The cultural district of Asakusa in Tokyo is packed with tourists from all over the world on any given day of the year. They typically pose for photographs in front of Kaminarimon, the outer entrance gate that leads to Nakamise shopping street and, ultimately, the oldest temple in the capital, Sensoji.
Once tourists have filled the memory cards on their cameras with images of the temple and the surrounding area, they will invariably jam themselves into the myriad eatries located near the station for a bite to eat. Many of these restaurants, however, are unable to cater to specific dietary needs and Muslim visitors, in particular, can have trouble finding a place that features dishes that are permissible under Islamic law.
Aware of this situation, Endy Harmoko had already come up with a plan when he chauffeured his visiting Indonesian family around the sightseeing spots of Asakusa on a cold winter’s day in February. Harmoko, a graduate student from Indonesia who has been living in Japan for a year to study economics at Yokohama National University, led his family to a halal-certified ramen shop called Naritaya, located just a short walk from the temple. There, the family ordered bowls of piping hot noodles and a plate of karaage fried chicken.
“It’s very comforting to find a halal restaurant in Japan,” Harmoko says. “I usually have to cook my own food at home.”
Naritaya opened in January 2015, looking for all intents and purposes like any other ramen shop aside from the fact that everything used inside the restaurant is permissible for Muslims to eat or drink under Islamic law.
The restaurant’s menu is written on the wall in English and Japanese, with dishes including gyoza dumplings made with chicken, beef rice bowls and custard pudding for dessert.
Pork and meat that hasn’t been processed according to Islamic law are strictly off the menu, as is alcohol, and none of Naritaya’s dishes contains ingredients or seasonings that are forbidden in the Quran.
Naritaya Manager Takuya Seki says the noodles are made to order at a private factory that caters to the restaurant.
“It is difficult to create the taste of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) without using regular seasoning, but (through trial and error) we have managed to come up with a recipe that maintains the flavor,” Seki says. “These people came all the way to Japan and they want to be able to experience the food culture that they have heard so much about.”
Seki was among a number of employees at Fellows Co. — which owns Naritaya and at least one more halal eatery in Ibaraki Prefecture — who was sent to Malaysia between 2013 and 2014. There, at a Japanese restaurant in Johor Bahru, Seki learned how to re-create the taste of washoku using halal seasonings.
He was eventually able to make rice bowls that were topped off with either chicken and egg, or beef. Ramen, however, proved to be difficult to make and the Japanese trainees realized that they would ultimately need to make halal noodles from scratch if they were to open a halal-certified ramen shop in Japan.
Now, more than a year after Naritaya opened, about 80-90 percent of its customers are Muslim, Seki says.
Their nationalities vary, with customers coming from places such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, France, and African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. Most visitors hear about the ramen shop from other Muslims via the Internet.
“To be honest, it was a lot harder than I thought to get this place going because we first had to earn Muslim customers’ trust,” Seki says. “We opened this restaurant because we wanted to create a place where everyone, both Japanese and Muslims alike, can eat together.”
Times have changed
As of 2010, Muslims make up more than 1.6 billion people, or about 23 percent, of the world’s population. It’s the second-largest religious denomination in the world after Christianity, which has about 2.2 billion followers, or nearly one-third of the global population.
However, studies by the Washington-based think tank Pew Research Center show that the number of Christians and Muslims are expected to be nearly equal by 2050.
With more and more travelers visiting Japan, there’s an obvious need to cater to the growing market of Muslim tourists. There’s also an existing demand for halal-certified products domestically in university cafeterias, hospitals and supermarkets.
Saeed Akhtar, head of the Nippon Asia Halal Association, encourages people in Japan to incorporate halal principles into their own enterprises.
“Getting involved in halal business has significant advantages, not only for Muslim residents in Japan, who would have access to halal food, but also for Japan (as a whole), because it covers both inbound (tourism) and outbound (exports),” Akhtar says. “Looking another 20 or 50 years into the future amid Japan’s declining population, halal business could represent a great opportunity for the Japanese economy.”
Established in 2013, the Nippon Asia Halal Association is one of an estimated 20 or so entities that can issue recognized halal certificates in Japan. It has certified a wide variety of Japanese products, from soy sauce, miso and nattō (fermented soybeans) to tea, ice cream and even hair-care products.
