An Egyptian professor in Japan advises Arab scholars who want to study or work in Japan to learn about its culture first.
For 17 years, Almoamen Abdalla has built bridges between the Arab world and Japanese culture, through his work in translation, teaching Arabic on Japanese TV, academic studies, and writing articles.
In a Zoom interview, he talked with Al-Fanar Media about his experiences and his hopes for greater cultural interaction between Arabs and the Japanese in the future.
Building Cultural Bridges
Abdalla, who teaches Japanese studies and translation at Tokai University, in Toyko, said Japan pays considerable attention to communicating with the Arab world.
For instance, he received a call recently from officials at the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry involved in the “Cool Japan” strategy, which aims to strengthen Japan’s ties with other countries by building on cultural elements that are perceived as “cool” abroad. The officials were seeking his views on how to build cultural relations between Japan and Arab societies, he said.
“Japan is obsessed with global competition, influencing and communicating with people,” Abdalla said, “but, where is the Arab world in such efforts?”
Despite the communication tools available, reaching each other remains difficult, he said, because “there is no momentum in building the number of people skilled in connecting the parties to each other.”
“Understanding the other is a very advanced stage,” he added. “Before that, we must get to know each other.”
“I am passionate about the Japanese culture and language. My background is academic, yet what makes me different from my peers is that I combine study and work.”Almoamen Abdalla
Being one of just a few Arab specialists in Japanese language and literature, Abdalla has combined practice and academic study throughout his career. He holds a Ph.D. in Japanese language and literature from Japan’s Gakushuin University, is an author and broadcaster, and has worked on simultaneous and literary translation. He taught a course for Arabic language learners at NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, in 2002.
Abdalla also worked for six years in the Saudi Cultural Office in Japan, in charge of academic supervision. He is currently working with committees on Japanese cultural exchange with Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
“I am passionate about the Japanese culture and language,” Abdalla said.
“My background is academic, yet what makes me different from my peers is that I combine study and work,” he said.
“I was extensively involved in translation through accompanying official, cultural and artistic delegations. This experience gave me many insights into culture and language, and I am working on research related to translation and comparative linguistics.”
Abdalla has written several books on Japanese studies, including one in Arabic titled “How to Dream in Japan: The Japanese Character between Reality and Imagination,” published by the Arab Library.
He has also written books in Japanese, including “Japan and the Arab World that Cannot Be Split in Two: An Approach to Exploring Hidden Culture” and “Arabs Who Do Not Know How to Read Maps, and Japanese Who Are Unable to Ask the Way”.
He has also written books on translating between Arabic and Japanese, and on preparation for cultural interpreters.
Language Learning on Both Sides
Abdalla said there was interest in studying Arabic in Japan, but it was “limited to cultural interests” and lacked a link between learning the language and using it. He attributes that to Japanese people’s “very realistic” character.
“We (Arabs) are sometimes ruled by emotion,” he said. “Japanese, on the other hand, sometimes ask us objectively: What is the benefit of Arabic? Does the labour market need it?”
“(Japanese) teaching and learning undergo many developments, which we must benefit from in the Arab world. Changes in teaching plans happen every two years. A professor must develop a plan and define standards, students’ practical benefits, his experience and how to convey it all.”Almoamen Abdalla
Japan has been heading towards the Arab world and the Middle East since at least 1974, Abdalla said. It established a Japanese language department at Cairo University nearly 50 years ago.
Today, graduates of that department cover nearly all aspects of joint cooperation, he said.
However, he believes it is still difficult for Arab speakers of Japanese to make a career out of this ability. In Egypt, for example, there are tour guides who speak both languages, but not many, and there is little activity in academic research and translation.
There is some interest among students at Arab universities in learning Japanese, Abdalla said. In Egypt, here are Japanese departments at Benha University and Al-Azhar University.
But the field still faces challenges. He asks: “Who teaches in these departments? What are the curricula? How do we open departments for translation without having research there? Do we have specialists in comparative linguistics? Do we have a good Arabic-Japanese dictionary or vice versa?”
Japanese Teaching Methods
Asked about the Japanese perspective on teaching, Abdalla said that in Japan, “teaching and learning undergo many developments, which we could benefit from in the Arab world. Changes in teaching plans take place every two years.”
He added: “A professor is obligated to develop a plan and define standards, students’ practical benefits, his experience and how to convey them, and review and evaluate standards. All of this adds new blood.”
“What we are trying to communicate to succeeding generations is that strength is in perseverance, not only for scientific excellence but in personality and interacting with people.”Almoamen Abdalla
Abdalla teaches subjects related to language and culture at Tokai University’s Faculty of International Relations. His courses go beyond comparative linguistics, to linguistic behaviour, linking the idea of language to sociocultural phenomena: “why wars occur, the psychological dimension of war in language, and the use of language and slogans in elections and society.”
Abdalla tells Arab scholars interested in studying in Japan that Japanese society is local, with little mixing, and there are no immigrant communities. “It is based on the Japanese citizen. Foreigners have limited specific roles.”
Those who want to study or work in Japan should seek to understand the country first. “Many are shocked by their lack of knowledge of Japanese society,” he said.
“There is sometimes confusion between Japan and the Western model,” he added. “If someone is looking for the Western model, Japan will not be his best destination.”
Abdalla said Japan would be a preferable destination for those looking for a different world view but not to settle long term. “Japan can be a good gateway for self-learning as a society based on respect, privacy, safety, and charity.”
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He recommends that undergraduate students visit Japan, saying he has seen students gain greatly by going through the experience while young.
“What we are trying to communicate to succeeding generations is that strength comes from perseverance, not only for scientific excellence but also in personality and interacting with people.”