Muslim Scholars in Japan: Contemplating Islam in a Non-Muslim Society

The following is adapted from Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto’s lecture, Muslim Scholars in Japan: Contemplating Islam in a Non-Muslim Society. It is part one of a three-part lecture series entitled ‘East Asia and Islam: Present, Past, and Future’ at the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES). The transcript has been condensed and edited for flow with some additional commentary by Dr. Yamamoto.


I suspect most people are not familiar with Islamic history in East Asia, despite the region being home to one of the world’s oldest masjids, built in seventh or eighth-century China. More recently in twentieth-century Japan, the Kobe Masjid was built with the support of foreign Tatar, Turkish, and South Asian Muslims. (You can see a South Asian influence in its architecture.) Japan has one of the youngest Muslim communities in history, making East Asia simultaneously home to both the oldest and youngest Islamic traditions established by a non-Arab.

Though I use the term “East Asia,” few of us in the region identify as such. While we were once part of the same civilization, our identities were scattered with the rise of the nation-state – a constructed social reality. Even Muslims, who supposedly share one identity as an ummah, fail to work together cohesively. Additionally, in some area studies, we attempt to divide the region: Islam in Japan, Islam in Korea, Islam in Vietnam, and so on. But how might we, in studying Islam in East Asia, use this common heritage to reconstruct our identity as one shared?

The contents of this series are as follows: I will focus first on Muslim scholars in Japan; second, on the future possibilities of creating a Japanese Islamic culture; and third, on the culture and intellectual heritage of Muslims living in East Asia. 

Though there exists some research about Islam in Japan, most studies are limited to Islam and Japanese Muslims during the Meiji period (c. 1868-1912). However, there is a huge gap between these Japanese Muslims and those living in the twenty-first century. After the end of the Second World War, Japanese Muslims were, in most cases, created by the colonial policies of the Japanese government. Some claim that those Japanese Muslims were actually fake. The government sent these Muslims to China or countries in Southeast Asia to aid the Japanese Empire’s colonial efforts in such regions by collecting information about foreign Muslims.

Some Japanese Muslims left diaries or articles about Islam, but we must be careful in analyzing their texts because, Allahu A’llam, only Allah knows whether those Japanese Muslims were truely believers or not. We must not make the same mistake of being used by some kind of government power. My aim is to reconstruct the Japanese Muslim identity so that we can be included in the ummah.

A General Picture of Muslims in Japan

There are approximately 200,000 Muslims living in Japan today. Most of them are Muslim foreigners – primarily from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia – who come to Japan as temporary workers. In recent years, the number of foreign Muslims marrying Japanese locals has been on the rise, and more foreign Muslims are acquiring permanent residency in the country. Unfortunately, there are no accurate statistics on the number of Japanese Muslims today. Estimates run anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Japenese natives, most of whom became Muslim by marrying Muslim foreigners living in Japan. Most Japanese converts are female while the male converts are rare, possibly numbering fewer than 1,000. Additionally, Japan’s second- and third-generation Muslims, with parents of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, are quite active in the masajid and Islamic culture centers. Furthermore, the Association for Japanese Muslims (Nihon Muslim Kyokai) – run primarily by Japanese Muslims who study at Azhar University or universities in Saudi Arabia – assists Muslim converts in Japan by offering classes on basic Islamic knowledge, educating second-generation Muslim children, conducting funerals, etc.

I am often asked: what is the situation of Muslims in Japan? Many assume that most Japanese people reject Islam and Muslims as alien, claiming that there is no hope of Islam growing in non-Muslim countries. While I agree that Japanese Muslims are a super minority, we must not forget that interaction between Japan and the Muslim World began only 150 years ago — our history is relatively new. From the history of Islamization, it is evident that it usually takes at least 400 years after a land has entered the Islamic ruling system for a majority of its inhabitants to become Muslim. Japan is not a Muslim country, nor is it in the process of Islamization, and its Muslim population is a relatively new phenomenon. Some Japanese have only just begun to accept the Islamic worldview.

There are three phases in the vernacularization of Islam: identification, translation, and articulation. The first phase, identification, refers to the generation of people who embrace Islam and acquire an identity as Muslim. They may practice Islam but do not have high literacy of Islamic classics, classical Arabic grammar, fiqh, tasawwuf, etc. 

Usually, it takes a few hundred years for such Muslim communities to delve into further study of Islamic classics, reflecting the second phase of vernacularization: translation. In the case of China, only the elite Muslims were able to read Arabic or Persian texts; they traveled to Arab regions or Central Asia and brought back the Islamic classics, which they then translated into their vernacular language. In Japan, I believe the translation phase has just begun.

