The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Research > Waseda research zone - latest news on project research


Waseda Research Zone - Latest News on Project Research -

Institute of Islamic Area Studies
Organization for Islamic Area Studies, Waseda University
(IAS Center General Office at Waseda University)

In an Era of Globalization and Radicalism, Approaching Islam from a Regional Perspective

Islamic civilization has spread throughout the world over the centuries; from the East to the West, from Southeast Asia, passing through the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and extending through to Western Africa. Today, many Muslims have also emigrated to Europe, the United States, and Japan, where they have become a significant component of these societies.

Previously, disagreements and conflicts between Islam and other cultures occurred within limited areas, but these days the Internet quickly brings these regional issues to the global stage. Furthermore, "Islamic globalization" and "Islamic radicalism", as seen in the attacks of September 11, 2001, have entered the political arena as world-shaking issues.

Addressing these "Islamic globalization" and "Islamic radicalism" concepts, the National Institutes for the Humanities* research program for Islamic Area Studies, begun in 2006, conducts joint research investigating Islam and Islamic civilization, focusing on the social diversity in each geographic area. The Islamic Area Studies program is an international joint research network, comprised of four universities and one research institute; Waseda University, The University of Tokyo, Sophia University, Kyoto University, and The Toyo Bunko (Oriental Library).

The Institute of Islamic Area Studies serves as the central office for the five research centers of the NIHU IAS program. Professor SATO Tsugitaka of the Faculty of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at Waseda University, General Director of the program, and Director of the Institute of Islamic Area Studies, discussed the objectives, management system, distinctive features, and contributions of this research program.

*The National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU) is one of several Inter-University Research Institute Corporations under the fold of Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). NIHU is composed of five research institutes; the National Museum of Japanese History, the National Institute of Japanese Literature, the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, and the National Museum of Ethnology.

At Waseda University, the central office of the Institute of Islamic Area Studies oversees the program for the joint research network, comprised of four universities and one research institute

Why Focus on Islamic Areas?

Professor SATO Tsugitaka, Director of the NIHU Program Islamic Area Studies

What is Islam? Some of us may be familiar with a few of the distinctive practices of Islam, such as facing Mecca and praying five times every day, or fasting during the month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar. However, most people don't know many specifics beyond these basic points.

"I strongly feel that we have to look at the diversity of Islam, as rooted in various regions, and not always emphasize the uniformity of Islam. If you focus solely on the extremist behavior, then you are likely to suspect that the essence of radicalism is contained within Islam itself. However, the extremism owes to the present situation, in which Islam feels forced to act aggressively toward Western societies. We have been falling into a negative cycle, i.e. the more conflict and division are emphasized, the more the radicalization of Islam accelerates" (Professor Sato).

For example, there are considerable distinctions between the lifestyles and beliefs under Islam as it has spread and taken root in Southeast Asia and China. "It is impossible to understand Islam without carefully examining the dynamic relationship between Islam and the characteristics of each particular area," says Professor Sato. One of the goals of this joint research is to investigate the diversity of Islam, as it has taken root in each region, to provide clues for mutual understanding and dialogues to moderate the negative cycle of conflict.

To this end, an interdisciplinary project has been organized which approaches Islam by combining almost all the research fields of the humanities and social sciences, including politics, economics, religious studies, historical studies, cultural anthropology, sociology, architecture, and geography. More than 200 researchers from the five IAS centers and partner universities and research institutes participate in the program.

The program symbol: "Studies on Islamic Civilization" written in Arabic calligraphy (created by Prof. HONDA Koichi)

"Each IAS research center has its own field of expertise, so we divide our roles to utilize the strengths of each institute. For example, The University of Tokyo is responsible for the study of political thought, while Sophia University handles Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, and Southeast Asia research. At Waseda University, the central office for this program, we have taken on the rather broad subject of 'The Knowledge and Civilization of Islam'". (Professor Sato)

The Waseda University team is composed of two research groups with separate research themes. The first group, "Knowledge and Authority in Islam: A Study of Dynamism", conducts research on the role of Muslim intellectuals in the formation of public opinion, and the extent of leadership in social movements. The second group, "Muslim Networks in Asia", investigates the dissemination of information and knowledge shared by Muslims around the world through social networks such as madrasas (religious schools).

A Leading Joint Research Network

The IAS program holds two annual joint assemblies, where researchers from all five of the IAS centers meet. The first assembly is held, in rotation, at one of the IAS centers, and the second assembly is held at Waseda University. (The photograph shows a scene from the hall during an open lecture at the second assembly of 2007 at Waseda University.)

