In the forthcoming issue of Middle East Report, “China in the Middle East,” I write about the often forgotten history of political, intellectual and cultural ties between East Asia and West Asia (or the Middle East) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As one of the political, commercial and intellectual centers of Asia, Japan at the turn of the twentieth century was an important arena for the intersection of ideas about modernism, nationalism and anti-colonial politics. Though Cairo, Istanbul and Mecca had long been the capitals of scholarship and cross-cultural interaction in the Islamic world, Meiji-era Japan was a site of key encounters between Muslims from China, South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Drawn together by a common interest in Islamic revival and nation building that transcended linguistic and cultural differences, these activists established various Muslim organizations in Japan and saw Islam as a way to unify Asian peoples.
East Asia’s relationship with the Middle East today is based mainly on economics and is devoid of grand political projects of solidarity and intellectual dialogue. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea present the Middle East with a model of neoliberal economic development. At the same time, the redemptive transformation of East Asia from a Western-dominated region to a globally powerful one offers a trajectory of development diverging from the Middle East, which struggles with political turbulence, regime crises and regional wars both cold and hot.
Although direct encounters between the two extremes of Asia began in the seventh century  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.  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.