Larisa Usmanova, Master of International Relations, PhD (Japan); Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Russian State University for the Humanities; and senior researcher at the Mardjani Institute of History, lived in Japan for ten and a half years. When she left for a year-and-a-half internship, she had no idea the twists and turns of fate that awaited her. She shares with us how she began studying the history of her own people while living in a foreign country.
Larisa Usmanova, Master of International Relations, PhD (Japan); Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, Russian State University for the Humanities; and senior researcher at the Mardjani Institute of History, lived in Japan for ten and a half years. When she left for a year-and-a-half internship, she had no idea the twists and turns of fate that awaited her. She shares with us how she began studying the history of her own people while living in a foreign country.

I was born in Kazan in 1970. I turn 50 this year. I graduated from high school with straight A's, then entered the journalism department at Kazan Federal University and graduated in 1992. In my fifth year I started at the Molodezh Tatarstana newspaper, and in 1995 I moved to Kazanskie vedomosti. Alongside that, I went to graduate school. We had a pedagogy department there, and I got my Ph.D. in training journalists.
The early 1990s was a turning point for the whole world, including Russia. We had been trained to be the fourth estate in the Soviet regime, and then all the sudden we were in a market economy, and the mass media system had to completely switch to market rules.

Pretty much all journalists in the country faced the same problem.

In college I was really involved, receiving a Lenin scholarship for all five years. I led the Komsomol organization. Then my friend took it over and began heading it, and I kind of retired because I had to go to graduate school.

At that time I was already interested in international contacts. The country had been closed off until the 1990s. Foreigners had studied at our university of course, but only in particular departments and mainly from communist countries, like Cubans. An association of student journalists was created in the early 1990s, and I led it. It was headquartered in Moscow, and we were part of it; we were supported by the faculty. My first contacts, like, at the international congresses of journalists, began as part of this association. We saw that we were very far behind the rest of the world; we didn't have a language that was free.

In 1993 I was given a very unique opportunity. The BBC was organizing courses for young journalists in Russia. By that time, I had already worked at Molodezh Tatarstana.
Was it a countrywide competitive selection?

Yeah, it was, you know, a competition, and the competition included a recommendation from the regions. In this case, it was the Ministry of the Press, that was what it was called, the Ministry of the Press of the Republic of Tatarstan. They got an assignment, and, as I understand it, our newspaper was also offered to take part. And the editor talked to all the journalists; well, everyone felt that it was young people that should take part, so they talked to the young journalists. And nobody wanted to take part simply because they would need to know the language.

But I didn't know English either. I had studied French at school. And because no one else wanted to, for some reason I decided that I had a chance.

And what is language anyways? Language is a tool, and you can learn how to use any tool. It just takes time, sure. Well, at that time, of course, my time was pretty limited. I think it was October or September when we got the offer, and I would have to be interviewed in Moscow in December.

The interview was in English?

Yes. I took classes. For three months my teacher and I prepared the speech that I would have to give. I also knew that if they asked me anything, I probably wouldn't be able to answer. It was fascinating.
I REMEMBER back NOW AND THINK "WAS that just EXTREME impertinence on my part? ON THE OTHER hand, I wasn't taking it from someone who DESERVED it more.
I REMEMBER back NOW AND THINK "WAS that just EXTREME impertinence on my part? ON THE OTHER hand, I wasn't taking it from someone who DESERVED it more.
The meeting was moderated by two women, the director of the BBC's HR department (she didn't speak Russian, of course) and the head of the BBC Ukrainian service (she spoke Russian). I walked in, said what I had learned, we talked, and she helped me translate. Naturally, she told me that it'd be difficult for me, because I had some difficulties with English. And I remember saying that if the issue is just language, then the problem is only time, and, most importantly, a person sets goals for themselves: I was taking those those classes for a reason. The regions were closed off; where else would I have the opportunity for something like this? A new possibility had arisen. And that HR director thought for a bit and said: "I like you, let's do it: first go to England, learn English, and then you can take part in this seminar." In the end, it turns out, I won twice.

