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A Japanese Perspective on Islam: A Religion Beyond Our Western Shores

I’ve always thought that Islam has the ability to embed itself so seamlessly and so peacefully within Japanese culture and society, if only we let it.

I’ve always thought that Islam has the ability to embed itself so seamlessly and so peacefully within Japanese culture and society, if only we let it.

We are notoriously known for being private in Japan.

And when it comes to religion, we are extra, extra, extra private. It just wouldn’t make sense to be overtly religious in Japan, or to openly claim you are interested in religion. To be brash or loud or even proud that you are religious just does not make sense and would even be offensive (but to be fair, to be brash or loud or proud of anything, really, is looked down upon in Japan).

So. How does religion even work in Japan?

Japan Loves Being Left Alone

This is what I was mostly raised with from my Japanese side of the family: to be private about your opinions and thoughts on religion. Faith and spirituality should be reserved for those quiet walks in a Shinto shrine, where you are embraced by the stillness of nature and your own thoughts. Faith and spirituality should be reserved for those pondering moments in a Buddhist temple as you stare up reservedly into the face of the calm Buddha.

For Japan is a complicated place when it comes to religion. On the one hand, foreigners often understand that we are one of the most faithless countries in the world – if we are asked if we are religious of course we will say we are not, as this is our culture to downplay our most intimate thoughts. But on the other hand, many are also baffled by our rigid love for traditions around Shintoism and Buddhism – as we often joke about in Japan, you are born a Shinto and die a Buddhist, and you mustn’t deviate from these age-old rituals.

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Rituals and traditions that stem from the ancient religion of Shintoism and the newer (albeit just as traditional) religion of Buddhism are deeply, deeply entrenched within the Japanese psyche – although more likely than not, we will never openly admit this. It is just simply more private in Japan, more intimate, and more personal. It is within you that you find religion in Japan, not outside in society. It is within the silence of nature and not the bustling halls of community centers where we find religion in Japan.

Japan Versus Islam

So, with this deep culture around religion ingrained in our psyche, how do we view the religion of Islam? On the one hand, it is easy to think that Islam seems like the polar opposite of anything a Japanese person would be comfortable with – Islam, at first glance, seems like the loudest, most communal, and proactive religion on earth.

Muslims gather in hoards every single Friday for communal prayer, fast and break fast together every single Ramadan, and do not shy away from defending what is just and right in this world regardless of whether it ruffles a few feathers or not. Muslims must clearly take shahada, or a declaration of faith, when joining the religion. Many Muslims see the importance in dawa, or preaching about the goodness of Islam. Building vibrant mosques around the city is commonplace.

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I don’t mean to be making fun of these aspects of Islam – as a convert to the religion, I have obviously found love and peace for these very aspects of Islam. But from a Japanese perspective, I will admit it was very daunting at first, and seemed to be so different from anything I had ever understood or experienced in my life.

But life has a funny way of showing you that the very things you were frightened of at first end up being the very things that end up becoming your most treasured.

Japan And Islam

I knew that Islam was the right religion for me because to me, Islam was the closest way I felt I could personally convey my love and faith for God.

And the reasons why Islam felt like the easiest and best way were surprisingly, actually very Japanese to me.

Sincerity

For one, there is a sincerity in Islam that just made sense to me.

Contrary to the Hollywood trope of Japanese people being weak, meek folk, we have a deep, deep strength and sense of sincerity that I believe is central to our societal culture. We do things full-heartedly, with an intense sense of duty and obligation within one’s role in society.

Practicing Islam is just the same in this regard – we have to be sincere as Muslims, and we must always strive to protect our sense of duty and obligation within our role as Muslims on earth.

It is not shameful to work extra hard in Japan, and it is not shameful to be sincere in your love for God in Islam – in fact, this is where Japan and Islam come so closely together in an embrace: there is a shared sense of duty to always do what you can do to the best of your ability.

