The Art of Embracing: Tasawwuf and Japanese Culture, Dr. Naoki Yamamoto
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. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto 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).
We talk to Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto about his journey to Islam, the connection between Japanese culture and Sufism and the future of Islamic art.
What was your journey to Islam?
My encounter with Islam is an encounter with a master (Sensei). I converted to Islam 13 years ago in Egypt when I was an undergraduate student at a university in Kyoto, Japan. For a homework assignment I read various works and books on different religious traditions that I found at the university library. I remember one day I came across a book titled "A Brief Introduction to God”. It was a small book that explained the concept of Tawhid in Islam without using any terminology regarding Allah or the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). I was so impressed with the book that I investigated the author and discovered the author was, Khawla Kaori, the wife of Professor Hasan, a professor of theology at Doshisha University, and contacted him about meeting her. Prof. Hasan replied immediately and asked me to meet him at a cafe near the university. As I was waiting in the cafe when Professor Hasan arrived and with sadness broke down crying as soon as he walked through the doors. He said Ustaza Khawla passed away a year ago from an illness. He continued that he had suffered her loss, but that a young man who had read her book and was interested in Islam came to him and reminded him of the following hadith.
قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم :
"إذا مات ابن آدم انقطع عمله إلا من ثلاث: صدقة جارية ،أو علم ينتفع به، أو ولد صالح يدعو له" .
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)."
He said, "I missed her so much. I kept wondering where she had gone and how I could see her. Now her life has become knowledge and she dwells in your heart and will be with me. In her place, I will be your Sensei (teacher). " To be honest, at that time I just met him and I knew very little about Islam. I was not even sure if I could trust him, but I was at least interested in his honesty in opening up about his feelings to a young student whom he had just met, and what kind of faith supported him.
Later, Prof. Hasan introduced me to Muslims from various countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, England, Syria, and Egypt. He taught me that Tawhid is one but its expression is diverse. I had an image of Muslims as people living in the Middle East, so I was surprised at the variety of languages and cultures that exist within Islamic civilization.
Then in the summer of my sophomore year, I went to Cairo with Prof. Hasan for an Arabic summer program, where Prof. Hasan introduced me to a professor at al-Azhar University. At that time, Prof. Hasan said to me, " why don't you take this opportunity and convert to Islam?
Thinking back, I think the seed of faith had been dwelling in me since I read Ustaza Khawla's book. I had no resistance to his proposal.
Feeling a little nervous I asked him if I would become happy if I converted to Islam. He answered, "You will not be happy by entering Islam. In fact, it will make your life more difficult. You will suffer and you will make mistakes. I have also made many mistakes, and regret and repentance have become my best friends. But I am living as a Muslim because I want to see my wife again in the hereafter. I want to die as Muslim. You can just be a flawed, weak and sinful Muslim like me, and that will be enough. Then Allah will guide us to what He wants us to be."
I thought his reply was very sincere but also compelling, as I had been reading much about Islam by now. I was moved by how faith allows people to be honest with others about their weaknesses and sufferings, and how it beautifully creates a sense of integrity in serving others. While not declaring it openly that day I embraced the faith of Islam in my heart.
How did your travels as a child lead you to becoming interested in diverse cultures?
My grandmother was a kimono merchant and was well versed in traditional Japanese culture, including the tea ceremony. On the other hand, my family was open to foreign cultures and allowed me to experience various cultures, including a homestay in the U.S. when I was 9. My parents told me we must train our spirit to learn balance. There are no absolutes in human-made things, and we have no right to judge others. Culture is the same; I was taught to absorb different cultures and build that balance within ourselves.
What led you to pursue a career in academia focusing on Islamic studies?
Unfortunately, the Muslim community in Japan is still very small and at its infancy and there are few opportunities for people in Japan to learn about Islam. I decided to specialize in Islamic studies at graduate school because I believe that the best way to maintain my identity as a Muslim is to create an environment where I can pursue Ilm in my life.
During your studies did you also travel to conduct fieldwork in Muslim countries?
