Islam's relation with Japan is quite recent as compared to those with other countries around the world.
There are no clear records of any contact between Islam and Japan nor any historical traces of Islam coming into Japan through religious propagation of any sort except for some isolated cases of contact between individual Japanese and Muslims of other countries before 1868.
Islam was firstly known to Japanese people in 1877 as a part of Western religious thought. Around the same time the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was translated into Japanese. This helped Islam to find a place in the intellectual image of the Japanese people, but only as a knowledge and a part of the history of cultures.
Another important contact was made in 1890 when Ottoman Turkey dispatched a naval vessel to Japan for the purpose of starting diplomatic relations between the two countries as well as introducing Muslims and Japanese people to each other. This naval vessel called “Ertugrul” capsized and sank with 609 people aboard drowning 540 of them, on its way returning to home.
The first Muslim Japanese ever known are Mitsutaro Takaoka who converted to Islam in 1909 and took the name Omar Yamaoka after making the pilgrimage to Mecca and Bumpachiro 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 Ahmad Ariga. However, recent studies have revealed that another Japanese known as Torajiro Yamada was probably the first Japanese Muslim who visited Turkey out of sympathy for those who died in the aftermath of the shipwreck of the Ertugrul. He converted to Islam there and took the name Abdul Khalil and probably made pilgrimage to Mecca.
The real Muslim community life however did not start until the arrival of several hundred Turkoman, Uzbek, Tadjik, Kirghiz, Kazakh and other Turko-Tatar Muslim refugees from central Asia and Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution during World War I. These Muslims who were given asylum in Japan settled in several main cities around Japan and formed small Muslim communities. A number of Japanese converted to Islam through the contact with these Muslims.
With the formation of these small Muslim communities several mosques have been built, the most important of them being the Kobe Mosque built in 1935 (which is the only remaining mosque in Japan nowadays) and the Tokyo Mosque built in 1938. One thing that should be emphasized is that very little weight of Japanese Muslims was felt in building these mosques and there have been no Japanese so far who played the role of Imam of any of the mosques.
During World War II, an “Islamic Boom” was set in Japan by the military government through organizations and research centers on Islam and the Muslim World. It is said that during this period over 100 books and journals on Islam were published in Japan. However, these organizations or research centers were in no way controlled or run by the Muslims nor was their purpose the propagation of Islam whatsoever. The mere purpose was to let the military be better equipped with the necessary knowledge about Islam and Muslims since there were large Muslim communities in the areas occupied in China and Southeast Asia by the Japanese army. As a result, with the end of the war in 1945, these organizations and research centers disappeared rapidly.
Another “Islamic Boom” was set in motion this time in the shade of “Arab Boom” after the “1973 oil crisis. The Japanese mass media have given big publicity to the Muslim World in general and the Arab World in particular after realizing the importance of these countries for the Japanese economy. With this publicity many Japanese who had no idea about Islam got the chance to see the scene of Hajj in Mecca and hear the call of Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and Quranic recitations. Beside many sincere conversions to Islam at the time, there were also mass conversions of several tens of thousands of people. However, with the end of the effect of oil shock, most of those who converted to Islam left the faith.
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 opened their eyes to Islam through these contacts, and embraced it after the war ended. There were also those who went to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia as soldiers during the war. The pilots were instructed to say “La ilaha illa Allah”, when they were shot down in these regions, so that their lives would be spared. Actually one of them was shot down and captured by the inhabitants. When he shouted the “magic” words to them, to his astonishment they changed their attitudes and treated him rather kindly. He has been keeping his words until this day.
The Japanese invasion of China and South East Asian countries during the second world war brought the Japanese in contact with Muslims. Those who embraced Islam through them established in 1953, the first Japanese Muslim organization, the Japan Muslim Association under the leadership of the late Sadiq Imaizumi. Its members, numbering sixty five at the time of inauguration, increased two-fold before this devoted man passed away six years later.
The second president of the association was the late Umar Mita, a very dedicated man. 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, 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.
Thus, it was only after the second world war, that what can properly be called “a Japanese Muslim community” came into existence. In spite of the initial success, however, later developments were quite slow in terms of membership. Though many Islamic organisations were established since the 1900s, each of them has only a few active members.
There is no reliable estimate on the Japanese Muslim population. Claims of thirty thousand are without doubt an exaggeration. Some claim that there are only a few hundred. This probably amounts to the number of Muslims openly practicing Islam. Asked to give an estimate on the actual number of Muslims in Japan, Abu Bakr Morimoto replied, “To say frankly, only one thousand. In the broadest sense, I mean, if we do not exclude those who became Muslims for the sake of, say marriage, and do not practice then the number would be a few thousands.”
Apparently such a slow development is due partly to external circumstances. Japanese traditional religious atmosphere and highly developed materialistic tendencies must both be taken into consideration. But there are also shortcomings on the part of the Muslims. There exists a difference in orientation between the old and new generations. For the old generation, Islam is equated with a religion of Malaysia, Indonesia, or China etc. But for the new generation, these East Asian countries are not very appealing, because of their western orientation, and so they are more influenced by Islam in the Arab countries.
“The old generation have lived closely connected with non-Japanese Muslims,” points out Nur Ad-Din. “It is an excellent act in the spirit of brotherhood. But on the other hand, we cannot deny its side effect, that is, this way of life could not prevent other Japanese from thinking of Islam as something foreign. How to overcome this barrier is a problem to be solved. It is a task for us, the younger generation.”
When visiting Muslim countries, the remark that Japanese Muslims are the minority religious group always brings a question from the audience, “What percentage of Japan's total population are Muslims?” The answer at the moment is: One out of a hundred thousand. Nevertheless, the younger generation has aspirations. Perhaps some day it will be said that Islam is a popular religion in Japan.
The misconception of Islamic teachings introduced by the western media stands to be corrected in a more efficient approach that takes into consideration the significant feature of the Japanese society of being one of the world's most literate countries. Yet, because of poor distribution, even translations of the meanings of Qur'an into Japanese language are not publicly available. Islamic literature is virtually absent from bookstores or public libraries to the exception of few English-written essays and books that are sold at relatively high prices.
As a result, it should not be surprising to find out that the knowledge of ordinary Japanese about Islam is modestly confined to few terms related to polygamy, Sunni and Shia, Ramadhan, Hajj, Allah, the God of Muslims, and Islam, the religion of Muhammad (peace be upon him).