Born in Pakistan, Akhtar moved to Japan in 1996 to complete a doctorate in food science at the University of Tokyo. Akhtar couldn’t read or speak Japanese when he first arrived, and never knew if beverages in the supermarket were beer, shochu cocktails, whiskies and soda, soft drinks or oolong tea. He bought all his food at a halal supermarket near his mosque and ate at home. It was impossible for him to eat out.
“My life was turned upside-down and it was very difficult, especially with regards to food. I lost 15 kilograms in the first few years,” Akhtar says. “There were few mosques and no one really knew what halal was, but Japanese people were always kind to us.”
Times have definitely changed. An estimated 100,000 Muslims currently reside in Japan, and the flow of Muslim tourists shows no sign of slowing down.
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, a record 19.73 million people visited Japan in 2015, a 47.3 percent increase against 2014. While travelers from China topped the list, accounting for 4.99 million visitors last year, Southeast Asian tourists also came to Japan in record numbers in 2015, with 2.06 million being processed by immigration. Tourists from Indonesia, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, increased from 80,632 in 2010 to 205,100 in 2015.
But in spite of the growing number of Muslim tourists visiting Japan, domestic enterprises are not working hard enough to accommodate them, says Toshiya Takahashi, chairman of the Made in Japan Halal Support Committee.
“The government keeps saying, ‘Come visit Japan,’ but the reality is that Japan isn’t ready,” Takahashi says. “There is no information in English, no (free) Wi-Fi, no food (for Muslims) and the public transportation is like a maze. The government first needs to set up an infrastructure to truly welcome these tourists.”
A former advertising expert, Takahashi founded the Made in Japan Halal Support Committee in February 2014. He travels around Japan, holding public lectures and providing consultation services for companies and municipalities interested in creating Muslim-friendly environments.
Takahashi initially wanted to revitalize Japan after the March 2011 disasters, but decided to focus on halal when he realized that many companies and local governments didn’t truly understand what was required to accommodate Muslim tourists.
“Many businesses had given up trying because they thought it was going to be too difficult,” Takahashi says. “But there is a lot of demand and the local businesses do want to welcome them. Now represents a perfect opportunity for them.”
Reaching out to the community
The Japan Tourism Agency announced in December that it had selected three areas in five prefectures to act as a trial project in a collaboration that targeted Muslim visitors. The government promised to help domestic businesses have a better understanding of Muslim lifestyles by holding a variety of seminars and halal-food cooking classes, as well as helping establish prayer rooms.
Local governments are also expressing an increasing interest in making their communities Muslim-friendly.
Taito Ward is the best example of this in action, Takahashi says.
In October 2015, Taito Ward began to provide up to ¥100,000 in subsidies to local businesses who wished to obtain halal certification. According to Takuji Kawai, director of the ward’s Tourism Section, applications were filed so quickly that the ward had reached its quota in just two months, and were forced to double it.
What started out as three halal-certified restaurants and shops in Taito Ward, including Naritaya, became 19 in just a few months. In December, the ward also printed 10,000 copies of a Ueno/Asakusa map for Muslim tourists that show mosques, halal-certified restaurants, and Muslim-friendly hotels and souvenir shops in the area. The map went out of stock so fast that an additional 10,000 copies have already been ordered.
“We heard that many Muslim tourists eat instant noodles they bring from home because they can’t eat anything in Japan,” Kawai says. “As the representative of an area that aims to be at the heart of the country’s goal to become a leading tourist destination, we had to take action. Even now, we are surprised by the large number of companies that are interested in halal items. I think there is a lot of potential.”
The ward’s initial push to become a Muslim-friendly neighborhood proved to be successful. As a result, its draft budget for fiscal 2016 has more than doubled and includes the dispatch of halal experts to provide advice to businesses and tourism organizations on how to accommodate Muslim tourists.
Kawai credits much of the ward’s success to Hironori Kamura, an official in Taito Ward’s tourism section who has been working closely with local mosque leaders and people such as Takahashi. Kamura has even taken to the streets, walking around and talking to local businesses in an attempt to promote halal.
Kamura says the ward has received only one complaint regarding the new halal measures, with a person taking exception to the lack of separation between church and the state. It is an issue Taito Ward debated before deciding to introduce the new measure, Kamura says. Other municipalities, he says, also seem to be a little concerned about it.
“What we are doing has nothing to do with interfering with religion or promoting a specific belief,” Kawai says. “This is simply a tourism measure to ensure that people who visit our ward can enjoy the food. It’s essential that other municipalities follow suit — we need other areas to succeed or else we have failed.”
