Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Islam and Muslim integration have gained a significant place in the public debate in the West. The presence of these terms in Western political discourse seems to contrast with the absence of information about the situation in other parts of the world. Yet, as show the Japanese, ways of looking at and dealing with Muslim immigration differ greatly across the world.

With an estimated number of 100,000 on a population of 127 million, Muslims in Japan form a very small minority. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. One explanation stresses the still relatively fresh relationship between Japan and the Islam. The country only got in touch with the religion around 1900, when refugees from Central Asia formed a small Muslim community. This is different from Japan’s contact with Christianity, which reached the country a long time ago and is widely accepted in Japanese society. The Muslim community only grew significantly since the 1970s, when Pakistanis and Iranian migrant workers arrived.

Others argue that Japan has deliberately built an “iron wall” around the country that makes immigration by Muslims practically impossible. Supposedly, the government is not willing to provide citizenship rights or permanent residency permits to Muslims, and companies are refusing to employ them. This is not proven though, and it seems that Japan in general is rather strict on the immigration issue.

Whatever reason may explain the small number, for the Muslims that live in Japan, it is often hard to fully practice their religion. For instance, it is relatively hard to find halal food; and in the traditional Japanese working culture it is difficult to get days off for a pilgrimage. The Islam is still an unfamiliar religion to most Japanese and a sensitive issue that is often avoided in debates.  Adding to that, the indigenous Shinto religion shares few common grounds with the Islam, but still forms the backbone of Japanese society. This has contributed to cultural ignorance on both sides, and sometimes led to prejudices.

Despite some complicating factors for Japanese Muslims, the relative unfamiliarity of their religion is not always seen negatively. A blog post on the website of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs argues that, contrary to some Western countries, “there has been no move to restrict Islamic practices or expel Muslims.” The issue is rarely treated in the public and political debate, and headscarves are said to be allowed in the public sphere. And, as the author emphasizes, “no newspaper in Japan published a satirical cartoon lampooning Islam.”

Picture: Japan’s First Mosque (1935, Kobe)

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