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An Observation on the Gülen-Inspired Informal Education among Newly Converted Japanese Muslims

by Hisako Nakamura on . Posted in Gülen Conference in Indonesia

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1. The Case of Mrs. A

It was almost 20 years ago when I had, for the first time, experienced problems with which a newly converted Japanese Muslima was confronted. It happened with one of my ex-student’s (Mrs. A’s) marriage with a young Bangladesh man. She was an eldest daughter of an established wealthy family in the rural area of Japan. Since she had no brothers, she was brought up with an expectation to succeed her family line, its business and properties. Her family was not a Christian family, but she was educated at a Christian missionary high school and a university established by missionary. As far as I know, she was not baptized to become a Christian.

When I met her for the first time, I had been teaching some courses including ‘Cultural Anthropology’, ‘Introduction to Islam’, and ‘Culture and Society in the Islamic World’ asa part-time lecturer in several universities in Tokyo. I am an anthropologist, not a specialist in Islamic studies. But I did a field research on marriage and divorce among Javanese Muslims with a special attention to marital problems among them. So, I was asked to give courses on Islam and Muslim societies at some universities. She was one of those students who took my course on Islam.

Mrs. A was a diligent student, and a responsible and reliable person. Her Bangladesh husband also came from an established wealthy family, and he was well educated. Both husband and wife were university graduates, and the families’ economical backgrounds were quite similar. They met in a classroom of Japanese language school, where she was a teacher and he a student. If he had been a Japanese young man and non-Muslim, they could have got married with blessings from everybody around them. However, from the beginning, this marriage met with strong opposition from her family. Meanwhile, the parents of the Bangladesh young man accepted their son’s decision and she was welcomed to his family. After a period of difficult time, eventually she left her native family, was converted to Islam, and got married with the man.

After her marriage, she made serious efforts to become a good Muslima mainly under the guidance of co-believers whom she got acquainted with through meetings at the Islamic Center in Japan located in Tokyo. Many of them were either Pakistani ladies or Japanese wives who got married with Pakistanis. What she was taught and learned there was, if I may say so, quite a Pakistani way of customs, and a version of Islam filtered through Pakistani culture.

In any case, what she learned as Islam was quite different from what I have experienced and learned in Indonesia. As you know, historically, Indonesian Muslims have received strong influence from modern Pakistani thinkers such as Maududi and Muhammad Iqbal. But, Indonesian interpretation on Islam is nowadays quite different from that of the present day Pakistani’s. Meanwhile, her husband is a very liberated Bangladesh, and his views on Islam sometimes did not agree with the teachings and advices given to her by Pakistani ladies and other Japanese wives of Pakistani husbands. So, her constant efforts to adopt ‘proper Islamic rituals and customs’ taught by them put her in a dilemma.

She was of-course distressed very much by the gaps between what she was taught as ‘Islamic customs’ and Japanese ones from the beginning. In addition to those stresses, it seemed that her discord with her native family became worse, especially with her mother and sister, who were worried very much of her difficulties to live in Japanese society as a Muslima.

As I said before, I, myself, have studied cultural anthropology, and have done researches in Indonesia over the past 40 years. Thus, I have experienced the difficulties to live in a different country with a different culture from my own. And I have also learned how difficult it is to create and deepen mutual understandings between individuals from different cultures. I also have acquired some knowledge on Islam and have been associated with Muslims in various countries. So, with my knowledge and experience, I wanted to help Mrs. A and tried to answer her questions in order help freeing her from burdens on her mind.

My attempt, however, ended with a tragic outcome of her death by suicide. I have learned from this incident that there are significant differences between giving advices to my ordinary Japanese students and to Mrs. A, who had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim husband and lived in a non-Muslim country like Japan.

The former, ordinary Japanese students of mine only asked me to advise them on the ways to understand and associate with people of other cultures. Even though they did not find a way what they wanted in reality, they did not worry too much. For, they already knew that mutual understanding among individuals from different cultures were difficult through books I assigned them and from my lectures. When they faced any difficulty, or failed to understand people of different culture, from the beginning, they could persuade themselves that it was a natural thing to happen and nothing fundamentally wrong with them. Such failures did not threat their own identity or existence.