Translation occurs when the major classics that constitute Islam’s intellectual heritage are translated into the local language. After that, we can move to the third phase: articulation. In this stage, the Muslim community acquires the intellectual ability to articulate Islamic values or concepts in the vernacular language. Through articulation, the local Muslim culture manifests Islamic ideals, in such forms as literature, song, architecture, food, etc. This three-stage process is fostered in a society over a period of several hundred years.

Many Muslim preachers and scholars are unaware of the importance of this pacing. Nowhere in the history of Islam has there been such a miracle as a charismatic person who converted 10,000 people to Islam in a single month, translated the classics into the local language, and created a local Islamic culture. Furthermore, importing Islamic traditions, as practiced in another country, toJapan does not mean that the Japanese will immediately understand them.

A famous Hadith states, “talk to the people according to their level of ‘aql [reason].” I understand this as advising that we speak to people according to their own context. In Japan, merely translating the Qur’an is not enough: We must also endeavor to spend time with those who embody the message of the Qur’an, and build a community which manifests Qur’anic ideals and values. Furthermore, in order to overcome a narrow nation-state mindset, we must expose ourselves to the broader Muslim community.

There are stages to this process which must be respected. The Japanese Muslim community is now in the second phase of vernacularization – with some members now reaching the stage of articulation – but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of cherishing these processes. Perhaps in a thousand years, we may see a Japanese Ghazali, but we must not hasten the speed.

Islamic Scholarship in Japan

During Japan’s imperial period and the Second World War , most Japanese Muslims were educated and produced by Japanese colonial policies. Thus, it is difficult to determine their sincerity; yet these Muslims produced several written works and inquiries, including Hajj records or travelogues of the Middle East and China. One Japanese Muslim, Tanaka Ipei, translated the works of Chinese Muslim scholars into Japanese, producing, for example, a Japanese translation of the Seerat An-Nabawiyyah. Tanaka also debated the affinity of Japanese nationalism or shintoism with Islam. 

In reading such works, I found them problematic in several aspects. For example, some Japanese Muslims failed to see any conflict between respecting the Japanese Empire and respecting Allah. They attempted to explain this theologically, but their arguments fall short academically and should be regarded as little more than political propaganda.

Today, some Japanese Muslims emphasize this history, linking Japan’s imperial-era Muslims to the present. However, I do not believe this to be historically accurate. After the Second World War, the activities of Japanese Muslims suddenly disappeared alongside the Japanese Empire’s support of those in China, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Additionally, among non-Muslim audiences in Japan, Japanese Muslim scholars are not at all renowned in comparison to Japanese Christian intellectuals or Asianist activists, though this may be due to Japanese Muslims acting mainly on the basis of political interests.

Furthermore, it is difficult to realize a philosophical or ethical message from their works. For example, before accepting Islam, I was influenced by Nitobe Inazo’s famous book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which discusses the philosophy of the Samurai. Similarly, other Japanese Christian works have a clear and sincere vision of improving Japanese society. Intellectuals and activists do not limit themselves to Japan’s largest cities; in Okayama City, my hometown, individuals such as Ishii Juji and Tomeoka Kousuke are revered as “Okayama’s Christian Saints.” Why, then, could the first generation of Japanese Muslims not produce intellectuals like Inazo Nitobe and Kanzo Uchimura?

Today in Japan, the Qur’an and several hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim) have been translated into Japanese. Hundreds of books on Islam cover topics such as the concept of Allah, prophethood, the meaning of ibadah, etc. However, these are very basic productions with little depth of content. Few Japanese Muslim professors and intellectuals have begun to translate books of Islamic aqīdah, fiqh, kalam, etc. In terms of fiqh, most Japanese Muslims follow the shafi’i madhab due to the influence and support of Indonesian Muslims. Having studied in Turkey, I follow the hanafi madhab, followers of which are a relative minority in Japan.

Japanese Muslim intellectuals come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Most of them received their Islamic education in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, but many also studied in Malaysia and Turkey. In addition, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran in particular have shown initiative in their activities towards Japanese Muslims in Japan. The identity and activities of Japanese Muslims are often characterized by their educational backgrounds and the agendas of the Muslim countries supporting them.

Ust. Saeed Satou

For example, Shaykh Saeed Satou currently works at the Association for Japanese Muslims and at the Arab Islamic Cultural Center, affiliated with the Saudi Arabian Embassy. He studied in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, and has produced a Japanese translation of the Quran.

