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FOCUS June 2008 Volume 52

The Everyday Life of Muslims in Japan

Yeseul Christeena Song*

*Christeena Song is an incoming third year student at Emory University (USA) and 2008 summer intern in HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Muslims in Japan have widely retained their sense of religious and cultural identity and have generally been established as members of Japanese society; however, the Japanese public must continue to accept these religious and cultural differences in order to maintain a functional society in which the rights of all people are protected.

Muslims in Japan

There are an estimated 70,000 Muslims in Japan, out of which 90% are male resident foreigners coming mainly from Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh, and 10% are Japanese.

Many of the Japanese Muslims are women who converted to Islam through their marriage to Muslim men.[1]Muslims in Japan often encounter the problem of findinghalalfood products that are permissible according to Islamic law. These products usually exclude pork, alcoholic beverages, and also refer to the method used in animal meat preparation. Women, both foreign Muslims and Japanese Muslims, also face the issue of wearing the hijab, a cloth cover that covers different amounts and areas of the woman depending on individual interpretation, teachings, cultural backgrounds, etc.[2] Though there have been several instances of harassment towards Muslims in Japan,[3] it appears that these incidents are gradually decreasing through time.

Mosques and the Media

As mosques are the only places that are exclusively for Muslims, mosques in Japan play a vital, multi-purposed role. A hundred years ago, there were only two mosques in Japan, now there are around forty. As both land and construction is expensive in Japan, many office and residential buildings are converted into mosques, usually with a separate place reserved for women and children.[4]Mosques are used not only for congressional prayers, but also for social gatherings.

During Ramadan, the month of fasting, many Muslims come to the mosques in order to celebrate with their fellow Muslims. Mosques are also used to hold Islamic study sessions and weddings, with space for offices and places for relaxation. Mosques are places where Muslims can gather, worship, and socialize, though not all Muslims go to mosques. Other than information distributed by mosques and Muslim Associations,[5] the majority of information on the Islamic world the Japanese public receives is through the mass media. After the September 11th tragedy, which killed twenty-four Japanese citizens, the relatively indifferent Japanese perception on Islam has become tinged with fear.[6] More than ever before, it is imperative to separate the media's cloudy political influence from real experiences of the human heart.

Going Mainstream

Muslims in Japanese society face no particular mal- treatment, as all foreigners in Japan must deal with similar forms of discrimination. As it is with many societies, those who adapt to a new society's way of life are far more likely to be accepted. Japan is no exception; most Japanese people do not have a particular discriminating attitude towards Muslims. However, those who openly bring their religion to not only the public, but also their work place, may be faced with cultural barriers. Though these incidents are rare, they still present a problem for practicing Muslims. Especially in the work place, devout Muslims who pray five times a day for ten-minute intervals will find it difficult to fit into a culture in which constant hard work is expected and highly valued.[7] Though this may be a source of discomfort for some, many Muslims have found ways to compromise by making up prayers after work that may have been missed during work hours. Liza, an Indonesian Muslim studying at Kyoto University, says that many practicing Muslims can "collect" prayers that have been missed during certain parts of the day or night. In this way, many Muslims have managed to adhere to both Japanese and Muslim lifestyles.

Many Japanese Muslim converts may find it difficult to conform to strong cultural expectations while simultaneously fulfilling their religious duties and rules. The Islamic faith prohibits the consumption of alcohol and pork which conflicts with behavioral expectation at Japanese welcoming parties or end of the year festivals. Many Muslims state that when given an explanation, their colleagues politely accept this refusal of alcohol.[8] However, there are wide ranges of individual experiences regarding religious rules; some Muslims have met with understanding, others have met with criticism. The Japanese public must accept these differences in order to create an understanding society which functions with little friction between diverse groups. Generally, it appears that these problems are becoming less severe and may eventually be obliterated all together. Ali, a college student at Tenri University, has met with largely positive responses regarding his religious duties. His friends at Tenri University respect his reasons for refusing alcohol and even point out certain Japanese foods that arehalal so that Ali may know which foods are safe.

Adapting Inside and Out

Though Islam is not the predominate faith in Japan, there are many restaurants, grocers, food servers, and catering services which serve both imported and local halal food. There are several websites that list the location, contact information, and the owners of specific areas where Muslims may find halal food suppliers. Through this growing availability of halal food, Japanese society is showing an adaptation to Islamic laws and what society has not yet managed to provide, individuals have made their own adaptations. Khalida, a Japanese woman who married a Muslim and converted to Islam, personally feels that there are no problems within her new lifestyle, finding it easy and enjoyable. Khalida packs a halal obento for her children, as public schools do not yet provide halal lunches. In the near future, it is probable that Japanese schools will begin to see the need to adjust to this growing demand for religiously acceptable food and eventually supply this demand. It is important to understand that many Muslims are flexible; Ali feels that it is acceptable to buy meat from local supermarkets, as there are a limited amount of halal shops and none in his area. Ali says his own blessing for his food and by doing so, still adheres to his religious beliefs. Muslims who live in convenient locations can purchase food from halalshops and Muslim Associations scattered around Japan that also supply halal food . The degree of adaptation differs for each individual. Liza wears her hijab wherever she goes, even at the hotel where she used to work, and has met with very few unfriendly encounters. Other Muslim women pre- fer to wear their hijab only during prayers at their respective mosques; these differences in adaptation and interpretation are what make Islam a diverse, accepting, and accommodating faith.

