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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

THE ZEIT GIST

Muslim groups bridge gap in understanding

Islamic community enjoys relative peace despite backlash against extremism


Special to The Japan Times

Ensari Yenturk says that one of the greatest difficulties for some Muslims in Japan is organizing time off work for Friday prayers.

Yenturk's grievance may seem minor, as recent years have seen a societal rift develop in other countries between Muslim and non-Muslim populations. But this reflects the fact that Muslims in Japan, say their leaders, have escaped much of the antipathy and targeting experienced by those in Europe and elsewhere since 2001.

News photo
DOCTORS SALIMUR RAHMAN KHAN and Mohammed Fathi are pictured outside the Islamic Center Japan, in Tokyo's Setagaya ward. "Before 9/11...we were very free," says salimur, but "nowadays some people...don't want to beside me." TREVOR CLARKE PHOTO

Japan's growing Muslim community has not been totally spared the response and reaction to extremist atrocities, however. Funding to Islamic centers has been cut, as donors grow wary of contributing money to Muslim groups for fear of being linked to terrorist financing.

And there have been some instances of harassment. A Quran was ripped apart and scattered in front of a Muslim shop in Toyama Prefecture in 2001, and several mosques received abusive calls following the Sept. 11 attacks the same year.

There was also considerable anxiety and a crackdown of sorts following reports that a man living in Niigata between 2002-03 had been laundering money for al-Qaida.

Despite these incidents, many of Japan's Muslim leaders believe the community -- which numbers anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000, depending on who you ask -- has enjoyed relative peace and acceptance.

The director and Imam of Tokyo Jamii and Turkish Cultural Center, Yenturk stresses the positives of his time in Japan since arriving in Japan two years ago from Turkey.

"Everything is okay here," the Imam says during an interview at the Yoyogi Uehara Mosque. For the imam and his family, Japan has been largely welcoming.

Nevertheless, aside from a basic knowledge of food and prayer, the imam doesn't believe the Japanese understand much about Islam except that which they get from the media, which isn't always complimentary.

"I don't think Japanese people believe that Islam is bad," he says. "However, people don't know much about Islam, so maybe this is, while not a problem, an obstacle. I think this is the same as anywhere in the world."

Fostering understanding in the community is something Sekolah Republik Indonesia Tokyo in Meguro has sought to achieve. As a school catering principally to Indonesian Muslims, they often have large events. On these days, local residents are presented with small gifts.

Indonesian Kholid Sholeh, a teacher at the school, also feels Muslims here have a good life.

Having lived in Jeddah on a different assignment, Kholid has experience as an ex-pat in both Muslim and non-Muslim cities.

"Even though Jeddah is a Muslim place and it's the embryo of Islam over there, the people over there don't apply the Muslim way correctly," he says. "In Japan, they are not Muslim, but their values and the way they live fits well with the Muslim way."

Like the imam, Kholid also feels that there is a dearth of information and understanding about Islam in Japan. "People only really understand Islam on the basic level."

School principal Sumarwato, who teaches some Japanese Muslim converts, agrees. "There are quite a lot of Japanese who are interested in Islam but the problem is language," he says.

Both men expect more dialogue to occur between Muslims and Japanese in the future. "There are a lot of Japanese who would like to learn about Islam but they don't know where to go," Sumarwato says.

The Islamic Center Japan, in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, is seeking to fill this information gap and provides a place where Japanese can learn about Islam from Muslims.

For over 30 years, the multicultural center has been educating Japanese, including government officials and media groups.

One of their main activities has been to translate Islamic books into Japanese. "Other organizations don't have the books. We supply them because the Japanese language is difficult, and to translate religious books into Japanese is even more difficult," the center's Salimur Rahman Khan says.

The center also organizes symposiums and interfaith gatherings, accepts and assists Muslim converts and answers the public's questions about Islam.

Significantly, the center, through its contacts, played a pivotal role in helping secure the release of three Japanese NGO workers taken hostage in Iraq.

Despite such efforts, however, the center is facing severe difficulties.

"Nowadays we are very short of funds," Salimur says. "This is the biggest effect on us since Sept. 11. Before we had about 40 people who were working at the center. There were about six or seven Japanese: half were women, half were men. There were also some other foreigners who know about Japan." Now only volunteers remain.

Those associated with the center, including Salimur, who is also a professor at Chuo University, have had to find other jobs.

As a religious organization, the center runs on donations, which have dried up for a number of reasons, some of which relate to the U.S.-led crackdown on donations to charities.

The professor thinks some former donors, mostly from the Middle East, are now afraid as they might be mistakenly identified as terrorist sponsors, and cease donations.

Salimur also thinks many older Japanese are afraid of Muslims since the Sept. 11 attacks. "Before 9/11 . . . we were very free," Salimur says. "Nowadays some people . . . don't want to sit beside me. It's mostly old people."

"My feeling is they are afraid. Maybe they think I have done something bad."

Despite these issues the professor, who has been here for 25 years, is happy with his life in Japan and maintains a positive attitude. "There have been many changes," he explains. "We have more facilities now through which people can join in our religious activities, and the number of Muslim families is increasing."

Through marriage, the number of Japanese Muslims has grown over the years, with the center claiming it receives anywhere from one to three Japanese interested in converting to Islam per week.

But compared to expatriate Muslims, Japanese Muslims have a somewhat tougher time. In fact, although rare, some converts hide their new identity from their family, colleagues and friends. One convert at the center specifically told the staff, "please don't send any letters to my address. If you want to contact me please send me an e-mail."

As perhaps the most prominent researcher on Muslims in Japan, Waseda University Professor Keiko Sakurai says Japanese Muslims often face greater discrimination because of society's expectations of them.

For expatriate Muslims, their experience is relatively positive. "It's difficult to generalize, but I think that the majority of Muslims here are not facing big problems, if we compare the situation with that of France or Britain," Sakurai says.

One reason is the residential spread of Muslims in Japan. "If you go to London they have made a kind of closed community, but in Japan we cannot find an equivalent," she says.

"Japanese people are not very interested in religion, so a lot of people accept the costume and way of living, not as religious, but as ethnic culture."

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