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Cultural Unity for a Lasting Partnership: Initiatives and Opportunities between Japan and the Middle East

By Vanessa Abou-Khalil
May 31, 2024

A cultural awareness gap between Japan and the Middle East

Cross-cultural collaborations between countries are pivotal as they serve as a catalyst for dialogue, encouraging nations to look beyond their differences, focus on shared aspirations, and build lasting relations based on mutual understanding and respect. Deepening such initiatives is particularly necessary in an era marked by interconnected challenges. From climate change to threats associated with the rise of artificial intelligence, the need for collaborative solutions has never been more pressing.
Although Japan and the Middle East share a long-established and multifaceted friendship, there remains a noticeable gap in cultural awareness between the two preventing them from forming a deeper bond. For instance, this gap hinders the recognition of common values shared by both regions which include collectivist and high-context cultures, respect for authority and seniority, strong family orientation, and a significant emphasis on relationship building in business.
Meeting between Japanese and Arab businessmen

Unlocking the full potential of cultural exchange

Indeed, the Arabic and Japanese cultures already have a solid foundation of common values and historical ties, providing a strong basis for deeper cultural collaborations. But, while there are growing projects in place, there are still vast opportunities that remain underexploited such as student and work exchange programs and art.

Leveraging student and work exchange programs

A 2009 survey (the scarcity of such surveys is, in itself, an indicator of the disconnection between the two regions) sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology highlighted how initial perceptions of the Middle East among Japanese businessmen tended to be unfavorable due to insufficient information. However, these perceptions improved significantly after exposure to the region, indicating the transformative power of cultural immersion. Scholarships and exchanges between universities or businesses are all efficient ways to bridge the cultural gap between Japan and the Middle East. Such initiatives currently exist including the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship funded by the Japanese government or the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program promoting cultural diversity. However, they aren’t as numerous or promoted as they should be. For example, countries like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq which have one of the biggest diasporas in the region due to the instability of their countries rarely consider Japan as a destination due to their unfamiliarity with the country. As of 2022, the total number of residents from those countries in Japan was around 1,400 combined. Japan can leverage this talent pool and benefit economically while addressing some of its domestic challenges such as its ageing population.
A group of diverse people

Bonding through art

As a universal language that breaks down language barriers and cultural differences, art is a powerful tool through which individuals, communities, and nations can express themselves. Some initiatives taken by Japanese and Arabic artists highlight the power of art and the need for similar projects.
For instance, two Lebanese artists launched the “East meets East” project, which consisted of the fusion of two traditional musical instruments, the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute from Japan) and the nay (a reed flute from the Middle East). Through this fusion, historical connections were explored, suggesting a possible common root or influence between the instruments. Parallels were also drawn between the ways in which Arab and Japanese musicians use music as a means of introspection, emotional expression, and spiritual connection. Another great example of two cultures coming together through art is “The Journey”, a Saudi-Japanese anime created by Manga Production Company, a subsidiary under Saudi Arabia’s MiSK Foundation, and Japanese Toei Animation in 2021. This production team, composed of both Japanese and Saudis artists, discovered various cultural similarities in the process. In Jordan in 2016, an exhibition showcased the beauty of the desert and natural flowers by combining visuals of the Jordanian desert with Japanese flower arrangement. “The interest of people in a specific culture adds to their humanity,” as astutely pointed out by former Jordanian MP Reem Badran who attended the exhibition. Moreover, associations such as the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association (JACA), play a core role in getting people from both regions closer together. This non-profit association, launched in 2006, introduces Arabic calligraphy to Japan through lectures, offers courses, and organizes exhibitions, allowing Japanese people to appreciate and better understand Arabic culture.
Anime showing a woman in the Middle East
In an ever-evolving global landscape, embracing cultural diversity not only enriches societies but also contributes to a more interconnected and harmonious world. As both Japan and the Middle East are influential players on the international stage, their closeness presents a unique opportunity to promote global peace and cooperation.
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