IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Uncovering Japan at a time of tragedy

In November 24 to December 3, 2011, I went on a trip to Japan upon the official invitation of the Japanese Embassy in Manila and the Japan Foundation in Tokyo. This article is published here in my column as the output report of this educational exchange program. I hope that other Moro academics and researchers will find this article worthwhile and encourage them to be interested in learning much from the Japanese society in as much as they are also keen on reaching out to the Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Part 1 of 2
The Great East Japan Earthquake
The last time I visited Japan was in 1997 on a business trip and a short fun trip to Tokyo Disneyland. Since, I have always had wonderful images of this pretty and amusing country and its people. In the past I have had work experience with Japanese companies that gave me confidence in dealing with Japanese colleagues at work, and later on as classmates in graduate school, and as good friends. With my return to Japan during this Japan Foundation program for Young Muslim Intellectuals in Southeast Asia, I realised that it is only now that I have consciously reflected on my perceptions on this country, its people, and its cultures. Most appropriate, the program carried the theme “The Face of Japan as Seen through Disasater: Tradition Living in Modernization.” This ten day program deepened my understanding of how Japanese history and traditions managed to build a strong foundation of its ethics, spirituality, and cultures that withstands through time, and more importantly, through calamities and disasters.
When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred in March 11, 2011, I was at a loss on how I could possibly help such a rich country and such strong and intelligent people. Can I possibly provide comfort to their needs in this time of crisis? The immediate and practical things that many of us have done was to reach out to friends and acquiantances and listen to their stories, participate in the many initiated fundraising campaigns, and constantly monitor the situation of this not too distant place. But because of the Fukushima power plant incident, it has added more constraints for people outside of Japan to be more keen of jumping on the plane and be there physically. While several countries sent official rescue missions, the rest of us, from all parts of the world, were glued on our televisions waiting for whatever news that we could get. By the time I was asked if I wanted to go to Japan for a youth exchange program sometime in September, I did not have to think twice of accepting the offer. For one, it is an honor to be asked, and second, I really wanted to go back to Japan and find out myself how does it look like today, after the earthquake and Fukushima incident, and after my long years of not visiting this place.

The Japan study trip
Arriving at Narita airport in a cold morning is exactly as I expected. The same goes for the slow-moving traffic that kept me in the bus for more than an hour before reaching the hotel in downtown Tokyo. Looking at the environs, the streets are clean, the buildings-old and new, are neat, men are dressed in suits, the women are often fashionable, and everybody seems to be in their usual hustle and bustle in the city. As always, Japanese people seem to behave and function in a very systematic way that it continues to amuse me. While this program is a small program with only nine participants, the organisers made sure that every need was addressed, every schedule was religiously followed, and that every information related to the topics are made available and accessible. The orientation on the first day was simple and clear. Together as a group of young academics, we were about to embark on an adventure of discovering and re-discovering Japan!

