A part from the natural hurdle of the sea which surrounds the islands of Japan, the spread of Islam into Japan was impeded by the occupation of nearby islands in south-east Asia by the Portuguese and Spanish. Christianity was first brought to Japan in about the 15th century. But after some time, the rulers appear to have decided that the preaching of the Christians was a ruse to conquer their lands, and they shut off their country altogether from outside influence. This ban endured from the end of the 16th century till the latter half of the 19th. Whatever little information about Islam reached the Japanese during these centuries did so through the Christian missionaries. When Japan ‘opened’ once again to the world outside, these missionaries again spread rapidly through the country.
Japan’s first diplomatic relations with a Muslim country begin at the end of the 19th century with the arrival of Japanese emissaries to the Ottoman government. The Ottomans sent the battleship Ertugrul to Japan to establish mutual goodwill between the two countries. On its way back to Istanbul the ship met with a typhoon: out of 656 persons on board only 69 survived .These were rescued by nearby villagers who had mobilized in the middle of the night. Two volunteer journalists, TorajiroYamada (1866-1957) and Osotora Noda, came to Istanbul in 1892 to deliver the donations which had been collected in campaigns all over Japan for the relief of families of the victims of the disaster. Sultan Abdul Hamid II asked the two journalists to stay on in Istanbul for two years in order to teach Japanese to some officials of the Turkish army. During this period both of them embraced Islam, and they are therefore celebrated as the first Japanese ever to become Muslim.
In 1902 an Ottoman emissary, Mohammed Ali, came to Japan and negotiated with Japanese government officials to build a mosque in Yokohama Harbour for the thirty or more Muslim traders who had recently settled in Japan. However, this effort did not prove fruitful.
During the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) almost 5000 Tartar Muslim captives were accommodated in various detention camps in Japan. Japanese officials segregated them from Russians and fixed appropriate places for their prayers. A number of Egyptian army officers said to have served alongside the Japanese army as volunteer observers of the war married Japanese wives, had children and stayed on in Japan.
Rumours of a religious conference to be held in Tokyo in 1906 circulated widely in the Christian and Islamic world. The occasion was billed as the Japanese calling for a conference to compare world religions and choose the one they regarded as the best. Although there was a suspicion that the rumour was originated by Christian missionaries seeking to put Muslims at a disadvantage, many concerned Muslims responded and made ready to travel to Japan. In spite of the fact that some of them arrived in Japan, there is no certain evidence that a Muslim delegation attended the conference.
The first orderly propagation of Islam was started by the Egyptian, Ahmad Fadly, in 1909. He held three conferences to clear the bad image of Islam among the Japanese created by Christian missionary pamphlets attacking the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. Fadly’s speeches were delivered in English but some were translated and published in Japanese media.
Abdul Rasheed Ibrahim (1852-1944), a Tartar Muslim scholar and traveller who determined during a trip to Japan in 1908 to dedicate his remaining years to the propagation of Islam in Japan, expended great efforts to gather the Muslims in Japan into a formal association. After several months he managed to establish the Japan (Asia Gikai) Assembly. This organization was headed by Abu Bakr Ohara and a piece of land to build a mosque was provided for it. One Mitsutara Omar Yamaoka embraced Islam and went on pilgrimage to Makka in the company of Abdul Rasheed Ibrahim. On his return he and Bumpachiro Ahmad Ariga, a Japanese trader who had accepted Islam in Bombay at about the same time, started to preach Islam together.
Mohammed Barakatullah, a Professor of Urdu, arrived in Japan in 1909 and, with Ahmad Fadly, began to publish a journal called Islamic Fraternity. As Barakatullah attacked British imperial policy in India and the Islamic world, this journal was soon stopped due to British pressure. However, Hasan Hatano who adopted Islam at Barakatullah’s hands, published several journals after that.
Between the World Wars
The first Muslim community in Japan came into being in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution with the arrival of several hundred Turko-Tartar Muslims from Central Asia. By 1923, the number of these Muslim refugees exceeded three thousand and they were given asylum by the strongly anti-Communist Japanese government. Under the leadership of Muhammad Abdul Hai Kurban Ali (1890-1972), who was provided with the job of teaching Turkish and Russian to the Japanese military, the Muslims in Tokyo improved their situation rapidly. They opened a school in 1927 which was later also used as a mosque for Friday and Id congregations until 1937. In 1931 with the support of non- Muslim Japanese an office and an Arabic printing press were set up. With this assistance, a monthly magazine in the Tartar language, and the first Arabic printing in Japan of the Qur’an were realized.
Muslim traders from India reached significant numbers after World War I in Kobe. With the migration to Kobe of Turko-Tartars, the Muslim population there increased to such an extent that it became necessary to have a mosque. The Kobe Mosque was built in October 1935 with donations, a great portion of which was given by Ferozzuddin of Calcutta. For the opening ceremony of the Kobe Mosque Ayas Shaky Bey, president of the Idel-Oural Turko-Tartar Muslims in the Far East, wrote:
At the present time when political conditions in Muslim countries are rather strained, when all the world is giving a secondary place to religion, when Russia makes its fundamental policies on the basis of atheism and anti-religious principals in general, the Muslims here are to be congratulated on having built .... the first historical mosque in Kobe.
Another mosque was built in Tokyo in May 1938 through the active efforts of the same Kurban Ali, with support mainly from Japanese political and business circles, as well as government leaders all of whom were non-Muslims. This mosque was demolished because of irrecoverable damage in 1986, and a new one was projected. Turko-Tartar settlers built another mosque in Nagoya around 1938 but it was destroyed during air raids in 1945 and they too migrated to Kobe.