The IAS program features a joint research network, in which four universities and one research institution share an equal partnership. This kind of organizational structure had rarely been seen before in academic research in Japan. "Partnerships between universities and research institutes have finally become an important issue at MEXT. I am proud to say that our program has served a leading role as a model project for these kinds of joint research." (Professor Sato)

The predecessor of the current program, which was also known as "Islamic Area Studies", was active from 1997 to 2002 with the backing of Japan's Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (MEXT), and established a joint research network. "Researchers of Islam are scattered throughout various universities in Japan, and we had a situation where the most you could scrape together from one university was five or six researchers. In order to conduct significant research in Japan, we first sought to create partnerships with universities that had relatively large numbers of researchers." (Professor Sato)

A public lecture held at the 2006 joint assembly. The theme was Arabic music and food culture of the Islamic world.

Another distinctive feature of the present IAS program is the participation of private universities and research institutes, such as Sophia University, Waseda University, and the Toyo Bunko, in addition to national universities. "It was truly revolutionary to have private universities and institutions enter the framework of government research grant projects. Also, it would normally be almost unthinkable to have the central office located at Waseda, a private university. As part of a governmental trend that required more flexible systems for managing projects, our program was chosen to serve as a model." (Professor Sato)

In 2008, MEXT began a new policy, promoting joint research in the humanities and social sciences. The five IAS centers have been selected as "Joint Usage/Joint Research" Centers for this MEXT project. "I suppose that we were picked as a model project because we were viewed favorably for our many years of experience. As a result of this certification, Waseda University became the first private university to participate in this intercollegiate Joint Usage/Joint Research Center project. This is an historic event." (Professor Sato)

Publication of Research Results

The "New Horizons in Islamic Area Studies" international conference in Kuala Lumpur

Another leading aspect of this program is its inclusion of international scholars as primary researchers. "It is, of course, crucial to conduct joint research with scholars native to Islamic areas. Our certification as Joint Usage/Joint Research Centers is also in recognition of this compelling work." (Professor Sato)

Partnerships and research exchange with overseas research institutions have been enhanced. In November 2008, the University of Malaya and the NIHU Islamic Area Studies program co-hosted an international conference in Kuala Lumpur. Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, it is almost unheard of for Japanese researchers to travel overseas and hold international conferences. This is yet another historic event. Approximately 200 researchers of Islam gathered from 22 countries around the world, including America, Japan, China, Korea, and other Asian and European countries.

At a poster session at the Kuala Lumpur conference

In addition to keynote remarks and research presentations, a poster session was experimentally included in this conference as an opportunity for young researchers to garner attention to their research activities. "Poster sessions are often held at academic conferences for natural sciences and engineering, but it is an unusual experiment in the humanities and social sciences. We created an opportunity for young researchers to present the substance and findings of their research in a single poster, and then to answer questions face-to-face from attendees. 10 researchers from Malaysia and 15 researchers from Japan participated in the poster presentation" (Professor Sato).

Another international conference is planned for December 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. The Islamic Area Studies program now has a reputation appealing enough to warrant participation by Japanese researchers of Islam, even if it means their missing out on other stable posts. Thus, the IAS program provides opportunities for rewarding and high quality research.

As the IAS program enters its third year, research results are gradually being organized. Some distinguished academic publishers, such as Routledge in England and Brill in Holland, have offered series publication of the IAS program's research results. Preparations have already begun for publication of an easy-to-read booklet series entitled "Getting to Know Islam" that targets high school students and the general public. The first edition will consist of 12 booklets published by Yamakawa Shuppansha.

Research results from past projects are being published by well-known overseas academic publishing companies

"The second phase of this program will start in 2011. I intend to create a plan for the next phase based on the results of the current phase" says Professor Sato. Following the establishment of the Organization for Islamic Area Studies in 2008, Professor Sato has begun enhancing the role of the central office and improving the research environment at Waseda University.

The Islamic Area Studies program warrants attention, both for the unique perspectives behind its research activities, and for the organizational structure of its joint research network.

Institute of Islamic Area Studies

The Institute of Islamic Area Studies has been adopted as the central institute for NIHU Program Islamic Area Studies (2006 - 2010), part of the National Institute for the Humanities Program for Advancing Area Studies. (The Institute of Islamic Area Studies has been incorporated into the Organization for Islamic Area studies, Waseda University, established in 2008.)

NIHU Program Islamic Area Studies

Joint Usage/Joint Research Center for Islamic Area Studies (English web site coming soon)

National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU) Program for Advancing Area Studies

Joint Usage/Joint Research Centers
MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)


Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Sciences
Waseda University


Faculty of Human Sciences
Waseda University


School of International Liberal Studies
Waseda University