A list of supposed restrictions that Japan has placed on Muslims has gone viral following the attacks in Paris in November and amid the ongoing United States Republican presidential nomination campaign, in which candidates have consistently used Islamophobia and racism as a political tool.
According to an image image shared widely across English-language social media over the past few weeks, Japan enforces strict laws on Muslims:
Out of Japan’s nearly 127 million occupants, only 10,000 of them, less than one hundredth of a percent, are Muslims. Part of that has to do with their ban on Islamic evangelism but perhaps even more so on their ban of Muslim immigrants.
The problem? Every bullet point on this list is false.
The viral meme in turn generated an Internet debate about whether or not it was true.
Independent media outlet SNA Japan noted that Japan is no stranger to politically or ideologically motivated violence, and that Japan is the only country that has experienced an attack carried out by a non-state actor utilizing “weapons of mass destruction”—the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in the mid-1990s.
The rumor reference site Snopes declared the “Japan keeps Islam at bay” meme as false, while fact-checking site Politifact thoroughly debunked the meme point-by-point after consulting with experts from Japan who explained that nothing about it is true at all.
Popular Japan vlogger Kanadajin3 (aka “Mira”) posted a spirited rebuttal about Japan's “anti-Islamic rumors” that has so far attracted 65,000 views.
Japan's tolerant attitude towards Islam compared to the misinformation spread by the original meme may have more to do with the fact that there are relatively few Muslims living in Japan.
Indeed, some of the comments left on Kanadajin3's video can be considered fairly indicative of anyone or any cultural practice considered “not Japanese.”
For example, a YouTube commenter called shi taka says:
どこの国でもそうだと思うけど、帰化したいなら、その国の文化やルールに従い、自分勝手な行動を止め、秩序を乱さなければ誰だって歓迎されるでしょ。 ただ、自分勝手に、あれもくれこれもくれという移民に対しては、すごく嫌いになる。 日本は外国人の知らないようなマナーが多いからね。日本人でも分からないことだらけなんだ。来るなら、それを学んでから来てほしいね。
[If people want to live in a foreign country] they should abide by the rules and customs of that country, and should stop imposing their cultural practices on others. Japan will welcome anyone If they come here and avoid upsetting the existing order of things. However, we Japanese really hate it if people come here and demand special exceptions to be made for them. We Japanese have a lot of customs that the rest the world is unaware of. Japan is full of customs that are totally unique to our country. If you come, make sure you study our special customs before you get here.
While Japan's history of interactions with Islam dates back at least 150 years to the end of the country's long period of isolation, today it's estimated about 100,000 people in Japan identify as Muslim.
About 10 per cent of these people are from Japan. The remainder are immigrants or long-term foreign residents of Japan who came to the country as students, trainees or foreign workers from countries such as Turkey, Iran, Nigeria and Malaysia.
While many Muslims settle in Tokyo, other “international” cities in Japan such as Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe are home to mosques that serve a vibrant Muslim community.
For the time being at least, Japan's official stance on Muslims in the country appears to be more nuanced compared with anonymous Internet commenters.
For example, in a 2008 online English-language article from the English-language Dispatches section of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, there is an article by noted Japanese anthropologist and Middle East specialist Katakura Motoko that adopts a tolerant tone about Muslims living in Japan and Islam in general:
This is in contrast to the West where Islamic headscarves have become a political issue. Many researchers have taken note of the fact that although Japanese can be counted among the victims of the September 11th attacks, there has been no wave of anti-Islamic sentiment here. No newspaper in Japan published a satirical cartoon lampooning Islam.
Although the number of Muslims in Japan is rising dramatically, there are no complaints from neighboring residents about the construction of mosques. There is only a normal sense of curiosity. A local resident will notice that strangers are building something, and simply wonder what kind of people they are. But the sight of Muslims delivering “soba” noodles to neighbors, a Japanese tradition when moving house, has reassured neighbors and affirmed a sense of community.
Notably, in the article Katakura says, “[In Japan we] should turn a gentle and sensitive awareness towards such everyday aspects, rather than let atypical events guide our opinions.”
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has also repeated nuanced perspectives about Islam since Katakura's 2008 article. Abe, while hosting a delegation from Arab Gulf States in 2014, said:
I have found that a fundamental aspect of the spirit of Islam is harmony with and love for others. I believe therein lie points of commonality with the Japanese spirit, which is founded on co-existence.
So, while it could it could be difficult to argue Japan is a pluralistic, multicultural democracy, at the same time Japan has imposed no special restrictions aimed at limiting Muslim participation in Japanese daily life, and the country seems to be more at home with its Muslim subculture than Western democracies, including the United States.