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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 15   15-31 December 2014

Muslims in Japan

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Japan is one of the few monocultural societies in the world. Japanese society is ethnically and linguistically homogeneous with more than 98% of the country’s population consisting of ethic Japanese. The presence of Muslims in Japan goes back to about a century. The first Japanese to convert to Islam was Kotaro Yamaoka, who adopted the Islamic name Omar Yamaoka. Yamaoka embraced Islam in Bombay in1909 under the influence of a Russian-born writer Abdur-Rashid Ibrahim, who later served as the first Imam at Tokyo Camii. The biography of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) was rendered into Japanese in 1877. The first Japanese translation of the Quran was done by Sakamoto Ken-ichi in 1920. Now there are more than seven translations of the Quran in Japanese.

The first Muslims to arrive in Japan were Tatar Muslims, who fled Russia and Central Asia in the wake of the Russian Revolution, which was followed by the widespread persecution of Muslim communities. The Tatar Muslims were granted asylum in Japan. The oldest mosques in Japan – the Kobe Mosque and the Tokyo Mosque – were built, respectively, in 1935 and 1938. The second wave of Muslim immigration to Japan came in the 1960s and 1970s with the arrival of a substantial number of Iranian and Pakistani Muslims.

The third wave of Muslim immigration to Japan came in the 1980s when the Japanese government introduced a relaxed immigration policy in the context of the country’s shrinking population and declining workforce. Japan’s population – currently at 127 million – has been declining for several years. Japan’s current fertility rate – 1.43 children per woman of childbearing age – is one of the lowest in the world. It is estimated that at the current birth rate, Japan’s population will decline by a third to 87 million over the next 50 years. Currently, about 24% of the population consists of people aged 65 or over. By 2060, the proportion of people aged 65 or over will touch nearly 40%. This will be accompanied by a sharp fall in the workforce. The workforce, which was 65.77 million in 2013, will drop 42% to 37.95 million by 2060. One of the measures adopted by the Japanese government to counter the frightening consequences of a rapidly shrinking population is to relax immigration policies. The population of foreign workers has nearly doubled in the past two decades. The number of immigrants in the country now exceeds two million. A large number of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh came to Japan in the wake of the relaxed immigration policies.

It is difficult to provide an exact estimate of the population of Muslims in Japan, largely because the Japanese government does not collect statistics on population on the basis of religious affiliation. The population of Muslims in Japan is estimated to be between 70,000 and 120,000. About 10% of the Muslim population comprises ethnic Japanese, mostly Japanese women who converted to Islam after marrying Muslim men.

The Muslim population of Japan is multiethnic, comprising people of different ethnicities and national backgrounds. The major groups are Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Turks, Tatar Muslims and people of African descent.

The growth of Muslim population in Japan is attested by the proliferation of mosques and prayer halls and community centres in Tokyo and other cities. In 1970 there were only two mosques in Tokyo. There are now nearly 200 mosques and prayer halls in the city. Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, was originally built along with an adjoining Islamic school in 1938. It was reconstructed in a grand Turkish style in 2000. Interestingly, some of the prominent Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi, made substantial contributions to the reconstruction project and the opening ceremony was attended by dignitaries and diplomats from Japan as well as Muslim countries. The Tokyo Camii also serves as a vibrant cultural centre for the local Muslims. The mosque premises are used for communal Iftar meals, wedding ceremonies, conferences and exhibitions.

Though there are no full-fledged Islamic schools in Japan, Islamic instruction is imparted to children in madrasas attached to mosques and community centres. The Islamic Centre of Japan in Tokyo, established in 1966, runs the Yuai International School, where instruction in reading the Quran, Islamic teachings, Arabic and Islamic calligraphy is offered on Saturdays.

By and large, Muslims in Japan enjoy substantial religious and cultural freedom and autonomy. There are no official restrictions on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf or on the imparting of Islamic instruction in mosques and community centres. Unlike in Switzerland, mosques have minarets and domes. There are halal meat shops in Tokyo and other cities.

(With inputs from Al Jazeera, November 3, 2014)

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