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The Osaka imam who represents Islam’s growth in Japan

Updated: May 28

An Egyptian legal scholar based in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, says he is working to increase understanding between the Japanese people and the more than 100,000 Muslims who live among them.

Islam has gradually put down roots in Japan. There are now around 60 mosques, many of them established in former private homes.

Mohsen Bayoumy, 55, the imam of one such mosque and a central figure in the Japan Halal Association, says awareness of the faith is on the rise.

Not only are there more restaurants serving halal meals cooked in accordance with Islamic dietary laws, but waiters at nonhalal restaurants often ask Muslim customers about their needs, he said.

Bayoumy was born in a Cairo suburb in 1964 and achieved the feat of memorizing the Quran, Islam’s central holy book, when he was 9 years old, under the influence of his devout civil servant father. He studied Islamic learning at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s premier centers of Islamic scholarship.

Al-Azhar posts scholars at mosques worldwide, and in 2000 it dispatched Bayoumy to Kobe.

Bayoumy knew little about the nation except that it had achieved rapid economic development after World War II — and had only a small number of Muslims.

There were only a few mosques in postwar Japan, but the oldest, founded in 1935, was in Kobe.

Muslims began arriving in significant numbers during Japan’s late-1980s bubble economy, in search of jobs. They included young people from Pakistan and Indonesia.

Some of them subsequently married Japanese citizens and became permanent residents. They then began raising funds to convert ordinary homes into mosques and community centers, or to buy low-cost prefabricated homes for the same purpose.

That was the environment which Bayoumy found when he arrived. Over the course of the 10 years he spent in Kobe he saw an increase in Japanese people adopting Islam after marrying Muslims or otherwise being exposed to Islamic culture.

“I have witnessed around 600 Japanese citizens converting to Islam,” Bayoumy said.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Kobe mosque received a number of telephone calls denouncing Islam. Bayoumy would speak with the callers calmly, saying: “We have nothing to hide. Please come here and talk with us.”

Bayoumy moved from Kobe to Ibaraki in 2010, where he became the “imam” (leader) of a mosque created in a two-story house by visiting Islamic students in 2006.

One Indonesian worshiper said he welcomed the arrival of an imam, without whom it would be difficult to study the faith in Japan.

Bayoumy hosts study sessions on Saturday evenings attended by around 20 Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims from the Kansai region.

During one recent session a reporter heard Bayoumy telling those present that on pilgrimage to Mecca they must wear seamless folds of white cloth. The audience of bearded men listened and took notes.

Islam has various disciplines that seem far removed from Japanese dietary traditions, such as a ban on the consumption of pork and alcohol.

When a Japanese follower asked if he might attend his family’s Buddhist memorial service, Bayoumy said he should attend but without reciting the Buddhist sutras.

“Allah orders us to have good relations with families and neighbors,” Bayoumy said.

He wears another hat, too, as head of the screening committee of the Japan Halal Association, a position he assumed several years ago. The role requires Bayoumy to visit food processing plants across Japan to examine whether their products are handled in accordance with Islamic dietary laws.

Hikari Miso Co., a maker of fermented soybean paste in Iijima, Nagano Prefecture, was certified as a halal plant by the association in 2012 and began exporting its products to Islamic markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East.

“We would like to raise annual production of (halal) products to 1,000 tons in around 2018 to increase sales in the Islamic world,” said an official in charge at the company.

Bayoumy said he has always wished “to become a bridge between Japan and Islam.

“Deference is the most important thing for mutual understanding,” he added. “Respect as friends creates a peaceful society.”

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