Literally the next summer I went to England. I just needed to pay the way. I studied at the BBC English school for a month and attended intensive classes.
IT was DIFFICULT OF COURSE, BUT My inertia PUSHED ME that way.
After studying in London, I returned to Kazan and started working at another newspaper. They considered my candidacy there as an editor. At the same time, I met Asiya Sadykova. She was thinking about creating a Tatar–Japanese cultural and information center. She's a physicist, a technician, so Japan, as a technologically advanced country, attracted her. Also, her distant relatives went there once. In 1957, the World Youth Festival was held (in Tatarstan as well). The Volga camp was built for it. Even Gagarin was there for the opening day! Asiya's father, a physics professor, an official at the university, met with scientists on the technological line. And there was a group of Japanese students ... So, she came up with the complex idea of this center.

For me it was a chance to participate in the event, naturally, as a volunteer. I also became a charter member of this center and she was the director. I was the deputy director of information affairs, and it all started pretty quickly. For one and a half to two years we met with our Japanese partners in Moscow, establishing contacts with the embassy and the heads of large Japanese companies in Moscow.
AT that TIME, TATARSTAN was growing. it was starting to ATTRACT investors.
That was the 1990s. Tatarstan hadn't signed a agreement with the federal government. Chechnya and Tatarstan were the two cases that were being worked on on an international level. We know that for Chechnya it ended in several wars, and for Tatarstan, thanks to the wise policy of Shaimiev and his assistant adviser Khakimov, it was possible to sign an agreement on the delineation of powers in 1994.

This allowed Tatarstan not only to keep a certain quota of oil (that is, be economically more independent than other regions), but also to correct certain decisions made by the federal government.

The soft entry into the market led to the success of the region. As it turned out later, the reforms that were very harsh in Russia were smoother for us.

In 1998, the Japanese ambassador to Russia made his first visit to Tatarstan. It was the first time in history a Japanese ambassador had come to Kazan. And naturally, there were embassy employees there, now called ministers. Asiya Sadykova, as the director, was told: "Let's send an employee from your center to learn about Japan. If you have a Japanese center, you should at least have an employee who understands it."

And it turns out that I was the right candidate, because I was worked at the center, I was the right age, and for many reasons.

That was when I finally defended my Ph.D. thesis and applied for a scholarship. The Ministry of Education of Japan has a scholarship that it gives out every year. You don't have to know the language, they take various factors into consideration, sometimes going by your technical capabilities, and so on.

I had a special option, because I was given recommendations at the embassy. We understood that it would be important in developing relations between Tatarstan and Japan. And I kind of understood that too.
What was the proposal like? I mean, you were invited to go for a year and a half and do what? What did the Japanese side expect from you?

No, no, there were no obligations. You get a scholarship from the government of Japan, which covers your studies at a university, and then, for the first one and a half or two years, you're a researcher. You take a course in Japanese, get to know the culture, get into the environment, and then you go for a master's degree, and not necessarily at the university where you studied the language. And the scholarship covers tuition.

It turns out, it can cover somewhere between three and four years. If you go further on to graduate school, they consider covering your expenses further. I found that out later, when I got to Japan. At first I assumed, we assumed, that I would use this chance, I would have the opportunity to go there for these two years, into the cultural environment, language, getting to know it, and then see how it goes.

And that's when a more interesting story began. When I think about it now, I understand that at that moment it seemed like a series of accidents, but now I understand that wasn't entirely an accident.
I went to Japan in October 1999. There were already changes occurring in Russia. At the end of December 1999, as you know, Yeltsin resigned and the current administration of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin came to power.

Asiya Yusufovna (Sadykova) had several Japanese acquaintances there, and she arranged for me to meet Professor Khakamada, Irina Khakamada's brother (half-brother—they have different mothers) and a specialist in Russo–Japanese relations [Irina Khakamada is a Russian economist, politician, and journalist].

I met him, and he worked at a different university, the Faculty of International Relations of Aoyama Gakuin University, a large private university.

He says to me: "Larisa, if you want, come to my seminars on Russo–Japanese relations. Maybe you can speak, talk about Tatarstan; that would be very interesting."

I said "Of course, that'd be great." Then I started going to his classes as I studied at another university.

