Islam in Japan - Towards a new phase

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Towards a new phase

“In the coming few years there should be substantial developments for Islam in Japan,” says Nur Ad-Din Mori. “If not, then we cannot really speak of the future of Islam in this country.”

Mori maintains it is a turning point now because of the relatively recent return of five young Muslims to Japan after completing their studies on Islam in Arab countries. Two graduated from the Umm al-Qura University, Makkah, one from Islamic University, Madinah, one from the Dawa College, Tripoli, and the last from Qatar University. Though the number may not seem very impressive it is a significant increase in the Japanese scene where, before these five, only six students graduated from universities in Arab countries during the last twenty years, with three of them majoring in Arabic, not Islamic, studies.

Mori, who studied theology and general Islamic studies in Makkah, is one of the recent five: he confirms their responsibilities.” Islam is a religion of knowledge and we cannot stand well without learning. I think the efforts and activities made in this respect in Japan remain very minor up to this day.”

Mori’s pronouncement also refers to another problem in Japan: there have been few who can teach Islam to the indigenous people in their own language. The history of Da’wah in Japan for the past forty years has basically been that of efforts by foreign Muslims who happened to stay here in this mainly Buddhist country.

The Turks have been the biggest Muslim community in Japan until recently. Pre-war Japan was well-known for its sympathy and favour towards Muslims in central Asia, seeing in them an anti-Soviet ally. In those days some Japanese who worked in intelligence circles had contact with these Muslims. A few opened their eyes to Islam through these contacts, and embraced it after the war ended.

There were also those who went to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia as soldiers during the war. The pilots were instructed to say “La ilaha illa Allah”, when they were shot down in these regions, so that their lives would be spared. Actually one of them was shot down and captured by the inhabitants. When he shouted the “magic” words to them, to his astonishment they changed their attitudes and treated him rather kindly. He has been keeping his words until this day.

These are the Muslims of “the old generation”. They found themselves as a minority group of Japanese Muslims after the war, and lived with already established foreign Muslim communities. Generally, the Japanese in those days had quite strong prejudices against Islam and their knowledge of international society was very limited. For example, in an article published in a magazine in 1958, the five pillars of Islam were described under the title “The strange customs of Mohammedans”.

The Japanese had a stereotyped image of Islam that it was “a strange religion of underdeveloped countries”. Even these days, though modified and corrected in many respects, such an image has not died out. Just a few years ago, a famous writer in social affairs could say in a TV program that Islam is a religion whose followers worship the sun.

A comparison of Japanese attitudes towards Christianity is interesting. Christianity has spread in Japan over the last hundred and twenty years as part of its Westernisation and is greatly respected even by those who do not adhere to its creeds. The population of Japanese Christians is one million, which constitutes less than one percent of the total population. Many of them, however, belong to be middle class and to intellectual circles, as demonstrated by the fact that the present Minister of Culture is a Christian writer, so their influence is much greater than their numerical strength may suggest. The spread of Christianity can be ascribed, not only to western influence but also to the long history of its presence in Japan, having arrived more than five hundred years ago.

The spread of Islam went eastwards, from India to Malaysia and Indonesia, and was blocked after reaching the southern Philippines by the Spanish colonization of the North. From there, Spanish missionaries were able to carry their message to Japan.

The Japanese invasion of China and South East Asian countries during the second world war brought the Japanese in contact with Muslims. Those who embraced Islam through them established in 1953, the first Japanese Muslim organisation, the Japan Muslim Association under the leadership of the late Sadiq Imaizumi.Its members, numbering sixty five at the time of inauguration, increased two-fold before this devoted man passed away six years later. The second president of the association was the late Umar Mita, a very dedicated man. Mita was typical of the old generation, who learned Islam in the territories occupied by the Japanese Empire. He was working for the Manshu Railway Company, which virtually controlled the Japanese territory in the north eastern province of China at that time. Through his contacts with Chinese Muslims, he was convinced of its truth, and became a Muslim in Peking. When he returned to Japan, after the war, he made the Hajj, the first Japanese in the post-war period to do so.

He also made a Japanese translation of the meaning of the Quran from a Muslim perspective for the first time. Thus, it was only after the second world war, that what can properly be called “a Japanese Muslim community” came into existence. In spite of the initial success, however, later developments were quite slow in terms of membership.Though many Islamic organisations were established since the 1900s, each of them has only a few active members. There is no reliable estimate on the Japanese Muslim population. Claims of thirty thousand are without doubt an exaggeration. Some claim that there are only a few hundred. This probably amounts to the number of Muslims openly practicing Islam. Asked to give an estimate on the actual number of Muslims in Japan, Abu Bakr Morimoto replied, “To say frankly, only one thousand. In the broadest sense, I mean, if we do not exclude those who became Muslims for the sake of, say marriage, and do not practice then the number would be a few thousands.”Apparently such a slow development is due partly to external circumstances. Japanese traditional religious atmosphere and highly developed materialistic tendencies must both be taken into consideration. But there are also shortcomings on the part of the Muslims. There exists a difference in orientation between the old and new generations.

For the old generation. Islam is equated with a religion of Malaysia, Indonesia, or China etc. But for the new generation, these East Asian countries are not very appealing, because of their western orientation, and so they are more influenced by Islam in the Arab countries. “The old generation have lived closely connected with non-Japanese Muslims,” points out Nur Ad-Din . “It is an excellent act in the spirit of brotherhood. But on the other hand, we cannot deny its side effect, that is, this way of life could not prevent other Japanese from thinking of Islam as something foreign. How to overcome this barrier is a problem to be solved. It is a task for us, the younger generation.”

When visiting Muslim countries, the remark that Japanese Muslims are the minority religious group always brings a question from the audience, “What percentage of Japan’s total population are Muslims?” The answer at the moment is: One out of a hundred thousand. Nevertheless, the younger generation has aspirations. Perhaps some day it will be said that Islam is a popular religion in Japan.