Iran-Japan Cultural Relations: Past, Present, and Future

[1] . Paper presented by Dr. Abdolrahim Gavahi, at the First IPIS-SPE (Japan) Joint Seminar, Tehran, IPIS, Sep. 19-20, 2010.



May I first welcome all the participants and especially our Japanese guests who have come a very long way to attend this August meeting, and extend my words of thanks to the Director–General of IPIS, Dr. Dolatyar, and my dear colleague Ambassador Kalantri, the Secretary of the Seminar, for their kind invitation. I wish our Japanese guests a very memorable stay in Iran, and our cordial meeting success and fruitful results.

As an introductory comment, I would like to raise two points:

The first point is regarding my background and familiarity with Japan. My close encounter with Japan goes back to about 30 years ago when I first entered the beautiful land of Japan as the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Tokyo (1980). Since then, I have always been impressed by the rich Asian and Eastern culture of Japan, to the extent that this impression seems to be ever-increasing. That is why, upon my return from Tokyo back in 1986, I have constantly had lecture engagements, interviews, and newspaper articles on various

political, cultural, economic, industrial, and social aspects of Japanese life and society. A brief list of some of these articles are as follows:

  1. The Secret of Japanese Progress, IBM Management Seminar, Tehran,
  2. An Introduction to Japanology, Muslim Engineers’ Association, Tehran,
    June 1989.
  3. The Necessities of Knowing Japan, Tehran University, Technical College, Sept. 1997.
  4. Japan’s Industrial Development, Industrial Managers’ Society, Tehran,
  5. Peaceful Coexistence of Religions, Second Seminar of the Islamic World and Japan, Tokyo, Sept. 2003.
  6. Human Dignity in Islam and Shintoism, third Seminar of the Islamic World and Japan, Tehran, Dec 2004.
  7. Cultural Diversity in the Present World, Fourth Seminar of the Islamic World and Japan, Tunisia, Dec. 2005.
  8. Religion and Government in Iran and Japan, Seminar on the Separation of Religion and Politics, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Feb. 2006.
  9. Persian Culture and its Impact on Contemporary Iran, Dialogue with Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Tokyo, and Kyoto, Feb. 2006.
  10. Workforce and Management in Japan, Seminar on Human Resources Development, Tehran, Jun 2006.
  11. Religion and Work Ethics: Case Study of Japan and China, Seminar on Work Ethics, Iranian Chamber of Trade and Industry, Tehran, Feb. 2007.
  12. Man and Nature, Fifth Seminar of the Islamic World and Japan, Tokyo, Feb. 2007.
  13. Fundamentals of Cultural Dialogue between Iran and Japan, Tokyo, April 2009.
  14. Some Observations on the Course of Dialogue Between Iran and Japan: Recent Trends, Eight Seminar of the Islamic World and Japan, Tokyo, Feb. 2009.
  15. Japan: the Great Land of Rising Sun, Acceptance Speech on the occasion of receiving the Gold and Silver Star Order of the Rising Sun, Tokyo, May 2010.

The Second point is that, as a professor of comparative religious studies and someone who is familiar with the culture and religion of different nations, I am of the opinion that each nation’s culture and civilization is, to a large extent, a product of its indigenous religious beliefs. Thus, I hold that many of the Japanese code of conduct and social-cultural behavior stems from the Japanese traditional religion, Shintoism, and also the imported creed of Buddhism. That is why, in recent years, I have published the book Shintoism in the Persian language, in order to better familiarize the Iranian community with Japanese mentality and culture[2].


  1. Iran-Japan Cultural Relations: the Past (Background)

As the esteemed scholars attending this seminar know, Iran-Japan cultural relations goes back to centuries, if not more than a thousand, years ago, a fact easily recognizable by the presence of many Iranian (Persian) historical monuments at the Imperial Museum at Nara. As an example, during my recent trip to Tokyo to be bestowed with the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, which coincided with a carpet museum in Yokohama, I had the chance to see a wonderful piece of Iranian carpet belonging to Safavid era, well-demonstrating the old cultural relations between our two countries. As we all know, the very fine, delicate, and elegant spirit of the Iranian people is not only expressed in unique Persian literature, especially the writings of Sa’adi and poems of Hafiz and Mowlavi but also in such cultural items as Persian tiles, carpets, miniature paintings, etc.

