The 'Sleeping Muslims' of Japan - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The 'Sleeping Muslims' of Japan

The 'Sleeping Muslims' of Japan

By Sanjena Sathian


Because there are other narratives of Islam.

By Sanjena Sathian

Sitting in the fourth-floor library of his place of worship, Yoshi Date recounts the story of his spiritual becoming. It is not unlike what you might hear from an eager Westerner gone East to find meaning. Except for Yoshi, it has gone the other way: the Japanese 24-year-old, raised in a nominally Buddhist family, became fascinated by the Abrahamic traditions during college in Western-minded Australia. While seeking, he turned to the Bible. Not fully satisfied, he turned next to the Quran. 

Date, who works in a shop selling internet contracts, recalls, “I didn’t know what Islam was all about — just knew about some bombings and all of that.” One night, he had a dream: Bombs were going off, guns were firing, and he was crouched behind a car. Suddenly, from behind him, he heard a voice calling, Allahu akbar. The voices swelled: Allahu akbar. Date woke up and Googled the phrase; he doesn’t recall ever hearing it before. He began living as a Muslim, cutting out pork and alcohol, studying the Quran. When he returned to Tokyo after college, he took the Shahada — the ceremony declaring Allah to be the only God, and Muhammad his prophet. 

Today, we’re in the Otsuka Masjid, a mosque in a residential neighborhood in Tokyo. Afternoon prayers have ended but the mosque thrums with sundry types: a white American stops at the library sink to wash his face and hair before eating lunch. Outside, a woman in full burqa speaks Japanese into her cellphone. A gaggle of Pakistani immigrants chat in Urdu and English. Better known as a homogenous nation where Buddhist and Shinto traditions have mixed syncretically for centuries, Japan is also home to this slice of faith: a small but growing group of Muslims, consisting of converts like Date and migrants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere. 

Japan is slowly and bumpily coming to terms with its need for foreign workers as its labor force shrinks; emigrants from across Asia and the Middle East may work as laborers or as unskilled workers.

It’s difficult to say how many Muslims reside in Japan, because the government never asks its citizens to declare a spiritual affinity. Here’s what we do know: Their ranks are growing — a 2006 paper by researcher Hiroshi Kojima put the total Muslim population at 5,300 in 1984; 30,000 in 1995; and 56,300 in 2003. Current estimates vary; a 2008 paper from the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research calculated the total number of immigrant Muslims at 70,000 to 80,000.

Two flags fly outside the Tokyo Camii, nodding both to Japan and the Turkish heritage of the mosque.

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Why the growth? Japan is slowly and bumpily coming to terms with its need for foreign workers as its labor force shrinks; emigrants from across Asia and the Middle East may work as laborers or as unskilled workers. They also arrive to take advantage of higher-skilled business opportunities, perhaps enrolling in the country’s universities (often more prestigious than the schools in their home countries). In the latest sign of change, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — as part of his eponymous “Abenomics” program designed to revitalize the nation — promised in June to butter the path for more foreigners to join the island nation’s economy. 

Haroon Qureshi, a Pakistani businessman, came to Tokyo in 1991 as a student. Active in the city’s Muslim scene, Qureshi is known for organizing, educating and generally centering immigrants who arrive feeling lonely and stateless. He is grateful for his home in Japan, his Japanese wife and his son, a chubby schoolboy who looks distinctly East Asian while conferring with his father in fluent Urdu. Like his peers who left Pakistan, Qureshi considered going west to America or Canada. He is happy he didn’t. “What if I had been in the U.S. on 9/11?” he asks. “Definitely, I would have been in jail.”


Religion in the traditional Western sense does not tint the identities of most Japanese. Certainly, Japan is home to Zen and Pure Land Buddhism and pre–Buddhist Shintoism, but around half its citizens identify as “not very religious,” according to surveys by the Japanese broadcasting company NHK. Those people are likely to practice Shintoism, which aligns with Americans’ notion of atheism. Qureshi says this lack of spiritual identity makes Japanese ripe for conversion, like “sleeping Muslims.” But University of San Francisco anthropologist John Nelson, an expert in contemporary Japanese religious practices, warns us not to mistake an absence of belief for a dearth of practice. He says many Japanese view religion as “something you can put down and pick up as you need it.” Japanese often turn to Buddhism, with a cosmology referencing an afterlife, when dealing with death; Shintoism, which addresses the material world, comes up at birth. A wedding might mingle the two. 

Which explains why monotheistic traditions have rarely succeeded in attracting followers here. Nelson’s summary: “Why would somebody become a Christian or a Muslim and limit themselves to only one brand name?” he asks. Indeed, Christianity at one point looked poised to take off as Japan opened up — reluctantly and belatedly responding to global shifts in trade and advancing technology — toward the end of the 19th century. Christians set up universities, which elites and intellectuals attended. “Many times, those were the only show in town,” Nelson says. “Yet even with their position of power and influence, Christians were still not able to create a mass movement or make people see what was in it for them.” Experts estimate that fewer than 1 percent of Japanese identify as Christian.

