Although it was his childhood dream to become his country’s ambassador to Japan, actually doing so was not an easy task for Abdulaziz Turkistani.
“It’s a dream come true,” said the 56-year-old, who became Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Japan in 2009.
Turkistani first came to Japan in 1980. He had wanted to be ambassador since the age of 13.
According to Turkistani, his dream was sparked in 1971, when Saudi Arabian King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited Japan.
He says his mother — who saw the king meet Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Showa, on TV — encouraged him to go and study in Japan.
“She saw the then-ambassador — who was the interpreter for Arabic and Japanese, and said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to Japan to become the interpreter for the king and the Emperor?’ So I put the target from the beginning of junior high school to go to Japan to study there one day,” he said.
Turkistani became one of the first two Saudi students ever to study in Japan, with a grant from the education ministry.
Turkistani first studied Japanese at a language school for a year, and then attained a master’s degree in media and marketing from the Graduate School of Commerce at Waseda University. He then studied as a Ph.D. candidate for four years at Seijo University.
Turkistani was born in 1958, in Taif, a city located in Mecca province. He graduated from King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah with a marketing degree, and after studying at colleges in Japan, he then went on to attain a Ph.D. from Cairo University.
After graduating, he worked in the media and marketing fields, and also taught mass communication at Imam University, and business administration at King Saud University, both in Riyadh.
He now speaks fluent Japanese, but says that he knew nothing about this country when he first arrived — including the language.
“I arrived at Narita airport at 6:20 p.m., April 7, 1980. It was an unforgettable day. The only words I knew were ‘moshi moshi’ (a telephone greeting) and ‘hai’ (yes). That’s all,” he said with a chuckle.
“The first impression of Japan was that it’s the same as any other country, especially the people. It wasn’t the impression that we had in the 1980s, that the people are very short, workaholics, economic animals. I found Japan to be a very nice place to live,” he added.
He says he owes a lot to his professors at Waseda University — Saburo Kobayashi, Akihiro Kamei, Koji Tsubaki and Kazue Shimamura — who were “very helpful to make my life in Tokyo and Waseda very easy.”
“I really thank them very much for that,” Turkistani said.
However, he said that this period was one of the hardest in his life, especially in learning the Japanese language.
He said that at the time he stayed at a dormitory for foreign students in Meguro, and commuted to Takadanobaba, where Waseda University is located, and tried to speak with Japanese people in town.
“Not many Japanese spoke English in the streets and in the train, and even when I started speaking to them in Japanese, most of them were very shy,” he said.
However, the ambassador managed to make many Japanese friends at university, mainly through activities such as founding the Saudi-Japan friendship club, where students gathered and talked about Saudi Arabia and studied Arabic, and taking part in the Rainbow Club, in which Japanese students teach one-on-one Japanese lessons to foreign students.
Because of such an experience, Turkistani is also eager to promote educational exchanges between the two countries.
“I want to increase the number of Saudi students that come to study in Japan (currently 560), and also Japanese students to study in Saudi Arabia — as there are only two students at present,” he said.
While the exchange in the last 50 years has mainly focused on economic relations such as exports of oil and petrochemicals to Japan, and various machinery and appliances to Saudi Arabia, Turkistani stresses the importance of also strengthening the relationship in the “downstreams of so many industries, including converting industries, know-how transfer, education, culture and media.”
Saudi Arabia and Japan will celebrate the 60th anniversary of bilateral ties next year, which Turkistani sees as a “good chance to enhance cultural exchanges between the two countries.”
Turkistani says he thinks Japanese culture and tradition are very unique — just like Islamic culture and tradition.
“Japanese should be proud of your own country, like the Saudi are proud of ours,” he said, adding that Japanese ethics is something that “has to be kept and should be studied more in Japan and around the world, including Saudi Arabia.”
“Respect for the elders, loyalty and sincereness to your boss and dedication to your family and your job — these are very unique, that I don’t see in any other country,” he said.