Features | Society | East Asia

Japan to ASEAN: Tourists Yes, Terrorists No

The country is welcoming Muslim tourists from Southeast Asia, but worries about the threat of terrorism.

Japan to ASEAN: Tourists Yes, Terrorists No
Credit: Matsumoto Castle via Shutterstock.com

In 2012, when territorial tensions flared up between Japan and China, the Japanese tourism industry suffered such a drastic drop in the number of free-spending Chinese tourists that it had to start exploring new markets. Among them, the economically booming Southeast Asia.

It was then that many in Japan “discovered” that a sizable share of tourists coming from this region were Muslims whose special needs required arrangements different from other visitors to which the Japanese had become accustomed.

In fact, Japan has been so exclusively oriented towards Western culture since its modernization 140 years ago that few Japanese today have much knowledge of the world outside of Western values and traditions. One example is the Bible (in English) that can be found in the night table of most hotel rooms, even when the hotel caters mostly to non-Christian and non-English-speaking Japanese. With this century-old national rush towards Westernization, it is not especially surprising if much of Japan has grown oblivious (if not disdainful) to cultures in other parts of Asia, including the Islam-related one.

But this new need to draw large numbers of Muslim tourists from Southeast Asia has prompted many in Japan’s tourist and service industry to scramble to learn how to properly welcome and entertain this particular brand of visitors, who come with religious restrictions and obligations that most Japanese only dimly understand.

The learning process was rudimentary at the start. Until 2012, when the number of Chinese tourists started dwindling following the bitter territorial feud, and when the need to diversify the tourism market arose, very few in Japan had the faintest idea that, for example, many common ingredients (such as alcohol and pork) found in traditional Japanese cuisine were taboo to many visitors from ASEAN countries. Still fewer knew that even when the ingredients posed no problem, the food must be prepared according to special rituals by qualified people in special kitchens, transported in special vehicles, and properly certified.

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There was an initial period of trial and error, during which hotel managers for example scrambled to learn about preparing halal food and building special kitchens and prayer rooms, relying mostly on the advice of students from Muslim countries. But thanks at least in part to this effort, Japan has become a favorite destination of a rapidly growing number of Southeast Asian tourists, including those from Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the past year, with a slight thaw in the deep-frozen Sino-Japanese relations, and a favorable exchange rate, wealthy Chinese tourists have begun returning to Japan in droves. Their number has jumped 83 percent from 2013, to reach 2,409,200 in 2014, making the Chinese the top customers for many Japanese businesses that are otherwise suffering from a shrinking domestic market.

But the Southeast Asian market remains nonetheless important for Japan’s tourism industry, thanks to the economic development in the ASEAN region. Although on a smaller scale compared to the Chinese, the number of Indonesians visiting Japan increased from 63,617 in 2009 to 136,797 in 2013, while Malaysian visitors to Japan doubled from 89,509 in 2009 to 176,521 in 2014.

No Half Measures

The Japanese are not known for half measures. This applies to their effort to meet the special requirements of Muslim visitors. Thus, shifting gear from their initial elementary trials at preparing halal food locally, associated industries (including hotels, restaurants, food manufacturing, transportation, and cuisine schools) have embarked on a genuine “halal industrialization,” together with authentic certification by authoritative agencies in Japan as well as in various Muslim countries.

Numerous business seminars are being held in Japan on how to make the most of the worldwide market of 2 billion Muslims, a market estimated to be worth 5 trillion dollars. The seminars cover topics such as how to manufacture halal food, halal medicine and halal cosmetics, and how to get them certified properly. According to Asahi Shimbun citing the “Japan Islam Cultural Center”, the number of Japanese companies applying for Halal certification has increased from five at the beginning of the century to some 20 or 30 a year recently.

Mindful of the huge opportunities offered by the Muslim market, big business in Japan has started manufacturing and exporting halal products to Muslim countries. One such example is a manufacturer of soy sauce, a traditional seasoning in Asia that usually contains alcohol. Revolutionizing centuries-old practice in soy sauce making, the manufacturer has built an entire factory line devoted exclusively to producing alcohol-free, hahal-certified soy sauce.

Another example of Japanese business catering to Muslim tourists can be seen at Manekineko, a Karaoke restaurant chain in Tokyo, where Muslim customers can be served Halal-certified Japanese food and can, between songs, use prayer rooms fitted with an accurate marking of the direction of Mecca.

Fear of Terrorism

So far so good for Japan’s business awakening to Islam, especially with the friendly mild-mannered Southeast Asian Muslim visitors who helped reveal to the Japanese the peaceful face of ordinary moderate Islam – far removed from the troubling violent stereotypes originating from the Middle East.

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Unfortunately, this peaceful image is facing new challenges this year with the gruesome killings that took place in France and in Syria in January, involving the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)

While the Japanese were able to shrug off the terrorist attacks in Paris as a shocking but remote incident, the beheading in the same month of two Japanese hostages by ISIS has brought the reality of terrorism much closer to home. The fact that, for the first time, Japan has been clearly singled out as an “enemy” and target of jihad because of its new involvement in the anti-ISIS coalition has forced the Japanese to realize that their pacifist country is no longer a safe-haven in the bloody world of terrorism. For the first time, the prospect of Islamist terrorism on Japanese soil has to be taken seriously.

What this has to do with Southeast Asia is the new realization among Japanese security officials that ASEAN countries are not exempt from Islamist terrorism and that, despite the peaceful and moderate nature of the overwhelming majority of Asian Muslims, some of them do harbor strong sympathies for, and even allegiance to, the dreaded ISIS.

Reflecting this new fear, Sentaku, an influential insider political magazine, warned in February that Malaysia, generally considered a moderate Muslim country, is becoming a “hotbed of terrorism” and a “bridgehead of Islamist extremists,” posing a serious menace to all East Asia. Other observers also pointed out that Indonesia is already home of numerous terrorist groupings and has seen multiple terrorist attacks, including one in Bali in 2002 that killed several Japanese tourists among hundreds of other victims.

Japanese security officials, especially those preparing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, are secretly worrying about the hundreds of thousands of tourists Japan is welcoming from Southeast Asia, knowing that some terrorist groupings, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, in Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia have sworn allegiance to ISIS and that the jailed leader Jemaah Islamiyah for one has, in a recent interview with Kyodo News, designated Japan as a potential target of Jihad. They are also aware that hundreds of young Southeast Asians have joined ISIS as fighters and have come back to Asia with the aim of launching terrorist attacks. After all, a potential terrorist with an Asian face would be harder to detect in Japan than one coming from the Middle East or Europe.

It is in this context of the rising threat of terrorism in Asia that, on February 11, Tokyo announced the organization in June of a high-level consultation with ASEAN on terrorism. The implicit aim, of course, is to try to prevent potential terrorists from coming to Japan.

Japan is setting an ambitious goal of attracting, by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympic Games, 20 million foreign visitors a year of which about half would be Muslims. Wealthy tourists from ASEAN countries will continue to be welcomed with open arms and big smiles. But pardon Japanese security officials if their smiles have been somewhat forced of late.

Yo-Jung Chen is a retired French diplomat who has served in French diplomatic missions in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore and Beijing.