Elsewhere, I have touched on the basis of Iran-Japan cultural interactions, among which are Iran’s being the oldest nation-state of the world and thus having the oldest human culture and civilization, the Eastern and Asian spirit of our both communities, and the non-missionary, nonmilitary, and non-imperialistic character of our traditional relations[3]. There, I have also stated that Japan, unlike America, England, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Russia, and many other states, has never had any military / occupying presence in the Middle East, thus facilitating a friendly relation with all the countries of the region.

Also, I have repeatedly said that everybody sees a different thing while passing through the streets of Japan. One sees them paved with gold (implying that you can make good money in Japan if you push it hard)[4], the other sees it full of high-rises and towers, the third see it as a jungle of steel and stone, etc. but I see it filled with Japanese “spirit”, the same spirit that has made Japan the “Number One” country of the world[5]. Yes, in the corner of every street, in so many small and large Shinto shrines, in Ikebana and tea ceremony, and in every aspect or facet of Japanese culture and mindset, I see the very sublime, patient, hard-working, polite, and content Japanese spirit that is always trying to produce more and consume less, in order to help his family, his community, and the humanity at large; the very delicate and elegant spirit prevailing all over social and individual life of Japan, and this is the very foundation of Japanese progress and advancement, and not Sony or Mitsui or Mitsubishi Corporations which, in similar patterns, can be found all over the world. Naturally, all material majesties can be destroyed by a natural disaster like a typhoon, flooding, earthquake, fire, etc., but

the precious “Japanese spirit” is an asset never exposed to destruction and annihilation. That is why a Japanese sage has said: others have their natural resources underground and we Japanese have them one and a half meters over the ground!

Along the same line of the historical background of our relations, let us remind ourselves that this year is the 130th. anniversary of the first Japanese delegation visit to the Iranian court, 80th. anniversary of our diplomatic relations, 50th. anniversary of our signing cultural agreement and, last but not the least! 30th. anniversary of my arriving in Tokyo as (almost)[6] the first ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Tokyo. This shows that, in spite of long historical background, most of our cultural relations have developed in the past century, or even half the century, i.e. since when we have started sending scholarship students to Japan. Nowadays, the Association of Mombokagagusho Graduates has more than 150 members working in Iran, about the same number working in Japan, USA, Europe, Canada and other places, and more than 50 students now studying in Japan.


  1. Iran-Japan Cultural Relations: The Present Situation

Iran-Japan cultural relations are enjoying a somehow stable and satisfactory position at the present time. The number of Iranian scholarship students in Japan, reciprocal visits and lecture engagement of scholars and university professors, mutual sport, film, painting, handicraft, carpet, and other exhibitions, Farsi courses at Tokyo Universities and Japanese courses at Iranian Universities, authoring and translating books on Iran and Japan, participation in national and international exhibitions, joint seminars and conferences on subjects of mutual  interest, bestowing Japanese Sacred Treasure Imperial Order upon distinguished Iranian scholars, cooperation in the field of broadcasting and mass media, and finally organizing different cultural programs by the esteemed embassies of both countries, all indicate the vitality and viability of our cultural relations[7].

In recent years, we have also witnessed the publication of many good books on Japanese historical, cultural, industrial, social, literary, and management subjects in Iran, written by both Japanese and Iranian scholars. That is why, since my return from Tokyo in less than 25 years ago (of course return from my official ambassadorial job, otherwise I have been visiting Japan regularly), about the same number of new Farsi books on Japan have appeared in my small personal library, some of which are as follows:

