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There are isolated records of contact between Islam and Japan before the opening of the country in 1853; some Muslims did arrive in earlier centuries.
The earliest records of Japan can be found in the works of the Muslim cartographer Ibn Khordadbeh, clearly mentions Japan as the "lands of Waqwaq" twice: East of China are the lands of Waqwaq, which are so rich in gold that the inhabitants make the chains for their dogs and the collars for their monkeys of this metal. They manufacture tunics woven with gold. Excellent ebony wood is found there.” And again: “Gold and ebony are exported from Waqwaq.
During the 14th century there was contact between the Chinese Muslim (Hui people) Lan Yu (general) of the Ming dynasty and the sword-smiths of Japan. According to Chinese sources Lan Yu owned 10,000 Japanese swords.
The first modern Muslim contacts were with Indonesians who served aboard British and Dutch ships in the late 19th century.
In the late 1870s, the life of Prophet Muhammad was translated into Japanese. This helped Islam spread and reach the Japanese people, but only as a part of the history of cultures.
Another important contact was made in 1890 when the Ottoman Empire dispatched a naval vessel to Japan for the purpose of saluting the visit of Japanese Prince Komatsu Akihito to Istanbul several years earlier. This frigate was called the Ertugrul, and was destroyed in a storm along the coast of Wakayama Prefecture on the evening of September 16, 1890.
The first Japanese to go on the Hajj was Kotaro Yamaoka. He converted to Islam in 1909 in Bombay, after coming into contact with Russian-born writer, Abdürreşid İbrahim, whereupon he took the name Omar Yamaoka. Both were traveling with the support of nationalistic Japanese groups like the Black Dragon Society (Kokuryūkai), Yamaoka in fact had been with the intelligence service in Manchuria since the Russo-Japanese war. His official reason for travelling was to seek the Sultan's approval for building a mosque in Tokyo (completed 1938). This approval, granted 1910, was necessary as Sultan Abdülhamid II of the Ottoman Empire was the Caliph of Islam and Amir al-Mu'minin.
Another early Japanese convert was Bunpachiro Ariga, who about the same time went to India for trading purposes and converted to Islam under the influence of local Muslims there, and subsequently took the name Ahmed Ariga. Yamada Toajiro was from 1892 for almost twenty years the only resident Japanese trader in Istanbul. During this time he served unofficially as consul. He converted to Islam, and took the name Abdul Khalil, and made a pilgrimage to Mecca on his way home.
The real Muslim community life however did not start until the arrival of several hundred Turko-Tatar Muslim refugees from Central Asia and Russia in the wake of the October Revolution. These Muslims, who were given asylum, in Japan settled in several main cities around Japan and formed small communities. They are estimated at less than 600 in 1938 for Japan proper, a few thousand on the continent. Some Japanese converted to Islam through the contact with these Muslims.
The Kobe Mosque was built in 1935 with the support of the Turko-Tatar community of traders there. The Tokyo Mosque, planned since 1908 was finally completed in 1938, with generous financial support from the zaibatsu. Its first imams were Abdürreşid İbrahim (1857–1944), who had returned in 1938, and Abdulhay Qorbangali (1889–1972). Japanese Muslims played little role in building these mosques. To date there have been no Japanese who have become Imam of any of the mosques with the exception of Shaykh Ibrahim Sawada, imam of the Ahlulbayt Islamic Centre in Tokyo.
Some Shia Muslim families who were stationed in Tokyo in the 1960s established the first Azadari in Japan. It was mostly a family affair some family used to gather together and listen to audio tapes. In the 1970s, there was a Pakistan business man Syed Ashiq Ali Bukhari who initiated first and majlis were held in his and his friend Nazim Zaidi's residence on a small scale. They used to have majlis in their home from the 7th Muharram till the 12th Muharram. Initially it was mostly audio tapes and later the video tapes were used. This continued till sometime late '70 s when Shia Pakistanis and Iranian workers started coming into Japan. Then with their help the Muharram / Majlis took a more organized Azadari form in Tokyo. From that time onwards each year during Muharram Azadari is performed.
The Greater Japan Muslim League (Dai Nihon Kaikyō Kyōkai 大日本回教協会) founded in 1930, was the first official Islamic organisation in Japan. It had the support of imperialistic circles during World War II, and caused an "Islamic Studies Boom". During this period, over 100 books and journals on Islam were published in Japan. While these organizations had their primary aim in intellectually equipping Japan's forces and intellectuals with better knowledge and understanding of the Islamic world, dismissing them as mere attempts to further Japan's aims for a "Greater Asia" does not reflect the nature of depth of these studies. Japanese and Muslim academia in their common aims of defeating Western colonialism had been forging ties since the early twentieth century, and with the destruction of the last remaining Muslim power, the Ottoman Empire, the advent of hostilities in World War II and the possibility of the same fate awaiting Japan, these academic and political exchanges and the alliances created reached a head. Therefore they were extremely active in forging links with academia and Muslim leaders and revolutionaries, many of whom were invited to Japan.
