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Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Waseda University
—Steps Toward Organizing a Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Course—

Tetsuya Ohtoshi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Starting April this year, the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences (located in Toyama Campus of Waseda University) offers undergraduate and graduate courses in the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. I was told that it has been a few decades since the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences last introduced a new course, making this an exceptionally rare occurrence. Arabic is now offered as a secondary foreign language (a graduation requirement for students in the faculty), setting the stage for a dramatic transformation with regards to the educational environment for Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Waseda. However, the path for achieving this transformation has been an arduous one, and I would like to share the various challenges the pioneers of this program overcame.

View of the Syrian plains from Mardin

It is important to note that former prime minister and founder of Waseda University, Shigenobu Okuma, is known for being the most knowledgeable figure in Islamic affairs (History of Islam in Japan, Fujio Komura) among all the Japanese prime ministers to date. Okuma is famous for welcoming a delegation of Muslims who were under the Soviet rule. In 1909, an exchange student from Egypt spoke in front of an audience of 2,000 people at Waseda University, and in 1939, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences started conducted lectures on Islam.

However, the trend came to an abrupt stop after the conclusion of World War II. Partly due to Japan’s sense of contrition regarding its prewar policies revolving Pan-Asianism and other geopolitical commitments it had made, as well as the policies under postwar occupation, Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in Japan were forced to start from scratch. During this time, the first to recognize anew the importance of engaging in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and to seriously pursue that revival was Hisao Matsuda (Prof. Asian History). Matsuda had been involved with the Islam Bunka Kyokai (Islamic Culture Association) and the Kaikyoken Kenkyujo (Institute of the Muslim World) even before World War II. In 1963, he established the Association for Islamic Studies in Japan and set forth to revive Islamic studies in Japan with Shinji Maejima and other members. Furthermore, he donated various valuable documents about Muslims to the library of Waseda University from before the war. The Association for Islamic Studies in Japan was headquartered in Waseda University for some time, and Matsuda’s pupils succeeded him in running the group. I have only met Matsuda once, but I remember when I was first admitted to graduate school, I was told by Professor Noboru Koga (Prof. Asian History) that he wanted me to carry the torch in continuing the Association.

A sponsored international symposium at the Library of Alexandria in 2009

Although none of the students who were taught by Matsuda devoted themselves to teaching Middle Eastern and Islamic studies full-time at Waseda, many came out of his lectures with a strong curiosity for the topic. Some, such as Akiro Matsumoto (emeritus professor at St. Thomas University, Japan), have gone on to teach at other universities. Matsumoto was a student of Toshihiko Izutsu, and a notable scholar who studied in Iran. He continued teaching part-time at Waseda University, so he had a great influence on students who came before and after me. For a long time afterwards, many students majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Waseda University went on to graduate schools in other universities to continue furthering their studies.

In recent years, the situation has gradually begun to change. In addition to Hirofumi Tanada (Human Sciences), Keiko Sakurai (International Research and Education), Hikoichi Yajima (Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences), Tsugitaka Sato (Letters, Arts, and Sciences), Kaori Komatsu (Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences) have become full-time professors. Furthermore, Tsugitaka Sato (later succeeded by Keiko Sakurai) started a large-scale research project entitled “Islamic Area Studies,” which has greatly facilitated research for scholars all around Japan. However, Waseda was still falling short of rival universities, some of which had more than twice the number of dedicated professors.

Together with salt slab caravans in northwestern Mali

However, a dramatic change has been taking place in the past two or three years. First, the number of full-time professors teaching Middle Eastern and Islamic studies has increased. In addition, shortly after I proceeded to my new appointment in 2014, strong demands by students from Waseda and external parties, as well as the change in world affairs have led to preparations for establishing a new course in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, something that had long been a dream of ours. Then, due to Vision 150 and the decisions made by the members of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the new course was finally established.

A father and his child at Tahrir Square (March 18, 2011)

The mission of the new course is to focus on the present, past, and future of the Middle East and Islam, and train students to become innovative researchers who can actively apply their knowledge around the world. As the name suggests, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is divided into two parts namely Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies. Classes on Middle Eastern studies offer students the opportunity to study about the Middle East as a whole, which might not necessarily be related to Islam. The Islamic studies on the other hand focuses on topics related to Islam which could be a subject of interest from anywhere in the world as long as it is relevant to the Islamic religion.

The core education and research methods of this program place emphasis on the global perspectives of the issues at hand. We also plan to put the research and education into practice through a trilateral collaboration with Waseda University, researchers and research institutions from the Middle East, and research institutions in the West and other regions. The research methodology will be varied, and for the undergraduates in particular, students will be able to freely apply single or multiple methodologies to delve as deeply as they can into their subject of research. There are plans to include three full-time professors, two affiliate professors and an assistant as part of the teaching team. Fortunately, many other part-time lecturers have also joined the team, allowing us to offer students disciplines of wider variety.

Since this April, we have had many events. I have been very encouraged by the passion of students and new academic staff to give my best in organizing this course. I do hope you will all give us your best wishes for the success of our new course.

Tetsuya Ohtoshi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Tetsuya Ohtoshi specializes in Middle Eastern social history, as well as Middle Eastern historical anthropology. He graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I in Waseda University in 1983. He then went on to study at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology and Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo (Asian history) and at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. After serving as a full-time lecturer at Yamagata University, an assistant professor at Kyushu University, the director for the Cairo Research Station at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the head of secretariat at the Japanese Council of Area Studies Associations, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology and Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo, before he was appointed to his current post in 2014.