TOKYO (Rahnuma): Japan is one of the most popular foreign countries for young Saudis. A love of anime and manga, a myriad of cultural similarities, and a surge in the popularity of J-Pop, cosplay, and Lolita fashion are all reasons why Japanese culture has such strong roots in the Kingdom, so it is no surprise Saudi students are studying in Japan.
Prior to 2007, Saudis wishing to do so could only apply independently to study at Japanese universities, provided they could fund it themselves. Then came the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, making the process not only easier, but also more affordable.
Due to the highly competitive nature of Japanese university entrance exams, the limited number of seats allotted to foreign students, and even the completely foreign nature of the language, gaining entry to a Japanese university is notoriously difficult.
However, Arab News reported in 2014 that at least 600 Saudi students had enrolled in Japanese universities since the scholarship program began in 2007. And in 2016, a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services organization put the number of Saudi students across Japan at 533.
Arab News spoke to several students who offered a glimpse into the highly coveted world.
Abdulhadi Mubarak, currently studying for a master’s degree, told Arab News that he found living in Japan very pleasant, though the experience was not without its drawbacks and communication issues.
“You can draw parallels between Saudi and Japanese society. For example, it is hard to make local friends here. People in Saudi Arabia and Japan communicate indirectly. For example, in some regions in Saudi Arabia if you get served coffee after lunch or dinner, it means you should drink it and leave. In Japan, people don’t explicitly say ‘no,’ if someone says ‘it’s difficult’ then it means ‘no,’” he explained.
However, he finds the experience refreshing, especially being able to correct people’s misconceptions of what the Kingdom is really like. “I like to ask Japanese people what image they have of Saudi Arabia; half probably don’t have any idea at all, the first response is always about oil or having a strong football team, the second is camels, and a few ask about how things like marrying four women works.”
Omar Al-Ghamdi is a student at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, studying computer science. He finds living in Japan “comfortable” though he also finds forming significant relationships challenging.
“Japan is a very comfortable place to live, from services provided to all kinds of transportation, to how you get treated as a customer, but building relationships with the people here was hard even for a fluent Japanese speaker. It’s like they have emotional walls put up against strangers, so to get to talk to them and ask them out to hang or become friends is a little harder than others.”
The relative difficulties with communication do not stop there. Saudi Muslims, and indeed Muslims in Japan in general, face some degree of difficulty in connecting with each other due to the relatively small size of the community.
The number of Muslims in Japan stands at about 185,000, according to the Pew Research Center, accounting for about 0.1 percent of the population of 126.8 million, reported by the World Bank. The number of mosques in Japan is about 200, most of which are situated in Tokyo, making it difficult for those in rural areas of Japan to visit one on a regular basis.
Khalid Al-Otaibi is currently working toward a master’s degree in management at the Nagoya University of Business and Commerce. He moved to Japan in the summer of 2016 to work with a company for breast cancer awareness, and was accepted as one of the King Abdullah Scholarship students in 2018.