Shaykh Ibrahim Sawada, a rare Japanese Shi’a Muslim, also translated the Quran and was educated in Iran and now works at the Iranian Embassy. With the Embassy’s support, many Japanese Muslims attend Al-Mustafa International University in Iran. The leading Turkish Islamic organization in Japan is Tokyo Camii,the largest mosque in Japan, that is run under the auspices of the Turkish Religious Affairs Office, which also organizes assistance programs for Japanese Muslims. They offer religious services, cultural activities, and courses in Qur’an and Islamic studies.

The Iranian Embassy, Saudi Embassy, and Tokyo Camii have each published their own Japanese translations of the Qur’an. This is particularly confusing for Japanese non-Muslims interested in Islam, as online they will find three different translations – one supported by Saudi, one by Iran, and one by Turkey. The issue is that receiving foreign aid may lead to an ideological war. In conversation with Muslim foreigners living in Japan, I heard them express the desire to introduce Islam to the Japanese. I ask them: introduce Islam for whom – for the sake of Japanese audiences, or for their own sake – to prove that their understanding of Islam is correct? This is not an external problem but one that stems from within us, Japanese Muslims, who have not yet established our intellectual independence. Few Japanese Muslims see the value of investing in Islamic education and seeking ‘ilm, which makes us vulnerable and dependent on foreign assistance that often comes with strings attached. Ultimately, this leads to Japanese Muslims unknowingly becoming puppets for the political interests of other nations.

Here, I must emphasize that I am not judging the activities of foreign Muslims in Japan. For example, I have read all three Japanese translations of the Qur’an: they were all adequate and certainly beneficial to non-Muslim Japanese. However, we must be wary of relying on others who wish to enforce their own political interests in Japan. It is pivotal that we establish our own identity and independence and invest in our own education, especially for the next generation of Japanese Muslims.


Shaykh Ahmad Maeno is one example of a Japanese scholar active in Islamic education. Traditionally educated in Syria, he focuses on youth education; he organized Sunday classes and open courses for non-Muslim Japanese audiences in universities, and teaches tajwid classes for children. Shaykh Ahmad Maeno has a vision and understands the importance of investing in the younger generation. He also recently translated Al-Ghazali’s Bidaya al-Hidaya (The Beginning of Guidance) into Japanese.


Another scholar, Hassan Nakata Ko, has a Ph.D. from Cairo University specalizing in Ibn Taymiyyah’s political thought. He worked as a professor at Yamagushi University and Doshisha University, one of the most famous universities in Kyoto. Most of the leading Japanese Muslim intellectuals who live in Japan are students of Professor Hassan.

Furthermore, his translation of the Quran was published by Sakuhinsha, a major publisher in Japan. Along with only Ibn Taymiyyah’s work, he has also translated Hanbali fiqh works into Japanese. This may be the first of Japanese literature introducing Islamic jurisprudence to Japan’s public, making Professor Hassan a pioneer of Islamic studies in Japan. His book What is Sharia is one of the first Japanese texts to explain the philosophy of shari’a in a holistic manner.

He also studied tasawwuf (spiritual excellence) under the Turkish Shaykh Nazim. In this sense, Professor Hassan is a unique figure among Japanese intellectuals due to his multifaceted educational background and his naqshbandi tasawwuf education that he gained with a Turkish Shaykh.

Not only well-connected among Muslims in Japan, Professor Hassan is also relatively popular in general Japanese academia. For example, he has been interviewed by Professor Uchida Tatsuru – one of the leading philosophers in Japan and a specialist in French literature – regarding the vision of Islam and the problems pervading Japanese society. Admirably, Professor Hassan addresses not only Japanese Muslims but also the general public. Through his work, Islamic discourse has begun to take root in Japanese society, and the words “Islam” and “Muslim” no longer sound so exotic to the general public. 

One of his latest books, How to Conquer the World, is an educational guide for teenagers. “Conquer” here refers to overcoming one’s nafs (self) and maintaining balance within the soul. The book targets Japanese teenagers feeling social pressure or stress, to whom Professor Hassan responds from an Islamic perspective. 

His wife, Shaykha Khalwa Kaori Nakata, has also made tremendous contributions to Japanese Muslim society. Considered the first Japanese ‘alima in the nation’s history, she established a Muslim newspaper in the 1980s, before which there was no medium strong enough to connect all Japanese Muslims. She also translated Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, which is, as far as I know, the first translated tafsir in Japanese. She wrote on sirah nabiyya, tasawwuf, and encouraged Japanese Muslim women to practice Islam, for example, through wearing the hijab. To those who fearfully hid their Muslim identity, Professor Hassan and Shaykha Khawla would reiterate that being Muslim is a source of pride and practicing Islam makes us more perfect. 

