TOKYO, 17 July 2004 — Imam Cemil Ayaz makes it clear when he sits down for a chat about Islam in Japan, terrorism is not up for discussion. In fact, says the prayer leader and director of Tokyo’s most prominent mosque, don’t even mention the word.
“Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of love,” said the Turkish imam through an interpreter. Like the imam, many Muslims in Japan struggle to disassociate their religion from images of militancy and violence.
Although they make up only a fraction of the nearly 2 million foreigners here, the Sept. 11 attacks, Iraq and reports that a suspected Al-Qaeda agent recently lived here have intensified the focus on the Muslim community, and not in a good light.
“Since Sept. 11, I think the attitude of people in how they look at Muslims has changed,” said Mohammad Zubair, a freelance journalist who reports on the Islamic world for Japan’s media. Zubair says his wife, a Japanese who converted to Islam and now wears a headscarf, often gets the cold-shoulder from fellow Japanese.
“The other (Japanese) women, they keep their distance, like she’s someone from another planet,” he said. It’s a familiar tale for Japan’s Muslims, who number about 100,000 — more than 90 percent of whom are not Japanese. Part of the problem, some say, is the media. In the wake of 9/11, Japan’s media have paid more attention to followers of Islam, and not always in a positive way, says Manami Yano, secretary-general of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan.
“You hear a lot more being said about Muslims, people from the Middle East and Arabs,” she said.
“For example, on television there have been comments like ‘there are a lot of terrorists among Muslims and Arabs, so we should crack down hard on them.’ If regular people hear that, they end up believing it. So it’s no mystery that people get stirred up,” she said.
The country’s first Muslim community was established in the early 20th century, when a small number of Central Asian Muslims, fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, took refuge in Japan. In the 1980s, as the country’s economy boomed, Japan became a destination for foreigners seeking work, including Muslims.
Drawn from such places as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and several African nations, followers of Islam form an international group in a nation that has long prided itself on homogeneity.
“(Muslim) people have reached every corner of Japan,” said, Abdul Rab Shaji, a founder of the Islamic Center Japan. There were few resources for Muslims when Shaji first came from Pakistan in the 1970s. He spent his first four years as a vegetarian because he couldn’t find halal, or approved, meat.
Today, he says, the country is home to about 25 permanent mosques, around 200 temporary ones and more than 100 Islamic organizations. Despite advances, though, Islam still doesn’t command the same respect that, for example, Christianity does, says Kumiko Yagi, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Only 1 percent of Japanese, who mostly practice a blend of Shinto and Buddhism, are practising Christians, but Christian churches, or mock replicas, are popular with couples who see “Western style” weddings as fashionable.
“In Japan, Christianity is said to be a religion that loves peace,” she said. “But with Islam it is different ... Islam is associated with underdeveloped countries and with war.”
Some Muslims say that association and the linking of Islam with the militant group Al-Qaeda have also led to harassment.
Mohammad Jassery, 38, says that before he was deported to Pakistan in 2003 for over-staying his visa, Japanese police grilled him. The topic? Al-Qaeda.
“They asked me if I belonged to the Taleban, if I belonged to Al-Qaeda,” he said in a phone interview. Police dispute the charge, saying that in an arrest for visa violation, the police would normally ask about citizenship.
“(Questions about the Taleban and Al-Qaeda) are not the kinds of things we would normally ask,” said Hidemi Shigeta, assistant chief of the Tokyo police station where Jassery said he was detained for three months.
Jassery, who lived in Japan without a break from 1988 to 2003, is sticking to his version of events.
“I am very disheartened,” he said. “What does it matter if I am Muslim or Christian or Buddhist?”