Today, Nelson notes declining numbers of traditional templegoers and Shinto-shrine attendees — blame it on the modern attitudes of young people, who can find community outside parochial institutions. But temples are responding, he says, and won’t go down easily. Then there are a few fringe belief systems, like the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which drew from Indian and Tibetan Buddhism and gained notoriety for its 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. 

Might Islam’s quiet entrance into Japan offer a model for peaceful integration? 

So while Islam may not go mainstream, curiosity and even love have broken down traditional barriers for some 10,000 converts — many of whom are Japanese women who take the Shahada in order to marry foreign men. Their stories are a twist in the postwar history of local women marrying white gaijin  (foreigners). Take Qureshi’s wife, Fatima IjimaThey wed in 2000, two years after Ijima converted to Islam. On this day, Ijima is teaching a class of small children in the tall, cramped building that is the Otsuka Masjid. She is shy, almost defensive, when Qureshi and I knock on the door to ask for her time.

The Tokyo Camii is a Turkish-style mosque; its finely painted ceiling and external architecture alike could be seen on a mosque in Istanbul.

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Here, the women keep to themselves, and yet Ijima’s path to embracing Islam was paved by progressivism, and mirrors Date’s. Having grown up irreligious — with a father that she says “believed he himself was God, and that is all” — she was studying in New York and searching, dogged by a feeling that “there is one God, who created us and who manages everything, controls everything.” She read, flirting with most religious traditions she says, and upon returning to Japan turned to Islam. Today, her husband is a citizen, and most of their friends are Muslim. Ijima’s parents, whom she lives near and cares for, aren’t exactly happy with Islam; they don’t like any religion but find Islam particularly irksome because of her clothing — a loose-fitting, enveloping hijab — and its association with terrorism. Nevertheless, when she visits their house, she says her father sometimes tells her she looks nice in her headscarf.


At a time when Islam is often linked with its most extremist factions, might the religion’s quiet entrance into Japan offer a model for peaceful integration? Perhaps, but the country may instead demonstrate the inverse of what cities such as London and Paris have seen — things may be harmonious because of a lack of integration: Japanese culture, not exactly known for welcoming foreigners, tends to encourage minority communities to keep to themselves. Indeed, writes Chandra Muzaffar, a Muslim Malaysian activist who works on global peace and Islam, Muslims’ extremely small presence in Japan “limits how much Muslims in Japan can learn from Muslims and the practice of Islam in Malaysia.” The core lesson, he says? Something like the Golden Rule … “be accommodative and inclusive in one’s outlook.” Most immigrants I spoke with insisted they’ve never faced discrimination. Qureshi generalizes that Japanese people are inherently unprovoking. Ahmad Almansour, a Syrian professor of Middle East–Japanese relations, agrees. “The Japanese are very peaceful. They won’t even kill a cat,” he says.

Multiculturalism here, if you want to call it that, shows its face mostly in the form of business opportunities. Near urban centers, you can find halal-certified restaurants, serving food permitted under Islamic dietary guidelines; in fact, there are around 200 in Tokyo, many offering bento or other Japanese fare, according to Plus, a few exporters have seized the chance to ship halal wares abroad, supplying the Southeast Asian market. Musa Mohammad Omer, a board member of the Islamic Center of Japan, gets called to inspect the facilities of companies seeking the halal label. Another ICJ member, Yousry Elhamzawi, teaches Arabic to older Japanese students. An Egyptian immigrant who has lived in Japan for 10 years, Elhamzawi says most of his students register for the class out of curiosity, or to conduct business with the Middle East.

Elhamzawi’s classes are held in the shadow of the Tokyo Camii, the city’s main mosque built in the Turkish style, all elegant patterns and muted worship. Women can, but are not required to, sit on the second level apart from men. A handful of middle-aged ladies, half hijab-wearing, are squatting there today, speaking in hushed voices and fiddling with iPhones between meditative pauses. I think of something Ahmad said when I’d asked about discrimination: The Japanese authorities are always watching the Muslims. The difference, he noted, is that they don’t treat Muslims as Westerners do. “They come around mosques like the Tokyo Camii, but they are very peaceful,” he said. “They mostly just arrange things, helping us park our cars.”

It’s a narrative that can serve the Islamic community well, one of easy, amicable trust between those who would persecute and those who would be persecuted. Is there sufficient desire to keep that narrative alive? Too soon to say, but if you believe nations aspire to live up to their own fictions, you might have faith that this story of coexistence is enough to maintain the peace.

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