The Bond Between Islamic Civilization and Japanese Civilization: Manga

This is an English translation of an interview Dr. Naoki Yamamoto gave to Merve Yiğit for a Turkish magazine. It has been republished with the permission of Dr. Naoki Yamamoto and the magazine.

Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University in 2018. He specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).

Recently, you are working on a project that is called “Introduction to Sufism through Key Concepts of Manga.” I am so excited since we are going to talk about it. However, for those who have no previous idea about manga, can you briefly explain what manga is?

Manga, which is a comic book, is mostly considered as a tool for entertainment or thought that it is suitable for children, thus, is not for adults. However, to understand the essential nature of manga, first, we must look at the difference between phonogram and ideogram. 

Phonogram is the written alphabet that is used for the pronunciation of sounds in the alphabet. The Chinese and Japanese ideograms then give information about both phonetic pronunciation and the meaning. For instance, the word “fire” in Japanese is pronounced “hi”, but also a symbol for fire and hence it is not merely a sound. Therefore, people who grow up with Kanji ideograms did not only focus on the sounds that shape the alphabet but also paid attention to visualization to make it easier to understand. As an extension of this, instead of consisting of written text, manga also utilizes pictures so that when we look at the face of the characters, we can understand and better interpret his personality, feelings, etc. 

So, I think that is the reason why the Japanese mostly prefer the manga style because we do not only read the dialogue—the text, but we can also observe the emotional state of those who make that dialogue. In other words, the formation of the manga was profoundly affected by the qualities of the Japanese.

How did you decide to work on such a project that brings together manga and Sufism? This is not something we are used to.

It’s a long story indeed. I became Muslim in Egypt eleven years ago and then came back to Japan. But in Japan, I was absent from a social environment that would help me to preserve my Muslim identity. 

First, I would like to address one important point; I was often asked why I became a Muslim, but in essence, becoming a Muslim was just one step in my life. The most challenging and important thing was to continue to be a Muslim. You know, some people say “alhamdulillah, mashallah” when they hear that you have converted to Islam and then they go their way. But the real change begins after becoming a Muslim. For instance, if you are a Muslim, you cannot drink alcohol. However, drinking is an important way of socialization in Japan. On the other hand, the image of Muslims in Japan was largely shaped by the media.

Sometimes, but not often, I was faced with questions like “Are you a terrorist or a member of al-Qaeda?” Therefore, every morning when I woke up, I was thinking about how I can preserve my Muslim identity. Then one day, Recep Şentürk, Rector of Ibn Haldun University, invited me to Istanbul. He was also the head of the ISAR Foundation. I can truly say that I was able to continue my Muslim identity thanks to my Sufism studies and ongoing dialogue (mohabbat) along with people whom I met at this foundation. At that time, I was still not aware of the similarity between manga and Sufism. However, when I was a student in Istanbul ten years ago, one of my classmates was constantly reading Naruto

It is not surprising since it is a very popular manga.

Yes, but it was interesting to me. When I realized that Turkish people love Naruto, first I thought that it was because it seemed to be exotic since it is a ninja manga. But as I talked to them, I had noticed some key concepts. For instance, I had begun to discern that Turks were deeply influenced with the concepts of “sensei” (teacher/murshid) and “shugyou” (working spirit/sayru suluk), which are important themes of Naruto. In addition to these two concepts, repentance is a major theme used in Naruto and all other shounen manga.

Really? I did not notice the repentance so far.

Yeah. Shounen manga is a genre that emphasizes character development. It specifically aims to bring up the younger generation with a sense of morality. That’s why the protagonist in shounen manga always deals with adversity and has to overcome difficulties. As a consequence, they might make mistakes—which is a very important point. Even sensei (the person who teaches the main character) might have been mistaken. Kakashi, Jiraiya… (names of some trainers in Naruto) always have several faults and regret their past lives. 