I have done fieldwork in various countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Jordan with a university research grant, but Turkey has given me the most cherished memories.
Over the past decade in Turkey, Syrian Ulama and Turkish Islamic scholars have worked together to rediscover the Ottoman Empire's intellectual legacy to develop Islamic scholarship. I have learned from their efforts that traditions are maintained and passed on to the next generation by the will of human beings.
You studied Islamic Science in Istanbul, why did you choose to pursue this area of
Japan has various values and cultures that shaped Japanese society, such as the kimono, tea ceremony, and Buddhist classics. Still, in recent years their influence has been reduced, pushed aside by Westernization. I wanted to study the history and intellectual traditions of Islamic civilization to consider from a broader perspective how to preserve Japanese culture in the future. In this sense, I thought that Islamic studies and the spiritual traditions of the Ottoman Empire could provide a very useful perspective.
Islamic sciences during the Ottoman Empire were an intellectual system that created a society embracing people of diverse origins, and Tasawwuf created the spiritual foundation of such a society. Japan and Turkey have experienced the process of modernization in a variety of different contexts. They have similarities and differences concerning the preservation of traditional culture and intellectual heritage. I am particularly interested in learning about the history and practice of Tasawwuf, the spiritual and cultural center of Ottoman society, and its post-modern situation.
You connect Japanese culture to the mutual aspects of Tasawwuf (Sufism), what inspired you to make these connections?
I have noticed that Tasawwuf has a surprising number of similarities in the practical aspects of Japanese culture. Such as the various practices of purifying the heart, called Suluk in Tasawwuf, were practiced in many lands with various methods. The Mevlevi Sufi order that developed in Anatolia, for example, used cooking and kitchen duties as a spiritual practice. Tariqa masters appoint their disciples to various kitchen-related positions to develop their spirit. The same tradition existed and continues in Japanese Zen Buddhism. At the Eiheiji, a Soto Zen temple in Fukui Prefecture, Japan, the food is prepared by a practitioner appointed to the position of Tenzo. It is a process that helps suppress one's ego and cultivate a spirit of service to others. The now world-famous Japanese Shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine) was also developed within this Zen Buddhist culinary culture. When Tasawwuf and East Asian traditions are compared, many researchers work from a metaphysical perspective, but I wonder how effective such an approach would be to a Japanese reader. Of course, it is essential to look to metaphysical foundations, but it is equally or even more important to look to the cultural practices that express them. I think it is a fascinating subject, for example, I think there would be great interest by experts and ordinary Japanese readers on a comparative study of the dishes prepared in the Mevlevi Order's culinary training and Zen Buddhism's vegetarian cuisine.
I have introduced the culinary culture and recipes of the Mevlevi Order on the Shueisha website ( https://shinsho-plus.shueisha.co.jp/column/sufism/10398）
and it was very well recieved by Japanese readers -Alhamdulillah.
Can you tell us more about the similarities between the Japanese Tea Ceremony and Ottoman Sufism?
It is said that the tea ceremony is the art of compassion for others and the process of accepting one's imperfections. This is precisely the philosophy described in the spiritual ascent process (Maqamat) of Tasawwuf.
I first noticed the similarities between the tea ceremony and Ottoman Sufi Culture when I was learning about the culinary culture of the Mevlevi Order mentioned above. The spirituality that elevates the act of serving food and drinks to others to a sophisticated culture and expresses it as a symbol of overcoming the ego and altruism is a common theme between Japanese culture and Ottoman Sufi culture.
In the Sufi training lodges in Anatolia, you can see calligraphy with the Ottoman Turkish word “Hiç” on the wall. “Hiç” means nothingness. It represents man's insignificance and powerlessness compared to God, but also the state of mind of a Sufi who has eliminated his selfishness and cultivated a heart of devotion to others. The Sufis of Anatolia were not training to become something but to teach their spirit to become nothing.
