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Turks in Kansai fear Inose gaffe indicative of wider ignorance about culture

by Eric Johnston

“Stupid”, “shockingly provincial” and “a sign of how little Japanese people really understand that part of the world” were among the reactions of Turkish residents in Kansai to Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose’s comments about Turkey and the wider Muslim world. All, however, agreed that his gaffe would have no impact on their own lives or do much to damage the historically warm relations between Japan and Turkey.

Kamil Toplamaoglu, chairman of the Osaka Turkish Cultural Association and a long-term Japan resident, said the governor’s remarks were stupid and don’t reflect the views of most Japanese in Tokyo.

“There are politicians in every country who say stupid things. I don’t think that Inose’s remarks truly represent what Japanese people feel about Turkey,” he said.

If the Japanese blogosphere is anything to go by, he has a point. While there were the usual xenophobic ravings from the rightwing mouth-breathers — and the mutterings of conspiracy theorists convinced the Inose interview was part of a plot between the “Japan-hating New York Times and Asahi Shimbun” to sabotage Tokyo’s Olympic bid — a good number of Japanese were outraged and embarrassed by Inose’s remarks.

“Thank you, Turkey. I’m going to go out to a Turkish restaurant to show my appreciation,” said one. “All Japanese should express thanks to Turkey for accepting Japan’s apology [for Inose's remarks],” another suggested. “I’m really happy the Turks aren’t angry”, “Those remarks may not have upset Turkey, but what about other Muslim countries?” and similar remarks appeared to be indicative of how many Japanese felt.

For their part, Kansai-area Turks, especially those who have lived in Japan a long time, said they appreciate the sentiments, while adding that they were tired of having to deal with Japanese stereotypes of Turkish people and culture. These can be summed up as: belly dancing (which originated in Egypt, as several Turkish residents pointed out), kebabs and Turkish ice cream.

More recent arrivals tended to be more critical than the old timers. Kaya Abdulgaffar, an engineer on a language scholarship in Osaka, where he has been living for a month, said he’s noticed a clear distinction between the way Japanese see Turks like himself and those who live and work here.

“It seems Japanese people think Turkish people living in Japan are bad. There’s an attitude of ‘Turkish people in Turkey are good, but Turkish people in Japan are bad.’ Or, it’s OK to be a Turkish student in Japan, but if you’re working here, there’s a more negative attitude,” he said, though he added that he personally has been treated well.

Inose’s comments about Muslims, he added, are in line with stereotypes, especially media stereotypes, equating Muslims with terrorism. However, Abdulgaffar said that in his classes at least, politics is not something that gets discussed because most people dismiss it as unimportant.

Several Turks who requested anonymity due to the official nature of their employment said that Inose’s comments showed how provincial the governor of Japan’s largest city is. On the other hand, Inose’s remarks demonstrated a fundamental problem: that despite genuine enthusiasm among many Japanese for one or two aspects of Turkish culture, true knowledge of the country and its people — including its religious culture — is still sadly lacking.


Warm relations between Japan, Turkey shaped by two rescues

Over 1,300 years ago, Nara was connected to Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — via China, Central Asia and the famed Silk Road. Evidence for close relations between a then-infant Japan and the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire is scant, to say the least. But that hasn’t stopped modern-day Japanese politicians and diplomats from waxing lyrical at cocktail parties and international symposiums about the long and special relationship between Japan and Turkey.

If what happened between ancient Nara and Byzantine Turkey tends more toward legend than fact, both countries have extensively documented the origin of warm relations in the modern era, born of tragedy off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture over a century ago.

At noon on Sept. 15, 1890, the Ottoman Navy frigate Ertugrul set sail from Yokohama for the long voyage back to Constantinople. The ship had spent the summer visiting Japan on a goodwill mission, but had been plagued by breakdowns and leaks. Initially, the weather out of Yokohama was good. But it quickly turned, with violent winds and waves pounding an already fragile hull, inflicting further damage.

Around the halfway point between Yokohama and Kobe, the captain faced a decision: return to Yokohama or try to reach Kobe. The skipper opted for the latter and the ship plowed on, short on food and supplies, without its boilers, and taking on water. Just before midnight on Sept. 16, the crew spotted the lighthouse on Oshima Island, off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture, a sign that the calmer waters of Osaka Bay and Kobe were not far away. But the Ertugrul hit the rocks on the eastern edge of Oshima and broke apart.

Of the more than 600 crew members, only 69 survived, rescued and cared for by local residents and then taken to Kobe for medical treatment and, eventually, brought back to Constantinople by the Japanese government. In February 1891, a gravestone was erected at the spot where the cremated remains of bodies recovered from the sea were buried in the town of Kushimoto, on Oshima.

The gestures by the villagers of Oshima, officials in Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture and the Meiji government solidified the friendship between the two countries, and Turkey has remained grateful to Japan ever since. In 1974, Kushimoto opened a museum devoted to the Ertugrul incident. The sinking is commemorated every five years by Turkish and Japanese officials. In Turkey, the story of the incident, and Japan’s response, is taught in public schools.

In the mid-1980s relations strengthened further when, during the Iran-Iraq War, Turkey sent an aircraft to Tehran to rescue 215 trapped Japanese and fly them to Istanbul. In explaining the rescue mission, the Turkish government said it had not forgotten Japan’s rescue of sailors from the Ertugrul.

History and official relations aside, there are actually relatively few Turkish residents in Japan. Immigration figures show just over 2,600 as of 2011. Aichi Prefecture had the largest number, with over 630, and the largest concentration was in Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Saitama prefectures, where about 1,200 live. About 230 reside in Kansai’s three main prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo.

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