An Arabian knight: A Japanese scholar’s fascination with the Middle East forged enduring Saudi-Japanese relations

Published: May 3, 2012 21:20 Updated: May 4, 2012 13:35

Ninety-five-year-old Takashi Hayashi of Japan can’t remember when the Middle East and all things Arab didn’t mesmerize him. Born in 1916 in Tokyo, Hayashi literally grew up listening to the centuries-old tales from the ancient, classical collection of “One Thousand and One Nights,” which came to be widely known as, simply, “Arabian Nights.” Every night, Hayashi’s mother read him a bedtime story from the collection. In a profound way, this literary experience predicted the trajectory of his entire adult life and career. And it made Saudi Arabia a major way point in his life. It turned out, Hayashi was just a man ahead of his time.

Saudi-Japanese ties expand

Today, in part thanks to pioneering groundwork of Hayashi many years ago, Saudi-Japanese relations have evolved on many levels, stimulating profound, bilateral interest in each other’s culture, business, industry and technology.

It is a natural evolution: Saudi Arabia provides for most of the oil Japan needs, through Saudi Aramco. The oil company embarked on multibillion-dollar projects and partnerships with Japanese corporations. Currently, hundreds of Saudi students are studying at Japanese universities and Arabic is being introduced as an elective foreign language in Japanese primary schooling.

Exotic tales

Hayashi was just a year-old toddler when World War I broke out. While the world clashed in a murderous and destructive war, the exotic tales of Arabia triggered an interest and a passion for the Arab world inside Hayashi. It led him later years to the Middle East on a journey that transformed his life and his outlook on the world.

Taking advantage of a Japanese government scholarship in 1937, the then 21-year-old Hayashi traveled to Cairo to take the first step of his journey at the University of Cairo’s College of Arts and Literature. On his first visit to Cairo, he changed his first name to Omar and converted to Islam.

Three years later, Hayashi had mastered Arabic and was on his way back home armed with a new language and full of ambition to introduce the Arab culture and ideas in his homeland.

For the next five years, Hayashi lectured at Osaka University’s school of foreign languages and at Kyoto Imperial University. During that time, he also embarked on a project to produce an Arabic-Japanese dictionary.

“I had accumulated around 50,000 words for the project and built the copper plates to print it,” Hayashi told a reporter in June.

His Japanese-Arabic dictionary materials did not survive World War II. Allied bombing raids in Osaka made Hayashi’s four long years of labor literally go up in smoke.

“I never attempted to recreate the dictionary,” Hayashi said. “The economics of post-World War Japan did not allow it.”

When the war ended, Hayashi started his own family at 29. He turned from university lecturer to business scout, and sought out commercial opportunities in the Middle East for Japanese businessmen

In Egypt, he wanted to help eradicate a disease that had haunted its people for ages: Bilharzia. This was contracted through bathing in water from the Nile Delta. Hayashi managed to convince the Egyptians that using cast iron pipes to hygienically transport water to from the Nile to homes across Egypt would reduce the risk. The pipes were imported from Japan. He also convinced a Japanese firm to invest 8.5 million dollars in building a sugar plant in the upper Nile, where huge amounts of surplus Egyptian sugarcane was being dumped.

Hayashi managed to secure a 5 million dollars deal between a rubber manufacturer in Kyushu, and the Sudanese Ministry of Education to supply students with rubber footwear. He also landed in Saudi Arabia for the first time to help a Saudi businessman in Jeddah import Japanese textiles.

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Categories: Asia, Japan, Saudi Arabia

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