Gilded Serpent presents...

Little Istanbul in Japan


by Artemis Mourat
posted July 4, 2009

As I prepare for my fourth tour to teach and perform in Japan, I am always struck by the thriving interest in Turkish Oriental and Turkish Romany (Gypsy) dance that is there. Every year the demand expands exponentially so much so that I now call the island “Little Istanbul.” Belly dancing is enormously popular in Japan, the most popular areas are situated in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

For several years, belly dance has been rated as one of the top three favorite hobbies for women who are in their 20s and 30s in Tokyo.

The fitness benefits are foremost in the numerous media charged advertisements. But the other aspects of this dance that we know and love are what keep the students coming back. Japanese culture values conformity and conservatism and it requires courage for Japanese women to expand their personal repertoires by learning something as unusual as belly dance. I have seen how Japanese women find this art form to be liberating. Egyptian oriental dance has eclipsed the popularity of Turkish dance worldwide. This is true in Japan too but how can we explain the proportionately larger popularity of Turkish Oriental and Turkish Romany dance in Japan compared to other countries? I wonder if the passion and the freedom of this style of dance is what accounts for this? Turkish dance never disconnected from its Romany (Gypsy) roots. The students in Japan tell me the same thing – the music moves them, the passion inspires them and the freedom invigorates them. Turkish style was never balleticized as was Egyptian style. It had far less European influences than its Egyptian sister and it is improvised. The Turkish musical groups are usually smaller and this intimacy is more reminiscent of the Japanese music groups rather than the big orchestras that typically play for the Egyptian stars.

For thousands of years there has been cross pollinating between Asian cultures and Turkey. Anatolia is the land mass that houses the vast majority of modern day Turkey and it is nestled in a small part of the enormous area known as Central Asia. There are almost 50 countries within Central Asia and we cannot make assumptions about similarities between them. However, we can say that many Asian people have lived within the borders of the Ottoman Empire as well as in modern day Turkey. Turkey was also an important part of the 4000 mile Silk Road. More recently, in the 1990s, there was a large influx of Turkish people coming to Japan because of travel promotions and lenient visa agreements. Many of these Turkish people adapted quite well to life in Japan and some became permanent residents.


It was not the Turkish immigrants who first brought the popularity of Turkish belly dance to Japan. I believe that it started with an excellent dancer named Mishaal who is an American woman now living in Tokyo.

Tayyar Akdeniz

She studied extensively in Turkey for years and began taking groups of Japanese students to Turkey with Eva Cernik’s wonderful yearly tours . Mishaal is a highly respected representative of Turkish style as well as other styles of Oriental dance, including her Egyptian, Tribal and her Sacred Earth Belly Dance. She moved to Japan in the early 1990s after an already successful performance career in the United States, Turkey, India and Thailand. She owns “Mishaal’s Devidasi Studio” and has sponsored many fine and famous artists from Egypt, the United States (including Eva who lived in Japan many years ago) and Turkey (including Tayyar Akdeniz, Ahmet Luleci and Sema Yildiz). She sponsored me too and will again next year. Mishaal has numerous friends and students who inherited her interest in Turkish dance and she continues to bring groups of students to Turkey to this day. I must mention another great contribution that she has made.

Mishaal has taught improvisational dance in Tokyo which is very different from the choreographed mindset which is often supported by Japanese culture.

There are other very wonderful dancers in Tokyo. Kiki now has an exciting new DVD out on Romany (Gypsy) inspired dance. Noura has gone to Turkey several times to study and perform. She now sometimes tours with the world famous Turkish Pop counterculture band BaBa Zula. Wakako Otake is another promising new dancer who thrives on Turkish style and embraces other styles as well. Ozma is another fine American dancer who lives in Tokyo and who came to Turkish dance via her belly dance connections in Japan .