In order to ensure the Muslim community receives essential information on Japan, Taito Ward officials work closely with Takahashi and Akihiro Shugo, representative director of Halal Media Japan.
Halal Media Japan was established in January 2014 to provide information on halal-related news in English to the global Muslim community. It has created a website that provides information on Muslim-friendly restaurants and hotels, as well as mosques and prayer rooms.
“We noticed people were putting information online but only in Japanese,” Shugo says. “The language barrier is tough to overcome and we realized that English information was essential for all of the Muslims interested in visiting Japan.”
The website initially published halal-related news, Shugo says, but it also became a key search engine for Muslim tourists as an increasing number of companies sought to have their name added to Halal Media Japan’s database.
Experts, however, say businesses need to do more to attract Muslim customers than simply obtain halal certification or be listed on a halal-oriented website.
The key, Shugo says, is to make an effort to reach out to the Muslim community through the Internet.
“We can only help (businesses attract Muslim customers) to a certain degree,” Shugo says. “After the first couple of months, it is up to each individual business to use SNS to ensure their customers keep coming back. The Muslim community is very reliant on word of mouth.”
Education key to understanding
At the end of November, 83 companies showcased their goods and services at the Japan Halal Expo in Chiba Prefecture’s Makuhari Messe. Co-organized by the venue and Halal Media Japan, the annual expo hopes to promote both inbound and outbound halal business.
The event space was filled with a variety of companies and municipalities seeking to introduce their halal-certified products and services, pushing anything from sugar, soy sauce, mayonnaise and skin-care products to Muslim-friendly vacation tours and even an employment agency specifically for Muslim students studying in Japan who wish to find job opportunities.
One of the companies was newly-founded Halal Food Service Corp., which is affiliated with railway operator and real-estate developer Tokyu Corp. From March, the company will begin producing and selling frozen packets of halal-certified washoku.
Shinichi Miyake, general manager of the Sales Planning Division at Halal Food Service, says the products would make it easier for hotels, hospitals and other facilities to accommodate Muslims without having to create separate kitchens or worry about the possibility of pork or alcohol contaminating food during the cooking process. The company is also looking to sell its products in convenience stores and supermarkets, so that both tourists and residents have easy access to halal food.
Although the exact details have yet to be confirmed, Miyake says Halal Food Service will start by producing 16 or so dishes, including karaage chicken, miso-simmered mackerel and simmered hijiki seaweed. He says he hopes to increase the number of dishes to 50 by summer.
“All you need is a boiling pot and a dish in which to serve the food,” Miyake says. “We wanted to give the Muslim tourists an opportunity to try washoku, and this is a way to achieve this in a timely manner. It is important that Muslims can feel safe about eating food in Japan.”
Both the government and private sector appear keen to help transform Japan into a Muslim-friendly nation.
But Tomohiro Sakuma, CEO of the Japan Halal Business Association, says Japan lags behind other countries in the world — including China, South Korea and Taiwan — when it comes to dealing with people from Muslim backgrounds.
Sakuma says the religious nature of halal food is one of the biggest reasons Japanese people have been slow to embrace the cuisine.
“Unfortunately, many people still associate Muslims with terrorism and that is a big problem. They hear the word ‘Islam’ and automatically shut down,” Sakuma says. “There is a strong discrimination against Muslims and people say they don’t want to be associated with dangerous Muslims without even getting to know them or what the religion is truly about.”
Unlike the Nippon Asia Halal Association, the Japan Halal Business Association, established in 2012, does not provide certification services. Instead, Sakuma holds seminars and lectures for companies who are interested in halal business and refers anyone interested in getting certified to such organizations. He teaches business owners and local government officials the basics of Islam and halal, as well as offers consultation on product development and market research.
“People still know and understand very little about Islam so I consider us to be a study group,” Sakuma says. “It will take time, but things are finally beginning to move forward.”
Akhtar says the local community has always made him feel welcome during his 20-year stay in Japan, and he has happily raised a daughter with his Indonesian wife in Chiba Prefecture.
Akhtar is disappointed his religion is often unfairly associated with groups that have conducted acts of terrorism in various parts of the world.
“Islam is all about love and peace and it is terrible that my religion has been given such a horrifying image around the world,” Akhtar says. “People who have heard me speak know what Islam is truly about, but I would like to stress that halal business is first and foremost about business. It is all about Japan’s infrastructure and not about religion.”