Japan is not a country one would associate with Islam, with it recognised as a Shinto-majority country. Of the 127 million people living in Japan, only 100,000 Muslims reside in the country, with majority being foreign nationals.
However, the Land of The Rising Sun is seeing a slow but steady increase in Muslim population lately, either from immigrants seeking better job opportunities in the country or the increasing number of Muslim tourists.
In accommodating to these changes, the Japanese government encouraged the establishment of more Muslim-oriented businesses as well as places of worship in various parts of the country.
Nevertheless, practising Islam in Japan is not as easy as it is in Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia. While Japanese-natives do not show hostile attitude towards Muslims, the negative spotlight displayed by the Western media, especially in the face of terror attacks happening around the world, has somewhat affected their lives one way or another.
To find out what living as a Muslim is like in Japan, this Malaysian Digest writer mingled with the Muslim community in Tokyo and experienced for himself the challenges of co-existing in a place where Islam is unfamiliar.
Unlike in the Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian countries, Islam has never made a considerable impact in Japan’s history. However, diplomatic relations between the island nation and Muslim colonies have stretched back since hundreds of years ago.
The first recorded mosque in Japan was the Kobe Muslim Mosque, which opened in October 1935 and still stands today. Since then, many mosques have popped up around the country, and now there are around 100 mosques in Japan, although the majority of them are relatively small in size.
One of the largest mosques in the country is the Tokyo Camii Mosque, which is also the largest mosque built in the capital city. Built in 1938, the mosque was built by Turkish immigrants in the capital which also served as a cultural exchange centre. The original mosque was demolished in 1986 and rebuilt in 2000, and the Turkish features are still apparent in its architecture.
The writer met with Abdulkareem Shimoyama Shigeru, a 68-year-old Japanese Muslim worker at the mosque, to find out more about the unique environment where Muslims practice their faith.
Shimoyama embraced the religion after he was introduced to it by his Muslim friends during his travels in Sudan. After studying the religion, he thought it was a great religion to follow and proceeded to take his shahada or declaration of faith as a Muslim.
“When I first embraced Islam around 30 years ago, there were only around 3,000 to 4,000 Muslims in Japan. At the time, there were only two mosques, Kobe and Tokyo Camii.
“Now, it has evolved to more than a hundred, with 16 mosques in Tokyo alone,” said Shimoyama.
As a religious minority in Japan, operating a place of worship is never an easy task and many of the mosques rely greatly on public donations. With the small number of Muslims to begin with, paying the bills can be quite the challenge.
“Fortunately for the Tokyo Camii mosque, it is operated by the Turkish government and they provide some assistance with our annual budget.”
According to Shimoyama, the city authorities have no problems with the construction of mosques, and in fact, the Tokyo Camii mosque is registered with the Tokyo Metropolitan Office and the local religious body.
He adds that with the recent increase in Muslim population in the country, particularly with foreign workers coming from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the larger congregation has also brought unique challenges even for the largest mosque in Japan, especially during huge events such as Eid and Ramadan.
“During the Eidul Fitr and Eidul Adha prayers, we had to conduct two prayer sessions because the crowd was overwhelming,” he explained.
Besides the normal prayer sessions, the mosque is also active in community programmes that aim to correct the misconception of Islam that is brought upon by the Western media. Shimoyama had also expressed that Japanese people are familiar with the expression of ‘either the Koran or the sword’, and that has gotten in the way of a proper understanding of the religion.
“We have to let the Japanese people know the real teaching of Islam and that terrorism is not allowed in the religion,” he adds.
On top of Muslims coming to the mosque to pray, they often receive visits from school and university students – whom get a first close encounter with the religion.
“Every day, there are many Japanese groups who come to the mosque, and we will explain to them about the religion,” he shared, adding that Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the country.
Besides knowledge sharing with various groups, the mosque also publishes its own Islamic books which the public can benefit from. And Shimoyama himself, also goes around schools in Tokyo to give talks about Islam.
For Sherzat, a Muslim immigrant from Uzbekistan who has resided in the Japanese capital city for six years, currently lives with fellow countryman Umar – and both men have been working in the famous electric town, Akihabara.
When asked what it is like to live as a Muslim in Japan, fortunately, Sherzat shared that it is getting easier by the day, as more Japanese people are beginning to accept and adapt to the religion.
Sherzat opened up that Japanese people followers generally respect Muslims, just as they would with practitioners of other faiths, and that every individual is allowed to practice their beliefs freely, so long as they do not cause trouble or force others to abide by their religious beliefs.
“The Japanese people show respect, regardless of what they think of Islam. I have stayed here with Umar for six years and I have not experienced any problems related to our religious beliefs.
