It’s prayer time at Tokyo’s biggest mosque and the congregation is pondering God, community and Naoki Inose, the city’s governor, who many here say has revealed himself to be, well, a bit of a bigot.
“I think he has a problem with Islam and Turkey,” says Osman Demiritas, a Turk who has lived in Japan for nearly two decades. “My wife is Japanese and she cried when she heard what the governor said. She couldn’t believe it.”
Cuneyd Parlayan, a doctoral student at the Tokyo Dental and Medical University, is more blunt. “Inose is an amateur politician showing complete ignorance,” he says. “I think he believes in the supremacy of Japanese culture. That might have influenced his opinion.”
Gov. Inose, who is also chairman of Tokyo’s bid committee, certainly believes in the supremacy of Japanese infrastructure. In his now infamous Apr. 26 interview with The New York Times, he disparaged Madrid and Istanbul, Tokyo’s rivals for hosting the 2020 Olympics. Those two cities had “yet to build . . . very sophisticated facilities,” he said.
While possibly true (though Madrid claims it has over three-quarters of its venues built), the comments broke the International Olympic Committee’s rules of conduct, which state: “The cities shall refrain from any act or comment likely to tarnish the image of a rival city or be prejudicial to it. Any comparison with other cities is strictly forbidden.”
It was Inose’s apparent twin slur of Turkey and Islam, however, that has upset the congregation at the Tokyo Camii and Turkish Culture Center in Shibuya, an institution with a 75-year-old history that draws hundreds of Muslims from across the city to prayer every Friday. The NYT reports Inose as saying that all Islamic countries “share in common is Allah” and “they are fighting with each other.”
The subsequent furor triggered a war or words between the media and the governor, who said he’d been misquoted, before he eventually accepted the criticism. Late last week he quietly visited the Turkish Embassy in Tokyo and apologized to the ambassador. “For us the incident is closed and we will not be commenting further,” said a spokeswoman for the embassy.
Ordinary Turks in the capital have been less reticent. Many say the statement reveals the poor political skills of Japanese in public office — though Inose is not really a politician at all. Before being elected to office in December with a whopping 4.3 million votes — a national record for a single candidate — he was a nonfiction writer and historian with a reputation for intellectual high-mindedness.
It’s surprising then that he appears unaware that Turkey successfully hosted the 2011 World University Winter Games — widely seen as a test run for 2020 — says Turkish Culture Center Director Imam Nurullah Ayaz. “There is no conflict in Turkey,” he adds. “The country is growing fast and by 2020 we will be ready.”
Many Turks have expressed puzzlement at Inose’s comments and what he might have meant. Turkey itself is largely peaceful, notwithstanding friction with war-wracked Syria along their common border. Turkey has been involved on a 30-year armed struggle with ethnic Kurds in its southeast. But Kurdish rebels began withdrawing their forces from the region last week, after its jailed leader announced the end of the armed struggle and peace talks with Ankara in March. Turkey’s 40-year occupation of northern Cyprus is hardly a conventional “war.”
Like Japan, Turkey has also been a staunch Cold War ally of Washington and a base for U.S. troops and weapons, including nuclear weapons. It is a country founded on secular principles and has been struggling to draft a new, more democratic constitution designed to smooth its accession into the European Union after years of criticism from human rights groups.
Was Inose aware of any of this? wonders Shigeru Shimoyama, the caretaker of the center. “I think he made a very simple mistake,” he says. “He mixed up the current situation in Syria with Turkey. His knowledge is very poor for a politician.”
Shimoyama says Inose’s views are typical in Japan, where perceptions of Islam have been distorted. “Many believe Islam is the cause of [conflict in] Afghanistan, of the Palestine issue. But Afghanistan was started by the Russian invasion of 1979. And the Palestine situation was started by the British.”
Turks feel a strong affinity with Japan, which hauled itself up from the ruins of World War II and hosted the first “nonwhite” games in 1964. Opened by Emperor Hirohito just 19 years after he narrowly escaped trial as a war criminal by the United States, the ’64 Olympics marked Japan’s symbolic rehabilitation into the modern world and the definitive end of its international pariah status.
Turkey is on its fifth attempt to become the first largely Muslim country to host the event (the nearest equivalent was the 1984 Winter Olympics, held in the mainly Muslim city of Sarajevo). For many Turks, the games are also a chance to show that the nation has shrugged off the poverty and parochialism of its past, and faced down Western suspicions about its suitability.
These suspicions were expressed with unusual explicitness in the conservative U.S. National Review journal last year. Commentator Michael Rubin accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of viewing the potential games as the “Muslim Olympics” and said opting for Istanbul “could do more to undercut the Olympic spirit than any choice since Berlin in 1936.”
Inose’s remarks seemed to accept Rubin’s argument that Istanbul might triumph over Tokyo because of some misguided policy of religious affirmative action by the International Olympic Committee.
In Turkey, the governor’s comments have been met by a mixture of dismay and bemusement. The country’s youth and sports minister, Suat Kilic, called them “unfair and disheartening.” A commentator for the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman said they were “disturbing, Islamophobic and racist.” Istanbul residents interviewed by Reuters said the comments insulted the city.
But Prime Minister Erdogan was probably closer to the national mood when he joked in a May 3 meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, that Tokyo should now drop its bid. “You’ve hosted the games before, withdraw your bid so we can host them once,” he told Abe, who was visiting the country.
It’s unlikely Inose’s remarks will determine the success or failure of Japan’s Olympic bid, which rests on the host city’s ability to bring the games in successfully, on budget and on time. Because Istanbul and Madrid will be seen as European contenders, many observers believe Tokyo has the stronger case among the games’ organizers, who may consider it politic to move them back to Asia in 2020.
If Turkey has an edge, it partly rests on its underdog status as a newly developing economy in the Islamic world. Chicago too was supposed to be favorite to host the 2016 games, which went instead to Rio. Istanbul is hoping for something similar when the IOC announces its decision in September. Ironically, say Turks, Inose has inadvertently given them a leg-up in the battle to host the games.
“We understand that it was a personal view and we know it doesn’t represent all of Japanese society,” says Demiritas. “But in terms of the candidacy, we’re happy because Tokyo has now gone down,” he adds, smiling. “He has also helped the promotion of Islam in Japan. Many people are curious and want to know more.”
The governor’s apparent lack of contrition may add to the sense that he has scored an own goal, and it has certainly won him few friends among Japan’s Muslim community. Inose tweeted last week that the incident with the NYT had taught him a lesson about who his enemies and friends were, a comment that implies he hadn’t changed his views of Islam or Turkey but would be careful in future to share them with more compliant journalists.
Metehan Ozcan, a Turkish businessman who has lived in Japan for 19 years, says the governor should take the criticism seriously. “I’m not saying he is a bad guy — just that he is ignorant.” Ozcan recommends that Inose watch NHK documentaries on Turkey and the Middle East before another foray into verbal battle.
“It’s a little bit annoying that he is the head of a committee that is competing with Istanbul to host the Olympics and he doesn’t know anything about Istanbul. If you want to win against your competitor, you should know him.”
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