Seminar_Dr. Kieko Obuse_Japanese Perceptions of Islam: Diversity and Continuity

Dr. Kieko Obuse

Kobe City University of Foreign Studies

This presentation discusses Japanese perceptions and appropriations of Islam. Paying a particular attention to how they have been shaped by 1) socio-political circumstances, and 2) Buddhism, it explores the diversity and continuity which Japanese approaches to Islam display across history.

The first paper examines Japanese-Muslim encounters and Japanese perceptions of Islam from the mid-eighth century up to the end of World War II. It shows that early Japanese writers, having very limited knowledge of Islam, described it using Buddhist terms they were familiar with, in order to facilitate their understanding. It also highlights how foreign sources, first Chinese, then European, influenced early Japanese understandings of Islam. The paper further demonstrates that, from the middle of the nineteenth century, the Japanese interpreted Islam in the framework of their contemporary Shinto-based ideology to support the nation’s imperialist agenda, while describing Islamic concepts and practices using Buddhist terminology.

The second paper first provides an overview of Muslim presence and Japanese attitudes towards Islam in the contemporary period. This is followed by a case study of the Japan Islamic Congress (JIC), a religious organization which claimed a membership of over 50,000 in the 1980s (but no longer exists). Itexamines major factors in its expansion, discussing the possibility of regarding this group as a new religion. To this end, it highlights five characteristics that the JIC shares with new religions, namely, 1) it had a charismatic leader, attributed with the power to ‘heal’; 2) it attracted members through curing of illnesses, with many joining as nominal members; 3) it focused on making practice easy and organizing large-scale events where the group’s identity is emphasized; 4) its teachings display a syncretic nature, combining Islamic and Buddhist ideas; and 5) it was actively engaged with society, especially in the fields of medicine and politics.