This is an edited and shortened version of a story on Al Jazeera’s website yesterday, November 29.
The road to Hajj [the annual pilgrimage to Mecca] in the Land of the Rising Sun begins with the little known fact that there are ethnic Japanese Muslims.
Every day the call to prayer is made in different corners of the predominantly Buddhist and Shintoist country – unobtrusively within the confines of the fifty or so mosques and hundred communal prayer rooms.
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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 on his own and form his own travel agency, specializing in organizing Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.
“All my staff said I was crazy when I said I wanted to plan the Hajj trip,” Kenawy said. “In terms of business prospects there must be a demand in the market to cover the costs. It would not work if there were no Muslims going. So I told them someone has to start. But it was an uphill battle, particularly when dealing with the Saudi Arabian authorities. They said, ‘We’ve never heard of Japanese Muslims.’ So I told them there were Muslims in Japan and I was there as a Japanese. They said my passport was forged and I looked Egyptian.”
But Kenawy persisted. This was five years ago. The number of pilgrims using his agency has grown every year. For him the most encouraging development is the increase in ethnic Japanese Muslims. Right now we have ninety percent foreigners and ten percent ethnic Japanese. My dream is to have ninety percent ethnic Japanese and ten percent foreigners.”
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Abdullah Taki is a 36-year-old former body piercer who converted to Islam in 2006. He made the Hajj pilgrimage in 2007.
“For me, the meaning of visiting the Kaahah is not to see a building but to visit God’s home, to meet God,” he says.
“At first, when we reached the country we entered Medina before entering the city of Mecca. Although I could not see the area because I was in an airplane, when I heard the announcement. I shed tears unconsciously. I felt an indescribable sense of honour and happiness.”
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There are no official records of ethnic Japanese Muslims but some estimates put it at ten thousand, a tenth of the country’s total Muslim population.