(Calligraphy displayed at the entrance of Uzbek-tekke in Istanbul)
The Wabi-Sabi of the tea ceremony has a similar vision. In the tea ceremony, a deep black tea bowl with no decoration is preferred as a symbol of the heart embodying nothingness. Sen no Rikyu, the great master of the Japanese tea ceremony, described the black color of a tea bowl as "the color of embracing eternity.” It refers to a heart that is not distracted by a false world or ego, but is focused on the invisible reality behind it.
The black color of a tea bowl for tea ceremony is the state of Hiç that the Sufi aims for.
(Black Tea Bowl used in Tea Ceremony)
The tea leaves and the culture of tea drinking itself were brought from China, but the tea ceremony was developed in Japan, where it has a history of more than 500 years and Sen no Rikyu established the Wabi-Sabi tea ceremony culture. The tea ceremony itself is very simple: boil water, purify tea utensils, prepare matcha (powdered green tea), and serve it to guests. However, it is the essence of the spirituality in Japanese culture, and the Japanese developed the tea ceremony as a way to train their hearts and souls.
(Tea utensils for Tea ceremony)
The purification of the tea utensil is the macrocosm, and the human being is the microcosm. Neither the macrocosm nor the microcosm exists without the other. This understanding is based on the East Asian yin-yang philosophy.
The tea ceremony is the process of finding a balance between these two universes. Sen no Rikyu attempted to express his respect for the macrocosm, his admiration for the balance of the universe and the delicate beauty of nature, and the subtleties of the microcosm in the most simple act of making and drinking Matcha tea. He believed that the divine manifests itself in simplicity. No special ritual is needed to reach the truth. It is enough to face the tea utensil and concentrate on the present moment to serve tea to thirsty guests. The tea ceremony is a process of a spiritual journey to realize that we exist not for the sake of ourselves but the sake of the mastery of the service.
This philosophy of the correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm, of the greatest divine grace dwelling in the smallest, is also expressed in the poetry of Anatolia's Sufi Şeyh Gâlib.
“Hoşça bak zâtına kim zübde-i âlemsin sen
Merdüm-i dîde-i ekvân olan âdemsin sen”
Contemplate yourself with compassion.
You are the essence of this world.
You are the microcosm embracing all the universe within yourself.
(Şeyh Gâlib, 1757-1799)
The poem calls out to the reader that human beings are not worthless beings but have the potential to become a microcosm that encompasses all the beauty in the world.
You are working on a project introducing Sufism through Key Concepts of Manga. Can you briefly explain what manga is?
Manga is a medium expressed through pictures, illustrated characters, action and dialogue. Japanese Shonen manga written for young people, such as Naruto, One Piece, Attack on Titan, and Demon Slayer, are known not only in Japan but worldwide. I am particularly interested in introducing Islamic spiritual culture to Japanese readers by pointing out the similarities between the narratives and story structures in Shonen Manga and Sufi literature.
My friend Dr. Yakoob Ahmad has written an article about my recent activities regarding Shonen Manga.
Look back in manga: The surprising link between Japanese graphic art and Islam
What was the inspiration behind the project bringing together manga and Sufism?
This was also the result of thinking about how to introduce Tasawwuf in a way that would be familiar to Japanese readers. From my own experience, I believe that there is no standard persuasive narrative. People live in different cultural contexts, each with its own "convincing" logic. The same goes for methods of learning ethics and morals; Shonen Manga is often disregarded as a subculture, but in contemporary Japanese society there is no "Bildungsroman" more trusted among the young than Shonen Manga. Built around a critical spirit against authority and a relationship of trust between master and apprentice, Shonen Manga continues to offer role models for the Japanese. I found many Sufi concepts and messages in this narrative structure.
What are some of the spiritual connections and similarities between Manga and Sufism?