Our first official visit was at the Sophia University’s Center for Islamic Studies. It was my first time to learn that several Japanese institutions of higher learning have long started this area of study. Prof. Midori Kawashima gave us a very good historical background on how Japan began to be engaged in studying Muslim societies as part of a military strategy before the conquest for the Japanese Empire in Asia. Hearing from her that Japanese soldiers were sent to Al-azhar University in Egypt just to learn about Islam and Muslims, was an astonishing information, as much as she informed us that Bangsamoro ustadzes, namely Ustadzes Mahid Mutilan and Yahya, have once served as Imams in the first masjid in Japan located in Kobe. While there is no significant population of Japanese Muslims, there is, however, a steady increase in their population due to marriages and to due to inherent interest on Islam. Added to this is the increasing number of Muslims from other parts of the world, from Asia, who have settled in Japan, including illegal migrants.What is really more interesting in our discussions with Prof. Kawashima, and later on with other resource persons, is that the Japanese people generally have not formed any negative views about the Muslims and on Islam despite the aftermath of 9/11 and Islamophobia. Generally, it is viewed that the source of Islam and Muslims is the Middle East and it is regarded to be farthest from Japan. Thus, it is this lack of information and knowledge that has virtually led them to carry such a non-negative perspective.
As a Moro academic, it was also a great surprise to be informed that Prof. Kawashima has been building up a collection of “kitabs” or Jawi manuscripts from all over Mindanao and is stored at their center’s library. She has been successful in doing this with help from friends from the Mindanao State University in Marawi City. However, with all these collections, the greater work resides on how to study all these “kitabs” and to put it in good use and relevance to the Moro society and the rest of the Muslim in Southeast Asia who all similarly use the Jawi scripts. This is one study area that is worth pursuing by the younger Moro academics who would like to uncover much of our religious, social, and cultural heritage from this traditional writings.
Apart from the session with Prof. Kawashima, we also met with other Japanese professors and postragraduate students who are involved in Islamic Studies. Our group had a very good discussions on a wide variety of topic and we were clarified on the ambiguity of how these Japanese academics make use of Islamic Studies as a field. While to Muslims, this area mainly focuses on the religion and other religious-related study, their concept, however, includes the study of Muslim societies as an area study in itself and not necessarity limited to discourses on religion. Upon our sharing of research interests, it is clear that there is an emerging interest among Japanese scholars on this field. Many of them come from the field of anthropology, history, and social history. It is also unique that Japan remains to be regarded as a neutral country even in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or other conflict areas in the Middle East because this provides an entry point for their scholars to freely work as compared to American or some European scholars who may be perceived as biased against Islam.
Moving on with the program on the next day, we were introduced to the topic of Religions in Japan. In order for us to start discussing the value and spiritiual foundations of Japanese society, a lecture was given by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ken Miichi on the Religions in Japan. His talk commenced by giving us a short history of the Tokugawa Period in the early 1600s and how it established the foundations of modernization of religion, placed emphasis on community loyalty, and inculcated the value of hard work and non-lavish living. With the success in governance and leadership of this period for 250 years, it is understandable that much of the values of the Japanese that we see today have had its strong influence from this history. The religions of Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism is found to be composing this very unique blending. Japanese make fun of themselves to be born as Shinto, praying in Buddhist temples, believing in Confucianism, marrying in a Christian church, and dying the Shinto or Buddhist way. While their belief in religion is not similar to the usual dogmatic and hierarchical structures of religion, it is really their great sense of spirituality that strongly forms the religiosity in them. If in Islam, Muslims believe it to be not as a religion but a way of life, the same can be said of Japanese religion and spirituality.

To me, the Japanese epitomizes a way of life that is deeply rooted on their belief system—religion, spirituality,cultural tradition, and history. One of the interesting concepts in Shinto that attracted our attention is the idea of “kegare” and “kiyome.” It is said that a Japanese who may look at himself in a “kegare” or unclean state (in terms of immorality or corrupt behavior), he or she can be cleansed or can undergo “kiyome.” A good example would be the politicians who may be regarded as “kegare” but can do a “kiyome” during the election campaign period when they get the opportunity to change ways.This belief and practice becomes an opportunity for self-renewal. However, this practice is certainly viewed both in a good and bad way, especially that it can be a habit forming and tend to lose its sincerity. Nevertheless this demonstrates a strong sense self-empowerment to a Japanese. To a certain extent this explains why Japanese society is very committed to upholding their integrity by publicly admitting their mistakes, to the point of resigning from their work or post in an organization. Similarly, in its samurai history, the Japanese practice “honor killings” or committing “harakiri” in order for them to main this personal integrity that extends to their families.
Passing through Fukushima, Sendai area
On the third day of the program, we ventured on our first field trip to Iwate by taking the bullet train. Even before anticipating our final destination, we were all more curious about passing by the Fukushima, Sendai area as the place of the nuclear disaster. While we look on from afar, from our seats on the train, the images of Fukushima on television became more real right before our eyes. The place looked like a normal town but noticeably without many people. We learned from our Japanese guides that there are still people staying in the area and they are starting to live their normal lives. On the other hand, the fact remains that the negative impact of the disaster have yet to be fully contained and addressed. The difficult part of this type of disaster is its imminent effects on health which cannot be immediately perceived but only in due time. Somehow, this makes us look back on how life for the people of Japan must have been terrible and very trying when the bombs exploded on Nagasaki and Hiroshima many years ago. And yet, in spite of such hardships, they are a people who continue to prevail.