However, no matter [how much they] ache with sadness, they never give up their lives or isolate themselves from society, either. Conversely, they continue to accept students, genuinely love them, thus trying to raise the next generation. These are the basic elements of the shounen manga genre. Therefore, as time passes, I came to the following conclusion: my classmate loved Naruto not only because it was a ninja manga, but also for the mystical elements it contained; teacher (hodja/murshid), working spirit (sayr u suluk), guidance (irshad), repentance (tawba)…

Although he was not aware of it, he sensed these similarities…

Yeah. Then, when I returned to Japan, I began to think about how I could introduce Sufism to non-Muslim Japanese and Japanese society. This was another challenge I faced. In Japan, Sufism was often translated as mysticism and merely covered by mystical elements. For instance, that kind of mysticism is portrayed as if there are no hijab rules or as if drinking alcohol is permitted, which is very common in Japan. But during my journey in Turkey, I had discovered that Sufism is more than such mysticism. There were lots of other markings in Sufism such as morality (akhlaq), decency (adeb), path (tariqa), and I wanted to introduce this aspect of Sufism to the Japanese. In short, Sufism was not only that sort of mysticism but also encompasses many practices.

Did you feel like it was a task you had to fulfill?

Well… Sufism was already my academic field of study. Then, a publishing house, which is Naruto‘s publishing house, asked me to write a series of articles on the introduction to Sufism. My Ph.D. was already on Sufism. At that moment, I thought, the publisher requesting an article is the publishing house of Naruto, and I want to introduce the practical side of Sufism as well. Then I remembered my classmate who read Naruto ten years ago and lead me to think about concepts such as “sensei”, working spirit (sayr u suluk), and repentance. And suddenly I said, why don’t I reference Naruto

Also, Naruto is one of the most well-known manga!

Yes, everyone in Japan has read Naruto and knows its episodes. Therefore, I decided Naruto would be the best manga to introduce Sufism to the Japanese. Look! Even in this photo (showing Naruto‘s 42nd volume cover), you can see the student and teacher, in other words, murshid (the master) and murid (his disciple). When I say that Jiraiya represents the master, I’ve had some criticisms. Jiraiya is not an excellent teacher after all; he often makes mistakes, drinks alcohol, gambles, etc. On the other hand, according to those who criticize me, a person called a sheik should be a perfect human being who obeys everything and makes no mistake. But when you look at the classical sources, you see that this is not the case. After all, both the sheik and the murid are human beings, and the sheik constantly asks for his forgiveness. These are the themes that can be found in Naruto. As a result, I thought such a project would be beneficial for both the Japanese and the Turks. Japanese hereby could realize that Sufism was not unfamiliar to them. Similarly, Turks could notice the common points between Japanese culture and Islamic civilization.

So, do you usually focus on the Naruto or shounen manga genre?

Yes, because as I said before, the shounen manga genre, which focuses on character development, emphasizes that people are not perfect beings, thus, tries to elevate society to a better level without vilifying people for their deficiency. 

For instance, do you remember Kamado Tanjiro? Tanjiro is an interesting character since he is not as dominant and masculine as the other male characters in shounen manga. On the contrary, the male protagonists in Hollywood movies are too masculine. They are the ones who decide what is right and wrong and use direct force against their enemies. However, Tanjiro and Naruto try to seize their power and reconcile with the enemy even in the most important battle. This theme is quite evident in Naruto‘s episode called “pain”. If we go back to Tanjiro, we encounter a very kind person. When he is going to have to fight, of course, he uses all his strength, but even when he defeats the devil, he stops for a while and prays for them.

Yes, this aspect of Tanjiro is really touching. In one of your tweets, you wrote that we could see the attribute of God’s mercy through Tanjiro.

True. One of the most important themes in Sufism is to obtain the morality of Allah. I think Tanjiro Kamado is a good example to introduce this theme to the Japanese because seeing the sacred in the behavior of servants is a rare thing for the Japanese. 

For example, although it will be a spoiler, there is a famous episode in the second season of Demon Slayer. Two demons—brother and sister—begin to discuss after they are defeated by Tanjiro. They blame each other by saying that “we were defeated because of you, you made a mistake, you were weak” etc. Then Tanjiro puts an end to this discussion. Although they are demons that killed tens of people, Tanjiro tells them that they should forgive each other since there is probably no one else who can forgive them but themselves. I think this is Tanjiro’s manifestation of mercy, and I have never come across such a scene in any other shounen manga. Therefore, I believe that the main theme of Demon Slayer is mercy, benevolence, and compassion. I think this is the reason why Demon Slayer is so popular in Japanese society. We have a very stressful life and people tend to blame each other. This is the same in Turkey as well. Especially in social media, there is an effort to find out people’s mistakes and wrongs. We are constantly trying to find a deficiency in someone else. However, Tanjiro’s attitude toward others—even the devil—is merciful and alterative until the last moment. Tanjiro’s name also means healing.

