vol.036 - Expanding research horizons abroad: An interview with associate professor, Hatsuki Aishima

Expanding research horizons abroad: An interview with associate professor, Hatsuki Aishima

We asked Hatsuki Aishima, associate professor at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, who went to England on a research trip to tell us about her memorable events and research activities. Aishima held a visiting fellowship at the University of Manchester in fall 2017 as part of the National Institutes for the Humanities’ Program for Young Researcher Overseas Visits. This Program sends young researchers taking part in the Institute’s Transdisciplinary Projects to research institutes abroad and aims to promote international cooperation and to develop internationally minded researchers.


Aishima-sensei, what are your research interests and what projects you are working on now?

I am studying the relationship between aesthetics and body culture of the urban middle classes of Egypt by engaging with the communities of karate practitioners (athletes, instructors, as well as parents/siblings). In recent years, with the spread of the neoliberal economy policies, it has become difficult to distinguish the middle classes from the lower stratum of society based on education and income alone. I look at the various ways in which Egyptian middle classes employ the ideas of being “cultured” as a marker of their social class belonging.

Against the backdrop of this trend, I have observed some members of Egyptian middle classes take part in karate trainings as the way to enhance their moral values and aesthetic sensibilities. In Egypt and other countries of the Middle East, karate is an immensely popular extracurricular activity for children. With the support from the Young Researcher Overseas Visits program, I conducted an ethnographic research on Muslim migrants and their children in the UK who are practicing karate as a key to explore issues of globalization in the Middle East.


What first got you interested in this research area?

I first learned about the Middle East from a girl who had emigrated from Iran to Canada. I became close friends with her when I went to Vancouver on a one-year exchange program during my second year of high school. My interests in the Middle East and Islam grew while listening to her stories about “home.” At that time, I was not aware how Persian and Arabic differed, but I was fascinated with the beauty of Arabic script my friend wrote.

When I entered university, I took Arabic as my second foreign language elective. We had classes only once a week, but that exposure to the Arabic language sparked my interest in the history and culture of the Middle East, so much so that during the summer of my third year I went to Cairo to take Arabic language courses. Everything was fresh and new on that first visit to Egypt and the one-month stay passed quickly. Egyptians say that the one who drank the water from the Nile is bound to return. Having pursued my career as a Middle East studies specialist, indeed I continue to visit Egypt regularly.


What was your purpose in going to England with the NIHU Program for Young Researcher Overseas Visits?

I went to England on the NIHU Program to conduct an ethnographic research of a karate club in Manchester to examine issues of globalization in the Middle East. Manchester is a city that has a high concentration of Muslim residents. In line with the NIHU Area Studies for the Modern Middle East which consider human migration and knowledge flow across borders as important indices of globalization, I seek to understand the globalization of the Middle East by examining how lifestyles in the UK have affected the aesthetics and body culture of Muslim migrants from the Middle East.

Manchester is England’s second largest metropolis and a very cosmopolitan place where many languages are spoken. I chose to conduct my fieldwork at the Manchester University Shotokan Karate Club because their trainings are held within walking distance of a neighborhood called “Curry Mile” where many Muslims live.


What was the most memorable event of your stay in England?

Before my fieldwork of a karate practitioners’ community in Manchester, I had assumed that there would be many difficulties for Muslims in observing their faith as well as living as “ordinary citizens” in the UK. But through my recent fieldwork, I observed that the karate practice is helping them to build new social ties transcending value systems and social class.

For example, after the last training before Christmas, I went out with the dojo members to eat at a Chinese restaurant. In Japan when we go for Chinese food as a group, we would order large dishes to share, but in England guests order their own meal. This is because if you are Muslim, for example you wouldn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, and if you were vegetarian, or had an allergy, you would need to watch what you order. But even though they don’t share dishes, the dining together is still very meaningful. I was impressed how Muslims enjoyed their food and conversations with their dojo-mates over coke and vegetable fried noodles that they ordered, while non-Muslims, including myself, enjoyed beer and roasted pork.


Do you have any advice for students and young researchers who are considering research abroad?

I have had encounters and discoveries that I never expected by studying Arabic and English, and living in a number of different countries. Of course, it can be difficult when one ventures away from familiar ground, but I hope anyone who has the chance to engage in research overseas will embrace the experience.

Muslims often quote a phrase Prophet Muhammad taught his followers “Seek knowledge even unto China as the quest for knowledge is indeed obligation for all the Muslims.” Compared to the people living in the seventh century Arabian Peninsula like Muhammad and his Companions, we of the twenty-first century take for granted that goods and information from around the globe are at practically our fingertips. But there is quite a gap between the information you can obtain about other countries via the media and the knowledge you can acquire by actually visiting those places by yourself.


Hatsuki Aishima, Associate Professor, National Museum of Ethnology/Sokendai School of Cultural and Social Studies
After receiving her DPhil in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, Aishima taught Modern Islam at the University of Manchester, and joined the faculty of the National Museum of Ethnology in July 2016. She specializes in social anthropology and modern Islamic thought. Her current research focuses on aesthetics and body culture of the urban middle class based on ethnographic engagements with karate practitioner communities in Egypt. Her publications include Public Culture and Islam in Modern Egypt: Media, Intellectuals and Society (IB Tauris, 2016) and “Consciously Unmodern: Situating the Self in Sufi Becoming of Contemporary Egypt,” in Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 18.2, pp. 149-164..


国立民族学博物館/総合研究大学文化科学研究科 相島葉月准教授

A signature in KUGB passport for reaching the 5th Kyu (rank) and a purple karate belt awarded.