The History of Islam in Japan
Islam's relation with Japan is quite recent as compared to those
with other countries around the world.
There are no
clear records of any contact between Islam and Japan nor any historical
traces of Islam's coming into Japan through religious propagation
of any sort except for some isolated cases of contact between individual
Japanese and Muslims of other countries before 1868.
Islam was firstly
known to Japanese people in 1877 as a part of Western religious
thought. Around the same time the life of prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
was translated into Japanese. This helped Islam to find a place
in the intellectual image of the Japanese people, but only as a
knowledge and a part of the history of cultures.
contact was made in 1890 when Ottoman Turkey dispatched a naval
vessel to Japan for the purpose of starting diplomatic relations
between the two countries as well introducing Muslims and Japanese
people to each other. This naval vessel called "Ertugrul"
was capsized and sank with 609 people aboard drowning 540 of them,
on its way returning to home.
The first Muslim
Japanese ever known are Mitsutaro Takaoka who converted to Islam
in 1909 and took the name Omar Yamaoka after making the pilgrimage
to Makkah and Bumpachiro Ariga, who about the same time went to
India for trading purposes and converted to Islam under the influence
of local Muslims there and subsequently took the name Ahmad Ariga.
However, recent studies have revealed that another Japanese known
as Torajiro Yamada was probably the first Japanese Muslim who visited
Turkey out of sympathy for those who died in the aftermath of the
shipwreck of the "Ertugrul". He converted to Islam there
and took the name Abdul Khalil and probably made pilgrimage to Makkah.
The real Muslim
community life however did not start until the arrival of several
hundred Turkoman, Uzbek, Tadjik, Kirghiz, Kazakh and other Turko-Tatar
Muslim refugees from central Asia and Russia in the wake of the
Bolshevik Revolution during World War I. These Muslims who were
given asylum in Japan settled in several main cities around Japan
and formed small Muslim communities. A number of Japanese converted
to Islam through the contact with these Muslims.
With the formation
of these small Muslim communities several mosques have been built,
the most important of them being the Kobe Mosque built in 1935 (which
is the only remaining mosque in Japan nowadays) and the Tokyo Mosque
built in 1938. One thing that should be emphasized is that very
little weight of Japanese Muslims was felt in building these mosques
and there have been no Japanese so far who played the role of Imam
of any of the mosques.
War II, an "Islamic Boom" was set in Japan by the military
government through organisations and research centers on Islam and
the Muslim World. It is said that during this period over 100 books
and journals on Islam were published in Japan. However, these organisations
or research centers were in no way controlled or run by the Muslims
nor was their purpose the propagation of Islam whatsoever. The mere
purpose was to let the military be better equipped with the necessary
knowledge about Islam and Muslims since there were large Muslim
communities in the areas occupied in China and Southeast Asia by
the Japanese army. As a result, with the end of the war in 1945,
these organisations and research centers disappeared rapidly.
Boom" was set in motion this time in the shade of "Arab
Boom" after the "oil shock" in 1973. The Japanese
mass media have given big publicity to the Muslim World in general
and the Arab World in particular after realizing the importance
of these countries for the Japanese economy. With this publicity
many Japanese who had no idea about Islam got the chance to see
the scene of Hajj in Makkah and hear the call of Adhan and Quranic
recitations. Beside many sincere conversions to Islam there were
also mass conversions which are said to have amounted to several
tens of thousands of conversions which took placeduring those days.
However, with the end of the effect of oil shock, most of those
who converted to Islam disappeared from the scene.
TOWARDS A NEW
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."
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 Dawa 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
DA'WA IN JAPAN
of Islam in Japan reveals therefore some random waves of conversions.
