Sunday, August 12, 2007

Islam in Japan

Islam in Japan
Written by Michael Penn

This article introduces the social condition of Muslims who live in contemporary Japan, focusing especially on the ground-level realities of these communities. Basic information about the Muslim population are presented, as well as its institutional infrastructure. The analysis briefly considers both issues of national politics and the problems faced by individual Muslims in Japanese society. The article concludes that Muslims in Japan can sometimes succeed in their personal lives, but that as an independent community they suffer serious impediments.

Islam in Japan: Adversity and Diversity

Michael Penn is the Executive Director of the Shingetsu Institute for the Study of Japanese-Islamic Relations in Kitakyushu, Japan. He is the author of one book and more than a dozen academic articles, most of which relate to some aspect of the history and current state of Japan’s relations with the Islamic world.

Japan is not a country that immediately comes to mind when one thinks about Muslims or the Islamic world. For most people, the very concepts of “Japan” and “Islam” exist in different mental categories, and seem to have little or nothing legitimately connecting them. This generalization would probably hold true not only for most Americans and Europeans, but for most Japanese themselves.

In fact, there are many important links between Japan and the Islamic world. In recent years a growing number of young scholars around the world have been studying the Japanese-Muslim relationship, and the field appears to be blooming. One aspect that is receiving a fair amount of attention is the political link between prewar Pan-Asianists in Japan and Pan-Islamic activists in the Turkish and Arab lands.1 Others have focused on Japan’s resource diplomacy, which centers, of course, on oil and petrochemicals.2 Still others have begun to take a careful look at Japan’s changing security policies, and how Tokyo is positioning itself in regard to the “war on terrorism” and other matters of contemporary political concern.3

However, the focus of the current essay is to introduce the small Muslim communities that exist within Japan itself. Our concern here is less with issues of high politics (though we shall not ignore them), and more with the ground-level realities of Muslims who live in contemporary Japanese society.

Islam in Japan: The Basic Facts

The obvious first question to be addressed is: How many Muslims live in Japan? The answer, however, is not so simple.

The Japanese government does not keep any statistics on the number of Muslims in Japan. Neither foreign residents nor ethnic Japanese are ever asked about their religion by official government agencies. While it is conceivable that this policy may change in the future due to official concerns about international terrorism, there has yet to be any public indication of such an effort. Introducing such a policy might lead to objections by the Japanese public that the government has no business inquiring into matters of religion, which is regarded by most Japanese as a strictly personal affair that should exist outside of the public sphere.

As a result of this fact, the true size of the Muslim population in Japan remains a matter of speculation. Some Muslim organizations and media reports have put the number of Muslims in Japan at roughly 100,000, but that is probably an exaggerated estimate.4 The most serious work on this question has been done by Japanese scholars such as Hiroshi Kojima of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research and Keiko Sakurai of Waseda University. Their estimates suggest a Muslim population of around 70,000, of which perhaps 90% are resident foreigners and about 10% native Japanese.

Of the foreign majority, the largest national groups, in order of population size, are Indonesians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Iranians. Of the ethnically Japanese Muslims, the majority are thought to be Japanese women who have married foreign Muslim men, but there are also a small number of intellectuals, including university professors, who have converted. It should also be noted that the Muslim population of Japan probably reached 10,000 only in the late 1980s, and then expanded in the 1990s as more foreign workers arrived in the country.5

The presence of Islam in Japan has a longer history than many would suspect. A handful of foreign Muslims were to be found in the Japanese treaty ports as early as the 1870s. A few ethnic Japanese had converted to Islam before the First World War. It was only when Turkic refugees from the Russian Revolution began arriving in the 1920s, however, that Muslims began to establish their own religious organizations. In 1928 the Muslims of Kobe established their own society and, in October 1935, established the Kobe Muslim Mosque, the first permanent mosque in Japan. The high-profile Tokyo Mosque was opened several years later, in May 1938, with an impressive list of political dignitaries and prewar activists in attendance.