Tania Luiz came to Turkey with Folk Tours along with 19 of her students years ago and her interest in Turkish style Oriental dance deepened. She continues to develop her love for Turkish dance by frequent return trips. This style of dance was a natural step for her since her Portuguese Romany roots found a place to shine through. She is now a superb Turkish style dancer and she lives and teaches in Osaka. Tania was recently featured in Gilded Serpent. She moved to Japan in 1995 after living in many countries in Europe and the Middle East. She teaches a staggering 22 belly dance classes a week in Osaka. Tania has had a huge impact on the Turkish dance scene in Japan. She too has become a big event promoter and has brought Arabic, American and also Turkish teachers to Japan. I should mention two other dancers who are or were in the Osaka area. Kumi is one of Tania’s students who studied in Turkey with Folk Tours and who is dancing Turkish style very well. She has since moved away from Osaka for work. Yukari is another artist who does very fine Turkish Romany style and is still in the Osaka area.


There are some excellent Turkish musicians who live on the island and who promote Turkish music and culture daily.

Sefer Simsek (who is often called “Sefa”) is a Turkish musician and singer. He has played the saz since he was 5 years old. Simsek (pronounced “shim shek”) means “lightening” in Turkish and ironically this IS his real name, a nice example of how one’s name can influence one’s fate. Sefa is an Alevi from Tokat and he is now also playing the ud. He is a charming and gifted teacher, and performer who lives in Osaka. Abdurrahman Gulbeyaz (“Apo”) is a brilliant musician, folk dancer and professor from Turkey who lives in Osaka. He speaks many languages and he plays bendir and darbuka. Both of these men are married to Japanese women and now have established families there. They have formed a trio with Tania which is called “Kadife” (pronounced “ka di fe” which means “velvet” in Turkish). They have been promoting Turkish music since 1995 and have many students who share their love of the Turkish arts. There are also fine Japanese musicians who enjoy Turkish and world music. Mishaal’s significant other, Goro, is an extraordinary composer, musician and promoter of world music and Turkish arts. There is also a fine seven piece musical group that specializes in Turkish Romany as well as other styles of music called “Alladeen” in Tokyo.


Japan has lovely Turkish restaurants.  In Tokyo, the best known places are Harem (where Mishaal performs), Legend, Istanbul, Maramara and Anatolia. In Osaka, Istanbul Konak is the biggest and oldest Turkish restaurant and it is owned by Reza Alkoc. This is where Tania Luiz regularly dances. There is another nice Turkish restaurant in Osaka called Sakliev in Ashya-Gawa and the owner is Shener Konuk. These Turkish establishments have provided venues for the Turkish style dancers.

There are very popular belly dance publications in Japan too. One such magazine is “Belly Dance Japan” from Ikarus Publications, LTD. The force behind this magazine is the lovely Miyuki Obata and this quarterly magazine is sold at local newsstands. And now a first, this magazine is going to publish some information on Turkish dance, written by me in an upcoming issue. They are also listing a “hall of fame” for Turkish Romany teachers.

Another first, a well established Egyptian style dancer in Tokyo, is creating a new concept, an event that honors and compares and contrasts Turkish and Egyptian style dance. Sadia, an American woman of Lebanese descent, came from California to Japan 14 years ago. She continued her very successful performance career in Tokyo where she taught many Oriental dancers who now teach today. This fall she will bring Shareen El Safy and me to present both styles.  

In Turkey, Oriental dance is changing. Many of the professional dancers are using Arabic music and they are imitating a Pan-Arabic styling of Oriental dance. If this trend continues, it may be up to non-Turkish artists to continue the lineage of Turkish Oriental dance.

There are many fine dancers from America who are going to Turkey to study. This is true of others as well as an influx of women from Japan come to Turkey to learn from the source. Mishaal is American, Tania is from Portugal and Kiki, Nourah and Wakako are Japanese. They all live in Japan but go to Istanbul for their Turkish inspiration. They bring back true representations of this rich and varied culture to Japan and to other parts of the world. In turn, they inspire new students and artists to enjoy Turkish music, dance and culture. If it is up to outsiders to carry on the traditions of Turkish dance one day, the quality of the performers I have seen in Japan is an encouraging sign.

Note: I wish to thank Ozma for providing some of the background information for this article. I look forward to seeing her new article on the Middle Eastern dance scene in Japan in an upcoming English publication.

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  1. Maria

    Jul 18, 2009 - 11:07:43

    I love Mishaal but I don’t believe she ever had a “successful performance” career in Thailand as far as I’m aware of.

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