However, in the case of Mrs. A, who married with a Bangladesh man, any advice given to her by her co-believers of Pakistani community in Japan was taken deeply and seriously to form a part of her identity and her ways of living. As I observed she did try to internalize and practice what she was taught as the ‘Islamic’ culture and customs. For her, any difficulty to practice those teachings and not to be able to associate well with other Pakistani Muslima was perceived as fundamental failure in her life and it did undermine her own identity.

Generally speaking, for those Japanese women who are becoming members of a Muslim community by marriage, their strong conviction and faith are required for the establishment of their newly acquired identity. In the case of Mrs. A, since her sense of values were firmly rooted in her identity through the processes of her growing up, the task of acquiring a new conviction and a new identity was not easy at all as I, an outsider, could speculate about. I felt a failure on my side too at her death.

This experience has made me feel the importance of advice and its hardness in cross-cultural situation. It has instructed me that many factors are closely connected and inextricably linked each other. Such factors as personal relationship between adviser and advisee, their cultural backgrounds, social surroundings, educational backgrounds, personal environments, languages used etc. bring about great difference in the effectiveness and usefulness of the counseling.

In case of informal social education including personal advice in cross-cultural situation, there are number of factors, which must be considered differently case by case and be paid careful consideration to promote mutual understandings between the adviser and the advisee. This experience of mine is relevant to my next experience with Gülen supporters.

2. Encounter with the Supporters of the Gülen Movement

It was only one link in a continuing chain of events that brought me to meet supporters of the Gülen movement in Japan as well as in Turkey. Last ten years while I was still teaching at Bunkyo University before my retirement in 2009, I usually assigned my students to conduct a series of field research on foreign Muslim residents in Japan. The reason was that my students who took anthropology or Islam course from me tended to choose topics that required field research in foreign countries. They were indeed interested in foreign matters, especially in Islamic societies and topics related in Islam. But, there was a problem that their background knowledge on a particular foreign society was not so sufficient, neither their language proficiency was good enough to conduct research in their interested areas. (Unfortunately, they could not obtain proper language training even though they wanted it since the University did not offer any courses on languages of the Islamic world they wanted, say Bahasa Indonesia, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, etc.)

So, I had to set up research field in Japan and made students to study cross-cultural understandings in Japanese contexts. Thus, I assigned my students to conduct field research on foreign Muslim residents in Japan. Certainly, in some cases of field research on foreign residents in Japan, students needed to have proficiency in the language of his/her informants since not all of them could be expected to speak Japanese. Indeed, some only had very poor Japanese. However, my expectation was that it was very important for my students to go through his/her research experience only in Japanese without any one else’s help and to experience the difficulty of cross-cultural understanding even without having good command of the language concerned. For their informants were experiencing this daily.

At the same time I started to expand my research area from Indonesia to other areas according to students’ interest, and to collect research material in Japanese language. Also I began to search articles and reports published in Muslim magazines and newspapers in Japan as well as Internet chatting among Japanese Muslims. Among them, there was a magazine called “Yasuragi (Peace of Mind)”, which started publishing in 2002.

Subscribing for this magazine, I happened to know a Turkish-Japanese lady, Dr. B. She was a one of active members for publishing this magazine. She contacted me and came to visit my university with young Turkish students. Her visit gave me a good opportunity to have my students to get acquainted with foreigners who spoke Japanese. She brought Turkish cakes to my office and talked with my seminar students over tea and coffee, giving consultation with them about their thesis research. She also gave a lecture to undergraduate students in my class on Islam and Turkey. This was the beginning of the contacts of my students and myself with Turkish Circle in Japan. Also, she invited us to join Iftar dinners during the month of Ramadhan.

Since my major geographical area of research is Indonesia, I only visited a research institute in Istanbul once many years ago. Besides that, I had no chance to visit any historical sites in Turkey until we met Dr. B. My husband and I asked her to take us to Turkey especially to important Islamic sites in the country. She organized a special tour for a group including us in 2008 and 2010. These two tours were joined by several Japanese and Turks.

Let me tell you more about Dr. B, since she is the one who has introduced me to Gülen movement’ supporters including herself and her husband. And her way of giving guidance to newly converted Japanese Muslima by marriage is the maim topic I like to talk about as a method of Gülen -inspired way of informal education.