  1. Rajabzadeh, Dr. Hashim, the History of Japan, Ramin Publications, Tehran, 1986.
  2. Vogel, Ezra F., Japan as No. 1, translated by S. Kharazmi and A. Asadi, Farhang publications, Tehran, 1987.
  3. Hakami, Dr. Nasrin, Japan and power strategy, IPIS, Tehran, 1988.
  4. Mooritani, Masanori, Japanese Technology, translated by M.R. Rezapour, Shadi publications, 1989.
  5. Mohajeri, Masih, Islam in Japan, Daftar-e Nashr Publications, Tehran, 1989.
  6. Thurow, Lester C., Management challenge: Japanese views, translated by M. A. Tousi, Khawjeh publications, Tehran, 1989.
  7. Tsore Zoregosa, Japanese Golestan, translated by Dr. Hashim Rajabzadeh, Center for Cultural Studies, Tehran, 1993.
  8. Yoshida Masahiro, the First Japanese Missionary to the Qajar Court (1800-1801): Travel Account, translated by Hashim Rajabzadeh, Aasetan-e Quds publications, 1994.
  9. Morio Ono, Khayr-Abad Name: 25 Years with Iranian Villagers, translated by Hashim Rajabzadeh, Tehran University publications (2360), 1997.
  10. Sadria, Dr. Mojtaba, Conflict Theory in International Relations: Japanese View, translated by Abdolhadi Boroujerdi, IPIS, Tehran, 2000.
  11. Paseban and Masayo Yomakochi, Japanese Customs, Festivals and Annual Events, Mitra Publications, Tehran, 2000.
  12. Akino Kazama, the First Consul-Minister of Japan to Iran (1929-1932), translated by Hashim Rajabzadeh, Anjuman-e Athar va Mafakhir Farhangi, Tehran, 2001.
  13. Nelly Delay, Japan: the Fleeing Spirit, translated by A. Pashaee, Rozaneh publications, Tehran, 2003.
  14. Ashikaga Atsouji, Iranian Memories: Travel Account, edition, and translation by Hashim Rajabzadeh, the office of Cultural Studies, International Center for Dialogue of Civilizations, 2004.
  15. Rajabzadeh, Dr. Hashim, Japan: Yesterday and Today, Office of Cultural Studies, International Center for Dialogue of Civilizations, Tehran, 2004.
  16. Ehidi Inoue, Iran and I: Memoirs and Notes, translated by Hashim Rajabzadeh, Tehran, 2004.
  17. Varedi, Dr. Mohammad, Japan: A Country Profile (Green Book), Countries and International Organizations (25), IPIS, 2005.
  18. Katsuttoshi Ayano, Introduction to Total Quality Management: Lessons from Japanese Practice, translated by R. Yousefi, Nikan Kitab, Tehran, 2005.
  19. Rezaee, F. Charkhchi, Japanese Daily Conversations, Ishraqi Publications, 11th. Edition, 2006.
  20. Rajabzadeh, Dr. Hashim, Japanese in the Area of Iranology, Dr. Mahmooud Afshar Foundation’s Publications, Tehran, 2007.
  21. Khademi Pashaki, Babak, Sustainable Development and Virtual Government in Japan, Pelikan Publications, 2007.
  22. Gavahi, Dr. Abdolrahim, Shintoism, Elm Publications, Tehran, 2008.
  23. Japan and Iran in the Course of Time: Eighty years of Diplomatic Relations, Embassy of Japan, Tehran, 2009.


Certainly, this list is not complete and the number of books written by the Iranian Japonologists or the Japanese scholars (translated into Farsi) in recent years should be much more. But, even the publication of this number of books in a period of twenty-four years i.e. since my return from Japan, almost one book every year, is not something to be ignored or underestimated at all.

Another point to be considered is that, in recent years, many prominent scholars and distinguished Japanese and Iranian Iranologists and Japanologists have emerged, each contributing to the further enhancement of Iran-Japan cultural relations. Among these scholars one can mention late Professor Izutso, the great Japanese Islamologist, late E’idi Inoe, Iranologist and expert in the Iranian (Persian) language, Professor Itagaki, Islamologist, Professor Kuroda, Islamologist and expert in Arabic language, Professor Takeshita, Islamologist and expert of Islamic mysticism, and the last but not the least, professors Rajabzadeh and Naghizadeh, living in Osaka and Tokyo respectively, both renowned Japanologists. All these famous scholars play the role of encouraging young Iranian / Japanese students to further apprehend the other side’s language and culture and thus promote bilateral cultural relations to new heights.