Both of these mosques survived into the postwar era. The Japan Muslim Association was formed in 1952, and in June 1968 was officially granted recognition as a religious organization by the Japanese government. The oil shock era of the 1970s brought the Arab and Islamic worlds to the attention of the Japanese public as never before, and it was at this time that the Islamic Center Japan was established in a large building in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo. Currently, after the expansion of resident Muslims in the 1990s previously referred to, the number of mosques in Japan expanded to more than twenty, most of them grouped in the Kanto region, but also including other regions of the country. To round out the discussion, it should also be noted that the Tokyo embassies of some Muslim countries have also contributed facilities for Muslims, and there are Muslim student associations at certain Japanese universities.

Japanese Perceptions and Attitudes toward Islam

The next issue that should be addressed is the question of how this substantial population of Muslims have been perceived, and received, in Japan. Again, the answer is complex.

As individuals, Muslims in Japan usually fare no worse than any other foreigner in Japan. If the Muslim in question is fair-skinned and clean cut, then they may be received rather well within Japanese society. If they are dark-skinned and bearded, then they may face more problems. Most Japanese have a tendency to make their judgments about foreigners based on their appearance and outward sociability. A smiling and friendly foreigner—whether Muslim or otherwise—will generally be welcomed, especially if that foreigner makes an effort to respect Japanese culture and learn the local language. An individual foreign Muslim who plays by these rules may do very well in Japan. Nevertheless, Muslims face some special problems, especially those who are more devout and public about their faith.

The Japanese have long held negative stereotypes about the Islamic world. As Japan modernized in the Meiji period and after, most of the public’s information about the Islamic world came via Western, and in particular British, sources. Relatively few Japanese had the opportunity to revise these stereotypes through direct contact and experience. As a result, the attitudes toward Islam that can be found in Victorian British sources exercised a disproportionately large influence on the Japanese understanding of Islam in its formative period. Even the efforts to create a pan-Asian, anti-Western alliance in the late 1930s and early 1940s made little headway against this overall tendency. In the postwar period, Japan was awash with products of American cultural products such as Hollywood movies, American news stories, and literature. As the world’s most powerful nation, and Japan’s main international ally, the US, along with its culture, has enjoyed a high degree of cultural prestige. Furthermore, since this has also largely corresponded to the period in which official US policy has clashed with political movements in the Arab and Islamic worlds, many of the negative images found in the US media have also found their way into the Japanese media.

Not only foreign-born Muslims, but also Japanese Muslims, have bewailed the negative image of Islam in Japan. For example, twenty-five years ago Abu Bakr Morimoto was able to write as follows: “modern culture, which is mostly Western, came into Japan almost wholly from the Christian world. Therefore, the bits of knowledge about Islam that found their way through this channel were greatly distorted for obvious reasons. For example, the image of the Prophet Muhammad portrayed in the Divine Comedy of Dante or the picture of Islam drawn in the writings of Japanese Christians like Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930) were taken blindly by the Japanese intellectuals as well as the laymen to be the real face of Islam. Similarly, in recent times also, a great many Japanese identify Islam with the guerilla activities or plane-hijacks with some of which Muslims are associated.”6

With the larger number of real, flesh-and-blood Muslims in Japan in the 1990s, it is probably fair to say that the Japanese public has developed a more sophisticated and nuanced view of Islam since Morimoto published those words. However, September 11, and the political turbulence that followed it, represented a serious setback in this respect.

There have been several incidents of harassment of Muslims that have made the national news in recent years. Some mosques received harassing phone calls after the New York terror attacks. In May 2001, there was a case in which a Japanese woman shredded a Quran in front of a Pakistani business in Toyama Prefecture, and this led to Muslim protests. Also, in June 2004, Al-Jazeera ran a story entitled “Japanese Muslims Face Fear and Doubt,” about a Moroccan named Samir who stated: “I used to have a beard and on one occasion a customer told me I looked like a terrorist… If I were blond and had blue eyes, I wouldn’t have any problems, but because my name is Samir and I have a beard, I’m a terrorist.”7

In spite of such anecdotes, the situation may not be is quite as dire as the Al-Jazeera headline would suggest. By and large, foreign Muslims in Japan do not suffer a particularly heavy degree of discrimination. There is absolutely no hint of physical danger for Muslims in Japan. Most Muslims in Japan feel themselves to be at no particular disadvantage beyond the routine forms of discrimination that all foreigners must deal with in Japanese society. To some extent, foreigners in Japan are expected to be strange and unusual, and in that context Muslims can fit in as well as anyone else, particularly, as previously suggested, those who do not bring religion into their public lives.

