A hearty “Hai!” to second Japanese culture week in Sana’a [Archives:2008/1179/Last Page]

August 7 2008

By: Alia Ishaq
Yemenis drinking green tea and trying on traditional costumes like kimonos? Only at Japanese culture week in Sana'a!

“It was so much fun!” enthused Mohammed Al-Tamimi, a 20-year-old youth who calls himself “Ji-chan” in Japanese. Al-Tamimi, a visitor who participated in Japanese culture week, learned two traditional Japanese dances and says he's now interested to learn more about Japanese culture.

Other Yemenis like Mohammed left the Sana'a Cultural Center, where the week's main events were staged, saying words like “Hai,” (Japanese for “Yes”) and “Arigato gozaimas” (“Thank you very much”). Attendees were proud to display the new language skills they obtained during the week.

Japanese culture week was held in Sana'a this past week, from Aug. 3-7, organized to be part of the ongoing Sana'a Summer Festival, which began July 16.

The week's inauguration ceremony took place Aug. 2 at the home of Japanese ambassador to Yemen, Masakazu Toshikage. Several other ambassadors attended the event, along with Yemeni Culture Minister, Mohammed Al-Maflahi. “We're really happy to see such events because the Japanese are our partners in Yemen's development,” Al-Maflahi noted.

Toshikage pointed out that this was only the second time Japan has hosted a culture week in Sana'a. The Japanese Embassy in Yemen decided to make it an annual event after witnessing the surprising success of last year's Japanese culture week, which saw more than 3,000 visitors.

“It's an attempt to promote better understanding between the peoples of our two countries by introducing traditional Japanese art and culture to the Yemeni people,” Toshikage stated.

The opening ceremony included a 30-minute preview performance by the Okinawa Band, a traditional music group from southern Japan's Okinawa prefecture. The band came to Yemen after touring in Syria and Jordan, performing again Sunday for a Yemeni audience of hundreds at the Sana'a Cultural Center. The concert was the week's main event.

The Okinawa Band is famed for its unique musical style differing from that of mainland Japan. Okinawan music is played on traditional instruments such as the sanshin, a guitar-like instrument with strings made of snakeskin, the shimadaiko, which is a drum made of cowhide, and the ryuteki, a type of flute.

The band has four members, three of whom play instruments, plus one singer accompanied by a female dancer. “I was anxiously waiting to come to Yemen to participate in this cultural event,” the band's singer Ikeda Suguru said.

The 29-year-old, who captivated the audience with his beautiful voice, has been singing since age 11 and already has released eight albums in his home country. His unique music is famous throughout Japan for its artistic mixture of traditional and modern sounds.

In addition to the Okinawa music concert, other activities including showing Japanese movies with Arabic subtitles were shown nightly, in addition to a variety of programs enabling visitors to experience Japanese culture. These included Japanese calligraphy, where visitors could have their names written in Japanese, trying on kimonos, or traditional gowns, and origami, which is a method of folding paper to create figures.

There were also Japanese tea ceremonies, martial arts and dance performances by Yemeni volunteers.

Japanese student hosts

Along with the hundreds of Yemenis who attended the event, several Japanese university students came all the way from their home country to attend the culture week. Their visit was arranged by the Japan-Middle East Conference Group, which is made up of university students interested in this region. The Japanese students helped orchestrate the week's activities to introduce Yemenis to their culture. However, most said they came to learn more about Yemeni culture. “I came here to learn what the people are like and to get more information about Yemen's culture and economy,” 22-year-old liberal arts student Taka Hiwatashi explained, adding, “I'd read a lot about Yemen, but I came here to see it with my own eyes.”

His friend, 18-year-old Telebei Seki, who studies economics in Japan, said he really loved the event and that he was pleasantly surprised to see some Yemenis speaking Japanese. He said what he loved most about Yemen was the children he encountered, commenting, “I find Yemeni children really cute; their smiles really cheered me.”