The story of the Sufi is the process of spiritual perfection of the self through overcoming the ego. And it is done on the basis of the building of an intimate trusting relationship between disciple and master. Japanese Shonen Manga has the same structure. In Naruto, for example, there are various teachers (sensei) who guide the main character, Uzumaki Naruto. Umino Iruka sensei trained Naruto during his childhood during his years at the ninja academy , and Kakashi sensei and Jiraiya sensei trained Naruto during his ninja training years. In Naruto, for example, there are various teachers who guide the main character, Uzumaki Naruto. They teach him the skills of being a ninja as well as provide spiritual guidance. When Jiraiya Sensei had a dialogue with his best friend and later his greatest enemy Orochimaru, Orochimaru insisted that a ninja is one who possesses perfected skills, but Jiraiya Sensei said that a ninja is one who cultivates the spirit of endurance. It is an important scene that shows that Shonen Manga values spiritual perfection above all else.
In another scene, Naruto is moved to tears upon hearing the news of the death of his mentor and spiritual father, Jiraiya Sensei, and Iruka Sensei tells him how much Jiraiya Sensei had loved Naruto. This scene demonstrates that the master and apprentice in Japanese Shonen Manga is not an authoritative relationship, but a bond built on love and trust. Also, Jiraiya-sensei, Kakashi-sensei, and Iruka-sensei, who are portrayed as great masters, are never perfect. They are all flawed, they all make mistakes, and they all live with regret. They often reveal their feelings of regret to their students. In the first episode of Naruto, Iruka-sensei apologized to Naruto with tears in his eyes, regretting that he had grown up in a similar situation to Naruto yet failed to accept his loneliness.
When Iruka-sensei disclosed his weakness, he became Naruto's real sensei for the first time. This is the first time Naruto acknowledges his immaturity and then truly becomes a disciple and grows spiritually.
Sufi literature shows the process of spiritual growth of a practitioner named Maqamat, as in the first episode of Naruto, the first level of Maqamat is to acknowledge and regret mistakes.
And this regret (Tawba) is said to accompany the spiritual journey to the end. Even a master can continue his journey and guide others through constant repentance. And it should be evident that patience is an essential concept in Sufi practice. The Japanese subculture and the spiritual traditions that laid the foundation for Islamic civilization share the same Bildungsroman narrative. The neglect of the master-disciple relationship is particularly evident in recent years, not only in education but also in movies, dramas, and other forms of entertainment surrounding us. Modernity forgets that the heart is carefully cultivated over time by master and apprentice, supporting each other. By introducing Sufi literature to the Japanese, they will understand that Islamic culture is a neighbor sharing the same spirituality.
Can you recommend any manga or anime for people looking to learn more?
The manga I love the most are Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto. As I said above, these comics are about regret and patience, and the central theme is the trust between the disciple and the teacher.
You regularly travel to Japan, sharing knowledge about Islam. Can you tell us more
about the growth of Muslim communities in Japan?
It is said that there are currently 250,000 Muslims living in Japan, of which about 50,000 are Japanese Muslims. The Japanese Muslim communities are basically gathered in large cities. Also, the Tokyo Olympics have led to an increase in the number of restaurants serving Halal food in urban areas creating awareness by the Japanese government and people that many Muslims visit Japan but also that they have a Muslim population living in Japan too.
Unfortunately, Japan has a short history of interaction with Islamic civilization and has not yet reached the level of the Japanese interpretation of Islamic culture. I believe that the next generation will create Japanese Islamic culture, and it is enough if we can prepare the ground for it. For this reason, I try to introduce Tasawwuf classics and Sufi culture in Japanese as much as possible. I have translated Sulami's Futuwwa and Yunus Emre's poems into Japanese. This summer, a Japanese translation of Ghazali's Mukhtasar Ihya, in which I was also involved, will be published.
What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?
The beauty of Islamic culture reaches its highest point when expressed through vernacular language and practice. And I believe that beauty should be manifested in everyday life, not in museums and libraries. Just as a Sufi once showed the tapestry of human spiritual perfection is in the land of Anatolia with local words and Mevlevi's kitchen, calligraphy, and philosophy books, it would be wonderful if we could build a network of connections through Islamic art.
For more information follow @NaokiQYamamoto on Twitter
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