TOKYO -- Recent years have seen increasing numbers of students and workers coming to Japan from Islamic nations, and mosques are being established in regions across the country.
According to an investigation by Hirofumi Tanada, a professor of Asian social theory at Waseda University's Faculty of Human Sciences, at the end of 2018 there were 105 mosques in 36 of Japan's 47 prefectures. Rather than just being places for worship, they serve a number of community functions, including offering a chance for followers to socialize and for education. But as more mosques are established, questions over how they can successfully coexist with Japanese society have emerged.
Just past midday every Friday, the sound of prayer, "Allahu akbar," echoes from the Islamic Research Center Japan, located on the fourth floor of a building in the outskirts of Yawata, Kyoto Prefecture, western Japan. Between 50 and 100 local Muslim residents are gathered at the center.
Ramzan Mirza, 53, who runs a trading company nearby, bought the building 10 years ago and opened it as a mosque eight years later. He came to Japan from Bangladesh some three decades ago. The area has many firms related to the used car business, and gradually more people from Muslim-majority countries have gathered here. "My company's business had stabilized, so I decided I wanted to make a space that could be helpful to Muslims here," he said.
Muhammad Ali, 37, came from Bangladesh to Japan six years ago to work in the used car trade. He said, "I can only go back to my country once a year. It's lonely being so far away from my wife and young children, but I feel calmer being able to come to this place near my home."
Khalid Sultan, 30, works in the same industry. Originally from Syria, he came to Japan seven years ago with his younger brother, 25, to flee the country's civil war. The majority of his immediate family and relatives now live in Turkey. "It's sad but I can't go back to my country. But, if I can meet my friends here, that problem goes away," he said with a smile.
Before this mosque opened, nearby Muslims had to ride connecting trains for almost two hours to get to the Kobe Muslim Mosque, in the city of Kobe in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo. Mirza has plans to register the Yawata mosque as a religious corporation, and also aims to make it a center for Islamic research in a partnership with Japanese university staff.
Muslims are required by their faith to pray fives times a day, in the direction of the holy city of Mecca. The Friday prayer is considered a particularly significant part of believers' duties to the faith, and followers are encouraged to offer the prayer at a mosque.
Japan's first mosque was the Kobe Muslim Mosque, established in 1935 by Turkish and Indian residents of the country. According to professor Tanada's research, there were just three mosques in Japan at the end of the 1980s.
But in the latter half of the decade, many people from Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others came to Japan as laborers. Many worked in the construction business and other sectors that were booming during the bubble economy. Next, there was an influx of trainees and other workers from Indonesia, and the 1990s and 2000s saw a concomitant rise in the number of mosques.
In that time, the number of trainees and study abroad students from Muslim-majority regions increased further, as did the population of long-term Muslim residents. In 2014 there were 80 mosques, jumping to 105 by the end of 2018.
In the past they were found primarily in areas with a large concentration of manufacturing plants, such as the region in and around Tokyo, the Chukyo metropolitan area around Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, and western Japan's Kansai area where Osaka and Kyoto are located. But recently, there has been a marked uptick in moves among students from Muslim-majority countries at regional universities, especially those in prefectural capitals, to start new mosques.
Professor Tanada estimates that there are around 200,000 Muslims living in Japan. Among them, around 43,000 are believed to be Japanese nationals, including those who converted for marriage to a Muslim partner.
Japan's largest mosque, Tokyo Camii in the capital's Shibuya Ward, sees 700 to 800 people arrive at its doors for Friday prayers. The worshippers are from a range of places, such as Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and African nations.
Some people cannot enter the packed building, instead rolling out a sheet or prayer mat in front of it. The mosque has classes for the Quran and Arabic, to which some are regular attendees. Japanese Muslim Shigeru Shimoyama, the 70-year-old public relations head at the mosque, said, "Believers come from all around the Kanto region, as do tourists from Islamic countries. For the faithful, this is like a place of sanctuary."
But the mosque is highly sensitive to the way it is perceived by its neighbors. During Friday prayers and other days when large events take place, the street leading into the mosque is often filled with people during admission and exit times, and many cars are parked on nearby streets.
Shimoyama said that this summer, there were many worshippers out in the street, leading to traffic snarls. A woman riding her bicycle who lives nearby reportedly said, "This is why I hate Islam."
"Even now there is prejudice toward Islam. To be accepted by the community, we are paying special attention to issues around how trash is disposed of, noise in the streets, parking cars on streets and other things," Shimoyama said. At times, the mosque also invites its neighbors to culinary events and other occasions.
With the number of mosques rising in regions across Japan, disputes have also emerged even before the centers are established. The Kanazawa Masjid, a mosque in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, central Japan, primarily set up by study abroad students at Kanazawa University, was met with opposition by a neighborhood association when plans for it emerged in 2012.
Looking back on that discussion, 61-year-old Ken Muroi, then head of the association, said, "There was no prejudice toward the faith itself, but at the time there were many incidents involving Muslims taking place abroad. So, some residents aired opinions like, 'I'm worried there'll be trouble her if a mosque is built,' and, 'I want them to build it elsewhere.'"
Others reportedly said that they were worried about property values dropping in the area if the mosque was built, and one family apparently even moved away in protest.
After half a year of talks, the neighborhood association drew up a document asking the mosque to keep noise to a minimum, to control nighttime entry and exit to the property, and to be thorough in their management of fires and locking up. The mosque agreed to the requests.
It also asked for the withdrawal of plans to give the mosque's exterior an Islamic aesthetic in favor of a standard residential look, which the mosque also acceded to.
It was completed in August 2014. The mosque has since joined the neighborhood association as an entity, and young Muslims have also taken part in efforts to clean up the local area and shovel snow. In short, it is now a part of community life.
Seiji Matsui, 46, a Japanese Muslim serving as the Ishikawa Muslim Society's deputy chair, who has dealt with negotiations with residents, said, "Before it (the mosque) was built, people even asked me if it had any connection with al-Qaida. By engaging with them directly and being patient in my explanations, I was able to get them to understand."
(Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Integrated Digital News Center)