Land of the Rising Crescent: Muslims in Japan & Japanese Muslims

Hitomi Tsukidate and Imam Yenturk

Islam in Japan has an interesting history. Like most things in this country, it didn’t just happen by accident. The first Muslim community in Japan was established at the invitation of the Emperor Hirohito, as part of Japan’s greater geopolitical ambitions, which sought to embrace Islam as a potential weapon to use against China, the Soviet Union and the British Empire, all of which had significant Muslim minorities.

A secret 1943 document by the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), entitled Japanese Infiltration Among the Muslims Throughout the World, states that the Japanese even spread rumours that the Emperor himself was close to accepting the faith of Mohammed.
“Japan can appeal to Muslim missionary zeal by hinting at the opportunity of large-scale conversions among the Japanese,” the document, made accessible through the UK’s National Archives in 2004, reported. “Instead of posing as the magnanimous protector of Islam, Japan can make a plausible showing as an eager seeker after the truth. Under these circumstances, rumors judiciously planted here and there that the Emperor might consider turning Muslim, are bound to take root and spread.”
The policy of identifying the Emperor with Islam started soon after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and was spearheaded by the members of the ultranationalist Black Dragon Society (Kokuryukai). As part of this policy, a number of Muslim publications and groups were set up, Muslims were invited to Japan to study, and a group of Turkic Muslims from Soviet Central Asia were granted refugee status and allowed to set up the first mosque in Japan at Yoyogi Uehara in Tokyo.

Yoyogi Uehara Mosque
Lavishly rebuilt and reopened in 2000 with economic support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this mosque is now the central symbol in Japan of Islam, a religion that has been increasingly encroaching on the public consciousness of non-Muslims since the events of 9/11 and the suicide bombings in Madrid, Bali, London, and elsewhere that have been carried out since.

Indeed, these events, as well as the endless series of crises from the Middle East, have greatly colored the public perception of Islam, making it seem like a religion of strife and fanaticism, in keeping with its origins in the war-torn deserts of 7th century Arabia, and the character of its founder Mohammed, who was as much a warrior as a holy man. One of the main questions surrounding Islam these days is whether it really is a ‘religion of peace,’ as most Muslims claim, or whether it is a ‘religion of intolerance and submission’ that only allows true peace to those who unquestioningly accept it, as some critics claim.

Whichever one it is, it is certainly one of the fastest growing forces in the World today with some 1.5 billion adherents (over 20% of the World’s population). On current demographic projections, it is also set to get bigger and is predicted to overtake Christianity as the World’s largest religion by mid-century.


To find out more about this fascinating and controversial religion and how it is starting to impact on Japan and the Japanese, TJ paid a visit to Tokyo’s largest and most impressive mosque, the Tokyo Camii Mosque in Yoyogi Uehara and met up with its affable young imam, Ensari Yenturk. The popular Western image of an imam is of a fierce-eyed, bearded, old zealot calling for jihad or pronouncing a fatwa on some unfortunate writer, artist, or journalist. Yenturk, by contrast, is young, softly-spoken, and doesn’t even have a beard (although he does have a moustache).
“This is basically a Turkish designed mosque,” he says of his workplace, the elegant Camii Mosque, which is decorated with marble imported from Turkey and the Mediterranean, and which adds a welcome note of exoticism to the bland modernist cityscape of Tokyo. “The main aim of building this mosque is, of course, the worship of Muslims, but this is also a cultural center and we are holding some special programs here, like marriage ceremonies, special dinners, theater, and exhibitions promoting tourism to Turkey.”
Yenturk himself is a Turk, coming from Eskisehir, a small city in Western Turkey, involved in the production of F16 military aircraft. Before coming to Japan one and a half years ago he was based in Izmir, a large city on the Aegean Sea, where North European tourists, dressing and behaving like anywhere else in the Mediterranean, are a common sight.

Although overwhelmingly Muslim since the expulsion and extermination of most of its Christian Greek and Armenian populations in the troubled years of the early 20th century, Turkey is now officially a secular state in which religion is excluded from the highest circles of power, so the form of Islam practiced by Yenturk is relatively moderate and modern in its outlook, making it a good fit for Japan. So, what is the essence of Islamic belief for Yenturk?
“People are free,” he says, using the word that has the most appeal to people in the modern World. “If somebody thinks like this, this is their opinion. If somebody thinks like that, that is their opinion. Of course there are some rules that can never be changed. If you don’t accept these rules you can never be a Muslim. But small things – no problem.” 
Small things, in this case, even include whether somebody feels free to drink alcohol or not. However, among the tenets that must be accepted by all Muslims are the oneness of God, a belief in an afterlife, the conviction that the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible, as well as the Kora, are the books of God, and the belief that the main prophets mentioned in those books – Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed – are all prophets of the same God.
“If you accept this, there is no big problem with Islam,” he says. “For example, I always say to visitors, the Koran came to the Prophet Mohammed during 23 years. Not in one year. There is a big wisdom in this. If somebody becomes Muslim, I say to him ‘Don’t worry, don’t rush – gradually, gradually.’ For example, alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but, of course, Muslim people are also free. If you become Muslim, you don’t have to give up alcohol today. This is not easy, because you are people, you are human. Some Muslim people drink alcohol. So alcohol is not big problem. After belief grows up in your heart, gradually you can give up things like this.”


Nao Alkurt
This tolerant and flexible approach is suitable for a mosque that serves a diverse congregation that sometimes numbers as many as 500 for Friday prayers. The largest contingent is from Pakistan, followed by groups from Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Africa, and the Arab World, as well as 10 to 50 Japanese Muslims. The one group conspicuous by its absence is Japan’s relatively large group of Iranians. Being Shiites, they prefer not to frequent this Sunni mosque, even though, according to Yenturk, the differences between these two main Islamic sects are much smaller than those between Catholic and Protestant.