As a concluding comment to my discussion of the present day cultural relations between Iran and Japan, I would like to sympathetically point out that in recent years, compared to the time of my tenure in Japan, very unfortunately, the level of mutual understanding, trust, and cooperation between our two countries has somehow dropped considerably. Admittedly, when Nakasone san was prime-minister, Abe san foreign-minister, and Matsunaga san deputy foreign-minister in Japan, and on our side, Ayatullah Khamenei was president and Dr. Velayati was foreign minister, in spite of the Iran-Iraq war going on on those days, we had better relations and interactions. I believe that this

august gathering and similar occasions can take positive steps to improve the present situation and bring our relations back to its more shining days.


III. Iran-Japan Cultural Relations: The Future

In the light of the long historical-cultural relations of our two Asian, independent, and self-sustained nations, which have never treated each other with political, military, or other ambitions, in spite of some existing ups and downs in our relations, it seems that, in the future, not only the present level of our relations will be maintained, but it will improve and expand as well. Considering Japanese outstanding industrial, economic, and technological growth after World War II, now being an uncontested power of the East, and that country’s need for the Iranian natural energy, and the Iranian vast market on one hand, and the need of Iran for Japanese technology and high-tech Products, on the other hand, it seem appropriate that Iran-Japan bilateral relations in the future should enjoy a sound basis and profound Justification. Furthermore, Japan can not leave the whole Iranian/Middle-Eastern market to the hands of the Americans or Europeans, let alone its newly emerging big competitor, the Chinese.

On top of these, Iran considers Japan the best example of combining tradition with modernity, thus allowing technical and economic growth while keeping the very basic cultural, religious, and social values symbol of Japanese culture and society, a characteristic in dire need in Iran and other Islamic countries who want to modernize and progress and, at the same time, keep their valuable traditional cultural heritage. We are of the opinion that Japan, in spite of its vast progress and development, has not adopted unlimited and unnecessary Westernization and/or globalization, thus keeping much of its cultural spirit and traditions, which is quite appreciable in the eyes of the Iranian elite, authorities, and people at large.

Finally, as you know, I spent all my term as the ambassador of Iran to Japan in the middle of Iran-Iraq war and conflict. In that war the West was united with Iraq and Japan was a friend of the West, thus creating a hostile attitude against Iran in Japanese press and mass media. But I used to say to my Japanese friends and colleagues that, according to an old Iranian saying, the sun will not hide under clouds forever. One day the war will be

finished and you, along with other Western countries, will clearly realize who was right and who was wrong in this conflict.

Nevertheless, I did not sit idle either. I tried to work in the economic and cultural fronts which, unlike the political front, was not hindered by Iran-Iraq war. In this respect, back in the early 1980s, while the crude oil was selling at about 9-10 dollars per barrel, we reached the level of $ 7.2 billion bilateral relations which was somehow equivalent to the price of 800 million barrels of oil, a level never again reached in our bilateral relations.

Along the same line, I would like to argue that the present misunderstanding between Iran and the West on the nuclear technology development will not last forever either. We have repeatedly said that, based on our religious tenets and Islamic teachings, we will never produce weapons of mass destruction, let alone atomic bomb; though the huge propaganda of the Satanic forces and especially Zionist regime do not let our voice be heard by people of sound Judgment all over the World. It is so ridiculous that a regime which has overtly filled our region with the atomic bomb is now crying out against the Iranian bomb!

As our leaders have said so, we will not defend our territory with weapons of mass destruction, but with patriotic love and only conventional weapons. Anyhow, later or sooner, this stunning propaganda will one day cease and the truth once again prevails, so that every body, including our Japanese friends, will know the validity and sincerity of our nuclear intentions. Until that day, we should try earnestly to keep and maintain our existing friendly relations in all areas, especially our long-standing cultural relations.


[2]. Gavahi, Abdolrahim, Shintoism, Elm publications, Tehran, 2008.

[3]. Cf. article no. 13 above.

[4].Cf. Kimwoo-choong, Every Street is paved with Gold, translated by M. Soori; Simin Publications, Tehran, n.d.

[5].Vogel, Ezra f., Japan as No-1: Lessons for America, translated by S. Kharazmi and A. Asadi, Farhang Publications, Tehran, 1987.

[6]. Before me, Dr. Salehkhoo was the ambassador, but he only stayed a couple of months, leaving his post much premature.

[7]. For more information please see “Iran and Japan in the Course of time: On the Occasion of the 80th.  Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between Iran and Japan, Embassy of Japan, Tehran, 2010”.

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