Love and Faith in Japan: Three Stories of Japanese-Muslim MatrimonySociety
Love, Career, and Marriage
Turkish national Muhammet Ali Gerz has just sat down for his dinner break when his wife Yuri joins him at the couple’s restaurant, a small kebab shop they opened in 2016 near Nakano Station in Tokyo. Yuri is an architect at a major Japanese housing manufacturer. Though she has converted to Islam, she does not wear the hijab head covering commonly donned by Muslim women.
The couple met three years earlier at an eatery they both frequented. They would often chat over meals, and these conversations led to dates and eventually matrimony. Yuri tells how early in the relationship she was unaware that Ali was Muslim. “He didn’t mention it,” she says. “I finally asked him after noticing that there were some dishes he wouldn’t eat.” She attributes his reticence about his faith to the limited understanding most Japanese have of Islam. “He won’t even pray in front of other people for fear they will misconstrue what he is doing.”
Yuri admits that when she first met Ali the only thing she knew for certain about Muslims was that they abstained from eating pork. She says negative images portrayed in the press influenced her perceptions of Islam, but that her relationship with her husband has given her a different understanding of the religion. One thing that surprised her was Ali’s gentleness. Once, when seeing her about to swat a mosquito, he implored her to wave away the insect instead of killing it. She says he even catches errant flies and releases them outside. “I was surprised at how pure and sincere he is. It made me realize that Muslims are different from the stories you often see on the news.”
A Personal Choice
Throughout their courtship and into marriage, Ali was careful to keep his faith from dominating the couple’s relationship. When they began to discuss matrimony, Yuri asked whether she should give up eating pork. To her surprise, though, Ali insisted he had no say in the matter, telling her that she should put her own lifestyle first.
In Ali’s view, a person must not let the opinions of others sway the relationship he or she builds with God. Moved by this view, Yuri began studying Islam of her own volition. She eventually gave up consuming pork and alcohol, even going so far as to replace all the kitchen utensils that had come into contact with pork products.
Ali says that one issue Muslims in Japan face is a shortage of places to pray. He knows that few facilities offer dedicated prayer rooms and keeps an eye out for suitable locations, noting that on occasion he has had to unroll his prayer mat in a convenient stairwell and have Yuri stand at the bottom of the steps to explain the situation to startled passersby. Such uncertainty, he explains, can make it tough for Muslims to casually step out of the house.
Building Community Bonds
Yuri says her relationship with Ali has given her a better understanding of the challenges Muslims in Japan face. When the couple opened their restaurant, Yuri searched for sites that could accommodate a prayer room to give Ali one less thing to worry about when running the shop and to make Muslim customers feel more at home.
In her career Yuri balances the demands of her faith with cultural expectations. “I considered wearing a hijab and setting time aside in my schedule to pray, but I didn’t feel it was practical for a Japanese working environment,” she says. “Considering the rudimentary understanding that most Japanese have of the faith, I was concerned that my colleagues and others around me would feel uneasy. At the end of the day, though, it’s up to me to decide how I worship, so I wear a hijab when attending mosque and pray when I have time.”
A more pressing issue for Yuri is helping Ali integrate into the community. The couple regularly attends neighborhood events and buys ingredients for the shop from local stores, actions that have made it easier for neighbors to strike up a conversation with her husband.
Yuri says she is learning slowly about Islam from her husband and hopes the understanding she gains will one day make life for Ali and other Muslims living in Japan better.
Step by Step
Inside the offices of the Japan Halal Association, an NPO based in Osaka’s Hirano Ward, Khadija Mari mans the phones alongside a woman clad in a hijab. Mari met her husband, Abdurahman, while visiting Indonesia in 2012—he worked at the hotel where she was staying—and the couple wed on New Year’s Day, 2014.
Mari explains that she has slowly come to embrace Islam. “It was a gradual awakening,” she says. “My beliefs just naturally developed. Becoming a Muslim has helped me come to terms with different aspects of my life. I am now able to accept life’s challenges as the will of God.”
Mari admits she had concerns about Islam early in her relationship with her husband, but that he helped put her mind at ease by urging her from the outset to just have faith in God. When the couple visited his home village, Mari struggled with local religious customs and manners. Seeing this, Abdurahman consoled her, telling her take things slowly and give it time.
Shortly after the wedding Mari started wearing a blue hijab, but to her surprise Abdurahman found it odd and asked her to stop. Islam is often portrayed in the mass media as a strict, uncompromising religion, but Mari hopes the open acceptance her husband has for differing cultural norms will help others overcome these stereotypes and make Japan more hospitable to Muslims.
She understands that this will take time, though. She recalls how news of a terrorist attack saddened her husband and how he lamented the way it would affect people’s views of Islam. “There is a tendency to believe that Muslims are forgiving of extremist groups because they share the same faith,” she says. “Whenever possible, I let people know that this is not at all the case.”
