Japanese call for better understanding of Islam: export-driven or genuine openness?

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A Japanese foreign office committee, called the Committee for Islamic Studies (CFIS), has issued its first report. It accuses Japan of failure to study and relate to a faith “embraced by a fifth of the world’s population”. The report calls for an in-depth study of Islam, its history and institutions, and recommends it to be included in the subjects taught in Japanese schools. This, with an extensive exchange of researchers and youth delegations with Muslims countries, will lead to a better understanding of this important faith and its numerous believers, the report argues. In advocating closer relations, it also makes the unprecedented admission that the Japanese view Islam and Muslims through the eyes of the “West, especially western Europe”, which wrongly considers Islam “as a threat”, adding that most Muslims, like other religious groups, are peaceful people, and that the existence of the “extremist movement” known as “Usuliyah” (‘fundamentalism’) or ‘terrorism’, should not affect Japan’s relations with the Muslim world.

The CFIS was set up last year by Yohei Kono, foreign minister at the time, ostensibly to bring about a better understanding of Islam and Muslims. But it also recommends the establishment of better economic ties with Muslim states at a time when the Japanese economy, the second largest in the world, is plummeting, raising the suspicion that its unprecedented report is somehow linked to Tokyo’s effort to boost exports. The question is not an idle one, as the economy is in such difficulties that Masajuro Shiokawa, the new finance minister, has been forced to admit that it is in a worse state than he had realised when he entered the cabinet in April. Shiokawa told a parliamentary committee on May 16 that his earlier assessment that the economy’s decline had halted had not been “very deep”, and that his concern was increased by the uncertain outlook for the US economy and a weak technology sector, the main engine driving Japanese productivity. In fact, Japan suffered a severe recession in the early 1990s after a period of rapid economic expansion in the 1980s. The US is the principal importer of Japan’s goods, but the competition from China is fierce, and Japan is very anxious to maintain its position as the largest exporter to Asian countries.

The CFIS’s recommendations for stronger ties with Muslims also coincides with a growing crisis between Japan and its neighbours, China and South Korea, because of Tokyo’s recent interest in glorifying its chauvinistic nationalist past, which led to its conquest of Asian territories and to well-documented war-crimes. The crisis centres round a new history book, written by a revisionist group of historians working for the ministry of education. The Junior High School Social Studies New History Textbook, written by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, will be introduced into the country’s schools next year. The society says that it wants to reawaken the pride of young people in their nation, but critics say that the book soft-pedals Japan’s responsibility for its past militarism, including the invasions of China, Korea and Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. Both China and South Korea have objected strongly to the new book, proposing extensive changes to it, but Junichiro Koizumi, the new prime minister, is adamant that no changes will be made, and proudly proclaims that he is a nationalist.

Interestingly, the CFIS report recommends that the study of Islam and its history, which it proposes, should be carried out in conjunction with the research-groups in the ministry of education. Moreover, both the ministry and its research-groups will play a central role in writing school-books on Islam and Muslims which the CFIS proposes to place on the school curriculum. The same researchers and officials as produced the controversial revisionist history-book are not likely to be less nationalist and more open-minded in preparing a textbook on Islam and Muslims. The additional recommendation that there should be an exchange of research-groups with Muslim countries may not come to anything, judging from the attitude of prime minister Koizumi to such groups. He suggested that China and South Korea should exchange research-groups with Japan instead of quarrelling, although he would not make any changes to the new history textbook.

But these reservations, though valid, do not justify a rebuff by the Muslim world to the CFIS initiative. Building closer relations with Japan will, among other things, improve the lot of the members of the Muslim community in the country, 10,000-strong according to one estimate. The community, although small and reportedly faced with discrimination and difficulties caused by Japan’s conception of the nature of religion, is active and undaunted. It maintains several mosques, including those at Kobe, Nagoya, Chiba and Isesaki, and the Arabic Islamic Institute and the Islamic Centre in Tokyo. There is also the newly built Tokyo Central Mosque.

The Japanese idea of religion is different from the Muslims’. The traditional religions of Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Neither is exclusive, and many Japanese subscribe nominally to both. Since 1945 a number of ‘new religions’ have evolved, based on various fusions of Shinto, Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Christian ideas. In 1995 there were about 184,000 religious organisations registered in Japan, according to the ministry of education.

In this loose atmosphere, it is vital that Muslims worldwide cooperate with Japanese Muslims to ensure that whatever research-groups write about Islam and Muslims is not distortions of the truth. In particular, Muslims should take a keen interest in what goes on in the proposed textbooks for schools. Islamic movements face the heavy responsibility of countering the influence that secular Muslim regimes and research-groups are expected to have on the recommended Islamic studies. The unquestioning imitation by the Japanese people of western, particularly American, culture makes that responsibility even heavier.

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