Despite its earlier encouragement of Islam, Japan’s strict policy on immigration, which seeks to preserve social harmony by maintaining a largely homogenous population, means that the number of Muslims in Japan is still comparatively small. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000. Because of this, any significant rise in the number of Muslims in Japan will depend more on conversions than immigration, so what sort of appeal does Islam have for Japanese people?
“In my opinion, there are many things in Islamic belief and Japanese culture that are similar,” Yenturk answers. “For example, Japanese people work hard in a good way and if they make a promise they keep it. This is of course the same as the orders of Islam. So, if they can understand the oneness of God, I think there is no big problem for them to accept Islam.”
But the main problem Islam faces as a proselytizing religion is that attempts by foreign religions to convert the Japanese have usually met with failure. After some initial success in the late 16th century, Christianity was famously rejected by the Japanese and then brutally stamped out. Following the opening of the country in the 19th century, extensive attempts to promote Christianity through missionary work and the founding of Christian hospitals, schools, and universities had a negligible impact, with the present day number of Christians estimated at less than 1%. The only truly successful religious import into Japan was the first, Buddhism, which came here from the 7th century onwards and was part of a wider cultural infusion from China. So, what hope can Islam have?
“Sometimes I meet Japanese people here who went to Muslim countries as tourists,” Yenturk replies. “For example I met here one lady who went to Bangladesh. Of course, Bangladesh is a very poor country but that lady became a Muslim in Bangladesh. Why? Because when she looked at the people they were happy, although they were poor. What is the source of happiness in this country? she wondered. She researched and she found that the reason was Islam. So she accepted Islam.” 


To find out more about the appeal of Islam for Japanese people, TJ next interviewed two Japanese converts Hitomi Tsukidate, a 21-year-old man who has adopted the Muslim name Mustafa, and a 32-year-old woman Nao Alkurt, who is married to a Turkish citizen, and whose Muslim name is Ayshe. While Tsukidate, dressed in a checked shirt, is visually indistinguishable from Japanese non-Muslims, Alkurt, in a headscarf is visibly a Muslim.

The dome of the mosque.

An important factor in Tsukidate’s conversion was an earlier attachment to Christianity.
“My family, including 6 brothers, are all Catholic,” he explains. “At first I had no wish to give up Christianity. I merely wanted to know about other religions. I read books about Hinduism and Buddhism, but I couldn’t find any books about Islam, so finally I came to the mosque to research. When I started to study Islam, I found they had the angel Gabriel, which is the same as Christianity. Because I came from a Christian background, it seemed less alien to me.” 
In Alkurt’s case, because she is a Japanese woman married to a Muslim man, people assume that she converted because of her husband. However, this is not so.
“No, that’s not it,” she laughs. “I actually met my husband after I converted, here at the mosque.”
An important factor for Alkurt was overseas travel. For example, when she stayed in Cambridge in England for a few months to study English, she had the opportunity to meet Muslims and overcome the default negative image that Islam has through its association in the news media with war and terrorism.
“At first when I talked to them, I had a bad impression of Islam, a terrorist religion or something like that,” she remembers. “But talking with them I couldn’t imagine such a situation at all. Then I started to think about Islam by myself not through the media.”
A subsequent trip to Malta, where she experienced an unusual piece of good luck, also helped by convincing her that there was indeed a God.
“After I arrived at the airport, I got a taxi, but the taxi driver wanted more money,” she recalls. “When I wouldn’t pay, he just dropped me off in the wrong place. I didn’t know where I was or what to do, but then a man walking his dog asked me if I was alright and, although it was far away, he turned out to be the neighbor of the house where I was going to stay. Then I really thought there is a God.”
After graduating, Alkurt worked as a nurse for a while, before another trip to England to study English, followed by a visit to New Zealand where she finally converted to Islam. Ironically, the city where she was staying at the time was Christchurch. For someone like Alkurt, who obviously likes being abroad a lot, one suspects that a great part of the appeal of Islam is that, in a sense, it enables her to ‘live overseas,’ even when she is in Japan, although she rejects this suggestion.
“Even when I was very young, I thought about religion a lot – Christianity, Buddhism,” she contends.
Her family’s reaction to her conversion was muted. Typical of Japanese parents, they didn’t really mind except that they were concerned about what the neighbors would think.
“At first I didn’t wear the headscarf all the time,” she says. “But, step by step, whenever I went to the mosque for Friday prayers, I started to wear it. Then my Mother said just before I went to mosque, ‘What a scarf!’ or ‘Why are you wearing a scarf like that?’ They didn’t like it when many people stared at me.”
For similar reasons, Tsukidate keeps his Islamic cards very close to his chest. None of his colleagues at his new job know that he is a Muslim, while only two friends at his former college know.
“When one of my friends opened my bag and found a book on Islam I had to explain that I was one,” he explains. “When I started to work, my Muslim brothers gave me advice, saying I didn’t need to be pious so soon but could do this step by step. I started to work in April, and after we joined there were two parties. At that time I drank alcohol with my new colleagues because I didn’t want to break the relationship.”
Japan no longer seeks to use Muslim populations in other lands as ‘Fifth Columnists,’ as it did in the pre-war and war years, but maintaining good relations with the Muslim world is obviously important to a country that imports practically all its oil from the Middle East. But, while Islam is set to be a rising religion in many parts of the World over the coming decades, there are several key factors that will limit its growth in Japan.

These include Japan’s strict immigration policy and the reluctance of most Japanese to stand out or be seen as different. Even those strongly attracted by Islam’s spiritual message may want to keep their religion private and even secret. For a religion that has always thrived on being very public and collective, this may be a real handicap.

Tokyo Journal
September, 2006
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