Tom Graus London
As Saudi Arabia and Japan’s relationship develops through the Saudi-Japan Vision 2030 partnership, the two countries are increasingly looking at ways to strengthen their cultural ties, with plans that include developing anime and boosting tourism.
Anime may at first appear to be a surprising means of enhancing cultural exchange between the Kingdom and Japan. But it is loved by younger Arabs, with up to 40 percent of young Saudis believed to be fans of anime, according to Ahmad Hawssah, founder of Koi Market, an anime online store based in Jeddah.
A poll by Arab News and YouGov, which asked residents across the MENA region a range of questions related to Japan, found that younger Arabs are significantly less well-informed about Japan than older generations.
But the survey showed positive signs of younger Arabs’ engagement with Japan. When asked to select the three things they most associate with Japan, 62 percent of younger Arabs chose anime, compared with only 16 of those aged over 40 — suggesting that, even though their overall levels of knowledge are lower, younger Arabs remain engaged with Japanese culture in ways that their older counterparts are not.
Anime, therefore, represents an ideal way of connecting young Saudis to a country that will be a significant strategic ally for the Kingdom in the coming years.
Moreover, the exchange is unlikely to only go one way. Increasingly, Saudis are talking about exporting their own anime, which will give international audiences, including those in Japan, a window into the Arab world.
A significant step in this direction is the Saudi anime film “The Journey,” a feature-length collaboration between Manga Productions, an affiliated company of Misk Foundation, and Japanese studio Toei Animation.
Misk Foundation was founded in 2011 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to develop youth leadership skills, and to focus on education, technology, media and culture.
“The Journey” will be set in the Arabian Peninsula in the distant past and will employ authentic details from the Kingdom’s history.
Interviewed by Arab News in May, Shinji Shimizu, Toei’s managing director, highlighted the film’s significance in fostering Japan-Arab relations. “It’s not just a movie, it’s about cultural exchange and forming a connection between countries,” he said.
CEO of Manga Productions, Bukhary Essam, has said the company intends to produce animation itself by 2030, allowing Saudi Arabia to present its own culture and characters to Japan and the wider world.
But anime is not the only means of strengthening cultural ties between the Kingdom and Japan. Another is tourism.
Tourism is a big industry in Japan, and many Arabs of all ages have a strong desire to visit. According to the poll by Arab News and YouGov, although only 4 percent of Arabs have previously visited Japan, 87 percent would like to go , revealing a major opportunity for the Japanese Travel and Tourism Association to increase visits from the region.
“The recent changes to the Saudi leisure tourism sector are groundbreaking,” Jeremy Alston, founder of VisitSaudi.travel, told Arab News. “Opportunities now exist for Japan and Saudi to collaborate around knowledge transfer, infrastructure development and for Japan to become an important source market of visitors to the Kingdom.”
Saudi Arabia has been making strides in its own tourism industry in recent years, and there is much to attract potential Japanese visitors — from food to natural wonders.
An increase in tourism would help to bolster knowledge and cultural understanding between the two countries as they map out a future in partnership.