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By Atsushi Yamagata (The University of Wollongong)

[Forthcoming in NVJS 11, scheduled for release in early July 2019.]

This paper examines the history of Muslims in Japan from late 19th century to present, then draws on a combination of recent incidents in Japan and media content analysis to evaluate how Islam and Muslims are perceived in present-day Japanese society. References and footnotes have been removed from this excerpt. 


Kobe Mosque, 2010. Source: Mosque in Japan by Lmadcap, via Flickr (public domain).

Although some scholars point out that there has been interaction between Japan and the Muslim world from as far back as the eighth century, it is from the end of the 19th century that communities of Muslims began to form in Japan. From the end of the 19th century, Indian merchants, most of whom were Muslims, started to reside in international port cities such as Yokohama and Kobe. From the 1920s, Tatar Muslims fleeing the Russian revolution migrated to Japan through Manchuria and Korea and formed communities in cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe and Kumamoto. Following the arrival of these Muslims, three mosques were established in Japan in the 1930s. In 1935, Kobe Mosque, which was the first mosque in Japan, was established, followed by Nagoya Mosque in 1936 and Tokyo Mosque in 1938.

While the establishment of Kobe Mosque and Nagoya Mosque was initiated by Muslims, Tokyo Mosque was established in a different context: it was a part of the Kaikyō Seisaku’ (Islamic policy) of the Japanese government of the time, and was established with support not only from Japanese politicians but also from military officials. Particularly after the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese government had begun to seek cooperation with Muslims in its foreign policy with a view to making use of local Muslims in its advancement into North China and South East Asia, both of which had large Muslim populations at the time. To promote interaction between Japan and Muslims, some Islamic research institutes were also founded by the government under its Islamic policy. […] There are no official statistics about the Muslim population in pre-1945 Japan, but Tanada posits that it did not exceed 1,000 between 1931 and 1945 even by the most generous estimation.

After the end of World War II, the Islamic research institutes were dissolved or banned by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers during the Allied occupation of Japan, as they were regarded as part of Japan’s military campaigns. In addition, most of the Tatar Muslims, who had been the largest group among the Muslim population of Japan, migrated to the US or Turkey as they were granted Turkish citizenship in 1953. As a result, the Muslim population in Japan in the 1950s is estimated to have dropped to only a few hundred.

The number of Muslims in Japan remained quite small in the decades after the war, but has grown since the late 1980s. From the late 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s, Japan experienced a rapid increase in immigrant workers from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran, where the majority of the population is Muslim. At that time, the Japanese economy was in its bubble phase and the yen was strong, so immigrant workers came to Japan to earn income for remittance back to their home countries. They were employed in factories or construction sites which were experiencing labour shortages. In the 1980s, Japan had Visa Waiver Agreements for tourists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran. It was illegal for those on short-term residency to work in Japan, but there were many people working without a valid visa or overstaying after their resident status expired. Under these circumstances, at the beginning of the 1990s, it is estimated that the number of non-Japanese Muslims in Japan reached more than 100,000. However, as the number of undocumented foreign workers increased rapidly, the Japanese government suspended the Visa Waiver Agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1989 and with Iran in 1992. After this, the entry of people from those countries into Japan decreased rapidly and, as the Japanese government tightened control over undocumented immigrants, most of them went back to their countries of origin.

While the majority of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Iranian people who came to Japan between the late 1980s and early 1990s left Japan, some obtained long-term resident status through marriage and remained. Most of the Muslims who had come to Japan from those three countries were males in their 20s or 30s, and marriages between Muslim men and Japanese women increased around this time. […] Some of these men, especially Pakistanis, owned successful businesses in areas such as used car export and the food industry, and lived stable lives in Japan both legally and financially.

After the influx of Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran had ended, Muslims from Indonesia started to come to Japan from the 1990s as technical intern trainees or students. Numbers of Indonesian nurses and caregivers also increased from 2007, following Japan’s signing of an Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia. Furthermore, as the Japanese government has been promoting a policy of increasing its international student intake, the number of Muslim students coming to Japan has also grown. As a result of these initiatives, the number of non-Japanese Muslim residents in Japan has gradually increased over the past decade. Based on foreign resident statistics, Tanada estimates that the number of non-Japanese Muslims was around 100,000 in 2010 and that it had reached around 130,000 as of 2016. […]

In addition to the growing number of non-Japanese Muslim residents in Japan, the number of Japanese Muslims is also growing due to intermarriage between non-Japanese Muslims and Japanese, and the children born to these families. …[T]here were around 40,000 Japanese Muslims living in Japan, in addition to Muslim foreign residents, as of 2016[, and] around 170,000 Muslims in total living in Japan at that time. Moreover, the increase in foreign tourism to Japan in recent years has seen a rapid increase in Muslim tourists. This has mainly been due to the introduction of visa-free tourist travel for Indonesians and Malaysians, the depreciation of the Japanese yen and the growth of low-cost air travel. According to the Japan Muslim Travel Index compiled by Crescent Rating in 2017, the number of Muslim tourists arriving in Japan was around 150,000 in 2004 but reached 700,000 in 2016, with 27% from Indonesia, 23%from Malaysia and 5% from Singapore. At the time of writing, more than one million Muslim tourists were expected to visit Japan in 2018.

As the Muslim population in Japan has grown, the number of mosques in Japan has also increased. Until the late 1980s, there were only four mosques in Japan. However, this number started to rise rapidly from the 1990s. […] Muslim immigrant workers who came to Japan in the 1980s were working in industrial areas on the outskirts of big cities, so the demand for new mosques in those areas increased. In 1991, a group of local Muslims raised funds through donations and succeeded in creating a new mosque in Saitama prefecture by purchasing an existing building and renovating it. Since then, new mosques have been established in many parts of Japan. […] As of October 2017, the number of mosques in Japan had reached 102.


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