Japan: Fast becoming Saudi students’ favorite destination

1 / 3
This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
2 / 3
This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
3 / 3
This file photo shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives at his residence in Tokyo a group of Saudi students studying in Japanese universities. (SPA)
Updated 30 June 2019

Japan: Fast becoming Saudi students’ favorite destination

  • Misk Foundation and Manga Productions have sponsored several trips for Saudis of varying ages and levels of education to partake in courses at various Japanese institutions
  • Saudi students share their experiences and what they love best about living in the land of the rising sun

TOKYO: Japan is one of the most popular foreign countries for young Saudis. A love of anime and manga, a myriad of cultural similarities, and a surge in the popularity of J-Pop, cosplay, and Lolita fashion are all reasons why Japanese culture has such strong roots in the Kingdom, so it is no surprise Saudi students are studying in Japan.
Prior to 2007, Saudis wishing to do so could only apply independently to study at Japanese universities, provided they could fund it themselves. Then came the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, making the process not only easier, but also more affordable.
Due to the highly competitive nature of Japanese university entrance exams, the limited number of seats allotted to foreign students, and even the completely foreign nature of the language, gaining entry to a Japanese university is notoriously difficult.
However, Arab News reported in 2014 that at least 600 Saudi students had enrolled in Japanese universities since the scholarship program began in 2007. And in 2016, a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services organization put the number of Saudi students across Japan at 533.
Arab News spoke to several students who offered a glimpse into the highly coveted world.
Abdulhadi Mubarak, currently studying for a master’s degree, told Arab News that he found living in Japan very pleasant, though the experience was not without its drawbacks and communication issues.
“You can draw parallels between Saudi and Japanese society. For example, it is hard to make local friends here. People in Saudi Arabia and Japan communicate indirectly. For example, in some regions in Saudi Arabia if you get served coffee after lunch or dinner, it means you should drink it and leave. In Japan, people don’t explicitly say ‘no,’ if someone says ‘it’s difficult’ then it means ‘no,’” he explained.
However, he finds the experience refreshing, especially being able to correct people’s misconceptions of what the Kingdom is really like. “I like to ask Japanese people what image they have of Saudi Arabia; half probably don’t have any idea at all, the first response is always about oil or having a strong football team, the second is camels, and a few ask about how things like marrying four women works.”
Omar Al-Ghamdi is a student at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, studying computer science. He finds living in Japan “comfortable” though he also finds forming significant relationships challenging.
“Japan is a very comfortable place to live, from services provided to all kinds of transportation, to how you get treated as a customer, but building relationships with the people here was hard even for a fluent Japanese speaker. It’s like they have emotional walls put up against strangers, so to get to talk to them and ask them out to hang or become friends is a little harder than others.”
The relative difficulties with communication do not stop there. Saudi Muslims, and indeed Muslims in Japan in general, face some degree of difficulty in connecting with each other due to the relatively small size of the community.
The number of Muslims in Japan stands at about 185,000, according to the Pew Research Center, accounting for about 0.1 percent of the population of 126.8 million, reported by the World Bank. The number of mosques in Japan is about 200, most of which are situated in Tokyo, making it difficult for those in rural areas of Japan to visit one on a regular basis.
Khalid Al-Otaibi is currently working toward a master’s degree in management at the Nagoya University of Business and Commerce. He moved to Japan in the summer of 2016 to work with a company for breast cancer awareness, and was accepted as one of the King Abdullah Scholarship students in 2018.


• Saudi Arabia ranks third in the world in terms of anime popularity, second only to Japan and the Philippines.

• In 2016, a survey conducted by the Japan Student Services organization put the number of Saudi students across Japan at 533.

• Japan is home to around 185,000 Muslims and 200 mosques.

Al-Otaibi told Arab News that despite the lack of documented numbers, he met many Japanese Muslims himself. “The Muslim community in Japan is small, but I am surprised to face many Japanese people who either study Arabic or have embraced Islam. I volunteer sometimes to teach Arabic.”
However, despite his relationship with the community, he prefers to spend Islamic holidays back home. “I try my best to spend Ramadan in Saudi Arabia and not in Japan. Japan’s work culture is busy and work time there is almost considered natural. Fasting there while everyone is working and with the summer heat is a bit tough. But Eid holidays are better; we pray at the local mosque and greet the people there.”
Sara Taha Noor, 30, received her master’s degree while living as a scholarship student in Japan. She spoke to Arab News about how the Islamic community helped her cope during her years there. “When I visited the Turkish mosques there I met a lot of Muslims from different nationalities. I would mostly spend holidays alone, but from time to time during Ramadan, I would gather with my Muslim friends, both Arab and non-Arabs, for iftar.”
However, she still maintains contact with her Japanese friends, and thinks back on her time living in the country with great fondness. “I had virtually no difficulties while I was there — the Japanese people were so kind and respectful.”
In recent years, more and more options have been made available to Saudis wishing to travel to Japan to study, and not just for university degrees. The Misk Foundation and Manga Productions have sponsored several trips for Saudis of varying ages and levels of education to partake in courses at various Japanese institutions.
With areas of study ranging from automotive engineering to video game development, with all costs covered, the programs are useful for young Saudis contemplating the experience but wanting to know what it could be like first.
Mashael Abualnaja works in the hotel trade and signed up for the Misk game development program.
She says her experience in Japan has been amazing so far, and she would definitely consider moving there in the future. “People think of Japan as almost a planet on its own due its uniqueness, but it’s actually full of people like us, which you can see just by walking the streets and interacting with them.”
For Mubarak, Tokyo’s rich cultural atmosphere is the best part of living in Japan. “My favorite thing about Tokyo is how many subcultures and hobbies there are. The music scene, fashion scene, food scene and the otaku (anime) stuff.”
Taha Noor, however, just kept it simple. “I just love Japan. I love Japanese people, and I love communicating with them.”

Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

Updated 20 July 2019

Saudis recall history’s greatest TV event: Apollo moon landing

  • The TV images beamed from 320,000km away in space left viewers astounded but happy
  • The TV coverage influenced thinking and attitudes in the Kingdom just like everywhere else

DUBAI: It was a sleepy afternoon in Saudi Arabia, just days before the end of the school vacation, and Saudis had their eyes glued to their TV sets as they waited for live coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Before July 20, 1969, the idea of a human walking on the moon was the stuff of science fiction. However, almost overnight, sci-fi had turned into reality with a live broadcast showing American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s dramatic descent onto the empty lunar landscape.

Between science fiction and science fact, the live coverage of the lunar landing amounted to an unusual fusion of news and entertainment.

Saudi TV technicians bring the first live images of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing to
viewers around the Kingdom. (Supplied photo)

The historic images — beamed back to Earth more than 320,000 km away — left Saudi viewers astounded and confused, but mostly elated to be witnessing such an epoch-making event.

The event was covered live on television and radio stations in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis and residents living in the Kingdom watched it on Saudi channels 1 and 3, owned by Saudi Aramco.

Hessah Al-Sobaie, a housewife from Al-Dawadmi, recalled watching the moon landing from her grandparents’ backyard as an 11-year-old.

“It felt weird watching a human walk on the moon,” she told Arab News. “I remember the endless questions I asked as a child.”

While most people were aware that going to the moon was risky, many Saudis believed that such a journey was impossible and all but unthinkable.


1. NASA’s Apollo 11 mission control room in Houston has been restored to its 1969 condition and regular tours
will be conducted by the Johnson Space Center.

2. NASA ‘Science Live’ will have a special edition on July 23 on board the aircraft carrier that recovered the Apollo 11 capsule.

3. A summer moon festival and family street fair will be held in Wapakoneta, Ohio, from July 17-20.

4. Downtown Houston’s Discovery green will host a free public screening of the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary, with an appearance by NASA astronaut Steve Bowen.

5. Amateur radio operators will host a series of events on July 20-21.

6. The US Space and Rocket Center is staging a special ‘Rockets on Parade’ exhibition.

The Apollo 11 mission prompted discussions across the Middle East over the reality of what people saw on their TV screens. Some Saudi scholars found it hard to believe their eyes.

“I watched it, and I clearly remember each and every detail of the coverage,” Hayat Al-Bokhari, 68, a retired school principal in Jeddah, said.

“My father, Abdul, was 56 at the time. He said the landing was faked. He couldn’t believe or accept that a human could go to the moon.”

Khaled Almasud, 70, a retired university lecturer, was a student in the US state of Oregon at the time of the mission. “Americans were stunned and over the moon, happy with their national achievement. But many Saudis like me were either in denial or insisting on more proof.”

Since the beginning of the 1960s, King Faisal had been rapidly transforming Saudi Arabia, inviting foreign-trained experts to help build a modern country with world-class infrastructure.

Billie Tanner, now 90, lived in the Kingdom for many years with her husband, Larry, and their two children, Laurie and Scott, aged six and four. The family had just arrived in Saudi Arabia and headed to the Aramco compound in Ras Tanura in the Eastern Province.

A screengrab of video of the first lunar landing beamed toward Earth and shown on television worldwide. 

“We were going through a culture shock,” she told Arab News. “I wasn’t thinking of the moon landing, but we heard about it on the news from Dhahran.

“My kids tried to see the astronauts on the moon with their binoculars and said they could see them walking around.”

The Apollo 11 spaceflight has become a milestone in the annals of human history and science. Since 1969 space exploration has greatly expanded man’s knowledge of the universe, far beyond Earth’s limits.

The captivating live coverage of the moon landing inspired millions of people around the world, profoundly influencing their thinking and attitudes.

The people of Saudi Arabia were no exception.