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Japan's Muslim communities face local opposition to creating Islamic burial sites

Saeed Zafar is seen on Oct. 16, 2020, mourning his first son who was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Tsujimoto)

OITA -- The number of Muslims in Japan has reached 230,000 people, and while Halal and other parts of their culture and customs have become more widespread in the country, there is an issue of great concern to the Muslim community -- there are almost no graves for them to be buried in as befits their beliefs.

    In Oita Prefecture, southwestern Japan, one plan to build a Muslim cemetery has experienced setbacks from unexpected opposition by residents. In Buddhism, the deceased are cremated and then interred, but Muslims are buried after death. It appears that Japanese people's resistance to the now-unfamiliar sight of burial grounds and anxiety toward the faith itself are behind the pushback.

    In the Quran, Islam's sacred text, it says that dead Muslims will be restored to life, and that to do so they will need their corporeal bodies, thereby making burial the chosen way to be interred in the religion. For this reason, Muslims cannot be interred in standard Japanese cemeteries, in which people are cremated and then their ashes entombed.

    Saeed Zafar, 39, was born in Pakistan and works as a company employee in the Oita prefectural city of Beppu. He too has been distressed by the issue of Muslim burials. In December 2011, he lost his first son after he was born prematurely. But in the Kyushu region of southwestern Japan, there are no cemeteries for Muslims. For Zafar, who came here in 2000 and has obtained citizenship, Japan is his home country. A cemetery that allows for burials and is run by a Catholic church in the city offered to let his son be interred there, and Zafar was finally able to send his child to the afterlife.

    But now there are no more empty plots at that graveyard, and the Muslims around Zafar were worried about what to do. Then, the Beppu Muslim association, a religious corporation, set about trying to build the first Muslim cemetery in Kyushu, and in December 2018 it purchased a plot of land measuring about 8,000 square meters in the prefectural town of Hiji.

    Japan's Graveyards and Burials Act does not prescribe any limits on cemeteries for burials. Some municipal authorities have ordinances forbidding burials, but Hiji has no burial ban regarding local graveyards, and as long as Mayor Hirofumi Honda grants permission, the Islamic cemetery can be built.

    The purchased land is situated in a mountainous area about 3 kilometers away from the nearest settlement of homes and fields, and is adjoined to a graveyard that allows both for general internments and Catholic burials. Tahir Khan, 53, the association's representative, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I thought that we would be able to solve the problem."

    But in explanatory meetings held from February to May in a number of local areas, the organizers faced an unexpected interruption to their plans. Among the comments in resistance to the graveyard were, "If there's a powerful earthquake, then won't the bodies come out from the ground?" and, "It will hurt the image of this town." Some residents even petitioned the town government and assembly to stop the graveyard being built. Originally the association had planned to open the site to burials in September, but even now they still haven't received permission to build the cemetery.

    Hiji does have an ordinance that asks residents to make considerations not to cause concerns over sanitation, but the town government's living and environment section has taken a stance that the proposed site has "no issues regarding public health." Khan expressed his despair, saying, "I worry what will happen to us after we die. If it goes on like this we won't be able to even mourn our dead." He added, "Long ago in Japan it was common to be buried. We want Japan to be more tolerant towards different faiths and cultures."

    The local ordinance doesn't require the agreement of residents. Asked whether he will grant permission, Mayor Honda has stated, "We are examining the documents submitted by the association. We will make a decision consistent with the town's ordinances and the national government's guidelines."

    Tahir Khan, a representative of the Beppu Muslim association which has plans to open an Islamic cemetery, is seen at the Beppu mosque in Oita Prefecture, on Sept. 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Tsujimoto)

    In the period immediately after the war, around half of all Japan's deceased were being buried upon death, but now almost everyone is cremated. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, in fiscal 2018, 99.97% of the around 1.4 million people interred in Japan were cremated, and of the 472 people buried, 355 of them were stillborn fetuses. Even among Catholics in Japan, who formerly were often buried, it has become more common for them to be cremated, thereby introducing further difficulties for Muslims to secure burial sites.

    In 2010, Tokyo-based religious corporation the Japan Islamic Trust made plans to build a cemetery in a mountainous part of the city of Ashikaga in Tochigi Prefecture, eastern Japan. But the project was forced into cancellation due to opposition efforts from residents. The organization's secretary-general, 54-year-old Haroon Qureshi, reflected on the events of the time, saying, "People even said discriminatory things to us like 'Islam is scary.' We weren't thinking about forcing the building of the burial ground, we had to accept that all we could do was give in."

    But there have also been acts of cooperation that went beyond religious differences making burials possible. A non-religiously affiliated cemetery managed by a temple in the city of Joso in Ibaraki Prefecture, eastern Japan, made a corner of its land with 500 plots available for Muslim burials. The temple master decided to accept them after learning about their difficult situation.

    According to religious corporations including the Tokyo-based Japan Muslim Association, there were more than 100,000 Muslims in Japan in 2010. By 2019, that number had risen to an estimated 230,000 people. Their population is expected to continue growing, but there are only around 10 cemeteries in Japan that accept burials, including those that are not exclusively for Muslims. Furthermore, there are no places for them to be laid to rest that are further west than the city of Kobe.

    Yoko Nagae, a professor at Seitoku University and an expert on the culture of funerals, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It seems there's discomfort about the idea of being buried in Japan, but for Muslims, cemeteries are places that comfort the dead and serve as a place for them to wait until they are restored. In the case of Oita Prefecture, the organizers have picked land that doesn't create issues over public health, and which is situated in the mountains where local residents would not be bothered. For a diversity of funeral cultures to coexist, we must deepen our understanding of one another and move forward."

    (Japanese original by Tomohiro Tsujimoto, Oita Bureau)

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