Obstacles in Daily Life

It is difficult to surmise experiences of the entire "Muslim Community" in Japan, as there are several ethnic groups, nationalities, religious divisions, sects, languages, and economic backgrounds, among others within this community, with no major, leading group.[9] However, throughout the diverse range of community characteristics, there are issues and barriers that many Muslims have encountered and may continue to face in the future. The direction and implication of Japan's treatment of foreigners rests in the hands of today's students, parents, workers, and all those who consider themselves a part of the fabric of Japanese society.

Imam Mohsen Shaker Bayoumy who came to Japan after studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in order to be the Imam of the Kobe Muslim Mosque, pointed out the severe issue of graveyards. Japan has two Muslim graveyards, one in Kobe and one in Tokyo. The Tokyo graveyard is a private graveyard, belonging to the Japanese Muslim Association. The graveyard in Kobe was given to Muslims by the government under the agreement that only Muslims from Kobe may be buried there. As the population grows and becomes older, burial is becoming a greater issue, as Islamic law decrees that Muslims must be buried in a certain way, which is vastly different from the traditional Japanese burial. Other than the problem of burial, the Imam feels that there are few problems living in Japan as a foreign Muslim and encourages Muslims not to isolate themselves from society in an effort to integrate themselves into whatever culture they find themselves in. The Imam feels that it is important for Muslims to become strong members of the community so that they may feel less lonely in a country where they are the minority.

Other Muslims in Japan face far more direct problems; Iman, a woman of impeccable grace and dignity, says that anyone can be a Muslim anywhere, in any society; however, she has met with difficulties in the work place. As a devout Muslim, Iman wears her hijab everywhere. Though she has every right to wear her hijab, it has caused her difficulty in finding a job; there have been situations where she found a satisfactory occupation, but was not hired merely because of her hijab. However, Iman's troubles at work have not deterred her from her faith. Iman explains that many Japanese women who have Muslim boyfriends, fianc駸, or husbands come to the Kobe Muslim Mosque in order to receive advice and guidance. Iman is a pillar for these women, giving them advice on how to have a fulfilling relationship or supporting them through their problems and troubled times. Members of any community are welcome at Kobe Muslim Mosque; those who feel that they can no longer face their difficulties alone may come to the mosque in order to receive support, aid, and strength. Iman cherishes a hope that one day, her fellow Muslim sisters will be able to choose to wear their hijab to work without fear of rejection or judgment. Wearing the hijab is not so much considered a religious duty, but rather a personal choice, an aspect of freedom, and a right as a human being.

Conclusion

Though there are few Muslims in Japan, today's Japanese public has generally accepted them as members of Japanese society. For the most part, Japanese people have accepted their cultural differences as colorful aspects of the world and have understood that these cultures are actually not very different from their own. Mothers such as Khan, a Japanese woman who married a Muslim, lived in Pakistan for several years, and has three children, are not very different from the other Japanese mothers. Khan is very fashionable, with her flowery pink and white hijab and long, dangly earrings; people who have met Khan enjoy her energetic company and embrace the life that she has chosen. It is this understanding, this openness, and this innate compassion that is essential in fighting for the rights of all people and the preservation of human dignity.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.

Endnotes

1.Sakurai, Keiko,  "Muslims in Contemporary Japan" in Asia Policy, 5, 2008, 69-87.

2.Hopfe, Lewis M. and Woodward, Mark R., Religions of the World, 10th edition (Prentice Hall PTR: 2006).

3.Penn, Michael, "Islam in Japan: Adversity and Diversity" in Harvard Asia Quarterly, 10/1, 2006.

4.Ibid.

5.See for example the website of Yasuragi (www.yasuragiweb.com/about_eng.htm), a monthly Islamic magazine in Japan that provides information on Islamic faith in Japanese language.

6.Penn, Michael "Public Faces and Private Spaces: Islam in the Japanese Context" in Asia Policy, 5, 2008, 89-104.

7.Ibid.

8.Interviews with Muslims living in Japan, 11 June 2008.

9.Nakhleh, Emile A. "Introduction" in Asia Policy, 5, 2008, 62-67.


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