Bahrain is not a country where it is common to encounter Japanese, but even here interest in “anime” has been encouraging young people to learn more about Japan, as well as to study the language.

Because young people here depend largely on the Internet for access to Japanese animation, movies and songs, they are seeking more cultural and personal exchanges with Japan.

The only Japanese-language teacher in Bahrain, Ken Umishima, is meanwhile struggling to have his students “enjoy” learning the language in line with the way of life in the Gulf region — not just having them memorize the kana characters.

Insaf Al Mosawi, a 26-year-old Bahraini, is one of his students.

“I liked the language. It sounded musical. The studying of Japanese language sounded crazy at first, but I tried,” Mosawi said in explaining why he took the course at the University of Bahrain, the only university offering Japanese in a country that is far smaller than Tokyo.

Like many others, Mosawi “hardly cared” about Japan before, but he happened to see the popular Japanese animation “Detective Conan” three years ago and completely changed his view. He has since graduated, but he continues his studies of Japanese.

Umishima, 41, said that about 40 students take the primary Japanese-language courses at the university each year as a 40-hour elective.

A night school that offers primary to higher-level lessons outside the university has about 20 students, including company employees and junior high school students.

Many of the university students take the Japanese course “without a particular reason,” but every year there are around 15 who show up with a strong interest, Umishima said.

Siddiga Fouad, 22, one of Umishima’s students, said she became interested in learning Japanese through her current favorite suspense cartoon, “Death Note,” which started airing in Japan last October.

“American movies and cartoons are the most popular, like Disney, but we keep getting interested in these Japanese cartoons,” she said. “It’s better to learn Japanese instead of missing the whole picture (while) reading the translation.”

But it is not only new anime that has influenced them. Some students said their sense of affinity with Japan was nurtured in their childhood when they were exposed to cartoons that included “Captain Majed,” a soccer “manga” comic originally titled “Captain Tsubasa” in Japan.

“I think it began when we were small, like in the 1980s or the beginning of the 1990s, though we didn’t know at that time it was Japanese because the characters’ names were changed to Arabic,” said Mahmood Ismail, 21.

Umishima has taught Japanese in Bahrain since 1997, after teaching in Taiwan and Thailand. His first year in Bahrain, he said, was a “big failure” because he did not understand “the characteristics of the people.”

Umishima said people in the Gulf region, where oil is plentiful, have been living an easy life and lack the attitude of perseverance that can be found in areas less energy-flush, including Egypt.

He said he “hustled” during his first year and tried to teach Japanese characters as requested by the students, but ended up with only a few remaining in his class.

Deeply shocked, he decided to try to hold his students’ interest by simplifying the language, including minimizing the time spent on verb conjugations.

In the university courses, he does not teach Japanese characters and only uses the Roman alphabet, which he calls “quite rare in current overseas Japanese-language education.” He uses texts he devised himself.

“There are good and bad points in this kind of teaching . . . but with many students not even knowing the name of Japan’s capital, or Mount Fuji, or tempura . . . I just want them to enjoy it. I also teach them the cultural differences between the two countries,” he said.

Although learning Japanese in Bahrain is sometimes seen as peculiar, according to some students, Jassim Darwish, another university student, sees no end to his interest and hopes to go to Japan someday to study medicine or work there.

“I feel like I want to know everything about Japan. I think Japan’s power came from its culture,” he said. “And knowing about it makes me feel more positive toward the future.”

For related stories:

Ambassadors manga and anime
There is nothing two-dimensional about Japanese manga in the U.S.

Fans lift J-culture over language barrier

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.