SAPPORO – Despite the rise in foreign residents who practice Islam, cemeteries offering burials in accordance with the Quran remain sparse, and Muslims are struggling to convince a country where cremation is the norm that new sites are needed.
While Japan is home to an estimated 200,000 Muslims, a figure likely to grow as workers are sought to offset the national labor shortage, there are currently only seven locations for Islamic interment.
“It would take money, time, and effort to get buried in my native country, and it isn’t realistic,” said a 57-year-old man from Pakistan who resides in Sapporo.
The man, who came to Japan 32 years ago, is married to a Japanese woman with whom he has two children and has no plans to leave.
As there is a belief in resurrection, Islam dictates that believers be buried because the soul needs to return to the physical body, according to the Japan Muslim Association.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the government has not set regulations for burials and leaves municipalities to establish their own rules on issues such as how far graveyards should be from residential areas and rivers. As of fiscal 2018, over 99 percent of the deceased in Japan were being cremated.
According to the Japan Islamic Trust, Japan has no burial sites for Muslims in Tohoku or anywhere west of the Chugoku region.
“The body often must be moved to distant cemeteries, which can damage the corpse or result in high transportation fees,” said the trust’s director-general, Qureshi Haroon.
One of the seven sites is a regular cemetery in Hokkaido in the coastal town of Yoichi. But plots are scarce at Yoichi Cemetery — just four to five remain — a situation that has Hokkaido Islamic Society Chairman Towfik Alam “incredibly worried.”
Although the society had planned to build a cemetery in Otaru that would follow Hokkaido’s protocols, such as being at least 110 meters away from a residential area, the project was abandoned last summer after it failed to gain support from residents.
“Residents were worried about the hygiene of burials, among other aspects,” a city spokesperson said.
In the meantime, there are plans to build a Muslim cemetery in Oita Prefecture, but pushback has emerged from residents worried about water pollution.
Hirofumi Tanada, an honorary professor at Waseda University with extensive knowledge of Japan’s Muslim community, says accommodating the needs of people from a variety of religious backgrounds has become more important since Japan amended the immigration law last April to accept more foreign workers.
“The problem regarding burials is just one example,” he said.