Young Muslims in Tokyo

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

Young Muslims in Tokyo

Muslims living in Tokyo find it a tolerant city, but must still grapple with issues of identity.

Young Muslims in Tokyo
Credit: Han Zhang

Tokyo is a wonderfully strange city for the foreign visitor. The flocks of rushing men in blue suits; the uncountable neon signs after dark; the strangers bowing and handing out packets of tissues (with ad flyers folded in). Travelers can frequently find themselves amused, bemused or both.

For the longer term foreign resident, there is time to become accustomed to Tokyo’s quirks and adapt to the city’s pace. All the whining about high rents, cramped spaces, and lack of human warmth aside, most people find Tokyo rather livable.

For young Muslims arriving from more conservative societies, Tokyo can present some alluring temptations. They can be hard to resist.

Like any other college student studying abroad, Aamir* has had some unforgettable experiences in Tokyo – things he could never have dreamed of doing back home in Afghanistan. One of those experiences happened on a Saturday: Aamir went to a bar with an older friend, also Afghan. Aamir had a few drinks. At 4 a.m., they went back to his friend’s place and had a conversation about God.

“If God decides everything – he decides our desire to go out on a Saturday night and wanting to have a few drinks, too. How does this work?” Aamir asked.

Aamir has been in Tokyo a couple of years. Prior to that, he had lived in Afghanistan all his life. Always top of his class, he found himself unsatisfied with the answers his religious and science teachers offered. After coming to Tokyo to study at a prominent university, his doubts erupted.

“Learning a lot of things about religion, science and philosophy in Japan, I became able to make up my own mind. Some people may say I changed in a negative way. But I think, for the first time in my life, I have the freedom to choose. And I am only becoming the person I am meant to be.”

Aamir finds his lifestyles in Tokyo and Kabul worlds apart. “It’s not like I’m giving up on home. I went to the bar for the experience, but I feel people here in Tokyo are less connected. I like going home early in Kabul and spending quality time with family chatting till late.”

Aamir identifies himself as a Muslim in a cultural sense. He practices only because it’s important to his family and to protect himself in the conservative social context back home.

According to government data collected by Professor Keiko Sakurai, a Muslim studies expert in Japan, people from Islamic countries first began arriving in Japan in significant numbers in the 1980s, primarily seeking employment during Japan’s economic boom. In the 1990s, however, more and more Muslim students began enrolling in Japanese universities. From 1,957 in 1986, the number had risen to 6,758 by 2004.

Aamir is not the only one among them to experience an identity crisis in Tokyo.

“Few in number, these Muslims are too diverse in their ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds, as well as geographic location, to form a single, cohesive community represented by any one mosque or organization,” Sakurai writes in her report Muslims in Contemporary Japan.

Hafa, from Iraq, is another conflicted Muslim living in Tokyo. Also a university senior, she has had similar thoughts as Aamir. “When I first came to Japan four years ago, life was difficult because I tried too hard to fend off everything around me.”

Every day in her first year in Tokyo, Hafa wore hijab, or veil. Still, outgoing and liberal-minded, Hafa made many non-Muslim friends, even joining an Aikido club – hijab still in place. But she began to find it difficult to justify the covering to her friends. Traditionally, wearing hijab is about not attracting attention, especially attention from the opposite sex. “After studying abroad in the U.S. and Japan, I know more cultures, and I realize – come on, guys are not animals.”

It took Tokyo’s humid summer heat to push Hafa to really rethink the matter. The humidity caused a skin reaction. Her doctor advised her to remove the hijab. Time spent researching online and in the library also gave her some alternative viewpoints.

Years of living abroad have made Hafa look at religion with a more empirical attitude. “I don’t follow the ‘ways’ to keep up on the surface but look for the essential ‘goals’ of each practice.”

Hafa no longer scrutinizes the ingredients on bread packages just to make sure alcohol wasn’t involved in the process of baking it. “The Koran asks Muslims to avoid alcohol consumption so that people don’t get drunk and corrupt. I’m not getting drunk on bread and it doesn’t make sense to make all that fuss.”