However, in the case of ethnically Japanese Muslims, it is true that they face additional pressures. As Keiko Sakurai has rightly observed, “The Japanese attitude toward Japanese Muslims is probably a bit different from their attitude toward non-Japanese Muslims.”8 This is rooted in the fact that there are rather heavy cultural expectations that all Japanese must bear. Islamic prohibitions on alcohol and pork can easily conflict with Japanese expectations about proper behavior at a kangeikai (a welcoming party) or a bonenkai (an end-of-year party). The izakaya (Japanese bar) is an important venue for social communication, and any Japanese Muslim who strongly insists on following the Islamic prohibitions in such a setting could easily face criticism and doubt from their colleagues.

Likewise, a Turkish imam once spoke about the problems faced by his Japanese wife as follows: “The other (Japanese) women, they keep their distance, like she’s someone from another planet.”9 In other words, a strictly observant Japanese Muslim can easily find themselves an outcast if they are not careful. Even talking about their faith to other Japanese can lead their colleagues to become nervous and begin avoiding them.

Tokyo’s Public Diplomacy

There is another world in Japan that we must briefly consider, quite far from the Japanese street, wherein an alternate reality exists; that is, the world of public diplomacy. At the same time as most ordinary Japanese remain uncomfortable with the notion of Islam, at the diplomatic level, the Japanese government has been trying to paint a different picture.

These efforts began in earnest in January 2001 with the “Kono Initiative.” This initiative was named after then-Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, and was also referred to as the “Dialogue among Civilizations with the World of Islam,” apparently in honor of then-President Mohammed Khatami of Iran. The stated goal of this program was to build “multi-layered” links with the states of the Persian Gulf through a “frank and active dialogue among scholars and experts from Japan and Islamic countries.”10 The intellectual underpinning for these efforts seem to have been largely rooted in the ideas of the well-known scholar of the Islamic world, Yuzo Itagaki.

While the “Kono Initiative” itself was clearly related both to a desire to secure Japan’s economic ties with the region, as well as to promote genuine cultural understanding, the true nature of these diplomatic efforts seem to have evolved in unexpected directions in recent years. As the world entered the era of September 11, the “War on Terrorism,” the “Axis of Evil,” and the Iraq War, Japan’s diplomatic position on regional affairs has shifted significantly at the level of true substance (though not always in appearance).

After the first foreign minister of the Koizumi Administration, Makiko Tanaka, was fired in January 2002, there was a strong shift in Tokyo toward a tighter alignment with U.S. policy. The most dramatic event of this shift was the sending of a Ground Self-Defense Forces unit to Samawa in southern Iraq in solidarity with Bush Administration goals. While the original Kono Initiative was probably intended to build a Japanese foreign policy more independent of Washington, during the course of 2002 these notions of Japanese independence in the region effectively collapsed.

However, the public diplomacy of Japanese-Muslim friendship not only continued, but seemed to accelerate—at least on the surface. In September 2003, the first event of the “Japan-Arab Dialogue,” was held in Tokyo. Then, in July 2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the “Seminar Series to Understand the Middle East and Islam.” This lecture series traveled to various regions of Japan with the ostensible purpose of promoting Japanese public understanding of Middle Eastern and Islamic countries. Finally, Prime Minister Koizumi himself has recently participated in iftar dinners with Muslim Ambassadors, breaking the daily fast associated with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Do these events suggest a growing interest in Japan in the culture and beliefs of Islamic peoples? Perhaps they do. However, some analysts are concerned that these recent moves in Tokyo’s public diplomacy may represent something quite different, such as an emerging ideological agenda with parallels to the discourse and patterns of justification that accompanied Japan’s military expansion in Asia in the 1930s and early 1940s.11

It is, perhaps, too early to draw any firm judgments on that issue, but there are some more easily identifiable problems in Japanese government policy. Most important is probably the fact that the commitment of the Japanese authorities to dialogue and understanding with the Arab-Islamic world at the level of public diplomacy has not been matched by any substantial developments in the broader field of education.

