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Q&A Wednesday: Genizah Studies in Japan, with Hideharu Shimada and Amir Ashur

T-S 8.12
T-S 8.12 (recto): Letter from Faraj, the emancipated slave of Barhūn Tahertī, in Qayrawan, to Joseph Ibn ʿAwkal and his two sons.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee, Haru Shimada, and Amir Ashur
Wed 27 Oct 2021

Haru, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on T-S 8.12. It is a letter between two traders, and reveals much about the activities of the merchants at this time, in particular their trading networks and how these functioned. I’m looking at this manuscript because in November I will be giving an introductory lecture to my students, and this letter offers a good example of the kinds of trader letter we find in the Genizah.

How many students do you have?

I have around 550 students, and teach three classes - Religious Studies, Religions in the Global Society, and World Religious Culture. There is a great interest in Judaism and Jewish history among Japanese students, and when we talk about the Middle Ages they are shocked to learn that around 90% of the world’s Jewish population lived in Islamic lands at this time. I haven’t been able to properly incorporate the Cairo Genizah into my lectures yet, but I hope to change this soon.

Haru, can you tell us about how you came to be interested in the Genizah?

As an undergraduate student in the department of Oriental History at the University of Tokyo, I wanted to study about Jewish merchants but I could find very little information on this topic published in Japan. I asked my teacher, Prof. Sato, and he introduced me to S.D. Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society vol.1. There was so much information in the book that I almost drowned! I read Walter Fischel’s book and read about Yaqub ibn Killis (a Fatimid vizier who was originally Jewish), and came to realise this was an entire field of study that was not represented in Japan. I wrote to Prof. Mark Cohen at Princeton, and in 1997 I went there to study with him. Now, to try to raise up the next generation of Genizah researchers in Japan, we have launched the Japanese Society for Geniza Research. In collaboration with Dr Amir Ashur we have already held a series of lectures and classes, involving some of Japan’s leading scholars of Jewish history and Middle Eastern Studies. It is clear that the Genizah can contribute much to the development of these fields of research in Japan.

Amir, how did you become involved in the advancement of Genizah studies in Japan?

Several years ago I was working in Haifa with Efrayim Lev on medical fragments, and I met a Japanese PhD student there, from Kyoto, working on the history of medicine, and helped him translate some documents. With typical Israeli chutzpa I then asked him when he would be inviting me to Japan. I already had a friend in Japan who I met through my cousin when he lived there as a student of Japanese studies, and with these two contacts I arranged to be invited to Japan to lecture on various Genizah subjects in Kyoto and Tokyo. It was a very fruitful visit, and led to Prof. Hiroshi Ichikawa, Japan’s leading scholar in Jewish Studies, applying for a prestigious grant to invite me to Japan for a longer period. It was also on this first visit to Japan that I met Haru Shimada, a junior lecturer working under Prof. Ichikawa. Haru was assigned to assist me in getting around Japan, and we became friends. I visited Japan again in December 2017, and stayed for two months, delivering a 10-lecture class (each class was dedicated to a different subject, such as education, economy, etc.), as well as open lectures at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Keio University, Waseda University, and Hirosaki University, and a symposium at Hongo campus, which attracted a large audience.

What’s next for the Japanese Society for Geniza Research?

We have already held 5 Zoom lectures as a part of our society's programme. The opening lecture was delivered by Ben Outhwaite, and other lectures have been given by Rachel Hasson, Roxani Margariti, Elisha Russ-Fishbane and Elizabeth Lambourn. The next lecture, by Phil Lieberman, is planned for the end of November. In February 2022, Rachel Hasson will be visiting Tokyo to teach Judaeo-Arabic, and I hope to travel there again in March. The future for Genizah studies in Japan is bright. Islamic studies is well established in Japan, and I’ve met with some of the leading scholars of this field, who are now interested in future cooperation, especially in the field of Judaeo-Arabic, as Genizah documents will contribute greatly to their research.

Thank you, Haru and Amir!

Dr Hideharu Shimada is a lecturer at Rikkyo University, Kokugakuin University, and Kanda University of International Studies. 

Dr Amir Ashur is a Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa, and Princeton University. 

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