Hafa’s increasingly practical approach to religion is not out of step with Japan’s own attitude. While some people regard Japan as a secular country in a religious vacuum, but important Japanese life events are heavily influenced by a fusion of Buddhism, Shinto, and other imported religions. What might appear to be a vacuum may be better described as “pluralism” – as scholars of Japanese religion Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe put it, Japanese are “practically religious” – they are “members of a common Japanese religion centered on practical benefits.”

“Being humane is more important than what we wear and what we eat,” Hafa stresses. “I don’t want to be American or Japanese, I am just choosing the way of life that I’m comfortable with – I am international.”

In most Muslim countries, a young woman starting to wear hijab is celebrated as a rite of passage. In Japan, where to veil or not to veil becomes largely their own call, and not everyone finds it an easy choice.

In contrast to Hafa’s resolution, Leila, who is half Japanese and half Pakistani, finally started to wear hijab on a daily basis after starting college.

“I always knew that, at some point of my life, I would need to start wearing hijab. I thought it was time to stop denying it.”

As a schoolgirl, Leila hated wearing hijab to school. Her Japanese mother, who is a devout Muslim, even more so than her Pakistani father, always set out a long skirt and long socks for her. Leila rarely went out and always ran a direct routine between home and school.

But despite her reservations, Leila has always had a deep respect religious individuals. She still recalls an Algerian boy in her physical education class. He would read the Koran tranquilly by a pool filled with splashing Japanese students. “I thought he was so cool,” says Leila.

After a pilgrimage to Mecca in her sophomore year, Leila felt that her connection with Islam deepened. “I was so moved that I wanted to cry,” she says. “Actually being there is such a strange experience.”

Although her college schedule makes it hard for Leila to pray on time every day, modern technology has had some use: she uses an iPhone app to track prayer times. “Praying five times a day, which means facing God so often, makes it harder to be tempted to do regrettable things. And people are less likely be carried away by things, such as falling in love.”

Sticking to rules may save Leila from erring, but it creates other problems for her. In Japan, the nomikai (drinking party) is a major part of the social life for college students and professionals alike. People go out after school or work to bond in a less sober and more relaxed air. Usually the only one not drinking alcohol at such parties, Leila always has a hard time fitting in with these groups.

But that doesn’t worry her too much. More secure in herself than her peers, Leila’s only concern is that her attire and taboos don’t impede her ability to find a job.

Sati has been lucky in this respect. His company seemed open-minded and sensitive when it came to religious foreigners. After graduating from a Japanese university, the young man from Senegal landed a job at a major manufacturer.

“They did promise that I would be able to pray. But in practice, I always squeeze time from my lunch break to rush home and pray.”

In Tokyo’s gigantic eco-system, many Muslims have reported that they find Tokyo to be an easy place to live. Tokyoites’ punctuality, obedience, their unparalleled ability to mind their own business – all seem to make living easier.

But not every Muslim in Japan feels as secure as Sati and Leila, who went to university here and can speak Japanese and English on top of their native languages. In Public Faces and Private Spaces: Islam in the Japanese Context, scholar Michael Penn observes that the average Japanese knows nothing about Islam beyond the stereotypes put forward by Japanese media. With that ignorance, Muslims in Japan encounter neither active hostility nor welcoming acceptance.

The complexities of living abroad can often follow the expat home. Iranian Zia loved the feeling of air brushing her hair when she first came to Tokyo. Yet every time she returns home, she remembers anew how beautiful the Persian-patterned hijabs are, and enjoys the feel of them on her head.

But that rosy “home sweet home” phase lasts no longer than two weeks. Zia forever remembers the first time she returned home from a year in Japan – the time her good-tempered, 60-year-old father had to shield her from the local police who threatened to arrest her – because Zia was improperly dressed: short pants, short sleeves, her hair tied in a ponytail.

“Let her alone! I’m her father and I’m fine with it!” Zia remembers clearly the flash of anger from her normally mild-mannered Dad. But they quickly hurried home.

It’s hard to leave home. Sometimes it’s harder to go back.

Han Zhang is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat.

*All names have been changed to protect privacy.