Issued: October 27, 2008

Muslims in Japan

Against a backdrop of globalization and the growing influence of Middle Eastern oil money, Muslim people and their culture, in such forms as mosques and halal foods, are becoming more familiar in Japan. The stories below show how the Muslim presence is spreading and touching the daily lives of ordinary Japanese.

Number of mosques growing in Japan
In the city of Gifu, this mosque was opened in July in a paddy field with 140 million yen donated in Japan and abroad.

From across a rice paddy in the city of Gifu drifts the sonorous melody of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. Rounding the bend, the visitor is greeted by a white dome framed against the blue sky. Inside, Muslim faithful from countries such as Malaysia and Bangladesh are going about their Friday prayers.

Gifu Mosque, which opened on July 27, is regularly packed with about 100 worshippers, who press their foreheads to the navy-blue carpet stretched between the main room's pure-white walls.

"When I pray here, I feel relaxed, and forget my worries," said Mohammad Afzal Cheema, a 39-year-old Pakistani who runs a used-car business.

One of the mosque's founders is Qureshi Abdul Wahab, a 51-year-old Pakistani who also runs a used-car trading business in Nagoya. Explaining the founding, he said, "We had gathered in a prefab building, but decided to build this new mosque because the old location was becoming too small for prayers."

Construction of the Gifu Mosque cost about 140 million yen, which was raised through donations in Japan and abroad.

The number of mosques in Japan has been on the rise since around 2000, and there are now more than 50 nationwide. Last November, one was opened in Sendai. Another is currently under construction in Fukuoka.

Muslims pray inside the Gifu Mosque.

Keiko Sakurai, a professor of Islamic regional studies at Waseda University, said that the growing number of Muslims settling down in Japan is behind the increase in mosques. Sakurai estimates that there are about 56,000 legal Muslim residents in Japan, more than four times larger than the number of 13,000 in 1990.

Sakurai explained that many Muslims run restaurants and used-vehicle businesses, adding that Pakistanis in particular have tapped their international networks to succeed at used-car trading.

Given the increase in the Muslim population, some Japanese companies are deciding to accommodate their prayers. USS Co., a major used-vehicle auction firm, began building prayer rooms inside its auction houses four years ago.

Representative Executive Vice President Dai Seta said, "We created them because we had more and more customers from Islamic countries." Now most of the firm's 18 auction sites around the nation, including the one in Yokohama, have prayer rooms.

Customers seemed to be pleased. One Iranian said he used to pray in nearby parking lots, but that now he and others have gravitated to the auction house and its prayer room.

Halal foods more popular lately
Alflah SuperMarket in Ikebukuro district, Tokyo, offers halal foods.

The Alflah SuperMarket near Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo becomes busy with customers in the evening. The market sells halal food for Muslims. Demand for halal food grew at the market in September as Muslims observed Ramadan, a month of fasting during the day and dining with the family after sunset.

One 45-year-old man from Pakistan visits the supermarket two or three times a week. He said, "I can enjoy meat dishes again without worrying because Japan has begun selling halal food."

Halal means "permissible" in Arabic. Halal foods are those that are allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines, for instance, those that do not include pork or alcohol, or that include beef or chicken prepared according to strict guidelines. Alflah imports foods that are specially processed under halal guidelines in Australia. Several dozen stores around the country handle halal foods.

Strong Internet sales of halal foods have been a boon for Diamond Trading Ltd. The firm is predicting a more than 10% increase in sales this year compared with a year earlier. "Lately, there has been an increase in Islamic exchange students and orders are coming in from all over the country," said Hoque Mahbubul, president of the company.

A 20-year-old university student from Bangladesh who frequents the company's Web site said he places orders with his friends to share them.

At Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, the cafeteria run by the Japanese Consumers' Co-Operative Union offers meals prepared with halal food for the Muslim students. Extra precautions are taken: the dishes and cooking utensils are separated from the regular ones to keep non-halal foods from mixing in.

"The ingredients are hard to procure and the dishes take a long time to prepare," said Takashi Kinoshita, the manager. "But it's worth all the work if it makes the exchange students happy."

Many Islamic exchange students have expressed a desire to work in Japan after graduation. As Japan continues to deal with its falling birthrate and shrinking population, these exchange students are strong potential candidates to expand the work force.

Providing meals that Islamic students and businesspeople can enjoy is a small investment for Japanese educational institutions and companies and an incentive for Islamic expats to remain active in Japanese society.

Arabic studies open doors
People learn Arabic at the School of Arabic Language located in a condo in Shinjuku, Tokyo, after a day's work.

"Masaa al-khair" means "good evening" in Arabic, the teacher explains. In a condominium near the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices in Shinjuku district, a group of company employees interested in the Middle East attend a class at the School of Arabic Language after work. Akira Hinoki, a 54-year-old man who lived in Saudi Arabia as an exchange student, heads the Arabic language school he set up in 1987.

There are currently 76 students enrolled in the school. This past year, enrollment increased by 10. Wakako Otani, 32, one of the newcomers and a beginner in the language, works for the Japan External Trade Organization. Otani said, "I want to create corporate exchanges between Japanese companies and Middle Eastern firms by holding local exhibitions." In class, she struggles with getting used to the new language as she vocalizes conversational phrases, including questions such as, "What is your occupation?"

At the Arabic Islamic Institute in Tokyo, run by the Saudi Arabian government, the evening Arabic language class is packed with office workers. It was so popular that the 30-seat course filled up just two days after registration opened. Students use textbooks to practice conversational Arabic and learn pronunciation and grammar.

Aki Yamada, a 41-year-old who has been attending the school since last fall, helps corporate trainees sent from the Middle East settle into life in Japan. She was an exchange student in Egypt and can understand some conversational Arabic. She said it was important for her to learn enough of the language to be able to navigate various situations, for instance, if a trainee has to go to the hospital.

Corporate employees who tell their colleagues or bosses they study Arabic often get asked by their companies to travel to the Middle East to do local research. The school is planning a course on translating Arabic language newspaper articles into Japanese.

The nonprofit Japanese Organization for Arabic Language Examinations was launched last year. Yoshiko Miyakawa, who helped set up the organization, studied Arabic in Egypt, where her husband worked. She returned to Japan and searched for a place where she could test her language skills. Unable to find one, she decided to form an organization herself. Miyakawa said, "I hope this becomes a bridge to the Arab world."

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