In 2000 (20 years ago) in the fall, Putin made his first visit to Japan and took representatives from Russian regions with him. Our then President Shaimiev went with him. Khakamada Sensei asked me and I told him about Tatarstan, about the federal agreement, about its status, and so on. This was my topic as a journalist.

And Khakamada told me that he had said to Shaimiev "Your student from Tatarstan comes to my classes, Mrs. Usmanova." Shaimiev says: "yes, I know her." I mean, I'm sure someone put a folder on his desk before his trip. He probably had heard about me because I, as a journalist, was writing about that topic, being in Tatarstan, in Kazan.

And this also contributed to the fact that Khakamada told me: 'You're probably thinking about where to go next, to graduate school, a master's course? If you want, come to my university, I can give you a recommendation, but you'll still have to pass exams.

I had to decide. The scholarship was a state one, and the university was private, and studying there is more expensive than in a state school. But it all worked out somehow, because the teacher was highly regarded. That was how I got into that university to study international relations.

What was nice was that half of the classes were in English and half in Japanese. The university is located across from the UN University. The UN University is the only one of its kind in the world, and it's located in Japan, just across the street from my university in Tokyo.

And we also had lectures there, which I went to; we had classes there too, well, not classes, but public lectures. Both Gorbachev and Clinton, who was already out of office by then, came there. It was quite interesting training.

Then I was looking for a university for my scientific work and found out that, in one of the prefectures of western Japan, in Shimane (next to Hiroshima), a university for regional studies opened with a large media center and a new library. They recruited the first students, very few, three people for doctoral studies.

Education in Japan starts in April. I got there in the spring. The archives of Shirō Hattori, a very famous Japanese scientist, arrived at the media center there at the same time. He was a scientist, linguist, polyglot, knew up to 40 languages, and received an award from the Emperor of the Rising Sun for his activities.

He had studied the roots of the Japanese language, where Japanese came from. His wife was a Tatar emigrant from Russia, Magira Agi (Ageeva), and he spoke to her in Tatar. He died in 1996.
There was a box with newspapers written in Arabic script [the Tatar language was originally written using the Arabic alphabet], and only one phrase was in English: Publication of the Turkic–Tatar emigration in the Far East. It was published from 1935 to 1945. I corresponded with various emigrants, and one person from Canada told to me "Write to Professor Nadir Devlet, who lives in Turkey. He is works in Far Eastern affairs; he must know something."

I wrote to him and his answer surprised me, because Nadir Devlet said that this newspaper had been published by his parents. They had lived there from 1935 to 1945. It was called Milli Bayrak (National Banner) and was thought to be lost.

Where was it published?

In Mukden, in Manchuria. And there are singular copies around the world, well, someone was able to take them out, but there's no complete archive. It was considered lost (for a reason). And now we have access to the archive from 1936 to 1945, for nine years.

Naturally, the professor, like any scientist, kept everything, he put it in the archive.

And it turns out that this archive was preserved until the 2000s, but it wasn't taken apart; no one knew about it.

We found this material, and, naturally, it was understood that the topic of my future doctoral dissertation would change, and would be related to this. Despite the fact that I tried to explain that I can't really read the Arabic script (not at all). The issue of the Tatar language also needed to be raised: I'm a Russian-speaking journalist. It's one thing to have a conversational grasp of a language, but this was completely different.
BUT IT WAS an obvious ARGUMENT: there was no other TATAR within a THOUSAND KILOMETERS. so that's how it happened; FATE looped around: I WENT TO JAPAN, A distant COUNTRY, TO study THE HISTORY OF my OWN PEOPLE.
I worked on it for a year. They brought me the textbooks and I consulted with people from the Institute of History (in Kazan), where I now work remotely, as a senior researcher. And I had to study that script; compile an index, a catalog; and, as much as possible, study that newspaper. Naturally, I focused on the regional-studies aspect associated with emigration: who lived where, how many people, anything that could be gleaned from the newspaper, without paying much attention to political or religious issues, which, of course ... But it was very large. My doctoral studies were three years. You have to defend your diploma in Japanese; you have to keep learning the language. You have to find Japanese sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the military, and so on, because the question arises: why on earth? What does Japan have to do with Turkic–Tatar emigration?