To live one’s life knowing that at the end of the day, you were sincere in your dedication and love is fundamental to Japanese people – and in my opinion, being Muslim captures this same sense of duty.

Prayer and Dhikr

Another aspect of Islam that surprisingly made sense to me from a Japanese perspective was the act of prayer. Prayer, I’ve learned, does not have to be a bustling communal act (which can be quite daunting at first). In Islam, prayer, no matter where you are, is the quietest moment between you and God – where there is no other distraction or noise or thought besides the small voice in your head speaking directly to God.

This, I’ve come to learn, is one of the easiest and most comfortable things for me – prayer and dhikr, the remembrance of God, is not found out in society or from a loud pulpit. In Islam, it is found within, within one’s soul and heart. You can read all the right verses and say all the right things, but in Islam, none of this matters if you don’t say it from the heart. And the only way to say it from the heart is to say it from within, alone, and by yourself.

This made sense to me as a Japanese person – that prayer, in its essence, is in fact an extremely private affair between you and God. It is a deeply personal act of reflection, struggle, faith, and wonder – to me, as I understand prayer in Islam, it is the quietest way of speaking to God directly. And again, to me, the quietest way is in fact sometimes the strongest way.

Moral Justice

A third aspect of Islam that made sense to me coming from a Japanese perspective was the strong sense of moral justice that so deeply flows throughout the teachings of Islam. I can assume that many people have heard of the samurai of Japan and the intense (extremely intense) morals of justice, duty, and self-sacrifice that came with bushido, or the teachings of the samurai.

But what many people don’t know is that these teachings were already a part of the Japanese psyche way before the samurai, and remain still today a strong part of our culture long after the fall of the samurai. And by moral justice, I don’t mean the intense scenes of samurai killing themselves to repent or going off to war with a ‘win or die trying’ attitude that for many of us is shudderingly too extreme. I mean the moral justice of simpler things, that in fact have a far wider impact on society.

The moral justice of not cheating others of what they deserve. The moral justice of telling the truth, no matter how much it may hurt you. Being honest with others, and sacrificing your happiness to ensure others around you are comfortable. Kindness to just be kind, not because you want something in return. Being fair, not so you get an equal deal but so others can feel the same peace and comfort as you.

Moral justice is more than grand battles fought over loud declarations of what is supposedly right and wrong – it is the simple things, the little ways we choose to live our lives with others. And while I cannot say truthfully that we fully implement these values every day in Japan, it still remains a strong part of what we take pride in as our culture.

Islam, I found, is the even better version of what we work so hard to preserve in Japanese culture when it comes to moral justice. In Islam, the way you conduct yourself within society is the truest reflection of how much you respect God. The way you treat those around you, those less fortunate than you, even those more fortunate than you, is a clear indicator of how much you are striving to respect and love God in Islam.

A Religion Beyond Our Western Shores

I’ve always thought that Islam has the ability to embed itself so seamlessly and so peacefully within Japanese culture and society, if only we let it.

Many of the visuals we have today of Islam are in fact cultural, taken from countries where Islam has been present for centuries. Islam doesn’t have to be about loud community centers with even louder pulpits. Islam doesn’t have to be about dramatic proclamations of devotion or rash othering of those who may look or act differently. Mosques don’t have to be about samosas or biryani or black tea.

I know these things may seem trivial and not worth discussing, but maybe it does matter. Maybe Islam can be about quiet reflections in a temple within nature, alone. Maybe Islam can be about private prayer and quiet interactions. Maybe mosques can be about green tea and onigiri and yakimeshi.

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Maybe, just maybe, Islam is more than what it seems to many Japanese people. Instead of seeing Islam as a foreign religion from beyond our western shores, something deep in western Asia that we cower away from as the easternmost point of the world, perhaps we can understand it for what it really is: a quiet, reflective act of spirituality that helps connect us to God in a deeply personal journey of faith.

We are notoriously known for being private in Japan.

And so too, perhaps, is Islam.

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