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Japanese Studies in the Arab World
Training the Japan Specialists of the Future

The Department of Japanese and Japanese Literature at Cairo University is a major center for Japanese studies in the Arab world and has produced many of the region’s Japanese scholars and Japan specialists. We talked to the head of the program about the state of Japanese studies in the Arab world today.

Karam Khalil

Karam KhalilProfessor and head of the Department of Japanese and Japanese Literature, Cairo University. Born Cairo, 1958. Was a member of the third batch of students admitted to the program in 1976. Pursued graduate studies at the University of Tsukuba in Japan from 1981 to 1988. From 1993 to 2002, worked at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia on establishing a foundation for Japanese language education in the Arab world. Cultural affairs counselor at the Egyptian Embassy to Japan from 2005 to 2008.

The 2011 Japan Foundation Award for Japanese Language went to the Department of Japanese and Japanese Literature, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. This prize is awarded to individuals or organizations for contributions to mutual understanding between Japan and the rest of the world. Founded in 1974, the department is now the center of Japanese language education and research on Japan in the Arab world. The department’s faculty members and former students have produced numerous books and translations, and the program has made a major contribution to understanding of Japan in the Middle East and Africa. During a visit to Japan to attend the award ceremony, Professor Karam Khalil spoke to about the state of Japanese language education in the Arab world today.

Growing Arab Interest in Japan

Cairo University

INTERVIEWER How popular is Japanese as a subject these days?

KARAM KHALIL At Cairo University, the number of students has increased dramatically over the past few years. This year, we had 140 applicants for 20 places. In some years, there has been more competition for places on our course than for English, which has traditionally been the most popular foreign language.

To tell you the truth, this has come as a surprise even to me. I was part of the third class to graduate from the program. In those days, this level of popularity would have been unimaginable. Back then, it was so hard to attract students that some people were more or less forced into the program!

INTERVIEWER The situation must have changed a lot since then.

KARAM I entered the program in 1976. I think the motivations of people applying to the program have changed dramatically in the years since then. In the 1970s, Japan was still going through a period of ongoing, high-paced economic growth. A lot of people chose to study Japanese to find out how Japan had developed its economic power. It was quite a serious, high-minded motivation, you might say.

Then, in the 1980s, the NHK drama series Oshin was shown first in Egypt and later in other Arab countries. This had a huge impact in terms of increasing awareness of Japan. People started to feel a kind of closeness and affinity with Japan, and this led to more people taking up the language. The momentum grew from there.

Professor Karam with students from the Department of Japanese and Japanese Literature, Cairo University

In the 1990s, the big attractions were anime and manga. In particular, the soccer manga Captain Tsubasa was a huge hit. In the Arabic version, the hero has an Arabic name and is known as Captain Majid. But even so, we had many applications from students who were knocked out by the appeal of Japanese manga culture and wanted to read the comics in the original.

This trend has continued into the new century, with the animated films of Miyazaki Hayao, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro, breaking through to enjoy mainstream success. Recently, a number of the latest dramas from Japan have become popular via the Internet and satellite TV.

INTERVIEWER So it’s Japan’s popular culture that is bringing a lot of young people to study the language?

KARAM One tendency over the past few years, as Japanese tourism has increased, is that growing numbers of students are taking up Japanese in the hope of finding work in the tourist industry as guides or tour operators. Mastering Japanese puts them at an advantage when it comes to qualifying as guides or getting a job with a travel agency. So a lot of students are very keen to study Japanese. Today’s students are probably more driven than used to be the case.

Practical Skills or Academic Specialism?

INTERVIEWER What classes are popular with the students?

KARAM Translation classes are popular. There’s one class in which we translate the screenplay of My Neighbor Totoro. That’s always a big hit. And conversation classes—Egyptians are great talkers, you see. One problem we sometimes have in conversation classes is that students have a tendency to regurgitate whole passages they have learned by heart. Arabic speakers often memorize large portions of the Koran as children, so we tend to be quite good at learning things by heart. There’s a tendency for students to want to just memorize everything. But of course a real-life conversation is quite different from what’s in the textbook.

INTERVIEWER How would you characterize the student body today?

KARAM First of all, they’re extremely hard-working. They start Japanese from nothing when they enter the program, and in the space of four years they are able to read things like Izu no odoriko [The Izu Dancer] by Kawabata Yasunari [1899–1972], for example. Each class is graded on a 20-point scale, and the total from all classes is added up at the end of the academic year for a final grade. Every year, the five or so students with the best scores get to come to Japan for a year as exchange students with financial assistance from the Japan Student Services Organization [JASSO] and the Nippon Foundation. Naturally, with places on an exchange program at stake, they really throw themselves into their studies!

In 1994, we started a postgraduate program, and we currently have four masters students and two on the doctoral program. The overwhelming majority of students are women.

INTERVIEWER What do you think is the most important thing for a student learning Japanese?

KARAM To study Arabic properly. Of course, this goes for everyone, not just people studying Japanese. People who cannot use their own language properly find it very difficult to pick up foreign languages. In recent years, there has been a major boom in Egypt for learning English. The reality is that it is difficult to get a job if you can’t speak English, and as a result people are beginning to neglect Arabic. The Koran runs in the veins of the Egyptian people, so there is no danger that English will take over completely. Nevertheless, I sometimes wish students would take a bit more care over their own mother tongue.

INTERVIEWER Does Japanese face any serious difficulties as an academic subject? And if so, what are they?

KARAM There is a very strong emphasis on the practical side of language acquisition, and unfortunately this means that the number of students electing to take Japanese studies as a pure academic subject is falling. Very few students attend lectures on Japanese history or literature, for example. Pop culture is all very well, but Japan is also home to a much older and much deeper traditional culture. It is quite hard to get this across to the students. So that is one major issue for us: the question of how we can help students to understand the essence of Japanese culture.

Another problem is that university instructors are very poorly paid. Economically speaking, it is hardly an attractive profession. For this reason, many of our students choose to work as tourist guides or in other jobs that offer better pay. Very few are interested in becoming Japanese instructors.

There are some very talented instructors who have the abilities to translate modern contemporary novels and so on. But of course the reality is that there is still a lack of skilled workers in Egypt as a whole.

  • [2011.12.29]
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