TOKYO – Unsure whether they could find halal food in Japan, a group of Muslim school teachers from Malaysia went so far as to prepare their own breakfast before departing.
By the end of the first day, they were more at ease. School principal Rahanim Adb Rahim and her group from Kuala Lumpur enjoyed a traditional Japanese lunch of seafood tempura with rice before joining the crowds at Senso-ji, a popular temple in Tokyo.
“It is not as difficult as we thought it would be,” Rahanim said later at the Tokyo Skytree, a soaring tower that is one of the city’s newest attractions.
That’s welcome news for Japanese tourism officials, who are counting on a still small but growing market of Muslim tourists as Japan looks to diversify its tourism industry, long dependent on visitors from China, Taiwan and South Korea.
Looking ahead to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to boost tourism as part of his “Abenomics” growth revitalization plan. The government hopes to increase the annual number of tourists to 20 million by then.
Tourism dropped significantly dropped after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and territorial disputes between China and Japan also reduced the number of Chinese visitors for a time.
But foreign tourism has rebounded. According to the government’s Japan National Tourism Organization, a record 9.7 million people visited from January to September this year, a 26 per cent increase from the same period the year before.
The largest number from Muslim countries came from Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia had 158,500 visitors in the first nine months of 2014, a 52.3 per cent increase, and Indonesia had a 13.4 per cent increase to 111,400 visitors. Beginning in 2013, visa exemptions made it easier for Malaysians to visit Japan, and exemptions for Indonesians are due to start Dec. 1.
Rahanim still sees room for improvement in making Japan more Muslim-friendly. Muslims should pray five times a day, and prayer rooms are hard to come by. A former student from her school who was their unofficial guide resorted to praying behind a 7-Eleven parking lot.
Shuichi Kameyama, the executive director of the tourism organization’s marketing and promotion department, said the number of prayer rooms is insufficient, but that he believes they will become more common.
Takashimaya, a popular department store in Tokyo, recently opened a prayer room because a growing number of Southeast Asian shoppers asking for one, company spokesman Mikio Koda said. The prayer room comes equipped with a facility for ritual washing and an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca.
Local businesses have also become more mindful of Muslim food restrictions. The use of pork and alcohol is prohibited in Islam and meat must also be cut by a Muslim using proper methods.
For Rahanim and the school group, simply having menus in English helped them determine whether foods such as fish were acceptable.
“Halalminds,” a smartphone application, tries to make it easier to find halal products and restaurants in Japan. Founder Agung Pambudi, a Muslim originally from Indonesia who lives in Fukuoka, designed the app earlier this year, and it has been downloaded 5,000 times.
“It’s really difficult to find halal products, especially in Japan. Why? Because if I buy some products in Japan and I cannot read kanji (Japanese characters), this is impossible for me to understand what kind of ingredients are inside,” he said.
Using GPS, the app also helps find nearby halal restaurants, such as Konya, a Turkish restaurant in Tokyo. Konya owner Ali Tada, a naturalized Japanese citizen from Turkey, says he’s seen a big improvement over the last decade, but it’s still difficult to find halal restaurants.
Speaking comfortably in Japanese, he said, “Lately, the word ‘halal’ is being used a lot. But the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is approaching, and restaurants where Muslim people can eat at are still few.” He said that increasing the number of halal eateries would make Muslim visitors feel safe when visiting Japan.