Is Islam Japan’s Fastest-growing Religion?

Islam now has the fastest rate of growth in Japan. In reality, Islam has been accepted by between 112,000 and 230,000 people in a country like Japan in East Asia, making it one of the regions where the religion is expanding quickly. Although Japan has never welcomed Muslims, in recent years, they have become more accepting of those with different religious or cultural beliefs. In Japan, there are many different national, ethnic, cultural, and lifestyle backgrounds among Muslims.

The minaret of Tokyo Camii against the backdrop of the Shinjuku skyline (right). From this arched balcony (left), the muezzin makes the call to prayer (“azan”). (Photo on the right courtesy of Tokyo Camii.)

Since the past decade, there have been exponential increases in the number of Muslims worldwide. According to a study by the US-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of Muslims will increase by 25% globally over the next two decades. The Pew study’s primary conclusions included the following: Muslims will account for 26.4% of the expected global population of 8.3 billion people by 2030, up from an estimated 23.4% in 2010. In contrast to the expected pace of 1.5% for the period from 2010 to 2030, the global Muslim population expanded at an average annual rate of 2.2% from 1990 to 2010. In addition, 79 countries, as opposed to 72 presently, will have a million or more Muslims living in them by the year 2030.

The gross domestic product (GDP) per capital (a measurement commonly used to determine the purchasing power of individuals) of nations with a majority of Muslims, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, is significantly higher than Japan’s. This statistic is frequently used to estimate the purchasing power of individuals. As a result, the future population expansion of Muslims is anticipated to have a significant effect on the international community and economy, particularly in Asia, which is home to 70% of all Muslims worldwide.

Photo: The prayer room at Toshiba’s Smart Community Center in Kawasaki, including the qibla indicating the direction one should face when praying.

Japanese society is undergoing a significant transformation, reviewing its fundamental assumptions, and looking for the proper meaning of life. In recent years, as the government worked to draw in more international students and workers, the ranks of worshippers have risen. 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. Tokyo Camii, a magnificent mosque in the center of the Japanese capital built in the Ottoman style with capacity for over 1,200 worshipers, is the largest Islamic center in the nation.

Photo: (Left) The school in Tokyo for Muslim children, which opened in 1935. There are plans to demolish the school, which is starting to show its age, and build a new Turkish culture center on the site. (Right) The original Tokyo mosque, built in 1938—the precursor to today’s Tokyo Camii. The original mosque was demolished in 1986, and the current structure was completed in 2000.

Since the beginning of 1990s, there has been an increasing number of mosques being built across the Japanese archipelago, from Okinawa prefecture all the way to Hokkaido prefecture. Even though there are currently over 90 mosques throughout Japan, most Japanese are unaware of it. Nevertheless, as there is an increasing number of movements and initiatives that aimed to promote understanding of Islam and Muslims in recent years, more and more mosques are accepting mosque tours and organizing events for Japanese to participate.

Serious and sustained engagement with the Muslim world began for Japan as a part of its global outreach in the early Meiji period (1868-1890), with trade and information gathering missions sailing towards the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East.
Verifiable accounts of Muslims entering Japan can be placed in the same period with records of Indian merchants and Malay-Indian sailors working in ports in the Japanese cities of Yokohama and Kobe.

According to historians, the Japan’s real encounters with the Muslim world began from the end of the Edo period to the early Meiji period and accelerated after Japan’s victory in the Russo–Japanese War in 1905 as Japanese Pan-Asian nationalists befriended Muslim nationalists and Pan-Islamists. In the late Meiji period, the relations between Muslim intellectuals with nationalist and Pan-Islamic views and Japanese nationalists with Pan-Asian views, who hoped to expand Japanese hegemony into Asia by forming alliances with Muslims, were driven by their mutual opposition to Western hegemony. Since the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population were either colonized or partially dominated by the European powers, Muslim–Japanese relations in the pre-war period, according to Esenbel, were marked by informal, personal ties.

Abdurresid Ibrahim, a Tatar-Turkish traveler famed for his efforts to promote Islam to Japanese society, died 78 years ago, and his passing was remembered in August. After traveling through Asia and writing “The World of Islam,” a two-volume treatise, Ibrahim first landed in Japan in 1900. He assessed the local community’s socioeconomic standing before evangelizing Islam to them and forming an association with the goal of doing so. He continues to be the driving force behind Japan’s Muslim communities, even 78 years after his passing.

The Japanese government agreed in May to designate Mr. Shimmura Izuru, the consul general of Japan in Jeddah, as the country’s first representative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC is a regional institution with membership of 57 Islamic states and regions, which conducts activities in a wide range of areas including in the Middle East Peace Process, on violent extremism not only in the Middle East region but also in other parts of the world, and in strengthening the relationship between Islamic countries and other countries.

Fujita Kankō’s Origami Asakusa restaurant offers a halal menu. (Photo courtesy of Fujita Kankō.)

While some Japanese Muslims rigidly observe their customs, such as fasting and prayer, others are more permissive. The Muslim population of Japan is rapidly increasing due to a number of factors, including:

Nearly half of Japan’s Muslims who have settled there are married. This means that there will be an increase in the number of second and third generation Muslims in Japan. The key to integrating traditional Japanese society with the Muslim community will be this new generation of Muslims, who will be exposed to a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Islam is frequently perceived in Japan as an exotic, alien civilization with little relevance to the everyday lives of Japanese citizens. However, a surprising number of locations in Japan actually have a strong Islamic cultural vibe. A joint initiative by Tokyo Camii (Tokyo Mosque) and members of the Arab diplomatic corps in Japan resulted in the establishment of an Arabic school for children of Muslims in 2015. In addition to learning Arabic together with Muslims from the ethnic Japanese community, this gave the migratory Muslim community a place to socialize and share experiences.

The concentration of Muslims in Japan is primarily due to economic growth, which is the second major factor. In order to meet the labor shortage brought on by Japan’s “bubble economy,” which lasted from 1986 to 1991, mostly men who were in their twenties and thirties from Muslim-majority nations including Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh. The population of foreign workers in Japan has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and reached more than two million at the end of 2011, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Islam is, in fact, the religion in Japan that is growing the quickest.


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