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Casablanca native Hafsa Rifki is working to build intercultural understanding between Japan and Morocco, as manager of Japan-based organization Morocconia and Morocco-based organization Nipponia.
As someone hoping to become a bridge between the two cultures, Rifki moved to Japan in 2018 to seek a PhD in Media and Governance at Keio University.
Rifki became interested in Japanese culture through the language, as she watched anime in Morocco. The interest led her to take Japanese language courses, and her teacher introduced her to Japanese culture. “We had a friendly community where we started to gather, organize workshops and cultural events inspired from Japanese culture,” she tells me.
One of the activities in which Rifki involved herself later developed into the cultural circle, eventually called “Nipponia,” based in Rabat. Nipponia has been active in helping people see the connection or make the bridge between Japanese and Moroccan culture.
A student of Japanese culture, considering how she could apply it to Moroccan culture, she says, “as I am coming from an architectural background, Japanese architectural, minimalist sophistication, and poetic [use] of space inspired me.”
Learning does not take place only on campus, but also outside of campus, she says, as she is engaged in cultural activities with Japanese organizations to promote Moroccan culture and intercultural dialogue. “I’d like to understand more about Japanese culture from a local standpoint,” she adds.
Rifki says that obtaining experiences abroad such as those in Japan will benefit her in a way that will allow her to share her background not only from her point of view, but also from others’.
As someone having lived in Japan both as a tourist and a researcher, Rifki says Japan has been quite friendly to her and a nice place to live. She adds that her experience in Japan has been quite “positive.”
Since she is often considered “just a tourist,” she says that there have been times when she has felt frustrated. “It’s frustrating when I feel I can’t connect meaningfully and deeply with Japanese people,” she tells me. “There is one aspect that stresses me; the unwritten rules and the atmosphere that I can’t read.”
As Rifki notices how the world is becoming globalized more than ever, she goes on to say how she thinks Japan could better its society accordingly. “Having an intercultural awareness helps to broaden understanding between different cultures. It will help deconstruct stereotypes, and create a safe, healthy and welcoming ground for dialogue and enriching collaborations.”
Hoping to expand her horizons, share her cultures, as well as create a strong connection between her country and Japan, Rifki is now working on a project called “Tea.” She says that since both Japan and Morocco share tea cultures, she notices some similarities, especially how they display the cultures.
“Although the form is different, how they display the culture is similar. For example, tea culture displays a lot about each culture such as architecture.”
She is hoping that although Morocco is far, people in Japan will feel some connection with and similarities to her country and culture through a tea ceremony.
In Japan, Morocconia (of which she is a manager in Morocco) held cultural activities four times in the year before the pandemic hit. Due to COVID-19, tea ceremonies then had to be held online, but facilitators were able to help participants enjoy the activity virtually. The number tells its success. The biggest event they held reached 150 participants in total.
Rifki tells me she has been working with two different teams, both in Morocco and Japan, to provide meaningful activities, and she mentions some of the difficulties she faces as she organizes the project.
She first mentions “the time zone difference.” As Nipponia and Morocconia try to hold the project by collaborating closely, either of them may be in the bed-time zone.
The second difficulty she points out is to “understand the needs.” Since each culture is different, she has been struggling or making efforts to put herself into others’ shoes to understand their needs, instead of just trying to force her desires.
As she tries to achieve her vision of cultural exchange between the two countries, she is hoping to go beyond stereotypes. Some people might connect Morocco to “Casablanca” the movie, and others might relate Japan to anime, but, she tells me, “It’s more than that.”
Rifki saw this stereotypical image people have of each culture as an opportunity for change, an opportunity for her to pave the way to inspire others of each culture on a deeper level.
With her vast experiences after working as a cultural advocate for eight years in Morocco and two and a half in Japan, she is hoping to apply her management skills to work on “small scale projects” so that she can reach out to people more intimately.
From her experiences both in Morocco and Japan, she shares some valuable lessons she learned. “The greatest strength I gained through this project is cultural awareness. I’m better equipped with skills to work in [a] multicultural environment.”
She has been brushing up on Japanese in spite of her tied-up schedule so that she can “build up her cultural awareness.” Rifki says, “Making efforts in learning each other’s language is important, but we shouldn’t make it an obstacle. No proficient words can seize a deep connection, and that’s what I am aiming for.”
As for her future vision, Rifki tells me she would like to work globally so that she can apply the valuable skills she has attained through her experiences in Japan. “I’d like to work not only in Japan but [also in a] transcultural environment to work with people from different backgrounds. I’d like to help other people to gain this awareness. I think it’s important to have self-awareness and help them have cultural awareness.”
Immersed into Japanese culture, she is now interested in learning Mingei so that she can exchange new aspects of culture. She says this is one of her goals, to help enhance communication through art such as Mingei.
Reflecting on her experiences, she says it is important to be open-minded and embrace new experiences by sharing cultures, both on and off-campus.
As she has lived in foreign country, she has been able to realize the importance of studying about her own country, as well as others’ history. “Do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the culture and language before coming. Once you arrive in Japan, then another level of learning starts as you are fully immersed and practice is the best teacher.”