Last Monday, Muslims conducted their daily prayers right outside of Toyota Stadium, where athletes were training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. What made the spectacle in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture, located some 350 kilometers (200 miles) west of the capital, even more unique in a country with few Muslims is that the worshipers were loaded onto a 25-ton truck—a makeshift mobile mosque.
In anticipation of an influx of Muslim tourists for the next Summer Olympics, Japan’s Yasu Project, a sports and cultural events company, is pitching its mosque-on-wheels concept to the Tokyo Olympic Committee. Already, many of the nation’s estimated 120,000 Muslims—who make up less than a tenth of one percent of Japan’s total population of 127 million—have already had the opportunity to test-drive (rather, pray in) the new vehicles.
The massive white-and-blue trucks, adorned with pictures of mosques, provide enough space for 50 worshipers at a time. The truck has all the features of a regular mosque, including a hand-washing station and carpeting for prayer.
“We have been indirectly contacting the Japanese Olympic and Paralympic Committees about the mosque car, but we are trying to proceed cautiously as the discussion involves religious matters,” Yasuharu Inoue, CEO of the Yasu Project, told The Media Line.
If the company reaches a deal with organizers, the mobile mosques will be used to complement existing plans to build mosques within Olympic villages. Inoue stressed, however, the importance of making Muslims feel at home by offering them places to pray outside of sporting venues and campsites during the Games.
“I am concerned about the situation where Muslim people have to worship under Japan’s scorching, summer heat, or at facilities with insufficient hospitality,” Inoue asserted.
Japan is in the midst of a record heat wave, with temperatures regularly surpassing 40 degrees Celsius, resulting in the deaths of at least 80 people.
Inoue started his mobile mosque project after numerous visits to the Middle East, which caused him to realize that he and his country had “little understanding” about the Muslim religion.
“In addition to the mobile mosques, we are discussing other measures to welcome our Muslim guests, and we are starting with Halal,” Inoue said in reference to foods that are permissible in traditional Islamic law.
Matsui Hideshi, also known by his Muslim name “Moosa,” is President of Miyako International Tourist Co., a travel agency in Osaka. He is one of the few men in Japan to have converted to Islam.
“Food is the most difficult and most important factor for Muslims visiting foreign countries,” he told The Media Line, adding that as a member of the Japan Halal Association one of his jobs has been to lobby the government and businesses to incorporate Halal foods into their culinary offerings.
For his part, Hideshi provides Halal food to his clients while Muslim staff, comprising the majority of his workers, attend to visitors’ religious needs.
Both Inoue and Hideshi attribute their concern for Muslim tourists to Japan’s well-known custom of omotenashi, or hospitality, which requires subjugating one’s self while providing services to guests.
In fact, Japan is viewed by many as being more religiously tolerant than neighboring countries.
“In addition to having more than 150 mosques [in Japan], the government is also establishing places for prayer in airports, train stations and shopping malls,” a spokesperson for the Muslim Student Association in Japan (MSAJ), told The Media Line.
An organization with over 11,200 followers on its Facebook page, MSAJ aims to increase Japanese society’s collective awareness of Muslim culture. The group advocates for the introduction of Halal food into local schools and for Japanese Muslims to be granted time off on Fridays, the weekly Muslim holy day, in order to pray.
Japan is comprised of a mostly homogeneous population, 98.5% of which is ethnic Japanese. More than two-thirds of these individuals practices both Shintoism and Buddhism.
Nevertheless, it appears that cultural inroads are being made by Muslims—some of whom might now be found travelling the streets of Japan in mobile mosques.
(David Lee is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)