A colleague once told Abdurahman that in Japan a person’s religion is of no concern in the workplace. While Mari largely attributes this view to a general lack of understanding about Islam in Japan, she has also come to see it as astute advice for Muslims in the country. There are many challenges to living in Japan, not least of which is food. She says when out with coworkers, Abdurahman does his best to avoid eating forbidden items, sometimes even feigning stomach pains to fend off overzealous recommendations to try a dish. Such efforts can often leave him feeling emotionally drained, though. Shopping at convenience stores is also a challenge for her husband, who does not read Japanese well enough to check the ingredients.
“He tries to take everything in stride,” says Mari, “but even if he accidentally consumes something forbidden he still considers it a sin. When we’re together I have to remain on guard so that he doesn’t unwittingly break his vows.”
Now that more than three years have passed since Mari converted to Islam, she says her husband is finally starting to regard her as truly Muslim. He has even come around on the idea of her wearing a hijab, telling her recently that the head covering suits her.
A Willing Conversion
At an Italian restaurant near Ekoda Station in Tokyo, Bangladeshi Jahangir Mujahed and his wife Chihiro are preparing to open for business. The couple met on the job at a different Italian eatery, managed by Jahangir, where Chihiro, then a university student, worked part-time. Despite their age difference—Jahangir is 22 years older—the pair fell in love. They married seven years ago.
Chihiro claims she had no qualms about converting to Islam. “Many of the values it teaches are same that Japanese children hear growing up,” she says, “like respecting your parents and not lying. Converting was easy for me and has never been a barrier to my life in Japan.”
Jahangir says his wife has helped him become a better Muslim. He admits that after decades of living in Japan he had become lax about many Islamic rules regarding diet and lifestyle, explaining that he was trying to get by in a foreign land. “I wasn’t going to get along with people very well if I had to keep saying I couldn’t do this or eat that,” he exclaims. “I did what I needed to do to fit in to Japanese society.” What were once exceptions, though, eventually become regular habits. After meeting Chihiro, he vowed to reform. “I owe everything to her. She is a godsend.”
Chihiro divides her time between the restaurant and looking after the couple’s two small children. Her busy schedule means she is unable to pray some days and is usually unable to attend prayer gatherings on Fridays. “I would of course feel better as a Muslim if I prayed regularly,” she confesses. “But as my husband once told me, God in his greatness isn’t concerned about such trivial things. For me, it’s more important to do the best I can.”
The couple admits that as members of a religious minority, they have some concerns about people’s views and how their children will be treated down the road. To avoid potential misunderstandings, the pair says they do not go out of their way to make their beliefs widely known, including not even posting in Japanese that the restaurant offers halal options. They do not see it as being secretive, though. “There is no reason to broadcast the fact that we are Muslim,” states Jahangir. “Islam teaches that if you put your best face forward, people will accept you for who you are.”
Chihiro concurs with her husband: “With the children, issues like school lunch menus will inevitably arise. As parents, though, we believe it is better not to push our standards but rather to live in harmony with others as Islam teaches. Every household has its own rules, and we hope our daughters’ friends will naturally come to respect what is different about our family.”
Building Better Understanding
The lives of these three women offer different perspectives of female Muslims than what is often portrayed in the Japanese press. Unlike what common stereotypes may suggest, they seem to enjoy more freedom in such things as dress and employment and have equal footing in their relations with their husbands and children. However, this independence might simply be an outcome of Islam being a minor religion in Japan.
Japan Halal Association head Remon Hitomi insists that Islam does not oppress women. “People who do not know about the religion tend to see it as strict and scary,” she explains. “But even the Prophet Muhammad did house chores, saying that ‘heaven lies under the feet of your mother.’”
Remon, who wears a hijab in public, married a Muslim after converting to Islam at the age of 27. She says it is up to individuals to forge their own relationship with God and decide how best to worship. In the morning she usually wakes with her husband to pray but admits that some days she cannot drag herself out of bed. In her view, imperfection is the most human of traits; she emphasizes that the most important thing is to strive to be better.
“The media tends to focus on the strict tenets of Islam and the actions of extremists,” she explains. “But in reality, having faith is more important for most Muslims than arbitrary observance of religious laws. People who forge a relationship with God come to understand that Islam teaches kindness and tolerance, not violence.“
The number of Muslims in Japan will continue to rise as more people come to the country to work and the government keeps up its efforts to attract foreign visitors. Remon says she will keep working to educate people and raise awareness of Islam to make it easier for Muslims to integrate into Japanese society.(Originally published in Japanese on September 6, 2017. Reporting and text by Kōda Hideyuki of Power News. Banner photo: Muhammet Ali Gerz and Takase-Gerz Yuri at their restaurant in Nakano, Tokyo. Photographs in Tokyo by Ikazaki Shinobu and in Osaka by Yamauchi Hiroshi.)