We found that the answer related to the Islamic policy of Japan, which was put in place in the 1930–1940s to attract Muslims. And the Turkic–Muslim emigration from Russia played a huge, huge role in this. The Japanese allowed them to build mosques, and the first Japanese mosque was built by a Tatar emigrant in 1935 in Kobe, and it still stands today. It has survived! It's a monument of antiquity. And in 1937 a wooden one was built in the city of Nagoya, but it was destroyed in 1945 under the bombing. In 1938, the Tokyo Mosque was built, which is the country's main mosque. The imam there was Abdurreshid Ibrahim, also our compatriot.
Photo: Kobe Mosque, historical photograph, summer 1945. Source: Islam today ©
Photo: Abdurreshid Ibrahim. Source: nailtimler ©

Photo: Days of Tatarstan in Japan. Larisa is shown second from the left with a red scarf. Near the same mosque. From the archive of Larisa Usmanova.
Turkic–Muslim emigration was able to exist in a foreign culture with a foreign language, creating close ties with and winning over its host. We know that the Japanese are always very careful in regards to the religions of strangers and foreigners, and allowing them to build places of worship in a period of such intense militarism is probably an anomaly. I knew that there had to be some kind of mystery to solve there.

In the 2000s, interest in this topic began growing among many scientists. There was an information gap there in Russo–Japanese relations. No one knew about it, so no one was going to study it. They self-identified as Turkic Tatars; this takes us back to 1917, to the Muslim congresses.

Ibrahim was a particularly outstanding personality. Unfortunately, he isn't really well-known in Russia. He came from the Siberian Tatars, born in the city of Tara, not far from Chelyabinsk, and studied, I think, in Egypt, went to Mecca for the Hajj, and so on. When he returned, he became a Muslim Sharia judge, having a very high status among Russian Muslims at the end of 19th century.

He criticized the Russian government for how it treated Muslims, and sought help from outside the country, becoming one of the organizers of the Muslim congresses. Thanks to him, the Ittifaq party was organized, and it had representatives in the State Duma (the Muslim faction).

We can see the institutionalization of this area, but it was very global. You should read the history of the Tatars; it covers everything.

He went to Japan in 1908, and most likely that wasn't his first visit, because it was too well-organized; he lived in Japan for about six months, rather freely. He met with the elites, with deputies of Parliament, and local princes. It was thought he may have had an audience with the emperor, but that's unlikely. He kept diaries at that time, and they were published. He sent them to Kazanskaya Gazeta.

When he reached Turkey in 1910, he published them as a book. This book made quite a splash, becoming the first book about Japan in the Islamic world. He compared the Islamic world and the reforms of Japan at the beginning of the 20th century and said that we needed to adopt their experience, that we are very similar. He also felt that Japan needed to accept Islam as a state religion, because after their victory in the Russo-Japanese wars, Japan was perceived as a defender of Asian peoples in the anticolonial struggle.

This book shaped the acceptance of Japan throughout the Muslim world. It hasn't been translated into Russian. It's a source in Russo-Japanese relations that no one knows about. The story doesn't end there, of course. We see a people divided.

Some of them lived in the Soviet Union, being staunch communists. Others were nationalistic, left and retained their ideas about independence. Then the 1990s arrived, and there seem to be no ideological differences anymore, but also no attempts to unite. We have created the World Congress of Tatars and our goal is to unite the nations which are so dispersed and widespread.
we understand that they're not going to move TO TATARSTAN, BUT THEY WANT TO SUPPORT THE LANGUAGE AND CULTURE.
Technology lets us to learn a language over the internet. In recent years, the Japanese have taken first place at the international Tatar Language competition in Kazan (at Kazan University).

Why did the Japanese national team choose Kazan, out of the blue, to use as their base during the 2018 World Cup, and not Moscow or St. Petersburg? Simply because it was comfortable psychologically. Why did Shirō Hattori study the Tatar language?

Why do all Turkic-speaking peoples, like Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, feel at home in Japan? They learn Japanese very quickly. Japanese grammar is very similar to Turkic languages. Well, of course, their characters are another matter. The mentality is Asian, though. The harmony of the pentatonic scale is very similar. We can see the correlation between these peoples.

