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Traveling to Japan

How I Turned a Simple Trip Into a Long-Term Relationship

About two years ago, an opportunity to travel to Japan emerged from some of the consultancy work I do. Since my approach to preventing violence and extremism is unique and effective (I hope to share something about this soon), and since my background in comparative religions is well known amongst the people I work for and with, there was interest for me to travel and meet with Japanese religious leaders, especially Muslims, and share information and lessons learned. It was supposed to be a simple, straightforward trip, and from a business point of view it was. However, even though I travel frequently, at that point I had never been to Japan, and since this seemed like a onetime opportunity, I decided to make the most of it. What follows is how I took this simple opportunity and developed it into a long-term, fruitful relationship that will forever be a part of me.

Background Research

While I was a graduate student at the George Washington University, I was fortunate to study the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism-Buddhism-Jainism-Sikhism) and the Eastern faiths (Confucianism-Taoism-Shinto) with brilliant professors, particularly Professor Hebbar. Since the way my mind works is to understand people by understanding their religious-ethical-cultural background, I phoned him and asked to meet. I explained to him that I had this opportunity and wanted a crash course refresher on the history of religion in Japan. We sat at a local Starbucks for a few of hours as he explained to me the history of religion/thought/culture in Japan. Below are some images from his awesome tutorial. This was so helpful, that I made sure to take this notebook with me on my trip to refer back to specific dates and personalities. I now had a framework of how religion in Japan worked. I had key names, personalities, dates, and religious movements as mileposts to help me build information around.

Some of Professor Hebbar’s notes (yes, I still have them!)

Reading List

Next, I reached out to people I trust and who have some experience with Japan to ask for book recommendations (again, along my interests in religion and culture). While I got more books than I had originally wanted or needed, here are the ones I ended up reading prior to my first trip.

  1. Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (short)
  2. Zen and Japanese Culture by Daisetz Suzuki (long)
  3. Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono (short)
  4. Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism by Reza Shah Kazemi (medium)
  5. The Book of Five Rings trans by Thomas Cleary (short)
  6. Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (long)

These yielded a few more books I ended up reading after my first trip and before my second:

  1. Embracing Defeat by John Dower (long)
  2. Shinto: A History by Helen Hardcare (long)
  3. The Kojiki trans by Basil Hall Chamberlain (long)

These books gave me an immense amount of grounding in understanding Japan, its history, people, religion, and culture. Coupled with the framework professor Hebbar gave me, prior to my trip I not only had proper background information, I had already started making links in my mind with Islam that would become extremely useful in my upcoming presentations and speeches. In other words I already started using this information in my own thinking.

Mapping Out My Goals

I had specific business goals, that part was easy to articulate and always the first thing I make sure I’m clear about. However, since I had invested several months of preparation, I had personal goals as well: specific things I wanted to see and/or do:

1. Since I am a student of religion, it was very important for me to see as many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as possible. Not just to tour them, but to interact with the priests and monks and connect on a deep level.

2. I wanted to see some of the major Japanese bookstores to get a sense of what is read in Japan, especially on religion.

3. I was and continue to be fascinated by the Japanese tea ceremony so participating in one was key.

4. I had to see at least one antique store that sells original samurai swords.

By having these goals clear, and yes some may seem silly, but to me they were important, I was able to research locations, store names, tea ceremony timings and prices, etc. This meant that I was prepared and super focused. I was determined to maximize all my time, leaving nothing to waste.

The result was that I got see about 30 shrines and temples in three cities, I visited and took tons of pictures of the major Japanese bookstores in Tokyo. My translators helped make this experience time efficient. I participated in an actual tea ceremony, which left a deep, deep impression on me, and not only did I get to see actual samurai swords, but one store owner was kind enough to let me hold one that was 500 years old!

Collecting Material

Throughout my trip I made sure that every day I collected and saved everything I got: maps, business cards, tourism brochures, restaurant details, etc. Nothing was too insignificant or trivial. These items helped in my follow up, especially since I took hundreds of pictures (including pictures of stores and with restaurant owners) while I was there. I was able to pair the items with the images to help me remember my trip in vivid details afterwards. This helped when I shared the trip with my family, but it also helped in my follow-ups and in preparing for future trips.

Since many of my meetings were with religious leaders, I received about 50 books and brochures by the end of my trip. Yes, many of them were in Japanese, but many were equally in English and, ironically, Arabic. By the end of my trip I gained so many things that I had to get a box and ship them home. This was surprisingly cheaper than purchasing a suitcase and paying excess luggage at the airport.

The box with most of the things I collected on my first trip

How Did My Preparation Help?

First of all, I wasn’t clueless when I arrived. I had a basic understanding of how things were going to present themselves. I wasn’t caught off guard, I didn’t embarrass my self with my hosts, and most importantly, I communicated a high level of respect. My preparation gave me deep appreciation for the Japanese people, religion, culture, and history. Since I started with this perspective, all my presentations and lectures were well attended, extremely impactful, and highly relevant. I think I even influenced the local Japanese Muslim community and helped them see past the simple binary Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy that tends to verge on disrespect. I appeared to be so well informed that at one point, when I was with a senior government leader (very senior), and someone asked a question about Japanese history, he confirmed his answer with me!

Trip Follow Up

When I returned home after my first trip, I made sure that I followed up with everyone I met. I also included everyone in my weekly Friday Ruminations, which they all continue to receive until this day! There were some missing research items I needed from my first trip so colleagues sent them to me, and in return when some of my new friends traveled to the Middle East for a business trip, I flew over from D.C. just to be with them and return the hospitality. The bottom line is that the basis of mutual respect was so deep that this trip generated friendships for life and open lines of communications.

Continued Learning

Preparing for any trip is an absolute for me. Even if it’s to a place I frequent, like Cairo. However, with Japan specifically, my normal preparation turned into something else. I ended up falling in love with Japan. It’s now a part of me. I continue to read more and more about it and my learning deepens. This even started to impact my thinking. For example, I learned a lot from how pre-modern Japanese scholars interpreted the Kojiki, which is the origin story of the Japanese people and Shinto tradition. This got me thinking of Islamic hermeneutics and different approaches the ‘ulamā’ have towards interpreting the Quran and Sunna. It is a profound experience to be able to learn deeply from another civilization and improve your understanding of your own. It’s so beautiful that it’s hard to communicate in writing; you can only experience it. I am reminded that the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever they find it, they have a right to it.” (Tirmidhi) This proved true for me on my journey to Japan!