The light of Islam emanated from the Arabian Peninsula and spread eastwards to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and reached as far as China and Philippine. It continued spreading for a long time and reached different parts of the world but reached Japan only towards the end of the nineteenth century.
There are isolated records of contact between Islam and Japan before the opening of the country in 1853, possibly as early as the 1700s; some Muslims did arrive in earlier centuries, although these were isolated incidents. Today, Muslims are made up of largely immigrant communities, as well as smaller ethnic Japanese community.
Islam In Japan Before 1900
Serious and sustained engagement with the Muslim world began for Japan as a part of its global outreach in the early Meiji period (1868-1890), with trade and information gathering missions sailing towards the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East.
Only two countries in Asia enjoyed independence, namely the Ottoman Empire and Japan. As they both came under pressure from Western countries, they decided to establish friendly relations between them and consequently they started to exchange visits.
Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876-1909) sent the imperial warship Ertugrul to Japan in 1890, with more than 600 sailors aboard and gifts for Emperor Meiji (reigned 1867-1912), whose brother had visited Constantinople "Istanbul”, two years earlier. The Ertugrul made it to Japan, where its crew was welcomed with great hospitality. On the return voyage, however, the ship was hit by an unexpected typhoon along the coast of Kushimoto in Wakayama Prefecture and all but 69 of its crew perished.
Despite the tragic ending, the goodwill mission established a positive relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the Land of the Rising Sun, Nippon. The sailors were buried at the site of the accident and a museum was set up not far from the accident site. Japanese and Turks still commemorate this event until today at the site of the accident every five years despite successive change of governments.
During this period, a number of Indian Muslim merchants lived in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe - they are considered to be the first Muslim community in Japan.
Growth Of Islam In Japan
The Muslim world had become fascinated with Japan especially after 1905, when the Japanese defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. Muslim observers watched in awe as tiny, unheard-of Japan crushed the Russian Empire, which had been harassing Muslims in Central Asia for generations.
While some admired Japan from a distance, others took the initiative to actually go there. Some Egyptian officers were so impressed by Japanese victory against Russian forces that they volunteered to serve in Japanese army and later on married Japanese women. Some of them returned home while some others stayed in Japan.
The Japanese became more interested in the Muslim world for expansionist, economic, and cultural reasons. The meaning of Holy Qur’an was translated into Japanese; Islamic societies were set up and Islamic as well as Orientalist books were written.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, several hundred Turko-Tatar Muslim refugees from Central Asia and Russia were given asylum in Japan, settling in Tokyo, Nagoya, as well as Kobe and formed small communities.
With Tatar Muslims’ efforts in 1938, a mosque opened in Tokyo, complete with printing office and a magazine. Meanwhile, new translations of the Qur’an into Japanese continued to appear in the following decades, and over 100 books and journals were published in Japan between 1935 and 1943. During this period, a large number of Japanese Muslims started performing Hajj.
In the Second World War while Japan occupied parts of Asia, prominent Japanese persons embraced Islam in different countries including China and Malaysia. Umar Mita who was working for the Manshu Railway Company, which virtually controlled the Japanese territory in the northeastern province of China at that time, through his contacts with Chinese Muslims, became a Muslim in Peking. He went on to become the second president of the Japan Muslim Association, established in 1952. Umar Mita made a Japanese translation of the Qur'an from a Muslim perspective for the first time.
The Muslim community in Japan continued to spread in the country after the war. Interest in Islam was refreshed by two events in particular: the 1973 oil crisis, which caused the Japanese to pay attention to oil-producing Muslim states, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The advent of television had also given the Japanese a glimpse into Muslim culture. Egypt’s al-Azhar University provided those who were interested in Islam scholarships so that they could live and study Islam in Cairo. Muslim organizations, such as the Tablighi Jama’at in India/Pakistan, began to pour into Japan to spread the message of Islam among the indigenous Japanese.
The Current Muslim Presence In Japan
The greatest development in the history of Islamic presence in Japan started in the mid-80s and early '90s, as visa waiver programs were introduced by the Japanese government to address an ageing workforce and a shortage of labor.
The population of foreign workers, which includes Muslims from Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, Turkey, and the Arab world increased immensely.
They all came to Japan to earn a living. They married Japanese women and were consequently granted permanent residency. Some of them were granted Japanese citizenship and their children were Japanese by birth. These emigrants spread across the country and built Mosques, prayer halls, halal food restaurants and shops.
Of the ethnically Japanese Muslims, the majority are thought to be ethnic Japanese women who married immigrant Muslims who arrived during the economic boom of the 1980s, but there are also a small number of intellectuals, including university professors, who have converted.
The true size of the current Muslim population in Japan remains a matter of speculation. Of the immigrant communities, in order of population size, are Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Iranians.
The Japan was estimated to have a Muslim population of 118,000 as of 1990, with about 10 percent of that number being Japanese. By 2010, Japan was home to the growing population of approximately 185,000 Muslim migrants, with an emerging second generation of native-born ‘Japanese Muslims’.