Visiting the Shinto and Buddhist temples
Upon reaching our stop in Iwate, we visited this complex of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Hiraizumi. The whole town of Hiraizumi is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage. It is in these numerous historical sites that we learned about the development of Shinto and Buddhism as religions in Japan. It was really interesting to learn that although Buddhism did came from China, the development of this religion in Japan evolved independently. With the interactions of Shinto and Buddhism beliefs and philosophies, and the historical antecedents of Japanese society, these religions grew in a unique manner.
We were very fortunate to have been guided by no less by the high ranking religious leaders and administrators at Hiraizumi. Certainly, by being with the monks, we have been able to ask even the most trivial ideas and perceptions that we have about religion and even about their own personal life and vocation. While I have met monks in the past, it strikes me that the Japanese monks appear to be very busy administrators and workers, are also eager in getting to know other cultures and religions (such as the visit of Muslims like us), they are full of gay and humour, and appears to appeal to all sorts of people—young and old. They do exude a certain air of youthfulness and innocence that makes me wonder if they have in fact found the fountain of youth right there in Hiraizumi.
Inside one of the temples where we viewed a monumental and very old altar and Buddha, the high priest/monk tested how clean or positive our bodies by tapping a long and sturdy looking stick of wood on our backs. It is the sound emitted by the tapping that the monk could tell the state of our bodies. Naturally, many of us dashed to take our lotus position and be tested. And some of us were just happy if the monk gave us a good score—that we are okay and positive. If not, perhaps, something must be wrong with the stick!
We went through the rounds of the many shrines and temples, and sometimes followed the practices of the Japanese, e.g. putting coins on this huge box infront of the alter that functions like a wishing well, capturing the smoke from the burning incense from this huge burner with the belief that it will make one smarter, etc.. In spite that these may be seen as a Shinto or Buddhist religious practice, I view it as something that does not contradict my own belief system as a Muslim. By putting coins/money on the altar, it is in fact an act of sadaqa to the workers, including the monks, of this temple and shrines. As Muslims, we are taught not to practice idolatry, but this also does not mean that we should not be respectful of sacred shrines and images of other religions. And perhaps, by candidly following some of these Shinto or Buddhist practices, as part of this field trip, we can further show our respect to peoples of other religions.

Part 2, and final part of Uncovering Japan at a time of tragedy

Watching the Suemae Kagura dance performance as a community ritual

As a continuation of understanding Japanese belief system, we had the rare chance of watching a Suemae Kagura dance performance in a community. This dance is not an ordinary performace but one that is filled with ritual and intense spirituality among the Japanese communities in Iwate. While this tradition/ritual has had its source a thousand years ago, in recent years, some communities have re-discovered it and found it to be a ritual that gives them a sense of self and community renewal. This old tradition/ritual has become a refuge for the community to remind themselves of their essence as a people in the midst of highly technological and mobile society that Japan has become today. The little stories of these Kagura dances tell of the various dieties of the forest, fortune, or fire that demonstrates their powers and importance in the human life. Thus, the belief on these dieties explain some of the practices that Japanese society continue to uphold, such as regarding the peach tree as a tool to dispel misfortune among many others. What makes the Suemae Kagura ritual powerful is that it is being practiced by the young and old together. Not only does it strengthen the social fabric of the community but it also becomes a place where the older generation passes on their knowledge and aspirations to the younger ones.The practice of culture and the regard for cultural artifacts becomes a shared experience for these generations of Japanese. The revival of the Kagura all across Japan is most appreciated by the older generations as a way for them to re-connect with the youth. This becomes very important especially when you have a phenomenon in the society where there are may older Japanese who are leaving alone and fending by themselves. As for the children and teenagers, they may be the usual suspects of being strongly encouraged to make use of their time worthwhile instead of being stucked in video games or television watching at home. Nevertheless, this becomes an opportunity for them to form bonding with their neighbors and community friends as part of an extended family life. On the other hand, for the young and middle aged Japanese salary-man and woman, the practice of Kagura could be viewed as an alternative worldview and refuge from the materialist and highly technological life that often overwhelms modern and highly developed societies. Therefore, I would suspect that in the coming years the Kagura will continue to blossom and penetrate the whole of Japan in as much as there is a very real need and function (to society) for it.

Visiting the tsunami devastated communities in Kamaishi City, People’s Organizations
The city of Kamaishi in Iwate is one of those that was devastated by the earthquake and the tsunami. We visited this coastal place and saw for ourselves how the layers of seawalls built by the government was not able to prevent the rushing of waters from the seas and that effectively destroyed the immediate town. Standing on the high and huge seawalls, we were shown the “before the tsunami” picture of the town (complete with all the infrastructures and homes) as compared to the empty space that we were actually seeing in our surroundings. The sight really impresses upon us how tragic the tsunami was for the people of Kamaishi. All the debris of buildings and cars still kept in piles and the whole area that used to be populated are now completely abandoned. It was ironic that later during this trip, I accidentally saw a news article that states that a year ago the city received an award from an international body praising these concrete seawalls as a very good safeguard against the tsunami.
The saving grace of the tsunami devastation in Kamaishi is knowing that many of the people survived due to the effective education on disaster preparedness by the government. It was astonishing to learn how school children managed to seek refuge since they are well knowledgeable on what to do in times of disasters. Now this is something that other societies can learn from! While it is true that humankind may be helpless in natural disasters, it is always a wise investment to educate the young and old on survival skills that can save their lives. In schools, disaster preparedness drills are being done at least twice in a year. The children are even taught where to go (with a complete map) if they are caught on the road while an earthquake and tsunami is happening, whether they are on their way home from school or vice-versa. Another innovative teaching method is the use of card games that provides various scenarios of disasters and corresponding actions on how to act in such situations. This card game was invented by Prof. Hideyuki Itoh of Iwate Prefectural University whom we have met. I sure hope that the professor will be successful in translating this card game to other languages and in sharing this too with other countries who experience similar natural disasters. By playing this card game, one can easily get the attention of young people to imbibe disaster preparedness in an educational and fun way. And perhaps with the successful Anime and Japanese cartoon popular culture of Japan that has been embraced by many young people around the world, this Japanese card game can also be easily accepted by this same generation.

