Tokyo Camii: Japan's Biggest Mosque
Opening the Doors to Islam in Japan
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 capitalt
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.
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."
Friday prayers at Tokyo Camii are well attended by a growing congregation, most of them foreign-born. With the recent increase in the number of Muslims from Southeast Asia in particular, the Friday sermon is now given in Turkish, Japanese, and English rather than Arabic.
Despite a widespread image in Japan of Islam as a "desert religion" with its roots in the culture of Arabia and the Middle East, Egypt is the only Arabic-speaking country among the world's five most populous Muslim countries, ranking fifth—behind Indonesia (250 million), Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, in that order. In this sense, it would be no exaggeration to say that Islam is already on Japan's doorstep.
Imam Nurullah says he wants Japanese people to feel comfortable and welcome in the country's mosques.
"We try to give visitors a simple explanation about Islam. We give them a quick run-down on the etiquette when visiting a mosque. For example, women cover their head with a scarf (called a hijab) before they enter the mosque. We have head cloths available at the entrance for people to cover their hair and any exposed skin. Men cannot enter the mosque in short trousers that expose the legs. And people should refrain from conversation while prayers are in progress. Photography is not allowed without special permission. Otherwise, there aren't really any rules that people need to worry about."
One courtesy that Nurullah does want people to follow is to respect people at prayer by not cutting across in front of them. "The idea is that there should be nothing between you and Allah when you are praying. Cutting across people is tantamount to breaking that connection between the worshiper and Allah."
Met at Tokyo Camii
We talked to several visitors to the mosque.
Aromatherapist Okabe Yoshiko (left) says she has wanted to visit the mosque for some time, since she often passes it on her walks around the neighborhood. For some reason people often speak to her on their way out of the mosque, and today she decided to stop in and have a look around. "Unfortunately, today's Japan is cut off from the universe. Coming to a sacred place like a mosque steadies the spirit. Your heart becomes calm and at one with the universe."
Nasser from France (center) was visiting Japan from Dubai, where he now works. "I found out about Tokyo Camii on the Internet. As well as Tokyo, I've also visited Kyoto and Hiroshima. Everywhere's been great. I was especially moved by the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. I think Japan is a particularly spiritual country. People are kind and respectful of the values of others; everything feels very natural."
Sagawa Nobuko (right) is an Arabic calligrapher. She was struck as a young girl by the calligraphy on the flag of Saudi Arabia, and resolved to study Arabic calligraphy.
(With thanks to Tokyo Camii and Turkish Culture Center. Photographs by Kodera Kei.)