconstruction took place alongside of the general process of post-war rebuilding. In 1962, Middle East scholars established the Association for Islamic Studies in Japan. In 1964, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies set up the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. The Institute organized the first interdisciplinary research project on the Middle East in post-war Japan called “‘Islamization’ and ‘Modernization’ in Asia and Africa.” [6]

By the 1970s, Japan had consolidated its status as a regional power in East and Southeast Asia. Although the Japanese establishment has made political and military alliance with the US the cornerstone of the country’s foreign relations, this alliance has not entirely precluded conflicts and competition with the US in the Middle East. The 1973 oil crisis gave Japan the opportunity to establish a more independent role in the international arena. [7] For example, Japan resisted the pressure brought by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to refuse to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. This relative independence in Middle East policy, in turn, created a new context for Middle East studies in Japan. In 1974, the Chuto Keizai Kenkusho (Economic Research Institute for the Middle East) was created with the task of analyzing contemporary politics and economics in the region. Although it is a private institution, it serves as a meeting space for government and corporate officials who come for study leaves, to engage in research or to confer on issues such as energy and defense. Functioning as a think tank, the Institute publishes Gendai Chuto Kenkyo (Contemporary Middle East Studies) and, in English, Japanese Institute of Middle East Economies Review.

In the second half of the 1970s, the research branch of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka organized a two-year project entitled “Interdisciplinary Studies in Islam and Social Change in the Middle East,” that mobilized many Japanese Middle East scholars. Since then, the museum’s Middle East research program has generated important field studies and has served as a place where scholars can meet. The Middle Eastern Cultural Center, a research institute and museum, was established toward the end of the 1970s as a private initiative under the directorship of His Imperial Highness Mikasa Takahito.

Outside influences helped widen the scope of debate in Middle East studies beyond the incorporation of European and US scholarship. [8] The Ecole des Annals affected the Japanese approach to historical studies in general and Middle East history in particular. [9] The publication, and later translation, of Edward Said’s Orientalism into Japanese in 1986 was also important. Considering the focus of Said’s argument on Western scholarship, it might seem strange to single out Orientalism, but the book was a catalyst in Japanese Middle East, as well as Asian, studies. According to Sugita Hideaki, one of the editors of the Japanese edition of Orientalism, different levels of orientalism exist in Japan’s relationship with the Middle East. He emphasizes the role of the Japanese mass media, whose portrayals of Middle Easterners borrow from Western, or more precisely US, stereotypes of Islam and the Middle East. Sugita also shows that Said’s critiques of Western scholarship are relevant to Japan, because Japanese scholars rely on the translation of Western writings on the Middle East. Thus, American orientalist academic discourses have been repeated in Japanese academe. [10] Hideaki’s most radical conclusion, however, is that nihonjinron — overemphasis on Japanese cultural particularism or uniqueness — is itself another kind of orientalism. [11]

A Qualitative Shift

In the 1980s, a qualitative shift took place in Japanese Middle East studies, led by Itagaki Yuzo. Itagaki published two important texts at the beginning of the decade that helped to define the conceptual ground for a new approach to Middle East studies. [12] At the same time, the creation of new institutions took the field in new directions. The Japanese Association for Middle East Studies (JAMES) was created in 1984 to promote Middle East studies within a framework of area studies. JAMES publishes the Annals of the Association, whose editorial policy is to include articles in Japanese, English or any of the Middle Eastern languages, accompanied by a summary in Japanese or English. This linguistic flexibility has increased the possibility for dialogue among those involved in Middle East studies.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, JAMES has facilitated dialogue and exchanges among Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian researchers and scholars involved in Middle East studies. These efforts, though not easy within the general political context in East Asia, have achieved notable results in the annual congresses of these countries’ Middle East studies associations. These exchanges have also encouraged the emergence of national Middle East studies associations in countries where such bodies did not exist previously. These initiatives might lead to the creation of an Asian association of Middle East studies.

Over the last ten years, two new sets of issues have emerged: developments in Central Asia and a growing presence of Iranians in Japan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japanese scholars who had come to Islamic or Middle East studies either via Russian-Slavic or Chinese studies included some who had predicted the movement towards ethnic or religiously expressed nationalism among Muslim populations of the former Soviet Union. Although an important factor in the growing dynamism of the field of Central Asian studies has been the end of an era in which researchers lacked easy access to research sites and documents, researchers formerly involved in Turkish or Iranian studies have also taken special interest in the new Central Asian republics because of the rich oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region.

In the late 1980s, a growing number of young Iranians took advantage of their government’s ease in travel restrictions following the end of the Iran-Iraq war to travel to Japan, one of the few places where they could obtain visas relatively easily. More than 40,000 overstayed their three-month visits, thus becoming undocumented foreign workers. This first large-scale Middle Eastern migration to Japan has inserted Middle East cultural, social and political issues into the domestic landscape. Within the scholarly arena, specialists from fields such as sociology, urban planing, law and security have entered Middle East studies to address new domestic issues. Though many Iranians returned (voluntarily or otherwise) to Iran, the social impact of their migration has not dissipated. On the contrary, thousands of mixed marriages and the birth of a large number of children have generated greater impetus for studying the Middle East in Japan’s relatively closed society.

Japanese Middle East studies have grown throughout this century, in response to both intellectual curiosity and national economic and political interests. Given the achievements of the last two decades, Middle East studies in Japan is poised to emerge as one of the more dynamic centers of study in the world.


[1] Sugita Hideaki, Nihonjin no Chuto Hakken [The Japanese Discovery of the Middle East] (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1995).
[2] While the Meiji regime was the first to undertake intensive modernization, the earlier Tokugawa era (1600-1868) also introduced significant changes in Japanese society.
[3] Nakaoka San’eki, in his many publications about Meiji missions to the Middle East, offers a comprehensive view of those investigators. Regarding the case of the late Ottoman Empire and early Meiji period until the Russo-Japanese war, see Umat Arik, A Century of Turkish-Japanese Relations (Tokyo: Gyosei Tsusbin, 1991), pp. 17-47. For historical accounts of Iranian-Japanese relations, see Hashem Radjabzadeh’s publications.
[4] For a detailed chronological view of the relations between Japan and the Arab world between the two world wars, see Ryo Thisen, 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 El-Mostafa 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.
[5] I. H. Anderson, The Standard-Vacuum Oil Company and United States East Asian Policy, 1933-1941 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975).
[6] Shimada Johei, History of West Asia and North Africa (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1974), p. 1.
[7] Modjtaba Sadria, “Le Japon et le bon usage du monde,” The Study of International Relations 22 (1995).
[8] Hachioshi Makoto, Japanese Studies on Modern and Contemporary West Asian and North African Studies, 1973-1983 (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1987), p. 2.
[9] Japanese Middle East studies is influenced greatly by historians and other scholars with a background in historical studies.
[10] Sugiya Hideaki, “Orientalizumu to Watashitachi” [Orientalism and Us], in Edward Said, Orientalism [Japanese translation] (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1986), pp. 362-67.
[11] Ibid., p. 369.
[12] Itagaki Yuzo, “Ibho mondai Saiko” [Reconsidering Oriental Issues], Rekishi Hyoron 393 (January 1983); and idem., “Rekishigaku to dai san sekai” Rekishigaku Kenkyu 517 (June 1983).

How to cite this article:

Modjtaba Sadria "From One East to the Other," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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