Really? I never knew that. How beautiful! What about Zenitsu?

Zenitsu means “extremely good”. For instance, in one episode, Tanjiro asks Zenitsu to keep the box in which her sister is hiding inside. You know, Zenitsu is a cowardly character, he immediately wants to run away. But at that moment, he does his best to fulfill Tanjiro’s request because that box has been entrusted to him so that he will keep his word. Demon Slayer is full of messages about the healing aspect of kindness.

When we look at the classical Sufi books in Islamic civilization and the Qur’an, we encounter similar themes too. The example of Khidr and the Prophet Moses represents the ideal relationship between teacher and student. The student might be ignorant about the truth sometimes, but the teacher always patiently waits until the disciple finds out the right answer.

How were your ideas reacted in Japan, Turkey, or other countries?

Thanks be to Allah, this project has become very popular in Japan since the publishing house is widely known. Also, because I wrote on the website, many people could easily read it. I talk about this project with my students in Turkey too. I even opened a Twitter account because many Turkish or other young Muslim students are interested in the project, thus want to be informed about it. 

Since your articles introducing Sufism are written in Japanese on the Internet, you also [share] information in English or Turkish from your Twitter account. 

Yes, I’m talking about concepts briefly on my Twitter account. I began to use Twitter only a few months ago, but it already reached two thousand followers. Honestly, I didn’t think it could be that significant, but I realized that people are interested in it. Although I started this project to convey the similarities between Islam and Japanese culture to non-Muslim Japanese, I had many Muslim students too who said that they realized the common points between shounen manga and Sufism thanks to these articles I wrote. Therefore, I am currently writing in Japanese, but I think it would be helpful for young students to translate them into Turkish.

Finally, do you want to recommend any manga or anime? Maybe, there would be some people who want to read manga and watch anime for the first time following this Interview.

I first recommend Demon Slayer, then Naruto, and Samurai X: Rurouni Kenshin.

Rurouni Kenshin tells a story about a samurai living in the Meiji period. As it is known, the Meiji period was quite troublesome for the Japanese since our lives have completely changed with the modernization movement. Samurai X is an assassin hired by the revolutionary government and whom everyone is afraid of since he has killed thousands of people. Later, he comes to regret his actions and decides to become a rurounin which means self-guided samurai without a trainer. After promising himself that he will never use swords or force again, Samurai X decides to devote all his strength to the people. Here we encounter two important concepts of Sufism: service and isar. Isar means sacrificing oneself to help others. As a result, it is important to understand that Sufism is not just a matter of discourse, but also covers many practices which have the potential to establish a link between Islamic civilization and Japanese and Asian civilizations.

References

[1] Yamamoto, Q. N. (2020, November). İslam Medeniyeti ile Japon Medeniyeti Arasında Bağ:

[2] MANGA. (Yigit. M, translator). Nihayet, 6(71), 90-95.

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “The Bond Between Islamic Civilization and Japanese Civilization: Manga

  1. “We can see the attribute of Rahma (mercy) in Tanjiro” couldn’t agree more!

    As I grew up, it was always strange to me how most animes that I watched resonated so much with me, and this might be the answer. It’s possible that our fitrah, as muslim otakus, recognizes this aspect of “inward journey” in Naruto, Kimetsu no Yaiba, even early Dragon Ball Z, Kuroko no Basket and Fullmetal Alchemist to cite a few. And if we examine other aspects such as the concept of love, justice, tribalism, redemption, there may be more bonds between the Shonen (and Seinen) genre and Islam more broadly : Hunter x Hunter, Yu Yu Hakusho, Erased, and Shingeki no Kyojin come to mind.

    Looking forward to your projects, Sensei!

    Like

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