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Love and Faith in Japan: Three Stories of Japanese-Muslim Matrimony

The Muslim population in Japan is still relatively small, and most Japanese have only a basic understanding of Islam. Views of the religion are frequently tinted by stereotypes and negative images presented in the media, an issue that many Muslim residents and visitors find worrying. In this article we talk with three Japanese women who converted to Islam after marrying Muslim men.

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.”

Muhammet Ali Gerz and his wife, Takase-Gerz Yuri.

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 prepares a kebab at his shop. Customers include hungry students and people stopping off for a bite to eat on their way home from work.

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.

A sign marks the location of the shop’s prayer room.

Ali praying.

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.

  • [2018.03.22]
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