Dr. B came to Japan in 1996 and did her graduate study at one of the leading national universities of Japan. Even though this University is located in the capital of a major western prefecture of Japan, there are not so many foreigners living in the city. Dr. B spent her days and months in a provincial city without having any Turkish friends. She quickly adapted herself to Japanese academic environments at the University as well as daily work and life patterns of her colleagues. She recalls herself and states that those days living and studying as a graduate student were most important in making many Japanese friends and learning the ways of life in Japan.

After a while since having moved to Tokyo, the idea of cultural exchange came to her: then, one of her Turkish friends proposed associating with Tatars and their descendents in Japan. The reason was simply to be able to communicate and to exchange information freely in the Turkish language. However, this proposal was not realized and meanwhile this friend of hers went back to Turkey in 2001. Also the necessity to exchange information in Turkish became less for the circumstances surrounding the Turks in Tokyo were different drastically compared with the time when Dr. B lived in a provincial city years ago. Especially, in a big city like Tokyo, Turks who come to Japan newly are able to get assistance easily from already existing Turkish community in Tokyo, which is ready to help each other among Turks. Thus, it has happened that some Turks staying in Japan in a few years can live without knowing Japanese language, people or culture at all.

Then, a new idea emerged among Dr. B’s friends in Tokyo, that is, promoting cultural exchange with Japanese people instead of associating with Tatars in Japan. So, they made a start of the Cultural Exchange Association of Japanese-Turkish Ladies, and, in 2000, this was named as ‘Sakurale’ with the members of five ladies as its officers and registered at Ward Office of Setagaya. Dr. B also started to work then with the magazine “Yasuragi” mentioned above.

To mention again a tour organized by Dr. B, for the first one in 2008, all together 13 people were enrolled. They included Dr. B herself and two Turkish students who were studying in Japan, two Japanese married couples including us, a couple of mother and daughter, and four Japanese young wives who got married with Turks. On the way in Turkey, the parents of Dr. B’s husband joined the tour group.

If compared with that of Ottoman Empire, the territory of Turkey nowadays has become smaller, but still Turkey is a large country, which extends from Asia to Europe. We traveled around in the western half of Turkey by bus in 2008, and in the eastern half in 2010. Leaving early in the morning from hotel, we continued our travel visiting a number of historical sites in remote areas and also in cities. In addition to the schedule prepared by our travel agent, there was a field trip to visit a primary school supported by the people of Gülen movement during the 2008 tour. In 2010, we visited the state and municipal offices in Mardin, and met Governor and Mayor and also visited shops and homes of supporters of Gülen movement in the city.

In those meetings, we were given information on situations in the region and learned about the activities of Gülen supporters in the local context. On many of those visits, refreshments and some times even full meals were served. Through meetings and conversations with the supporters of Gülen movement, we were exposed to their strong conviction in the importance of education and their dedication for volunteer activities without expressing their religion, Islam. At private houses, those young wives who married with Turkish men were introduced as Japanese Muslima, and they were blessed in accepting the Islamic faith. Further, there was a case in which they were even offered an assistance to go and visit Macca on Umroh.

During both the 2008 and 2010 trips, I observed another kind of educational activities by Dr. B, a Gülen supporter. The bus trip usually took quite long a time moving from one place to another, sometimes several hours. When tired of chatting and looking at sceneries, Dr. B often offered consultation to those Japanese Muslima, sometime individually and sometime in group. She answered questions from Japanese Muslima about religious duties of Muslim and proper conduct as Muslima exhaustively and painstakingly by quoting al-Qur’an and Sunnah. Since I had been sitting near Dr. B during the tour, I rarely participated in conversation, but I was able to listen and observe exchanges closely. In the case of very private questions, Dr. B and the consulting person sifted their seats to the rear part of the bus where nobody could listen to their conversation. Dr. B seemed to be listening attentively and giving advice seriously.

