Malaysia Dateline

Japan and Islam: Looking east together?

Japan is face to face with the world of Islam.

Not unlike many countries in the world, that have to face up to the growing population of Islamic believers… invariably Muslims of Sunni, Shiah and various persuasions…Japan is face to face with the world of Islam.

Economically, Japan is entwined with the Islamic world in terms of the oil and gas with which it has to import from the Middle East. Politically, Japan has to learn how to relate with the Muslim world in light of the impending Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Militarily, although Japan is not involved in any conflicts in the Middle East or North Africa, some of Japan's peacekeeping troops have found their way to Sudan by way of the resolutions of the United Nations (UN) where Japan is an active member.

Regardless of which way Japan faces, to the East or West, Islam is there as a geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural reality. This is due to the size and strategic nature of the Muslim world that spans from Marrakesh in Morocco to Davao in Mindanao.

Be it the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca, there are always some littoral states whose population are Muslims. Along them include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Japan cannot ignore any one of these countries without putting their own citizens in harm’s way.

One has yet to include the Bosporus Strait that straddles between the European and Asian continent that is Turkey. Japan cannot ignore the strategic depth of the Muslim world. But how did Japan’s interest with the Muslim world begin?

Apart from the intellectual legacies of Tenshin Okakura and Shumei Okawa who shaped the emergence of Japan’s Pan-Asianism, which allowed Japan to come into contact with the Pan-Islamic world, Japan has had other social exchanges with the Muslims.

The very first interaction of Japan with the Muslim world can perhaps be dated back by one century at the very least. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, a certain number of Tatar-Turkish Muslims who immigrated to Japan.

Unlike the Ottomans whose ship Ertuğrul visited Japan before its sinking in the bay of Mie Prefecture, costing the lives of various Ottoman naval officers towards the end of the 19th century, Muslims and Japan have had some interaction before through the Tatar-Turkish Muslim community in Japan.

Historically, they were the first Muslim communities in Japan; although some historical archives affirmed that some Muslims interacted with Japanese state officials even before this social interaction had happened.

Be that as it may, it was unquestionably the Tatar Muslim immigrants who first showed Japan the face of Islam.

They played an important role in promoting Islam in Japan. First, they built a mosque in Tokyo in 1938, which to this day remained as the key mosque in Tokyo.

It is still known as Tokyo Camii, indeed, under the control of the Turkish Directorate of religious affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) to this very day.

The first Imam at the mosque, who is the famous pan-Islamist figure, Abdürreşid İbrahim, was reported to have taught Arabic to the well-known Japanese scholar in Islamic studies, the late Professor Toshihiko Izutsu.

In more ways than one, the belated interaction of the Muslim world and Japan was caused by the national policy of isolation from 1639 to 1854 (Sakoku). Through the policy of ‘Sakoku,’ Japan had closed the country. Thus, there were no close ties with foreign countries.

The time for Islamic studies in the history of Japan peaked during the run-up to World War II. Japan had to know the Muslim communities in Southeast Asia to govern or colonize them.

Astonishingly, four translations of the Qur’ān were done at the bequest of the Japanese pan-Asianism policy. Whereas six translations were produced just in the 20th century, as Professor Hans Martin Krämer highlights.

Today, the Muslim presence is unable to be ignored in Japan. Because the population has dramatically increased together with the Japanese economic growth. According to a report by Hirofumi Tanada in 2011, the population of Muslims is estimated to be 91,744. The native Japanese Muslims could be about 10% out of the whole Muslim population.

The population is increasing year by year. The above report does not specify the exact number of native Japanese Muslims. Yet the number is undoubtedly rising. The Muslim population has reached approximately 100,000 in Japan for the last one century. Nevertheless, the number is still small concerning the whole population which is about 1,27 million in 2016.

CNN, on January 11 in 2018, made it clear that the Muslim population would be 8.1 million in 2050 in the US. This was a census conducted in 2007, 2011, and 2017 by the Pew Research Center.

CNN adds that Islam is going to be the second largest religion in the US by 2040. This social phenomenon can be seen all over the world. Japan is indeed no exception.

The Muslim world is no longer foreign to the Japanese society. Muslims are already significant partners for Japan. Muslims are important visitors to Japan today. The crucial turning point was in 2003. At that year, the former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi organized the conference for the aim to make Japan a travel destination (Kankou-rikkoku kondankai).

Since that historic year, Japan has devoted considerable efforts in order to enrich institutions for foreign visitors. The successful result is evident by the number of visitors to Japan. 24,039,700 travelers in 2016 according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Life of Muslim in Japan – click for video

Another remarkable step, Japanese government tolerated the visa conditions for visitors from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia in July 2013.

In 2013, the Japan-ASEAN treaty marked the 40th year anniversary. The increasing number of Muslim visitors led to the spread of Halal certificates in Japan. The establishment of prayer rooms at public institutions such as central stations in large cities and airports.

As National Federation of University Co-operative Associations declares, there are 47 universities which currently serve Halal foods for Muslims in 2017.

As for the local Muslim community in Japan, there is a great influence of Malaysia. The first Muslim communities in Japan were Tatar-Turkish immigrants. However, Malaysia now has a vital role in religious affairs for Japanese Muslims. Malaysia has the closest religious authority in the geographic sense. Notably, the decision making of religious affairs by JMA (Japan Muslim Association) depends on official statements of the religious authority of Malaysia.

For example, regarding when the holy month of Ramadan starts and ends. Apart from the geographic proximity, the lifestyle of Malaysians is more familiar to Japanese people.

The south-east Asian Muslim society, chiefly referring to Malaysia and Indonesia, has well integrated their native culture to Islamic civilization. The newly emerging Muslim society in Japan has many things to learn from Malaysian experience. The Malaysian role for Japanese Muslim society is highly essential.

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* Writer is Ph.D. candidate at the Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany.