CHIBA – At a university in the city of Chiba, a halal-certified cafeteria decorated with keepsakes from across Asia is helping exchange students feel at home and teaching Japanese students about other cultures through food.
The cafeteria, named Shokujin, or God Of Food, at Kanda University of International Studies in the Makuhari district is the first student facility in the country to attain a “Muslim-friendly” certification from the Nippon Asia Halal Association.
The private university teaches foreign languages to Japanese students and Japanese to foreign students, with both coming together to study international communications and business.
Shokujin, which opened in April, uses separate utensils and refrigerators for its halal dishes. There is a prayer room on the second floor and a spigot for Muslim students to perform “wudu,” the procedure for washing parts of the body before prayer.
Cahyani Ariya Wiji, 21, an exchange student from Indonesia stopped by the packed cafeteria to fuel up ahead of her Japanese-language finals.
“The best thing about the halal menu is not having to ask about the ingredients,” Ariya said before biting into a spicy squid cake.
Confusion remains in Japan about the ins and outs of halal food and Muslim customs, despite the government’s goals of forging stronger ties with other Asian nations and doubling the number of annual foreign visitors to 20 million by 2020.
“I once had to explain to some Japanese friends that I couldn’t eat a dish containing lard, and to my surprise they had no idea lard comes from pork,” Ariya said. “Being able to eat and pray right here at university not only puts me at ease, it also teaches the Japanese students about what’s important to Muslims.”
The cafeteria’s authentic dishes and objects used in daily life around Asia serve as tools for cooperative learning, said Hiroyuki Imamura, director of the general planning department at the university’s operator, the Sano Educational Foundation.
“Food, clothing and housing are the three basic tenets of every culture, and with the addition of this cafeteria, students now have the chance to immerse themselves in all three,” Imamura said.
Elsewhere on campus, a multicultural center launched opened in 2009 hosts language and culture lessons, complete with traditional outfits brought by international students from their home countries.
“Letting students share each other’s culture in a relaxed environment makes it more likely they’ll use their education to build real ties between Japan and other countries when they go out into the workforce,” Imamura said.
Makuhari is also home to Japan’s first halal-certified food processing factory, opened in January. Aeon Co.’s new flagship shopping mall nearby has a prayer room too, while Narita International Airport recently doubled its number of prayer rooms to four.
Ariya, who is thinking of becoming a Japanese teacher back in Indonesia, said she looks forward to telling her future students, “It’s getting more and more convenient for Muslims to live in Japan, and you can experience it too.”