Japanese schools from elementary level to university levels have traditionally had very little content dealing with the Islamic world. In an environment in which Tokyo has proclaimed a stronger and long-term interest in building constructive relations with Islamic peoples, one might reasonably expect some serious initiative to expand the relevant content about Islam in school textbooks or at least in terms of university programs. However, the fact remains that four years after September 11 and the Japanese government’s deeper political engagement with the Islamic world, there have yet to be any significant initiatives from the Ministry of Education to advance the education of the Japanese public with respect to these issues. Most Japanese continue to rely on the television media as their main, and sometimes only, source of information. Repeated calls from the small Japan Association for Middle East Studies (JAMES) and similar academic groups to expand educational programs have been met with official indifference.12

In summation, while it seems that the Japanese government has been more eager to involve itself politically in the affairs of the Islamic world, and though there is a new rhetoric of dialogue and cooperation, it remains to be seen whether this represents a serious attempt to gain a deep-rooted mutual understanding, or whether this represents a political-diplomatic agenda that is not quite what it seems on the surface. Ample grounds for skepticism remain.

The Realities of Muslim Life in Japan

Returning to the experiences of Muslims on the ground, it would be useful at this point to introduce two incidents recently related to the author by Muslims currently living in Japan. Both episodes relate to the difficulties faced by Muslims in Japan.

The first story is related by a 43-year-old independent Turkish businessman in western Japan. The tale runs as follows:

There is a small manufacturing plant that employs about fifty people. About five years ago, the manager of this factory had a “bad experience” with a Muslim employee. The man in question was a Filipino Muslim who was very devout. Soon after he was employed at the factory, his boss became dissatisfied with him because the employee always seemed to be missing. It turned out that this Filipino prayed five times a day for about ten minutes each time. His Japanese boss was annoyed about this custom because he didn’t feel that it was proper for an employee to take any time off for such “personal matters.” After about five months came the final straw: the employee came to the boss and asked to do only light work. It was the month of Ramadan and the employee was fasting. The boss fired him.

This is a very Japanese tale. In most Muslim countries, the employee’s right to pray and fast would not have been questioned. In the United States, the employee could probably have hired a lawyer and sued the company for religious discrimination. In Japan, however, the employee had no real option other than to leave the company or to stop performing what he regarded as his religious obligations. The employee left.

About a year-and-a-half later, a Turkish Muslim applied for a job at the same company. The interview was going well until the Japanese boss learned that the man was a Muslim. He almost terminated the interview at that point, declaring that he would not hire a Muslim. The surprised Turkish man, who badly wanted the job, asked why. The boss told him the story of the Filipino Muslim. The Turkish interviewee then informed the boss that he was a secularized Muslim who did not pray every day or fast for Ramadan. The boss was skeptical, but decided to give him a chance. In a short time, things worked out well. The Turkish employee worked hard, and the boss was very satisfied. Commented the boss to our informant: benkyo ni narimashita (I really learned something)!13

As this story demonstrates, the Japanese boss had no deep-rooted prejudice toward Muslims, but he did have his own rather inflexible Japanese cultural expectations. When the Filipino Muslim brought religion into the workplace and asked for special consideration, his Japanese boss was unbending. However, for the Turkish man who accepted the Japanese way of doing things, there were no difficulties at all, and he became a valued employee. Although this is only an anecdote, it is probably representative of the experiences of many Muslims living and working in Japan.

The second and final anecdote to be related here regards an ethnic Japanese Muslim. The story is told by an Arab Muslim who has spent time in Japan.14

According to this account, a young Japanese woman went to Canada and lived there for a while. During her stay, she befriended resident Muslims and became interested in their religion. Eventually, she decided to convert to Islam and became very devout, even to the point that she began wearing all black clothes, wearing a scarf over her head, and praying five times a day.