I myself became Muslim after reading Shayka Khawla’s book Introduction to Allah (やさしい神さまのお話), which introduces readers to the concept of Allah. At that time, I did not have the best perception of Islam, as my knowledge was completely influenced by the Islamophobic media of the West. Shayka Khawla’s book changed my life: though she had translated an Arab Islamic classic, her explanation in Japanese was so beautiful, her balagha (rhetoric) so refined, that it directly entered my heart. From the moment I finished the book, I had already made the decision to become Muslim, and I converted just one year later. Shaykha Khawla clearly envisioned the importance of expressing the beauty of Islam in our vernacular Japanese language.


The last Japanese scholar I will introduce is Mujahid Matsuyama Yohei, a student of Professor Hassan and Shaykha Khawla. Born in 1984, Mujahid received his Ph.D in Foreign Stuides at Tokyo University, and is now the leading Japanese Muslim intellectual specializing in ‘ilm al-kalam and fiqh. He has authored several books about living in Japan as a Muslim minority. Prior to his work, we were mostly focused on translating as many Islamic classics as possible; now, Japanese Muslims have begun to understand their situation and context as a Muslim minority. 

Professor Mujahid is also one of Japan’s leading scholars in the field of classical theology. In 2016, he translated Aqaid al-Nasafiyya – a short aqīdah text that covers essential Islamic creed – and provided his sharh (commentary) of over 500 pages. Many believe Islamic scholarship or tradition does not exist in Japan, yet the work of Professor Mujahid – a Japanese Muslim capable of authoring the commentary of Aqida al-Nasafiyya – proves otherwise. Consider the situations of other Muslims in non-Musim countries: few intellectuals have accomplished such a task. 

Like Professor Hassan, Mujahid is also quite active among Japanese non-Muslims. He has authored a number of essays on Islamic history and Islamic discourses in Japan for Genron (VIEWS), where leading Japanese philosophers write essays or columns. Because Japanese society has its own context, and Islamic civilization its own history, Brother Mujahid encourages that we – Japanese Muslims living as a minority in Japan – understand both Islamic scholarship and Japanese intellectual traditions. Only studying the Islamic sciences is not enough, and only knowing Japanese culture will never make us Muslim. We must achieve mastery of the two civilizations together.

Conclusion

The first phase of vernacularization – identification – has been accomplished in Japan; we are now in the phase of translation, as Japanese scholars educated in the Middle East, South Asia, or Indonesia and Malaysia now attempt to import Islamic works to Japan. Some Japanese scholars are a step ahead, such as Nakata Sensei or Mujahid Sensei, in the stage of articulation. Well-versed and well-informed in Islamic civilization, they now convey its message in our context, through the vernacular language of the Japanese. In this sense, I am quite optimistic about the future of Japanese Muslim society.

If there is any limitation within the Japanese Muslim society, it may be the lack of female scholars. Since the passing of Shaykha Kaori 14 years ago, there have been no influential female scholars among Japanese Muslims. Thus, Japanese Muslims must invest in education so they can produce and become ‘alima who contribute to Japanese society.

Lastly, I would like to introduce my own translated works introducing Islamic culture to Japanese audiences: Kitab Al-Futuwwa, written by Abu Abd al-Rahman Sulami, is considered the first Islamic book to discuss the concept of futuwwa (usually translated as Islamic chivalry). I translated this book because Muslim preachers, or those who do da’wah, always highlight the essential philosophical or metaphysical concepts of divinity in Islam, prophecy, etc. without finding similarities between Japanese culture and Islamic culture. I found a resemblance between this concept of futuwwa and the Japanese concept of bushido (the philosophy of the Samurai). As I mentioned previously, I was influenced and inspired by Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido. I hope that one day Japanese readers might read Kitab Al-Futuwwa and be similarly inspired. Futuwwa is clearly absent from contemporary Japanese society, which is capitalized and atomized, lacking the vision to help others for the sake of the Divine. 

Another project of mine involves introducing the concept of tasawwuf through a comparison of Shonen manga. Japanese manga and animation are not mere entertainment, but a method of maintaining the importance of traditional values such as mastership, discipleship, tawba (repentance), and spiritual rebirth. Thus I extracted narratives from Shonen manga to introduce Sufi concepts of Islamic civilization to the public. Alhamdullilah, this project was well-received by Japanese readers, and is now in its final editing phase.

Next, I would like to discuss the possibility of creating a Japanese Islamicate Culture. Culture contains a unique power to convey the Islamic vision to non-Muslims. What concepts and philosophies in Japanese aesthetics might prove useful for our articulation of Islamic ideals for Japanese audiences?


About the Author: Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University in 2018. He specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).

This lecture was generously transcribed by Heraa Hashmi.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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