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Nur ar-Ramadan

Ramadan Bliss for Muslim Communities in East Asia

TOKYO, & News Agencies

The scent and bliss of the holy month of Ramadan in Muslim countries are usually clear and obvious. To tiny Muslim communities in East Asia, however, Ramadan makes them more conspicuous than ever.

Even though Asia is home to some of the largest Muslim populations, in much of east Asia the community is minuscule -- making Ramadan a special occasion to affirm their identity and explain their faith, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

In these religiously diverse countries, Muslims seize the opportunity of Ramadan to step up awareness drives to make certain they are not associated with extremists.Japanese Muslims

The some 10,000 Japanese Muslims do not usually have an independent way of verifying the advent of the holy month, so they depend on other Muslim countries like Malaysia.

According to AFP Wednesday, October 20, Amir Arai, with the Japan Muslim Association, was trying to sight Ramadan crescent from a top floor of a Tokyo skyscraper.

But it was cloudy, as is often the case in typhoon season. Arai, a Japanese revert to Islam, had to seek guidance from authorities in Malaysia, at 5,300 kilometers (3,300 miles) away, the closest Muslim country, before he could inform Japan’s Muslims that the month of prayer and fasting had begun.

Just beyond the brash 24-hour youth culture of Tokyo’s Shibuya area, a slender minaret lights up the night from a Turkish-designed mosque, which during Ramadan is the meeting ground for iftar or dinners to break the fast, AFP reported.

Most worshipers at Tokyo’s main mosque are expatriates, as at most 10,000 Japanese are estimated to be Muslims, a majority of them women who married into the faith.

Amir Arai -- his given name was Takuro Arai -- reverted to Islam 40 years ago in Tokyo where he studied Arabic and befriended his Egyptian and Iraqi professors.

“I felt at home in Islam. I found it a very welcoming religion,” Arai, 62, who sports a neatly trimmed gray goatee and walks around his office in Japanese slippers, told AFP.

Arai taught Islam to his wife, a Japanese who reverted, and used his language skills for a career doing public relations for the Japan National Oil Corporation in the Gulf, where he surprised many who never imagined a Japanese Muslim.

When he retired, he put his energy into the Japan Muslim Association where, next to shelves that include the sole Japanese translation of the Qur’an, he broke his fast with Middle Eastern tea and dates offered along with Japanese sticky rice.

This Ramadan marks the first anniversary of Sumiko Kimura becoming Fatima Kimura after she wed a Pakistani she met as a volunteer teaching Japanese to foreigners.

Kimura, a 58-year-old cleaner at a library who would not stick out in a crowd of Japanese women, said some of her first impressions of Islam came after September 11, 2001.

“I was frightened. I wondered what would make someone carry out suicide bombings in New York,” she said.


But as she dug deeper into the newspapers, another image took over in her mind: a haunting picture of Afghan resistance icon Ahmad Shah Masood reading the Qur’an. Masood was killed two days before September 11.

“I saw a very strong face of Islam. I was very impressed by the enthusiasm Muslims show for their faith,” Kimura told AFP.

The Japanese, in contrast to monotheistic cultures, often embrace more than one religion simultaneously, participating in Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian rites for different occasions.

“Some people may be influenced by the media and think that Islam is about terrorism, but most Japanese don’t have any religion and don’t give others problems over theirs,” Kimura said.

A trickier problem can arise with East Asia’s corporate culture, in which workplace politics can be settled over alcohol - forbidden for Muslims.

“If you work in a company, the ethic is to succeed. If you work hard, not drinking can be seen as just a small thing,” said Yumiko Nagai, 31, who is half-Japanese and half-Indonesian and covers herself with a headscarf.Taiwan, Hong Kong

But a veil need not be a give-away for a Muslim in East Asia.

Kerimah Pai Mei-ling goes to work every day in Taiwan in an Islamic scarf, or hijab, but most people think she is in yuezi - a local custom of women covering their heads for protection if they go outside within a month of giving birth.

“People shoot curious looks at me on the streets whenever I’m wearing the hijab. When I take taxis, the drivers always ask if I’m in yuezi and I explain to them that it’s my religion,” she told AFP.

In Hong Kong, head-covered Cantonese Muslim Khadeejah Chiu said she has been mistaken for a nun.

“People would point at you on the street, out of curiosity, and wonder why a nun looks so strange. They don’t understand what you are wearing because hardly any Chinese dress like that,” she said.

Chiu said she has heard stories of Muslims failing to find apartments and jobs in Hong Kong.

“Normally you work for Muslim companies or non-Islamic companies which are usually foreign firms. They are usually more open to people with different religious beliefs,” she said.

In Taiwan, the 60,000-strong Islamic community -- much of which emigrated from mainland China when the communists triumphed in 1949 -- is looking for good publicity this Ramadan by holding a fund-raising fair for an orphanage in Egypt.

Last year during the holy month, Taiwanese Muslims helped bring an Iraqi boy wounded in the war to the island for surgery.

“Many people are prejudiced against us because they see Western media portraying Muslims as militants and terrorists. There is very limited understanding of our religion and customs here,” said Ma Shiao-chi, head of the Taipei-based Islamic Association of China.Korean Muslims

The beheading of a South Korean hostage in Iraq in June prompted tighter security around mosques, but fears for the safety of the 35,000 Korean Muslims proved unfounded.

“Though a minority religious group here, we Korean Muslims have felt no sense of repression or unfair treatment,” said Lee Ju-Ha of the Korea Muslim Federation.