“As long as you don’t touch them, they will not touch you. There is not much resistance towards our religious practice,” he revealed.
When it comes to eating, there is also no hassle as access to halal food are aplenty.
“Praise to God, more halal shops have opened in recent years. In Akihabara alone, there are already several halal stores that provide foods such as kebab and curry.
“It is quite the contrast to when I first arrived six years ago, when it was much harder to find such shops,” Sherzat confessed, while adding that some Japanese convenience stores and supermarkets have even opened up a special section selling halal meat.
Part of the reason why Japan is providing more services for Muslims is to boost tourism, especially with the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The Japanese government is encouraging the population to create more halal stores to cater for the huge number of Muslims who will visit the country in the coming years.
According to a report by Crescent Rating, more than 20 million tourists are expected to visit Japan in 2020, and over a million of them will come from Muslim countries.
In January this year, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, announced that more halal food will be provided in order to allow Muslims to visit the capital with peace of mind regarding their religious obligations.
A popular department store in Tokyo called Takashimaya has even made the effort to create a prayer room that caters for an increasing number of Southeast Asian patrons who are asking for such a facility. The room is complete with the qibla, the praying direction that points towards the Kaaba in Mecca, as well as facilities for ablution.
And while only 10 per cent or 10,000 Japanese-natives embrace Islam, according to Sherzat, the number has increased in recent years, and it is not uncommon to see a fellow Japanese brother among the daily prayer congregation.
Both Sherzat and Umar frequent the As-Salaam Mosque in Ueno, Tokyo. Aside serving the Muslim community, the mosque built in 2011 also opens its doors to the public who wish to learn more about Islam.
Similarly, Tan, a Muslim immigrant from Yangon, Myanmar, who has lived in Japan since 2003, conveyed that it gets easier every year for him to practice the religion.
As one of the committee members of As-Salaam Mosque, he explained that the mosque spearheads many programmes for Muslims and non-Muslims.
“Every Saturday night we have programmes and dinner for Muslims. This November 23, we will have our very first open day that invites Japanese people to visit our mosque and learn about the religion,” he relayed.
Tan also pointed out that like the Tokyo Camii mosque, the As-Salaam Mosque too, is witnessing an increase in the number of attendees in its premise.
During huge gatherings such as the Friday prayers and Eidul Fitr, As-Salaam Mosque will have to conduct the prayers in multiple sessions, and the surrounding are will be guarded by the police.
“Fortunately, the local police even help us during the Friday prayers to close off the road in front of our mosque and allow for the congregation to pray on the road in the afternoon,” he shared.
Following Islamophobic attacks on Muslim communities worldwide, Muslims in Japan are also not spared from prejudice being thrown at them.
In 2010, over 100 leaked documents of the internal Metropolitan Police Department revealed that the police had compiled detailed profile on more than 70,000 Muslims which consist of sensitive personal information such as bank accounts and passport details.
At times, they even planted cameras inside mosques and used undercover agents to spy on Islamic organisations and businesses, as reported by The Japan Times.
A Muslim who went by the name of Taro was one of the 17 Muslims who were under close surveillance by the police, and expressed concern over the breach of privacy by the authorities.
“They would come to me at home or at the mosque. I didn’t want to be misunderstood, for them to think I am against them, so I always gave them my time. They always asked me very simple questions about Islam, and eventually I told them they were just wasting time,” said Taro.
And while this seems to be an issue for people like Taro, Shimoyama, does not find the surveillance intrusive, instead, says he understands the precaution taken by the police, and deems it necessary especially in the current situation.
“The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is coming, so the police started to keep watch on Muslim organisations, halal restaurants and a few Muslim leaders. However, it is okay because we are not terrorists.
“We are not sure if the police are spying on any specific individuals, but let them do their job in ensuring safety,” he stated.
Echoing the same opinion, Sherzat also comprehends with the police’ method in ensuring security all-around.
“The police are just doing their job and they do go behind the scenes to check the required information. However, they have never done anything aggressive such as arresting people or harassing them.
“I am sure they are working cautiously in order to keep the country safe. As long as they do not bother us, we have no problem,” he opined.
A similar opinion was also expressed by Tan, who said his mosque committee even formed a close relationship with the police, hence he sees the police’ effort in protecting the country, as a non-issue.
Despite authorities keeping a close watch on Muslim communities, the writer who experienced first-hand the daily life of Muslims there, believes it will not be a deterrent for Muslims to visit Japan, let alone start a new life here – especially now with the many Muslim-friendly incentives that the Japanese government are promoting.
And through observation, while Japan maintains being a global trendsetter in fashion and technology, among others, inhabitants of the Land of The Rising Sun are definitely embracing religious diversity with open arms.