Nationalistic organizations like the Ajia Gikai, were instrumental in petitioning the Japanese government on matters such as officially recognizing Islam, along with Shintoism, Christianity and Buddhism as a religion in Japan, and in providing funding and training to Muslim resistance movements in Southeast Asia, such as the Hizbullah, a resistance group funded by Japan in the Dutch Indies. Intellectual exchange between the Islamic and Japanese academia was at its pinnacle at this time, only to crumble with Japan's defeat. After the Occupation had begun, the numerous Islamic institutions were dissolved and banned since they had been at the forefront of academic study and protest in Japan against Western colonialism. Claims have been made of these organisations being mere fronts for the Japanese war effort; however the depth and breadth of Japanese-Islamic studies and academic and political exchange by prominent figures such as Shūmei Ōkawa as well as his student, Toshihiko Izutsu, the volumes of written work produced by these figures and others, their translations of the Qur'an, the conversion of numerous prominent figures in Japanese politics to Islam and their claim and such demonstrate that this was certainly not the case.
Shūmei Ōkawa, by far the highest-placed and most prominent figure in both Japanese government and academia in the matter of Japanese-Islamic exchange and studies, managed to complete his translation of the Qur'an in prison, while being prosecuted as an alleged class-A war criminal by the victorious Allied forces for being an 'organ of propaganda'. Charges were dropped for his erratic behaviour officially; however historians have speculated that the weakness of the charges against him were more likely the true reason for this. While Okawa did display unusual behaviour during the trial such as rapping on the head of Hideki Tōjō, he also stated that the trial was a farce and unworthy of being called one.
He was transferred to a hospital on official claims of mental instability and then prison, and freed not long thereafter, dying a Muslim in 1957 after a quiet life where he continued lecturing, on his return to his home village and his wife, who survived him. He claimed to have seen visions of Muhammad in his sleep.
In the 1970s, another "Islamic Boom" was set in motion, this time in the shade of "Arab Boom" after the 1973 oil crisis. After realizing the importance of the Middle East and its massive oil reserves for the Japanese economy, the Japanese mass media have since been giving big publicity to the Muslim World in general and the Arab World in particular.
The Turks have been the biggest Muslim community in Japan until recently. Pre-war Japan was well known for its sympathy and favour towards Muslims in Central Asia, seeing in them an anti-Soviet ally. In those days some Japanese who worked in intelligence circles had contact with these Muslims. A few converted to Islam through these contacts, and embraced it after the war ended.
The Japanese invasion of China and South East Asian regions during the Second World War brought the Japanese in contact with Muslims. Those who embraced Islam through them returned to Japan and established in 1953, the first Japanese Muslim organisation, the Japan Muslim Association under the leadership of Sadiq Imaizumi. Its members, numbering sixty five at the time of inauguration, increased twofold before he died six years later.
The second president of the association was the Umar Mita. Mita was typical of the old generation, who learned Islam in the territories occupied by the Japanese Empire. He was working for the Manshu Railway Company,[disambiguation needed] which virtually controlled the Japanese territory in the north eastern province of China at that time. Through his contacts with Chinese Muslims, he became a Muslim in Peking. When he returned to Japan after the war, he made the Hajj, the first Japanese in the post-war period to do so. He also made a Japanese translation of the meaning of the Qur'an from a Muslim perspective for the first time. Aljazeera also did a documentary regarding Islam and Japan called "Road to Hajj – Japan".
Though many Islamic organisations were established since the 1900s, each of them had only very few active members.
Islam was thought to have first come to Japan in the early 1900s when Muslim Tatars were escaping Russian expansionism. The Muslim community in Japan has a history of over 100 years, although some sources contest more than this amount. In 1909 it was documented by historian Caeser E. Farah that Abdul-Rashid Ibrahim was the first Muslim who successfully converted the first ethnic Japanese, and in 1935 Kobe Mosque—Japan's first Islamic building—was constructed. Some sources have stated that in 1982 the Muslims numbered 30,000 (half were natives). Some ethnic Japanese women during the economic boom of the 1980s converted when large swathes of immigrants from Asia came and integrated with local population. The majority of estimates of the Muslim population have been put at around 100,000 in estimates. Islam remains a minority religion in Japan, and there is no evidence as to whether Islam is growing or not. Conversion is more prominent among young ethnic Japanese married women, as documented by the Japan Times as early as the 1990s. Furthermore in 2000 Keiko Sakurai had estimated the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims in Japan at 63,552, and around 70,000–100,000 foreign Muslims residing in the country. However according to essayist Michael Penn states that 90% of Muslims are foreign and about 10% are ethnic, but the true figure is unknown and this is just another speculative estimate. In Japan the government does not take religion into account as part of the demographic concern under religious freedom. As Penn states, "The Japanese government does not keep any statistics on the number of Muslims in Japan. Neither foreign residents nor ethnic Japanese are never asked about their religion by official government agencies".
Kobe Mosque in Kobe, Japan
According to japanfocus.org, 'There are currently between 30 and 40 single-story mosques in Japan, plus another 100 or more apartment rooms set aside, in the absence of more suitable facilities, for prayers.