The Long Reach of Japan’s Cultural Export
Anime in the Middle East
In the decades since the birth of anime, Japanese popular culture has circled the globe many times over. Thanks to award-winning films such as Spirited Away and ongoing sensations like Attack on Titan, anime’s fans populate every corner of the world. Even the Middle East and North Africa, known for its own rich history with the motion picture industry, can hardly resist the popularity of one of Japan’s leading cultural exports. Diehard lovers of anime dot the region, a testament to the lasting effects of the East Asian country’s commitment to cultural diplomacy.
The website Middle East Eye has reported that anime made its first foray into the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s, when Captain Tsubasa, Future Boy Conan, and other Japanese cartoons dubbed in Arabic appeared on television sets across the region. According to a 2018 article in The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, the influence of these era-defining cult classics lives on in “nostalgic videos and memes inspired by Arabic-dubbed Japanese anime series originally broadcast on Arab government TV stations in the 1980s.”
Today, anime’s appeal transcends generations. A 2019 survey of the Middle East and North Africa by the Saudi newspaper Arab News found that older respondents favored TV shows such as UFO Robot Grendizer, a mainstay of the 1970s, while youth in the region gravitated toward newer TV programs, like Dragon Ball Z. The poll also recorded that “42 percent of young people stated their interest in manga and cosplay, considering it a top attraction in Japan.”
The youth of the Middle East can now pursue these interests without ever having to leave the region. Last year, Arab News heralded Nippon Sayko, a store based in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, as “a treasure trove” catering to “fans of Japanese anime culture.” On its website, the outlet bills itself as “the first specialized shop and registered trademark in Saudi Arabia for anime and Japanese culture products, in addition to K-Pop products.” The website has an entire section dedicated to cosplay, and the store’s Instagram account has over 47 thousand followers.
Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries’ cultivation of an anime-loving audience has taken several forms. The MISK Foundation, a group tied to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, backed the 2021 Japanese-Saudi film The Journey, a work that took inspiration from anime; back in 2013, the website IGN heralded the Emirati-Philippine TV series Torkaizer as the “Middle East’s first anime show.” In 2021 and 2022, Iran’s state media even trumpeted the success of the country’s anime-influenced works at foreign film festivals.
The regional success of anime has laid the groundwork for other aspects of Japanese culture to take root. The website Tripadvisor now guides locals and tourists alike to the “10 best sushi restaurants in Casablanca,” Morocco’s largest city, while one Tripadvisor review describes the restaurant Matsuri in the Moroccan capital of Rabat as the “best sushi in Morocco so far!” Language schools from Baghdad and Beirut to Cairo and Khartoum are offering courses in Japanese. Cognizant of cultural diplomacy, Japan has funded a number of such opportunities.
Amid these blossoming ties, anime’s hold on the Middle East and North Africa appears unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the region’s audiences will keep tuning in.
AUSTIN BODETTI is a Rabat-based researcher specializing in Middle Eastern studies. His work has appeared in USA Today and Wired. He is a regular contributor to MizanPop. Any opinion or analysis expressed in this piece is by the author under the auspices of MizanProject.org and is not associated with any other entity.