The official meeting with the MoFA Vice Minister
As an official last meeting of our program in Japan, we had the chance to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we were hosted my Vice Minister, Mr. Ryuji Yamane. Mr. Yamane had an encounter with the international dignitaries who were visiting Tokyo that week who introduced him to the measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH). And thus he started our discussions by commenting about this idea. Perhaps, the GNH is another way of measuring people’s level of satisfaction especially in the modern society where materialism has become a threatening social problem, like in Japan. I can understand that as a government official he must have wanted to have a dialogue on the challenge of societies in grappling the issues of development vis a vis the satisfaction of the people. Or just maybe, he has heard of this notion that the Filipinos are the happiest people, despite such abject poverty. Anyhow, he seems to be amused at this GNH concept that he wanted to find out amongst us, the delegates, how we view this idea. To my surprise, he ended up asking me first. He asked me directly “Are you happy?” And I responded…
”I am happy person by nature and I am lucky that my family has brought me up as such. But I think I am one of the lucky few who has more reasons to be happy as compared to the rest of my people, the Bangsamoro, who are marginalised in Mindanao. I think everyone can find happiness, even poor people. However, I do not think it is enough to be happy. It is not right for a people to be denied of their freedom and human development which should be equally experienced by everyone.”
Similarly, he asked others and got more interesting anwers. It was also good to know that he was interested in understanding the Quran and Muslim people in general. I think this reinforces our information from the start of the program that Japanese people do not have negative images of the Muslims or carry biases against them or their religion.

Wrap up with Japan Foundation
In concluding the program, we had lengthy discussions at the Japan Foundation Office with Dr. Ken Miichi and Ms. Sarasa Morimoto about the many experiences we had during this ten-day program. The Invitation Program for Young Muslim Intellectuals is a program that is being organized by the Japan Foundation for the past three years. It is a meaningful program that mainly aims to increase cultural and educational exchanges among Japanese societies and Muslim societies in Southeast Asia. There are certainly numerous programs of this sort between the same countries, but what is special with this program is its intention of understanding Muslims and Islam-for benefit of Japanese society, and for Muslims in turn, to understand the Japanese society beyond the Japan Incorporated and Japan ODA image that we usually get in our own Southeast Asian backyard. There is certainly more to learn from Japanese society from its developmental challenges and its own aspirations as any other global society. From this trip, it has impressed on me how much opportunities we are actually missing by not actively working with counterpart Japanese scholars in many areas where we have similar interests, like in the social sciences and the humanities. This prospect for research collaboration is actually something that should be initiated by young academics. And that hopefully, this program can be a good start for such collaboration.
Out of this educational exchange program, it is also interesting to re-learn how much, as Asians, we all agree that Asian values do matter and is in fact part of our resilience as societies. While there are debates whether our Asian values proves to be our strength as much as it is also our weakness, it is but right that we continue to explore how it continues to shape our worldview and how we live our lives. Upon seeing how traditions like the Suemae Kagura is now slowly returning to Japanese society, I cannot help but feel the same way that aspirations for protecting and promoting indigenous people’s identities in Mindanao is a consequential reaction of the increasingly modern and chaotic society that we have in the Philippines. And interestingly, similar to our many difficulties in Mindanao, it is during the time of tragedy that people often remember what is more valuable in life, like family, community and social networks, culture, traditions, and spiritual life/religion.

Note: Ayesah Abubakar is a PhD Candidate in Development Studies at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, Malaysia. She is also the Mindanao Peace Program coordinator of the Research & Education for Peace, Universiti Sains Malaysia (REPUSM).