In a series of special programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslims from around the world as they embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.
The road to Hajj in the Land of the Rising Sun begins with the little known fact that there are ethnic Japanese Muslims.
Everyday the call to prayer is made in different corners of the predominantly Buddhist country – unobtrusively within the confines of its 50 or so mosques and approximately 100 musollas or communal prayer rooms.
The first I knew about Islam was in my school days... although I knew only a little bit, it shook my soul strongly
Twenty-six-year-old Kubo-san prays at a small musolla in the agricultural district of Saitama, about two hours outside the capital, Tokyo.
Built 15 years ago by Bangladeshi workers, Kubo is the only ethnic Japanese in the congregation.
“I was born into a very ordinary Japanese family,” he says. “We did not have a strong sense of religion.”
Kubo’s upbringing mirrors that of many Japanese – their attitudes and philosophy towards life shaped by the ancient religion of Shinto.
An ancient polytheistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of nature and is unique to Japan.
While divination and shamanism is used to gain insights into the unknown, there are no formal scriptures or texts, nor a legacy of priesthood that structures the religion.
After the Second World War, Shinto suffered a huge setback when the emperor was forced to denounce his status as a ‘living god’.
While many historians would claim that the Japanese people lost their faith after this, recent surveys suggest that at least 85 per cent still profess their belief in both Shintoism and Buddhism.
“The first I knew about Islam was in my school days,” Kubo says.
“The schools in Japan usually teach history. I knew about Islam in such history classes. Although I knew only a little bit, it shook my soul strongly.”
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His interest in Islam developed as he read more about it, but it was only when he began to meet expatriate Muslims in Japan that he considered converting.
Now, he is preparing to go on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, for the first time.
“We Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca. And pray ‘peace be upon Prophet Muhammad’. He was born in this town and started Islam in Mecca. So for Muslims, it has a special meaning to go to Mecca. I feel honoured that I have this opportunity to go there.”
But just five years ago, Kubo’s pilgrimage would not have been possible.
Reda Kenawy is Egyptian but he moved to Japan when he was in his twenties. He worked for a travel agency and decided to branch out to form his own agency specialising in organising Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.
“All my staff said I was crazy when I wanted to plan the Hajj trip,” Kenawy says. “In terms of business aspects, there must be a demand in the market to cover the costs. It would not work if there are no Muslims going.”
“So I told them someone has to start, someone has to take the first step, then others could take it from there.”
But, it was an uphill task, particularly when dealing with the Saudi Arabian authorities.
Kenawy says they told him: “We’ve never heard of Japanese Muslims and we’ve never heard of Hajj trips organised from Japan.”
“So I told them there were Muslims in Japan and I was there as a Japanese. I have the Japanese nationality and I was representing Japan and wanted to bring Japanese pilgrims for Hajj.
“They said I couldn’t and that my passport was forged and I looked Egyptian.”
‘Honour and happiness’
Kenawy persisted in his quest to take Muslim pilgrims from Japan to Mecca and five years on, his travel agency is one of only two registered companies that have been sanctioned by the Saudi government to organise Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.
The number of pilgrims using Kenawy’s agency has grown year on year, but for him the most encouraging development is the increase in ethnic Japanese Muslims.
“Right now, we have 90 per cent foreigners and 10 per cent [ethnic Japanese]. My dream is to have the opposite – to have 90 per cent Japanese or maybe 99 per cent original Japanese and only one per cent foreigners.”
Abdullah Taki is a 36-year-old former body-piercer who converted to Islam in 2006. He made his Hajj pilgrimage in 2007.
“For me, the meaning of visiting the Kaabah is not to see a building but to visit God’s home, to meet God,” he says.
“At first, when we reached the country by airplane, we entered Madina before entering the city of Mecca. Although I could not see the area because I was in the airplane, when I heard the announcement that we [were there], I shed tears unconsciously.
“I felt an indescribable sense of honour and happiness. I was very deeply touched.”
Like Kubo, Taki’s contact with Muslims in Japan started mainly with the expatriate community.
Every Friday, Muslims from Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Japan pray together in Tokyo’s Cami Mosque, which is modeled on Turkey’s beautiful Blue Mosque.
There are no official records of the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims but some estimates put it at 10,000 – about a tenth of the country’s total Muslim population.
The community of Japanese Muslims is so small that when they meet new faces for the first time, a sense of camaraderie is immediately established.
Higouch-san is 73 years old and has been a Muslim for more than 45 years. Mahmuda Saito is 63 and converted more than 30 years ago. Both know how difficult it can be to practice Islam in Japan.
When Higouch and Saito became Muslims there were only two mosques in the whole of Japan.
“It was very difficult. We Japanese have our own culture and traditions so it is quite difficult to carry out five prayers a day and fasting for a month,” Higouch says.
Saito is preparing to go on Hajj for the first time. As for many other Japanese Muslims, this involves a lot of self-study.
“It is not a normal holiday so I try to start from the preparation of my heart,” she says.
“To learn how to prepare my mind to carry out the Hajj rituals, I read the books regarding the Hajj everyday at home. I would like to absorb the knowledge of the Hajj as much possible before the trip.
“It could be my last Hajj… [so] I visit this holy city to try to feel the life of the Prophet and his companions of a long time ago.”
Kenawy will be leaving Japan with 120 pilgrims – seven of whom are ethnic Japanese and going on Hajj for the first time and he is hopeful that this number will continue to grow.
“Like when you plant a seed and watch it grow, it can easily die or grow to be a big tree with many branches which cover everything. But it’s not a tree yet. It’s very easy to be broken now,” he says.
“But with all the people’s support, I think 10 or 20 years from now, maybe I’m not here, I can see there will be an organisation like a ministry for Hajis like in Singapore or Indonesia.”
The Road to Hajj documentary series first aired in 2010.