I defended my dissertation and I published a book in English, Japan's Russia, and in 2010 I had to ask: what next? The goal was to bring all this back to Kazan. And we succeeded!

The Japanese met us halfway, we knocked out a grant, digitized the newspaper, translating it into electronic form, printing it, and taking a copy to Tatarstan. We signed an agreement between the Institute of History of Tatarstan and the Japanese university.

I defended my dissertation in Japanese and my book was published in English. Now I'm translating it. We want to publish it in Japan, not as an academic text, but as a popular journalistic, simpler, version.

What's the name of your book?

Türko-Tatar Migration to Northeast Asia. I can take a picture of it later for you.
And I fulfilled my goal. I never wanted to stay in Japan for the rest of my life. I majored in global processes for my master's. I understand more than anyone that it doesn't matter where you live; what's important who you work with, and what kind of work you do.

Geographically, I'm now in Moscow, but I also work in Kazan.

I teach Japanese and global processes, cultural globalization, in Moscow at the Russian University for the Humanities, in the Philosophy Department.

In Kazan, at the Institute of History, I continue working on developing Tatar–Japanese relations at a different level. What we have revealed makes Tatarstan one of the first places that Japan would consider for cooperation, because we have a common history.

Obviously the Russian Far East is close to Japan, they have a common history, and, of course, Moscow and St. Petersburg, because they're the capitals, but there's no other region that has such a common history with the Japanese, I assure you.

First, we should thank the Japanese for providing the opportunity for Tatars to live in their country. It wasn't any kind of collaborationism or anything, either; there were no hostilities or anything.
They studied their language, they had some religious classes, but they also had many secular ones and, after 6th grade, the children went to modern English or French colleges.

They held on very well; they provided for themselves, and were able to create a newspaper. In 1934, a printing house in Japan published the Koran, the first Koran in Japan. We see that this emigration has a very important cultural significance; it contributed to the spread of knowledge in the Muslim world.

What kind of Islam was it? It wasn't Wahhabism. It was tolerant and with ethnic understanding associated with its Tatar–Russian roots. Perhaps, to some extent, a tolerant attitude towards Islam was formed by our compatriots.
I went to Chicago last year. I was invited as part of the Russian Japan project: the history of informal relations between Russians and the Japanese. Again, it turns out all this is of interest in the West. In Russia, the history that I tell may very well be treated as a history of separatism, but that's really not the case. Well, we'll see.

Larisa, moving from your scientific and historical research to cultural and everyday life, what memories do you have? When you moved there, what was it like? What surprised you the most? What was difficult? What were your impressions?

It's really hard to separate your own formation as a person from outside, surrounding factors. I can't say that anything surprised me really, or was negative. It's a different country with a different history and different rules, you just need to learn them.
The Japanese have a particular tolerance, they'll be patient with perceptions, unlike the Chinese, for example. I have never held a prejudiced attitude, like, I like this or I don't like that. And I still don't. I have a bit of Buddhist thinking. We live neither our first nor our last lives finding ourselves.

That's good; but still, if we were to paint with broad strokes, attitudes to money, to family, to work, in what ways are we different and what unites us? How would you compare the Japanese and Tatars?

You know, Japan has changed a lot even over the last 10–15 years; 2005-2006 was a critical point in Japan's development, with the birth rate becoming lower than the death rate. Throughout history, Japan has suffered from its population numbers. Now the problem is an aging population; it's attracting foreigners, and by 2050 it is believed that a third of Japan's population will already have non-Japanese roots, which has never happened in the history of Japan. That's a challenge.

And the Japanese themselves are now forced to change things and change themselves. They preserve their traditions, but if you live in Tokyo, for example, you won't see Japanese culture as such. It's an internationalized city, an expat town, and an international hangout to some extent. If you want to seriously get to know Japan, the ancient and real one, you have to go to the prefectures.
And due to that, there are all sorts of cute, like, what they call, kawaii: Cheburashka is very popular, matryoshka dolls, beautiful girls, and all that. At the official level, it has a masculine face of course, its diplomatic history: we have the problem with the Kurile Islands, and no peace treaty has been signed; Russia is known as a cold country; and in general, they think, why learn Russian? That's the imbalance.

