Islamic community lays down roots

Muslims try to shake negative perceptions

by Alex Martin and Minoru Matsutani

Noon prayers at Tokyo Camii, also known as Tokyo Mosque, began peacefully with Imam Ensari Yenturk reciting verses from the Quran, while worshippers, who included a middle-aged Japanese man, bowed and offered prayers toward Mecca.

The Tokyo Camii & Turkish Culture Center in Shibuya Ward, notable for its Ottoman architecture and intricate Arabic reliefs, is one of the mosques located across the nation that serve a small but thriving Muslim community estimated to number around 110,000 to 120,000, including roughly 10,000 Japanese Muslims.

The Islamic community was recently offended by leaked counterterrorism files that revealed police have been identifying Muslim residents as “terrorist suspects,” an embarrassing incident that coincided with a heightened police alert for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that wraps up Sunday in Yokohama.

But despite the incident, the Muslim community solemnly embraces its religion while trying to adapt to Japanese society.

“Terrorism is an activity that Islam doesn’t accept,” said Yenturk, who is also the director of Tokyo Camii, an institution that serves as a cultural hub for those interested in Islamic culture.

This sentiment is shared by many Muslim residents in Japan.

“Myself and many Muslims in Japan love this country and consider it our home. Why would we destroy our own home?” asked Ehsan Bhai, a founding member of the Islamic Circle of Japan, expressing displeasure at the recent leak of police documents.

Tokyo Camii, which was built in 1938 and is the second-oldest mosque in Japan, is open to worshippers and visitors of any nationality. It also hosts classes, Islamic “nikah” marriage ceremonies and conversions to Islam, which require two Muslim witnesses.

While relatively few worshippers visit Tokyo Camii to pray during regular weekdays, Yenturk said 400 to 500 Muslims, many from other parts of Asia, including Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, regularly attend the important Friday noon prayers.

Although Islam is regarded as the world’s second-largest religion after Christianity, Japan’s population remains small compared with their numbers in the United States, where 2.454 million reside, or Britain, with a community of 1.647 million Muslims, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center.

According to studies conducted by Hirofumi Tanada, professor of human sciences at Waseda University in Tokyo, there were 58 mosques in Japan as of April 2009, although he said more were founded recently, bringing the total to around 60.

Most of these mosques do not boast the elaborate decorations and Islamic architecture of Tokyo Camii or the Kobe Muslim Mosque — built in 1935 as Japan’s first mosque — but are funded through donations and situated in nondescript houses and buildings featuring prayer rooms.

Although hard statistics do not exist, Tanada said he believed that besides the mosques, which he defines as being open for services year-round, there are probably over 100 “musalla,” or temporary locations where prayers are performed or congregations held, scattered across the country.

Tanada explained that the first Muslim community recognized in Japan can be traced back to around the early 1920s, when a few hundred Turkish Muslims emigrated from Russia following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

These numbers gradually increased along with the pro-Islam policies of the government of the time, and by the end of the 1930s there were roughly 1,000 Muslims of various origins residing in Japan, Tanada said.

The next influx came in the 1980s, when a wave of migrant workers from nations such as Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived, significantly boosting the Muslim population.

Tanada, who has conducted much research and fieldwork on the country’s Islamic communities, said that this increase in the Muslim population also led to an increase in the number of Japanese spouses converting to Islam.

Tanada said exchange students are responsible for the bulk of today’s Muslim population in Japan, followed by self-employed workers in businesses such as used-car dealerships and halal food shops, as well as those in professional careers.

However, the Muslim population is currently experiencing a slight decline as some workers decide to return to their home countries amid the economic downturn.

Tanada added that despite the growth of Japan’s Islamic community over the years, some resentment toward Islam persists due to the misconception of it being a “terrorist” religion.

Ehsan of the Islamic Circle of Japan, who has lived in the country for 16 years and has a Japanese wife, said he hopes to raise public awareness that Muslims are peace-loving people and his group is spreading Islamic beliefs for the benefit of future generations.

Muslim children who come to a mosque seem to enjoy themselves because there is no bullying, said Ehsan’s wife, who declined to be named.

“I wish Japanese children and their parents could accept that there are different types of people,” she said.

While Ehsan has adapted to Japanese society, his wife has found the Muslim way of life difficult to follow due to various constraints.

One obstacle is buying halal food, or food permitted under Islamic law. Despite the growing number of halal shops in Tokyo, she said that when she is in a hurry, she occasionally forgoes buying certain products as local supermarkets do not stock halal food.

Pork, pork byproducts, meat from animals that die before they can be slaughtered, meat from animals killed with more than three slashes of a blade or other methods not permitted under Islamic law are not considered halal food.

“For example, if you look carefully at a bag of “sembei” (rice crackers), they include extracts of chicken soup, which may not be halal food,” she said.

She added most Muslim children who attend Japanese public elementary schools do not even bother checking whether they are eating only halal food in school lunches.

Ramadan, the Islamic ritual where one refrains from eating, drinking and being involved in sexual activities from dawn to sunset during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, can be conducted on an individual basis.

However, the customary five-times-a-day prayers may be hard to observe without the cooperation of others. When praying, Muslims kneel down for five to 15 minutes at various times of the day determined by the sun’s movements.

Ehsan said that while some Muslim office workers have obtained permission from their boss or president to pray at the office, others have had to forgo the practice.

Ehsan’s Islamic Circle of Japan, founded in 1997, now consists of 120 volunteers involved in helping organize various activities.

The group has set up eight mosques in the Kanto region, including one in Asakusa, Tokyo, which Ehsan is in charge of.

Ehsan said the word mosque is an insulting term derived from the Latin term “mesquin,” meaning poor and shabby-looking. Muslims prefer to use the word “masjid” when referring to a religious facility, he said.

Tanada of Waseda University said that while many Japanese tend to harbor a slightly negative view of Islam, there are a growing number who have an interest in the religion.

“I believe general interest in Islam is increasing,” he said.

“There are many Muslims who have married and settled with their families in Japan, and they want to deepen exchanges with their communities,” he said.

“And they want more people to understand their religion.”