While on the surface this looks like a burgeoning Muslim community, there is deep-rooted resentment from this second generation who blame Islam for the current socio-political position they are in – neither genuinely Japanese nor part of their ethnic culture.
This could be one the reasons behind the Pew Research Center (an American fact tank based), projection - that by 2030 Muslim population of Japan will decrease to 171,000.
Keep in mind that religion does not play a significant role in everyday life of most Japanese people. The average person typically follows the religious rituals at ceremonies like birth, weddings and funerals, and may visit a shrine or temple on New Year. Aside from that, people are mostly secular with a central focus on their career and work to the extent that they have a term for death due to overworking – karōshi (過労死).
According to Prof. Dr. Salih Mahdi S. Al Samarrai the Chairman of Islamic Center-Japan, in 2009, Japanese Muslims population was estimated at about 100,000 or even more, and non-Japanese Muslims at 300,000 or more. However, this remains a rough estimate which observers look at from different perspectives and accordingly give various estimates.
He also indicates that the second generation of Muslims in Japan is facing an important problem, and that is the lack of Islamic educational system. There are thousands of Muslim children who need education in an Islamic environment. If we do not provide something for them to acquire Islamic education, they will certainly dissolve in this non-Islamic society.
Mosques and Prayer Rooms In Japan
The first permanent Mosque was founded by Indians in 1935, the Kobe Muslim Mosque. The mosque survived the air raids of the Second World War and was able to endure through the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995.
The Tatars-Turks who came to Japan to escape Communist rule during the early twenties of the twentieth century, built a Mosque in Nagoya, which was demolished during the Second World War. They also founded Tokyo Mosque in 1938, which was rebuilt in 2000, following Ottoman architectural style and using funds from individual Muslim, the Islamic Center-Japan and the Turkish government. It is both a religious venue and an ethno-cultural space hosting wedding ceremonies, fashion shows, plays, exhibitions and conferences. In recent years, it has also become a tourist attraction for both Muslims and non-Muslims tourists visiting Tokyo.
According to japanfocus.org, as of 2009 there were 30 to 40 single-story mosques in Japan plus another 100 or more apartment rooms set aside for prayers in the absence of more suitable facilities. 90% of these mosques use the 2nd floor for religious activities and the first floor as a halal food shop, due to financial problems, as membership is too low to cover the expenses. Most of these Mosques have only a capacity of 30 to 50 people.
Today there are about 100 Mosques and Musallahs in Japan, and a fast growing number of prayer rooms are set up in different places including airports, shopping malls and restaurants.
Muslim Population: Japan & World Economy
In the mid 2000's finding halal food in Japan was extremely difficult, as it was seldom sold in the country; however Muslim tourists by the early 2010s are now highly valued, especially after the government set the aim to have 20-25 million tourists annually by 2020, in time for the Summer Olympic Games. By 2020, Japan is predicted to have 1,000,000 Muslim tourists annually.
In 2017, more than 28 million tourists visited Japan and it has become common to see Muslim tourists visiting nowadays. Particularly in Southeast Asia, there has been a surge in Muslim tourists coming from the Middle East since the beginning of the 21st century.
With more than 1.5 million Muslims going on pilgrimage to Mecca (in 2018), and an increasing number of Muslim tourists visiting other countries every year, Muslims have attracted attention in international tourism market.
The global halal tourism industry is currently worth an estimated $140 billion dollars, and by 2020 it will be worth an estimated upwards of $200 billion dollars.
The world population of Muslims stood approximately at 1.6 billion in 2013 and is estimated to reach 2.9 billion (making up 26% of the world population) in 2050. Among the 21 Muslim-majority Asian and African countries highly influenced by Islam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey and Iran (amounted to more than 1.2 billion Muslims combined) are predicted to experience a strong development in consumer market.
Japan has significant bilateral trade relations with Muslim states. It had imports totaling $797 billion dollars in 2012, of which; $219.06 billion dollars was just from 22 Muslim countries. This is significantly more than Japan trades with the US, which since 1995 has hovered around the $60-$70 billion dollar mark.
Japanese exports in contrast total $70.4 billion dollars to Islamic countries. As of 2014, the GDP of all Muslim countries stands at $6.265 trillion dollars. Islamic spending in addition is worth an estimated $5 trillion dollars. As a result the Japanese have begun embracing certified halal industrialization, which includes specializing in halal food, medicine and cosmetics.
According to The Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI), at the end of 2014, the halal food industry alone was worth $2 trillion dollars.
The increasing population growth of Muslims in future is likely to have a strong impact on the global community and economy, especially in Asia which is home to 70% of Muslims in the world.
Living in harmony starts from taking an interest in the other party.
For many parts of the world, the arrival of Islam is distant history; for the Japanese, it is history in the making.