Maybe this is good for Tatars, because I think we're more tolerant. We live in the center of Russia, also surrounded by a slightly foreign language, trying to preserve our traditions. Many of us are bilingual from birth, we are more tolerant of other cultures, as opposed to Russian-speaking people.

Japan has a lot of traditions that are completely different than ours, starting with its nutrition: it's a rice-growing culture; fish and rice are its main products. Sometimes the fish is in its most natural and pure form. For us, after all, it's all about meat, the entire Tatar cuisine, smoked meats, and less rice and more potatoes.

Beginning with that, there's a certain restructuring on the physical plane.

Japan, of course, is a social-justice state, that's for sure. It was able to build up its country's economy focusing on postindustrial development, taking advantage of the creation of microelectronics, robotics, and the like. Japan redistributes its revenues fairly.
Eighty percent of the country's population is middle class. People have trust in their government, which we do not have in Russia. Complete trust: we see that even in the most extreme situations. Remember the tsunami in 2011? The whole world looked at Japan and thought, will there be looting? There was nothing; everything was organized, calm. Everyone was surprised. The Ministry of Emergency Situations (their analogue) came, handed out bottled water and a bowl of rice. The people were calm, they knew that tomorrow they would come again, no one would leave them. This collective consciousness, the very high degree of trust, is something that always amazes foreigners. In reality, the state employs people who have a governmental way of thinking.

Completely different than here. I'd like to ask you a question about modern Tatarstan, about Kazan. You were gone for ten years. Have you returned to a completely different city?

Yes. I returned and came to Kazan University as a Japanese language teacher. Two years later, the Department of Far Eastern languages was created. After that, I worked for three months and realized that there was a complete bureaucratization. I was one of the founders of a so-called independent trade union called University Solidarity (it was started in Moscow, and we created a branch in Kazan), and, as a result, we were simply forced to leave.

We all left because we were perceived as a liberal fraction. I'm critical of the situation in our country. I understand that we're headed in the wrong direction, and my experience in Japan just confirms this. The Russian empire has not yet completely collapsed; it will still fall apart, we will observe, historically, how it will transform. This is an inevitable path; I say that as a historian.
After leaving, I continued to work at the Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences; we are developing an academic agreement with my Japanese university. I will be teaching a course on Japan to undergraduates in the International Relations Department at Kazan University. I have wonderful relations with the teachers. I am often asked: "When will I come back?"

I say: "Not until the rector at the university has been replaced; I just won't go there. I don't want to waste my life with all that."

But you can't really plan anything. Sometimes, in any case, my life has shown me that anything can happen. And I'm open to that.

And as for the question of the state, the role of people in the state, who's in power? They should be the ones who attract intellectual, smart people, so that those people would want to move to this country, to this republic, to this city, and devote their life to it. The fewer such people there are, the lower the overall level will be.

Yesterday I told my students: "Did you know that Russia was a superpower in the 20th century?" The Soviet Union and America! In the 1990s we fell to the level of a regional power. Now it's tough for us to maintain the status of a regional power, even looking at the example of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in relations with China, we can't really hold a candle to China, although we're proud of how we maintain the regional level. I'm afraid that this is a process of decay, we're just slowly, slowly moving in that direction.

What future do you predict for the Tatar language?

I gave an example of how foreigners are showing an interest in Tatar. Doesn't that make you proud? They see something in it. Formally, there are certain restrictions in our country. The State Duma didn't allow the Tatar language to switch to the Latin alphabet, contrary to all European charters of language, and thereby unite with the Turkic-speaking world, so that we can be in the same cultural field.

Secondly, we don't have higher education, we can't take the Unified State Exam in Tatar. Again, this is a limitation. The point becomes, why should we support our cultural traditions? In Japan, at least at a private university they would be teaching in Japanese for higher education; that's necessary, in any country, to maintain the status and interest in the language, at least to a degree.

And I think it'll persevere; it won't go anywhere. Using the example of Israel, the language had been forgotten and, nevertheless, in 1947, we saw the state recreating the language and culture. How would someone in the country's leadership misunderstand these things? Well, those people will leave and another generation will grow up and everything will return, you know? It's unavoidable. Standing in the way of progress just puts you under its wheels yourself, that's all.