Islam, the beacon of light in Japan

By Nadeem Malik

Religion in Japan

People in Japan have a unique relationship with religion. They opt for teachings of Shinto and Buddhism, when and where it satisfies especially for ceremonial purposes, mainly during occasions such as marriages, births and deaths.

The Japanese, perceived generally as not very religious people however take refuge in religious rituals and temple worship, at times just to find peace of mind. Having one of the highest suicide ratios in the world, the average Japanese feels distressed and lonely in the highly mechanical and stressful Japanese way of life. Islam and teachings of Islam then give relief to these people in distress.

"I find great inner satisfaction and peace when I come and visit the Mosque," stated one Japanese lady, who is basically a follower of Buddhism, but also practices some rituals of Christianity in her everyday life. She found that verses from the Holy Qur'an have some sort of soothing effect on her soul, and she feels more calm and free.

She, along with three other ladies, were sitting in complete respect and great devotion, when a Muslim (perhaps from Turkey) was reciting from the Holy Book. Wearing scarf on their heads, they were trying to absorb every word and its healing effect on their body and soul.

One of these ladies said that Islam attracts Japanese people due to its message of peace. In her words, she described it as closer to Buddhism, which more than 80 percent of Japanese follow.

Early Japan

Having a monarchy system dating back centuries, the Japanese believe that the first emperor was crowned in 660 BC and that he was a descendant of the Sun goddess, as stated in the Shinto religion. So, the Japanese believe that all emperors are descendants of the same imperial family.

Initially, emperors only had symbolic powers till the Edo period, which preached the worship of emperors like gods due to their heavenly nature. Modern-day Japan, however, corrected this tradition back to its original status by assigning symbolic powers to the emperors under the 1946 constitution.

Islamic or Muslim history in Japan does not have century old links in this part of the world. As a matter of fact, it would not be wrong to say that there was no religious preaching or contact between Islamic scholars and Japanese people till the end of the 19th century.

The evolution of Islam in Japan

The first knowledge of Islam and the Muslims started with the translation of some work on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the Japanese language. Then, an alliance with the Turkish government was formed to develop closer trade links. With this association there was more direct contact between the two civilizations.

According to Japanese history, the first known Muslim Japanese was Mitsutaro Takaoka, who embraced Islam in 1909, with a new name of Omar Yamaoka. Islam's widespread appeal and development of the Japanese Muslim community started only after the First World War (WWI), when Muslims from Central Asia migrated to Japan. A number of the Japanese then embraced Islam when they saw the impressive and appealing attitudes of these Muslims from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kurgystan and Kazakhstan, who were given refuge in Japan. These were also the first Muslims who built the first Mosque in Kobe in 1935.

During the Second World War (WWII), a lot of work was done to apprise the Japanese people, mainly those serving in the army, about Islam and the Muslim community. Later, the oil-driven interests of the Japanese economy, was another factor that brought them closer to the Arab world.

The Japanese society today

The modern Japanese society is more work oriented, duty-bound and very materialistic. The traditional Japanese family unit is also becoming weaker in the modern world due to a variety of socio-economic factors. Modernity, western fashion appeal, lifestyle, and above all, economic reasons have greatly influenced the Japanese social and cultural values.

From Tokyo to Kyoto, even the traditional Japanese Kimono dresses are now only used during fashion shows. The young Japanese of today prefer to adorn western attires, which are commanding high prices all over Japan.

The Japanese who once started off as hunters, gatherers and fishermen now lead a life surrounded by high technology.

One official survey estimated that only one in four Japanese actually believe in any religion of the world. Christianity makes 0.7 percent of the religion practiced in Japan, and Islam perhaps only 0.2 percent. Although there is no availability as to the number of Japanese Muslims, there is a perception that Islam is making waves in Japan.

Many Japanese believe that Islam would become an even more accepted religion in this part of the world due to better realization and understanding of the faith which has been brought about by the growing number of marriages taking place between Muslims and non-Muslim Japanese. There also seems to be a good number of Japanese students currently enrolled in Arab Universities, which have enabled the Japanese community to yet again have closer contact with the Muslim world. All these developments are expected to influence more of Japanese life in the coming years.

Apart from that there are many small-scale organizations at community levels in Japan that have been set up to facilitate better understanding of the Muslim faith. Even students at Japanese Universities have formed small Islamic unions and groups on campus to do their bit to maintain their religion.

There is also a fairly large migrant Muslim community in Japan who have contributed immensely in preserving solidarity among the Japanese Muslim Ummah. These migrants, most of who hail form the Indian-subcontinent have also made a name for themselves as self-supporting entrepreneurs who have contributed to the staggering Japanese economy.

The Islamic Center of Japan is perhaps the best organization facilitating the Muslim community. The center arranges for seminars, dialogues and conferences that help the Muslims promote a better understanding of Islam.


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