In fact, religious campaigns are no more successful for other divine
revelations or "new religions". The statistics indicate
that some 80% of the total population believe in either Buddhism
or Shintoism while as few as 0.7% are Christians. The latest results
of a poll conducted by a Japanese monthly opinion magazine imply
however an important caveat. Only one out of four Japanese effectively
believes in any particular religion. The lack of faith is even more
pronounced for Japanese youth in their 20s with an alarming rate
of atheism as high as 85%.
direct agents of da'wah represented by the Muslim community in Japan
with its estimated one hundred thousand believers is itself extremely
small compared with the total population of more than one hundred
and twenty million citizens. Students together with various kinds
of workers in precarious conditions constitute a large segment of
the community. They are concentrated in big urban cities such as
Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo but are seldom organised
into established units in order to conduct effective programs of
da'wah. In fact, the Muslim students association as well as some
local societies organise periodical camps and gatherings in an effort
to improve the understanding of Islamic teachings and for the sake
of strengthening brotherhood relations among Muslims.
There is a continuous
need for Muslims to withstand pressures to conform to the prevailing
modern lifestyle which appeals to the passionate element of the
soul. Further difficulties are faced by Muslims with respect to
communication, housing, child education or the availability of halal
food and Islamic literature, and these constitute additional factors
hindering the course of da'wah in this country.
The duty of
da'wah is frequently perceived as the single obligation on Muslims
to preach Islam to non-Muslims. However, important calls for reform
(islaah) and renewal (tajdeed) constitute also distinct forms of
da'wah to Muslims. A betterment of the level of Islamic knowledge
and living conditions of the Muslim community is therefore by itself
the very da'wah needed in Japan. One should bear in mind however,
that unless the attitudes of indifference and passivity of Muslim
residents in Japan with respect to Islamic issues of congregational
aspect are changed, the risk of the community being uprooted and
diluted through severe distorsions of the Islamic belief will indeed
grow higher. This likelihood is in fact pertaining to the permanent
exposure of Muslims to the influence of many Japanese customs and
traditional practices such as deep bowing as a form of greeting
and collective participation in religious festivities and temple
is perhaps being felt in more acute terms for Muslim children who,
in the absence of any Muslim kindergartens or schools constitute
indeed easy targets for the transmission and cultivation of unIslamic
cultural and social habits. The remarkable lack of educational institutions
of Islamic character is also reflected by the existence in all over
Japan of a single mosque which resisted with fadhl from Allah s.w.t
to the great Hanshin earthquake that nearly destroyed the city of
Kobe on the wake of January 17 of this year. There are permanent
efforts to build or transform housing units into masajids in many
other cities and with the help of the Almighty, such good enterprises
are expected to bear fruits in the very near future insha'Allah.
of Islamic teachings introduced by the western media stands to be
corrected in a more efficient approach that takes into consideration
the significant feature of the Japanese society of being one of
the world's most literate countries. Yet, because of poor distribution,
even translations of the meanings of Quran into Japanese language
are not publicly available. Islamic literature is virtually absent
from bookstores or public libraries to the exception of few english-written
essays and books that are sold at relatively high prices.
As a result,
it should not be surprising to find out that the knowledge of ordinary
Japanese about Islam is modestly confined to few terms related to
polygamy, Sunnah and Shia, Ramadhan, Makkah, Allah the God of Muslims
and Islam the religion of Muhammad ! Will Islam echo louder in Japan
? With increasingly significant evidence of a responsible recognition
of its duties and rational assessment of its limits and capabilities,
the Muslim community is showing stronger commitment to accomplish
its task of da'wah in a better organised fashion. There are indeed
strong hopes that the future of Islam and Muslims will be better
than their past inshaAllah as we believe that if Allah (s.w.t.)
helps us, none can overcome us.
1. Islam in Japan: It's past, present and future. Islamic Centre
2. Arabia, vol.5, no.54. February 1986/Jamad al-Awal 1406.Prepared
Br. Nabil Bin Mohammed El-Maghrabi, OSAKA - JAPAN
Br. Mohamed Ahmed Soliman, KYOTO - JAPAN
Br. Mehmet Arif Adli, NAGOYA - JAPAN