It has been a great honour and a privilege to visit Japan and join the faculty team of African Studies Centre at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS). My four-month research fellowship starting in October 2018 and ending in January 2019 entailed teaching, conducting research and delivering three seminars. All in all, this has been an invaluable experience of scholarship, cultural exchange, and friendship. I will certainly cherish these relationships and experiences for the rest of my academic life and my existence in general.
So what is it like to be parachuted into another cultural universe? The news of my research fellowship came very early in 2018 after I had been informed about my selection to participate in this important partnership by Prof. Maxi Schoeman here in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria. Our head of department Prof. Siphamandla Zondi invited me to his office and asked me about my teaching schedule and whether I would be able to wrap up the second semester in time and be ready to take another semester in Tokyo. I had to think on my feet and condense six months of public policy coursework into three months in order to be ready for my departure for Japan by the end of September 2018.
The high level of organisation and professionalism that I encountered from Prof. Takeuchi and his team which included Natsuko-san put me at ease, and from the very first engagement via email detailing logistics I knew this was going to be a successful academic endeavour. We landed in Tokyo around the 1st of October 2018 as our flight had been delayed due to a typhoon. Everything was naturally organised up to the highest standard from our welcoming at the airport by Dr. Yasuo, who introduced me and my colleague Dr. Nisa Paleker to the Japanese world class transport system with the suica travel card, to the accommodation that had been organised for us just next to Tama station in Fuchu City. Natsuko-san received us at the hotel and took us around, we were taken to the university, shown our offices, opened our bank accounts at the nearby post office, and finally met with Prof. Takeuchi for the second time since we had last seen one another in Pretoria in September 2018. Natsuko-san also provided me with a box with all the important textbooks that I had requested for teaching African Political Economy and African Public Policy.
It is very important to balance the material aspect of Japanese organisation with regards to infrastructure and the human side of their culture as they both fit seamlessly and function like a well-oiled machine. Being in Japan is a comprehensive life and scholarly journey of recurring learning. It is being immersed in an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. At face value the impenetrable nature of the culture may be a little bit off-putting but the warmth and the respect of the people make up for all the inconveniences that come with being an outsider. At every turn the people were polite and friendly. The warmth of the Japanese people gave one a sense of safety and security. As an outsider you were assured of readily available assistance even with all the challenges that come with language barriers. I am certain that an extended stay in the country would make the navigation much easier as one gleans new practices and Japanese words and phrases every day. The absence of English as a medium outside of the university environment compels one to learn Japanese bit by bit. Whilst the spoken language slowly becomes accessible the written script remains a long term daunting challenge.
Meeting with the guests from the South African Embassy in Japan on October 31, 2018
The highlights of my visit include the actual interaction with Japanese and other international students in class. It was a marvel to engage with young Japanese students at an undergraduate level and to be exposed into their cosmology and how they view Africa and the world. The students had this intriguing sense of curiosity about the African continent. Their grasp of knowledge and insight about major themes on Africa such as development, democratisation, international financial institutions, was quite impressive. In our interaction I made recommendations that some of the students take the themes further as a grounding for their post graduate studies. On the other hand, the exchange post graduate students from Ghana proved to be well versed with most major issues concerning Africa today. It was interesting to witness their captivating insight on the aforementioned themes.
The second highlight of my visit was the platform I was afforded to conduct three seminars one at TUFS, the other at the Institute for Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization (IDE-JETRO), and another one at Kyoto University. I received very positive and constructive feedback in all of the seminars and I am currently working on converting the presentations into journal articles. I learned to admire the camaraderie and closeness within the African studies network. There is a flourishing scholarly community of academics who study Africa and other regions across Japan. Dr Hitomi organised my visit to Kyoto and I feel very privileged to have seen this beautiful city and amazing colleagues at Center for African Area Studies (CAAS). Again there is high level of organisation within these networks as they exchange knowledge particularly on Africa not only within Japan but across the north east Asian region all the way up to South Korea. Most of the seminars were well attended by a number of academics, students, public servants, and other professionals who particularly have an interest on Africa.
TUFS and other universities and research institutions nearby therefore provide a wider community of scholars and knowledge workers who are diligently engaged in knowledge production. The inspiring milieu brought by the university is ideal for exploration of new concepts and theorising as it was evident throughout the seminars. The university has a special feat of bringing on board a number of fascinating international scholars and I will encourage our masters and doctoral students at the University of Pretoria to consider Japan as one of their options when it comes to studying abroad. TUFS is a living example of an international setting of scholarship and our students would benefit immensely from such an environment and exposure.
Meeting with Prof. Motoki Takahashi at Kyoto University on December 18, 2019
Outside the lecture theatre there were no dull spaces in Japan. Tokyo on its own is a well-endowed international city with so many amazing areas to visit and things to do. Everything is planned with convenience for the citizens in mind from the transport system to the vending machines which line up most streets. History is alive through a number of temples and historical sites including the Tama cemetery nearby to Zojoji and Asakusa with their splendid temples. There are so many interesting sites it such that it is unrealistic to try and name them all. Japan's old capital city, Kyoto, is also one fantastic place worth visiting with its own number attractions which also include magnificent temples and a totally different ambience to Tokyo.
There is more to Hiroshima than just okonomiyaki and seafood. Again history and scholarship is written all over the city. I rate Hiroshima amongst the most intriguing places in the world and it should be on everyone's bucket list. The city with its location on a river delta provides a natural wonder with its seven rivers. Hiroshima University and its Peace Institute offers a great site of excavating ideas about world peace and conflict resolution. In Hiroshima we were fortunate to be hosted by the Asian Network of Trust (ANT), a non-profit organisation which promotes friendship and understanding amongst all of humanity. Thank you to Tomoko-san and her family we shown around the city and learnt immensely from the history of Hiroshima and its tragic bombing during the Second World War.
Prof. Takeuchi was very generous and invited us to his house where we were introduced to his family and other visiting academics. These occasions were festivities of food, friendship and light scholarly engagement, we all committed to repeating these interactions into the future, thanks to Prof. Takeuchi and his wife. A lot of stories could be told through the delectable dishes that we enjoyed. I happened to spend a lot of time around Tokyo, Musashisakai to be exact, with Natsuko-san as a I had to visit a clinic. I will be forever grateful for her kindness and friendship as she took me around providing translation as my grasp of the Japanese language is almost non-existent. During these visits I was gobsmacked by the technology and the level of advancement within the health facilities. Back at TUFS I made good friends with a number students and I had long sessions of engage with the Ugandan doctoral student Ian, and I hope these interactions will continue into the future.
In my last week I visited a hot spring outside Mitaka through the invitation of Dr. Takenori. I must confess that I did not see this one coming. This was another amazing place, a sanctuary for reflection, relaxation, and recharging one's batteries as they say. I came out of the hot springs rejuvenated and I had a long reflection with Dr. Takenori on Africa, one of the most amazing one to one discussions.
I am looking forward to future visits to Japan and further engagement with my colleagues at TUFS, IDE-JETRO, Kyoto University, Sophia University and beyond e.g. Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. I will forever cherish these moments and these memories are etched in my mind. Arigato gozaimasu! From the Mabudachi of Hiroshima!
At the farewell party with 2 students from Ghana and members of ASC on January 30, 2019