During and after World War II
During World War II, interest in Islam gathered pace rapidly through organizations and research centres on Islam and Muslim World set up by the military government. It is said that during this period over 100 books and journals on Islam were published in Japan. However, these organizations or research centres were not managed by Muslims nor was their purpose in any way to propagate Islam. Their only purpose was to equip the military with such knowledge about Islam and Muslims as might be useful to them to govern the large Muslim communities in the areas they occupied in China and south-east Asia. Not surprisingly, after the end of the war in 1945, these organizations and research centres disappeared rapidly.
The first Islamic organization recognized in Japanese law as a religious entity in Japan, now called the Japan Muslim Association, was established in 1953 with Sadiq Imazumi (1905-60) elected as its first president. Its membership in 1959 was almost entirely made up of indigenous Japanese Muslims, a characteristic which this association has continued to maintain. Another organization, Islamic Centre- Japan, came into being in 1966 consisting mainly of foreign (i.e. non-Japanese) Muslims. Both associations have gone a long way to propagate the message of Islam in Japan by arranging seminars and publishing books etc. They have also sent many young Japanese Muslims to Muslim countries for Islamic training and education.
Another wave of interest in Islam and the Muslim world was triggered by the so-called ‘oil shock’ of 1973. On realizing the importance of these countries for the Japanese economy, the Japanese mass media gave considerable publicity to the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. Many Japanese who until then had no idea about Islam got the chance to see scenes of the pilgrimage in Makka, and to hear the call to prayer and recitations from the Qur’an. The number of Japanese Muslims showed a sharp increase during this period, especially after a well-known medical doctor, Dr Shawqi Futaki (1900-94), embraced Islam and, together with some senior staff members of his clinic, established the Japan Islamic Congress. Unfortunately this organization is no longer functioning and its members, most of whom accepted Islam during the ‘oil shock’, have dispersed.
In 1976 a co-ordinating body, the Council of Islamic Organizations in Japan, was formed to unify Muslim organizations in the country (there were over a dozen at that time), and Professor Abdul Kerim Saitoh (b. 1908) was elected as the co-ordinator.
Between 1920 and 1970 five Japanese translations of the Our’an were published. Leaving aside the question of the translators’ competence in Arabic, it is not certain that they were Muslim. It was not until 1972 that the long-cherished desire of all Muslims in Japan for a Muslim Japanese translation of the Qur’an was realized when Umar Ryochi Mita (1892-1 983), a former president of the Japan Muslim Association, published his translation: he had devoted some 13 years of his later life to this task. During the 1970s the number of Japanese Muslims increased and well-prepared leaders emerged among them. The Osaka Mosque, opened in 1977 with Alhaj M. Mustapha Komura (b. 1912) as its leader, was the first mosque to be established and managed by Japanese Muslims alone.
Islam in Japan today
It is an admitted fact that Japan is a hard land for Islam to penetrate, not only on account of its religious culture but also its rushed imitation of Western materialist civilization and the indifference to religious values that is a part of the cultural baggage of that civilization. After World War II the Japanese Constitution was reformed and a clear separation of politics and education from religion was instituted. As a result, ordinary Japanese youngsters nowadays do not know what religion they belong to. On the other side, the abnormal growth of a few new religious cults suggests that Japanese youngsters are in search of a way to satisfy their spiritual needs.
By and large, the Japanese people get their information about Islam mainly from Western! Christian oriented and managed news organizations. Hence they do not have a good impression of Islam. In a recently broadcast television interview, a Japanese stated that Islam was a religion to be afraid of simply because he did not know enough about it to think otherwise. Although several pamphlets and explanatory books have been published in Japanese, the need for reading materials on Islam, particularly on the interpretation of the Qur’an, is still enormous.
Though quite late, a new mosque on the site of the former Tokyo Mosque is about to be built with the sponsorship of the Turkish government. One of the editors of a monthly Islamic Newspaper says that although such a mosque is quite important in the capital, what is more important is that its community should be led by an imam with a very strong character both in faith and morality and competent in the Japanese language.
Until recently Japanese Muslims could not conduct their funerals in accordance with the stipulations of Islam and were obliged to comply with Japanese law which requires cremation. Thanks to the efforts of the Japan Muslim Association, a cemetery was bought in 1968 and made available to any Muslim who wants to be buried there.
Muslims in Japan worry seriously about the education of their young, for the fact is that quite a number of the children of Japanese converts to Islam are also Muslims. A modern boarding school with special arrangements for Islamic education for Muslim children is the long cherished desire of Muslims in Japan.
The number of Muslims of Japanese descent in Japan is roughly 50,000, compared to 150-200,000 Muslims of non-Japanese descent. But the younger generation have aspirations to increase these numbers. Perhaps some day it may be said that Islam is as popular a religion in Japan as it now is in most of the rest of the world.
- ABU BAKR MORIMOTO (1980) Islam in Japan, Its Past, Present and Future, Islamic Centre Japan, Tokyo.
- HEE-SOO LEE & IBRAHIM ILHAN (1989) Osmanli-Japon Munasebetleri, Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation, Ankara.
- SALIH M. SAMARRAI (1935) The Relation Between Japan and the Middle East; An Islamic Perspective, A Souvenir booklet issued in commemoration of the opening ceremony of the Kobe Mosque.