Features Islam in Japan
Tokyo Camii: Japan’s Biggest Mosque
Opening the Doors to Islam in Japan

[2013.06.19] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | االعربية | Русский |

There are around 80 mosques in Japan, many of them relatively small. The country’s biggest place of Islamic worship is Tokyo Camii, which has space for around 1,200 worshipers. Come with us as we pay a visit to this magnificent Ottoman-style mosque in the heart of the Japanese capital.

The minaret of Tokyo Camii against the backdrop of the Shinjuku skyline (right). From this arched balcony (left), the muezzin makes the call to prayer (“azan”). (Photo on the right courtesy of Tokyo Camii.)

In the heart of a quiet residential area in Yoyogi Uehara, just a short distance from the bustling city-center hotspots of Shinjuku and Harajuku, is a building whose towering minaret and impressive dome make it stand out from the surrounding architecture.

This is Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, built in impressive Ottoman style. The English word “mosque” and its cognates in other European languages derive ultimately from the Arabic masjid, meaning “place where one bows one’s head.” Mosques can be found throughout Japan’s major cities—a fact that in itself is likely to come as a surprise to most Japanese people, who remain largely unaware of these pockets of Islamic culture thriving in their midst.

Camii is a Turkish word derived from the Arabic jami, and refers to a central “congregational mosque”—a major mosque where people gather for Friday prayers, the most important of the week. Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, is architecturally similar to the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

Apart from water, concrete, and steel, all the building materials and furnishings used in the mosque were brought from Turkey. Around a hundred Turkish artisans worked for a year to build the second-story mosque itself and the cultural center downstairs. The building itself is a work of art.

In the morning and early afternoon, the sunlight comes streaming through the stained glass windows, enveloping the interior of the mosque in an atmospheric light. Because of strict prohibitions against idolatry, the mosque depends on Arabic calligraphy and geometric designs for its interior decoration. The dome represents the wide expanse of God’s created universe.

A verse from the Koran in Arabic calligraphy.

In many Turkish-style mosques, the roof of the dome is inscribed with Arabic calligraphy depicting the names of God (Allah), the Prophet Muhammad, and his four successors.

According to Islamic tradition, there are 99 names for God. These include “Al-Muhyi” (The Giver of Life); “Al-Khaliq” (The Creator), and “Ar-Rahman” (The Exceedingly Compassionate). The holy “most beautiful names” of God are written in beautifully flowing Arabic calligraphy on the walls of the mosque. In front of this is the minbar, the pulpit from which the imam delivers his sermon to the faithful during Friday prayers.

Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day. The most important prayers take place early on Friday afternoon, when large numbers of people attend the mosque. The faithful prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca. The Muslim style of prayer, with everyone on the same level, symbolizes that all people are equal in the eyes of God, regardless of race or social status. Women pray in a separate section of the mosque.

The Russian Revolution and Japan’s First Mosque

Nurullah Ayaz, imam of the Tokyo Camii mosque, came to Japan in summer 2012, after studying Japanese for five years at university in Turkey. He emphasizes the “many points in common between the Japanese national character and the conduct expected of a Muslim.”

The roots of Tokyo Camii are in Central Asia.

“Unfortunately, for much of Japanese history there was no direct contact with the Islamic world,” says Nurullah Ayaz, the imam at Tokyo Camii. “It was only in the twentieth century that a Muslim community first established itself in Japan. The first mosque in Tokyo was built by Tartars who came to Japan as refugees after the Russian Revolution in 1917. They were a Turkic group originally from Central Asia, who came to Japan via Siberia and China. As Muslims, the first thing they wanted to do in Japan was to build a school for their children and to establish a mosque where the community could pray. These Muslims received permission from the Japanese government in 1928, and the school opened in 1935. The first mosque was completed three years later, in 1938.”

(Left) The school in Tokyo for Muslim children, which opened in 1935. There are plans to demolish the school, which is starting to show its age, and build a new Turkish culture center on the site. (Right) The original Tokyo mosque, built in 1938—the precursor to today’s Tokyo Camii. The original mosque was demolished in 1986, and the current structure was completed in 2000.

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