Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1400, (5 - 11 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptomania in Japan

Though a comparative latecomer to the study of Ancient Egypt, Japan has made enormous contributions to Egyptology over the past century, writes Hussein Bassir

Egyptomania in Japan
Egyptomania in Japan


 have visited Japan twice in the last two years. The first time was in 2017 when I accompanied the Egyptological exhibition the “Golden Pharaohs and Pyramids: Treasures from the Egyptian Museum” about the Pyramid builders and their age to the cities of Toyama and Shizuoka, in addition to spending a wonderful time in Tokyo. I stayed there for one month and learned a lot about Japan. I was also lucky enough to meet the famous Egyptologist and father of Egyptology in Japan, professor Sakuji Yoshimura. 

The second time I visited Japan was in 2018 when I was the keynote speaker at an international conference on museums in the 21st century and talked about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum in Alexandria and the secrets behind the composition of its archaeological collections. The invitation to this important conference was from my colleague and friend Nozomu Kawai, professor of Egyptology at Kanazawa University. I enjoyed the city of Kanazawa very much and met with many Japanese Egyptologists, among them the famous Japanese Egyptologist professor Jiro Kondo. 

Japan is a very advanced country, and the Japanese people like ancient Egypt very much. Although Japan has been interested in Ancient Egypt for a long time, Egyptology in Japan is not well known to the outside world. Japanese scholars such as Kiichi Kawamura, Sakuji Yoshimura, Jiro Kondo, and Nozomu Kawai are famous all over the world due to their outstanding Egyptological projects involving archaeological excavations, conservation, studies, and cooperation with major projects in Egypt, however. These projects have included the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza and the conservation of the second boat of the Pharaoh Khufu to the south of the Great Pyramid at Giza. 

Egyptology in Japan is relatively recent and started when the first Japanese ambassadorial mission to Europe visited Egypt for the first time in 1862. The second Japanese ambassadorial mission to Europe visited the Giza Plateau in 1863 and took a famous photograph of Samurai warriors in front of the Great Sphinx at Giza. Egyptomania then started to invade Japan through drawings, paintings, photographs and descriptions in books translated from western languages. In 1888, the Medical School of the Tokyo Imperial University received an ancient Egyptian mummy and coffins from the Yokohama consulate of the French Embassy in Japan.

From December 1909 to January 1910, the Japanese professor and historian Katsumi Kuroita visited Egypt and wrote several articles on its archaeology. Japanese scholar Kosaku Hamada then studied with the father of modern Egyptology, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, becoming the first Japanese scholar to study Egyptology properly. Some finds from Petrie’s excavations in Egypt were later donated to the Kyoto Imperial University, where they are now in the Hamada Collection. Seitaro Okajima (1895-1948) is considered the founder of Japanese Egyptology, and he introduced to Japan the discipline of Egyptology as it is usually practiced in the West. He published seven books and more than 30 articles on various aspects of Egyptology, including history, language, culture and papyrology. 

In 1954, prince Takahito Mikasa, the brother of the emperor Hirohito, founded the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan, and this then contributed significantly to Japanese Egyptology. Ichiro Kato (1921-2009) was one of the great pillars of Egyptology in Japan after World War II. In 1952, he travelled to study Egyptology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in the US. He was later promoted as a full professor of Egyptology at Kansai University in Japan. Hachishi Suzuki (1926-2010) also studied Egyptology at Cairo University and participated in the UNESCO salvage campaign in Nubia in the 1960s. 

In 1965, the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition toured Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka. This exhibition fostered an interest in Egyptology among the Japanese and was visited by nearly three million visitors. Other Egyptian exhibitions increased Egyptomania in Japan. Television documentaries, films and numerous books on Ancient Egypt created a fever for all things ancient Egyptian in Japan, making ancient Egypt increasingly popular. The writer and journalist on the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun, Denroku Sakai, played an important role in publishing popular books on Ancient Egypt in Japan.     

In 1966, Kiichi Kawamura and Sakuji Yoshimura of Waseda University conducted the first Japanese archaeological project in Egypt. Sakuji Yoshimura and Jiro Kondo established Egyptian archaeology in Japan and continue their amazing fieldwork in Egypt each year. One of the most important projects of the Waseda team was the excavation of the second boat of the Pharaoh Khufu at Giza, and I requested that this be displayed at the GEM after its complete restoration and assembly when I was supervisor of the GEM project from 2011 to 2013. 

In 2007, professor of Egyptology at Waseda University Jiro Kondo started working at the non-royal tombs in the Theban Necropolis, focusing on the reign of Amenhotep III. Nozomu Kawai, professor of Egyptology at Kanazawa University, began working in Abusir and made marvelous discoveries about the site and New Kingdom Egypt.    

In 2000, Sakuji Yoshimura established the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University. However, there is still no university programme in Japan focusing entirely on Egyptology. He also organised many Egyptological exhibitions promoting Ancient Egypt and Egyptian antiquities among Japanese audiences through fieldwork projects that have often been filmed or written up in books. 

While collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in Japan are relatively minor, the Miho Museum has an outstanding collection. In 2003, the Ancient Egyptian Museum Shibuya Tokyo was established with nearly 1,000 Egyptian artefacts. In 2010, Tokai University received a gift of Egyptian antiquities owned by Hachishi Suzuki, totaling nearly 6,000 artefacts and the largest collection in Japan. 

Japanese Egyptologists make many efforts to introduce Egyptology from a specifically Japanese point of view that is different from the western approaches to modern-day Egyptology. Warm greetings are due to Japan and to the Japanese school of Egyptology and its outstanding figures of Sakuji Yoshimura, Jiro Kondo and Nozomu Kawai because they love Egypt and its people and civilisation. 

Thanks are due to them all because of their sincere efforts to save Egypt’s antiquities and to promote the magic of ancient Egypt everywhere, especially among the well-educated Japanese on the planet of Japan.                     


The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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