As I mentioned above, our travel group in 2008 was composed of three Turkish women, four Japanese Muslima and six non-Muslim Japanese. All of us talked about freely on difference in customs between Turkey and Japan, difference in the position of wife in the in-laws family, difference in the ways of living, and difference in religious feelings, and so on. Dr. B’s presence made us easy to engage in this kind of discussion. Her over 15years stay in Japan and living experience in a provincial city as a graduate student helped her greatly to explain her views on those topics, and let us understand Japanese and Turkish cultural differences in a reasonable way. Also, Dr. B herself had enthusiasm for rational inquiry and pursued her questions on Japanese customs and language further more deeply, even though she could speak Japanese fluently.

I was deeply impressed by this observation in Turkey, and I have been considering a theory since then. The theory assumes that mutual understanding on cultural differences between individuals from different cultural backgrounds in a right perspective make it easy to spread sound knowledge on Islam. This theory was demonstrated by the way Dr. B conducted consultation on the problems presented by newly converted Japanese Muslima.

I would like to compare my ex-student’s case with the above case observed in Turkey, and discuss the effectiveness of consultation and advice based on the understanding of cultural difference.

3. Informal Education for Newly Converted Muslima in Japan

Japan’s government does not compile statistics on the figures of believers of various religions. So, there is no reliable information when we need it. Since our topic is on Japanese women who got married with foreign Muslims in Japan, let me give you a rough estimate of the total number of foreign Muslims in Japan. On this, one of my students, Nonaka, wrote in 1999 that “there were around 80,000 people [Muslims] including illegal residents.” Another student, Fujiwara, reported in 2000 that, according to Islamic Center in Japan, its answer for her interview mentioned the number of 250,000 people including foreigners as well as Japanese. On the other hand, the figure in the answer from the Islamic Association of Japan was 100,000 people.” Thus, numbers differ according to various sources, and each institution involved does not share its view with others on the figure of Muslims in Japan. But, it is an undeniable fact that year-by-year many foreign Muslims are coming to Japan, getting married, settling down and having families in Japan. Thus, it is estimated that newly converted Muslima who got married with these foreign Muslims are also increasing. Another indication of increasing Muslim population in Japan is the increase in the number of mosques, which is showing this tendency very clearly.

New converts to Islam in Japan usually receive religious education at mosques and Islamic centers, individually as well as in group. In case of individual guidance, women receive it from the wives of mosque leaders, fellow workers, persons from the same town or village, or friends of their husbands. There is no report on the educational background of these Japanese wives, but as far as I know many of them have received higher education. They seems to learn about Islam also through magazines such as “Assalam” and “Yasuragi”, and Muslim newsletters. Also, they ask many questions on daily matters and receive answers through Internet. My ex-student, Mrs.A, mentioned above searched for teaching on Islam widely through the available channels then, and made every effort to be a proper Muslima on the matter of religious rituals, daily behavior including clothing and food.

It might be a bit inappropriate to compare the one case of Mrs. A with the four Japanese wives of Turkish men whom I traveled with recently in Turkey. However, I would like here to point out at least some significant contrasts between the two cases.

(1) Existence of cultural broker

A cultural broker is the person who is capable of interpreting between both of two cultures in encounter. In case of Mrs. A, she did not have any friend who could share her troubles and interpret them properly, not to speak of mediating between the married couple of different cultures. She did not have any female friends married with Bangladesh man nor Bangladesh ladies who lived in Japan then who could play the role of cultural broker for her. However, the latter’s case is totally different. First of all, those newly converted Japanese wives are often visiting each other, and also having opportunities to attend meetings and social gatherings in the Turkish community in Japan, where they can easily find people like Dr. B who can understand and explain the differences between both cultures and give proper advice.

(2) Consideration on regional difference in Muslim customs

Lack of consideration on regional differences in Muslim customs makes it difficult to accept advices of religious leaders. At the time when my ex-student got married, The Islamic Center in Japan in Tokyo was very active while there were not many mosques or other Islamic centers in Japan yet. Many newly converted Japanese wives were concentrated there and took courses in rituals and the teaching of Islam. Many teachers were from Pakistan, and they were concentrated at this center. Accordingly, their wives also followed Pakistani customs of wearing clothing such as black jilbab, which was so conspicuous among the Japanese public. Their rules on food were also extremely stricht. Those subjects taught as ‘the Islamic teachings and customs’ at the Islamic Center then might have been proper for Pakistani wives, but not for many of others including my ex-student. She took them as the only legitimate Islam and endeavored to live up to their requirements. Having failed to do so, I assume, she became desperate and put the end to her life by herself.

