Posted on February 1, 2021

The Number of Muslims in Japan Is Growing Fast

The Economist, January 7, 2021

Every friday scores of Muslim men and women stream into a mosque in an unassuming four-storey building in Beppu, a hot-spring mecca on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s big islands. Many are students who study nearby at Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University (apu) and work part-time at the hotels around town. Others have come to man the fishing boats and shipyards that the ageing and shrinking local population can no longer fully staff.

The ranks of worshippers have grown in recent years, as the government has sought to attract more foreign workers and students. The number of Muslims living in Japan, though small, has more than doubled in the past decade, from 110,000 in 2010 to 230,000 at the end of 2019 (including as many as 50,000 Japanese converts), according to Tanada Hirofumi of Waseda University. The country boasts more than 110 mosques. That is a welcome change, notes Muhammad Tahir Abbas Khan, a professor at apu and the head of the Beppu Muslim Association (bma). In 2001, when he first arrived from Pakistan as a graduate student, there were only 24 mosques in the country and not a single one on Kyushu.

Yet while Muslims now have more opportunities to pray, they still struggle to find final resting places. Some 99% of Japanese are cremated, a practice Islam forbids. The central government has no system for catering to the needs of foreigners with different customs, in part because foreign workers are seen as visitors rather than permanent migrants. Most prefectures, including Oita, where Beppu is located, have no Muslim cemeteries. The bma has spent years trying to construct one in Hiji, a constellation of hamlets in the hills beyond Beppu, but local resistance has stalled the project. {snip}

The dispute over the cemetery has become a proxy for a broader debate about foreigners’ place in Japanese society. Some Japanese have embraced their new neighbours, unfamiliar customs and all. “Since they’re Japanese now, we should start understanding who they are and what their culture is,” argues Kawabe Yumiko, a town councillor who supports the cemetery. “A small town can be international and diverse.” Others disagree. “If they got Japanese nationality, they should follow Japanese customs and cremate the bodies,” says Eto Kiyotaka, another councillor, who initiated a petition against the cemetery.


The idea of burying bodies strikes many in Hiji as unclean. “It’s not something concrete, just a feeling,” says Mr Eto. “We won’t be able to drink the water with comfort.” {snip}

Ms Kawabe, in turn, wonders if it is really the water that concerns her compatriots. Scientific evidence about the safety of burials goes ignored. Her support for the cemetery prompted a flurry of angry calls and letters. “They say to me, ‘You’re Japanese, why are you on the side of the Muslims?’” Locals fret about an influx of visitors and the prospect of an Islamic school opening next. “Many people are scared,” she sighs.