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The visibility of Islam in Japan

Tamara Khamis (photo by Tamara).jpeg

Picture by the author.

With numbers doubling in the past decade, Islam is one of Japan’s fastest-growing religions. Japan’s increased international openness has propelled the already developed nation into more rapid cultural integration, which is now becoming the focus of cultural dynamism and exchange. Japan’s interactions with the international community have resulted in an ongoing internal cultural shift. Currently, as Japanese identity is being reevaluated, national openness is on the rise and social cohesion is being tested, new discussions around religion are emerging. Existing misconceptions of Islam in Japan are now being detangled alongside changing perceptions of marginalised minority groups, such as Muslim migrants.


Considering Japan’s unique historical background and cultural paradigms, the ways in which religion interacts with one’s identity are often reflected in how the majority of Japanese individuals view religion. Religion is commonly disassociated with modern Japanese culture, meaning that Japanese people do not necessarily hold specific prejudices against Islam or any other religion, but rather may find many religious practices unfamiliar. Furthermore, the overall perception of a non-Japanese individual as the ‘other’, regardless of religious affiliation, also contributes to misconceptions about Islam in Japan. Many Japanese people refer to foreigners under one umbrella term, ‘gaijin’. Islam in Japan is often understood as a foreign ‘culture’, rather than a religious identity. Muslims are thus categorised as a monolithic foreign group, rather than a faith group comprised of many individuals from many different cultures and nations. One must inquire how religion specifically affects and informs the experiences of marginalised minorities and immigrants in Japan. Two important questions arise from this line of thought: How do migrants engage with their religion while living in Japan? To what extent is social cohesion maintained amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, regardless of ethnic background?


While the interaction between Islam and Japan can be traced back to the medieval era, it was not  until Japan’s economic boom in the 1980s that Japan saw a large influx of Muslim migrants. The majority of these migrants came from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh. With recent changes in programmes and policies regarding labour, education and asylum, Japan has also begun to attract migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The Muslim migrant community in Japan remains to be one of the most diverse migrant groups in the country, resulting in an immense cultural exchange within the Muslim community itself. Despite varying across culture, nationality, socioeconomic standing, reasons for migration, and education, they engage with each other, based on their common religious identity. 


In 2015, a collaborative effort between members of the Arab diplomatic corps and Tokyo Camii (Tokyo Mosque) established an Arabic school for children of Muslims in Japan. This created a space for the migrant Muslim community to learn Arabic alongside ethnic Japanese Muslims, as well as to socially interact and share experiences. Having volunteered in setting up this school and teaching Arabic, I could observe that the migrant Muslim community felt positive about living in Japan and found little to no resistance from the Japanese. While living there, I conducted a survey assessing migrant perceptions of Japan and found that Muslim migrants often described Japan as having an orderly, disciplined, respectful, clean, and human-serving society. Although migrant integration into Japanese society is a complex topic, many Muslims I spoke to found that life in Japan allowed them to put Islamic values into practice. Muslim migrants found that Japanese culture and its social interactions were deeply rooted in a value system not far from the values of Islam. 


Additionally, others felt that they were able to live in a way that reflected their own interpretation and understanding of Islam while in Japan. An Egyptian Muslim woman, Sarah, explained her move to Japan as ‘liberating from the confines of [Arab] culture, and a free space to practice religion independently’. Another veiled woman who preferred to remain anonymous expressed her six years in Japan as ‘the most I’ve felt at home and safe wearing my hijab’, further testifying to the ease of maintaining her religious identity. 


Social exposure and curiosity have also driven interest in the study of Islam within the Japanese context. Previous research regarding Islam in Japan was disjointed and tended to reflect Japan’s relationship with the public discussion on religion overall. Around the 1930s, Japanese scholars such as Mimasaka Higuchi, Hirofumi Tanada, Masako Kudo, Naoko Kawada, and Akiko Komura studied Islam in Japan, particularly aspects of Islam that overlapped with Shinto beliefs and values. Currently, the development of the Muslim community in Japan has reemerged as a focus of study among Japanese scholars, further testifying to changing sentiments towards the religion.


The number of Muslims has been rising with figures reaching approximately 230,000 Muslims as of 2019. Similarly, the number of mosques constructed across Japan has also risen from a mere 23 in 2003 to 114 in 2017. These numbers indicate not only the influx of migration but could also point to a more positive opinion of Islam in Japan, since Muslim migrants feel comfortable with moving there. The impact of Islam in Japan can further be observed by the striking increase of ethnically Japanese converts. The ways in which Muslim migrants in Japan have built communal spaces, channels of continued learning, and collaborative interaction with ethnically Japanese Muslims shed light on the varying attempts of minority groups to not only maintain social cohesion, but also assimilate and culturally adapt to the host culture. There are now ethnic Japanese imams leading congregational prayer at Tokyo Camii, Japan’s largest mosque. The Mosque is connected to a Turkish Culture Centre in one of the most famous districts of Tokyo, Shibuya. Furthermore, the increased tourism to Japan has not only familiarised the Japanese with Islam but has introduced new spaces for acceptance, cohesion, and adaptability.


The case study of Islam in the context of Japan is unique given that it not only demonstrates the crossroads between foreign and familiar, but also re-establishes a space for the interaction between the spiritual and practical. Religion in movement challenges the paradigms of identity, allowing for a kaleidoscope of human experience to emerge. Migration around the world has resulted in a reconstruction of identity, and especially a reevaluation of religious identification. The case study of migrant Muslims in Japan allows us to reassess the relationship between religion and migration on the measure of social cohesion between the groups. While Islam might remain foreign to most Japanese people, the social cohesion between the groups remains to be one of curiosity, understanding and reserved respect. 


Tamara Khamis

Tamara Khamis is a Spanish-Yemeni MA graduate with an academic focus on International Relations, History, Psychology and Cultural Diplomacy, currently residing in Berlin. With an extensive relationship to migration, Tamara has moved over 14 times, including two distinct periods in Tokyo, Japan. She is eager to pursue a doctorate degree in the field to further detangle and understand her own identity. LinkedIn: khtamara

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