When she returned to Japan, she faced immediate problems. First of all, her parents were upset about her new behavior and chided and encouraged their daughter to give up her new faith. However, as this young woman was very strong-minded, she rejected the pressure from her parents and continued to live as a strict Muslim.

Additionally, she had many problems at work. When she joined a Japanese company, her bosses and colleagues disapproved of her religious behavior, made negative comments, and tried to change the way she dressed. As a result, she had great difficulty in holding down a steady job.

Still, she persisted. Eventually she went to the embassy of a Muslim country and asked for work. Her interviewer was surprised when the young lady made two demands of her prospective employer: first, she must be allowed to wear her black clothes and scarf, and, second, she must be given time for her prayers. More amused than annoyed, the Muslim embassy hired the lady, and she stayed at the embassy for many years. Eventually, she married into an Arab family.

This account reinforces the message of the first case. A devout Muslim who is public in their religious loyalties faces some harassment in Japan, especially in the workplace. In the case of this young woman, who was Japanese, she also had to face harassment from her family, which disapproved of her religion. This confirms the insight of Keiko Sakurai and others that ethnic Japanese Muslims often face greater pressure than foreign Muslims. The young lady remained a Muslim, but at the price of exclusion from mainstream Japanese society.

Prospects for the Future of Islam in Japan

Throughout the 20th century there were Muslim activists who claimed that Islam was on the verge of expanding rapidly among the Japanese population. Japan seemed to them to be something of a “religious vacuum” just waiting to hear the call of Islam. Christianity had made only limited inroads into Japanese society, but surely Islam would fare much better. Many Muslims felt that, in many ways, Japanese culture already reflected many of the deeper values of Islamic society. The very word “Islam” is a derivative of the Arabic word “salaam,” meaning peace. Are not the Japanese just as much devoted to their “heiwa” (peace)? Do not Japanese behave like brothers and sisters, cooperate with each other and show concern for their neighbors’ welfare? Do they not love the beauty of nature, that great gift to Man, and the sign to the perceptive ones of God’s majesty and grace?

And yet, the predicted explosion of Islam in Japanese society never took place. Indeed, as the previous accounts demonstrate, the Japanese continue to view Islam with skepticism, as a half-civilized faith characteristic of poor and underdeveloped regions of the world. Even some of the basic facts about Islamic doctrine remain obscure to them. For many Japanese, they do not know about Islam, and do not want to know about it. Their views range from indifference to suspicion.

The relationship between Muslims and Japanese has thus been an odd one. A broad generalization would be that many Muslims are attracted to Japan, but most Japanese are unaware and indifferent to that fact. This cultural pattern can be traced back to at least the late 19th century. Of course, there are many exceptions to this generalization on both sides, but the overall pattern still holds.

This pattern is unlikely to undergo many radical changes in the coming decades. It is possible that more Japanese will learn about Islam and become more interested in the religion and its customs. However, it is more likely that Japan’s reputation in the Islamic world will plummet if it continues on its current trajectory of close alignment of its diplomatic and military policies in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere with those of the United States.

The most worrisome possibility for Muslims is the thought of what might happen in the aftermath of a major terrorist event in Japan. Prime Minister Koizumi’s support for the “war on terrorism” and the Iraq War have led to direct verbal threats from al-Qaeda that Japan may be targeted.15 If this dark scenario becomes a reality, there is significant cause for worry: ignorance and fear are a lethal combination. Should Muslims be regarded as a serious internal threat by the government and by ordinary Japanese, then in a moment of panic there would be few protections for the rights of foreign Muslims in Japan.

However, barring any sharp turn for the worse at the political level, Muslims in Japan are likely to continue building their local institutions and developing links with their Japanese neighbors. Many mosques now offer classes to Japanese who want to learn more about Islam. Internet links are allowing Muslims in Japan to communicate with each other and keep in touch with their mosques. Enterprising businessmen are opening halal restaurants and catering services for the benefit of the faithful. In Shizuoka prefecture, an Afghan doctor gained the respect and affection of the locals for his dedicated service to the community.16 In Osaka, an Iranian man was elected president of the local PTA.17 Step by step, some individual Muslims are making a difference.

In conclusion, the story of Islam in Japan remains a marginal issue, but one which still has the potential to develop in many directions. Most foreign Muslims probably come to Japan for economic opportunity and the peaceful stability of Japanese society. Many of them enjoy living in Japan, but face some barriers and discrimination. Patient efforts and a friendly demeanor can win trust for individual Muslims among their Japanese colleagues, but as an independent community it cannot be said that they are particularly welcomed. Most Japanese are not comfortable with living in a multicultural society, and prefer to experience their foreigners in small doses. Muslims in Japan will continue to face the challenges of adversity and diversity.


  1. Representative scholars in this respect would be Cemil Aydin of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Selcuk Esenbel of Bogazici University, and Elmostafa Rezrazi of the Tokyo National Center of Behavioral Studies. There are others as well.
  2. From the American policymaking community, there were notable edited volumes by figures such as Ronald Morse and Edward Lincoln. More scholarly work is being done by John De Boer of Stanford University and Raquel Shaoul of Tel Aviv University.
  3. Note, for example, the work of Christopher W. Hughes of the University of Warwick. Many other commentators from the journalistic world and elsewhere, including myself, have also been dabbling in this field.
  4. The 100,000 estimate appears, for example, in reports carried in the Asia Times Online (October 31, 2001) and the Japan Times (September 7, 2002). This number seems to have been supplied to the journalists by the Japan Muslim Association, who perhaps had an institutional incentive to provide more generous estimates. An Al-Jazeera reporter (on June 10, 2004) even went so far as to estimate 210,000 Muslims in Japan!
  5. The most detailed research on the Muslim communities of Japan is that of Keiko Sakurai. For those who can read Japanese, her book Nihon no Musurimu Shakai (Japan’s Muslim Society), Chikuma Shobo, 2003, is the most complete source. A brief English summary can be found in Keiko Sakurai, “Muslims in Contemporary Japan,” The 13th KAMES and the 5th AFMA International Symposium: “Middle East, Asia & Islam,” Pusan, October 2004, pp. 101-107. For population issues, see also Hiroshi Kojima, “Demographic Analysis of Muslims in Japan,” The 13th KAMES and the 5th AFMA International Symposium: “Middle East, Asia & Islam,” Pusan, October 2004, pp. 184-189.
  6. Abu Bakr Morimoto, Islam in Japan: Its Past, Present, and Future, Islamic Center Japan, Tokyo, 1980, p. 5.
  7. Julian Ryall, “Japanese Muslims Face Fear and Doubt,”, June 10, 2004.
  8. Keiko Sakurai, “Muslims in Contemporary Japan,” p. 106.
  9., “Japanese Muslims Try to Remove Tarnished Image,” July 16, 2004.
  10. MOFA: Seminar on The Dialogue among Civilizations: The Islamic World and Japan
  11. The most sophisticated treatment of these issues can be found in the work of John De Boer. For example, see his “Japan and the Occupation-Reconstruction of Iraq: The Re-emergence of an Ideological Agenda?” at the GLOCOM Platform website
  12. A useful study in English was recently published by the president of JAMES: Toru Miura, “Perceptions of Islam and Muslims in Japanese Schools: Questionnaire Survey and Textbooks,” The 13th KAMES and the 5th AFMA International Symposium: “Middle East, Asia & Islam,” Pusan, October 2004, pp. 190-204.
  13. The informant for this story was Barbaros Evren, a businessman in Kitakyushu city with more than 15 years experience in Japan.
  14. The informant in this case prefers to remain unidentified.
  15. There have so far been two cases of individual Muslims in Japan with suspected terrorist links that have been reported by the major media. First reported in May 2004 was the case of Lionel Dumont, a French national suspected of al-Qaeda ties; and most recently, in December 2005, were reports of an unidentified man trying to create a Japanese branch of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, an organization banned by President Pervez Musharraf.
  16. Hirokimi Matsuda, “Afghan Doctor Makes Difference in Shizuoka Town,” Japan Today, April 19, 2002.
  17. Yomiuri Shinbun, “Iranian Man Elected PTA President in Osaka Ward,” Daily Yomiuri, April 19, 2002.
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