However, there are many cultures and customs in the Islamic world according to different regions, nations and countries. When the Islamic world expanded beyond the Arab areas, many of regional customs became sources of Islamic law there unless they were in explicit contradiction to the essentials of Islamic teachings. But, some of the Muslims tend to overlook these regional and local differences in the Islamic world, and force culture-bound his or her opinion or advice upon others of different cultures even among fellow Muslims.

4. Concluding Remarks

From my personal experience, I would like to emphasize here the importance of special consideration when giving advice to those Japanese who married to foreign Muslims. The couples of intercultural and interreligious marriage require careful attention by those who are related to them. For Japanese wives, living in a non-Islam society like Japan as Muslima is attended with a number of difficulties. It seems to be a hard challenge beyond imagination of outsiders like me to maintain their marriage fruitful while establishing new self-identity, making and keeping amicable relationships between both families of husband and wife who have different cultural values and customs, providing proper education to their children, etc. It is unfortunately still a reality that many people in Japan perceive with prejudice and intolerance those who have left their native religion and have converted to a new religion, especially Islam. The actual situation does not allow wishful optimism.

My experience in Turkey has made me realize the existence of a proper way of supporting newly converted people to Islam through marriage. That is, to let them feel first as a member of another community of fellow human beings. Japanese Muslima were welcomed by Gülen supporters in all over in Turkey. They were not segregated or treated as foreigners. Gülen supporters showed their love and care to the new comers to their community. Those Japanese wives had a pleasant experience and obtained a conviction that they were not only members of Turkish community in Japan, but also in Turkey, their husbands’ country, too.

This kind of conviction must have renewed mutual trust between Dr. B and Japanese wives. That has made her religious advices more easily accepted. Unlike Mrs. A’s case in which she was forced to accept the customs of a particular society as the only choice to accept and practice Islam, Turkish Japanese wives were introduced to Turkish culture and its community first without absolute emphasis on Islam.

This approach, I suppose, is Gülen inspired, and will make the relationship between Turkish community in Japan and the larger Japanese society much amicable and mutually trusting, and will contribute to the strengthening of already friendly relationship between Japan and Turkey much stronger and deeper. I am also feeling that this kind of approach will eventually contribute greatly to the reduction and elimination of prejudice, which a majority of Japanese people still have towards Islam and the Islamic world. Thank you.

Professor Hisako Nakamura has taught cultural anthropology, Southeast Asian studies and Islam at the Faculty of International Studies, Bunkyo University, Japan until 2009. Her first degree was a BA in German literature from Okayama University. After working as a German language teacher and a university librarian at the same institution, she entered the University of Tokyo to major in cultural anthropology. After obtaining another BA, she went on to do graduate study at Tokyo, and then at Syracuse University as a Fulbrighter. She had, however, to postpone the resumption of her graduate work until the late 1970’s because of her duty as a mother of three children. Meanwhile, she did conduct field research on the divorce of Javanese Muslims while she was accompanying her husband, Mitsuo Nakamura, to Indonesia, 1970-1972. On the basis of the data collected then, she submitted an MA thesis to the Australian National University in 1981, which was published later in Indonesia from Gadjah Mada University Press in 1983 with the title, Divorce in Java: A Study of the Dissolution of Marriage among Javanese Muslims. Her major research concern has since been the application of Islamic law (shari’ah) in the areas of marriage and divorce in Indonesia, especially in the form of marital counseling. She has actively participated in academic discourse on those topics while she spent a special studentship at Harvard Divinity School, 1981-982, and a visiting scholarship at Islamic Legal Studies Program, Harvard Law School, 2004-2005. Her presentation at the latter institution has been published as Conditional Divorce in Indonesia, ILSP, 2006. In her teaching experience, she has supervised some students who were assigned to study Muslim communities in Japan including newly converted Japanese Muslims (mostly women because of marriage with Muslim husbands). She has also extended her academic interest to a number of areas in the contemporary Islamic world other than Indonesia, and did field trips to such countries as Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, The Philippines, Korea, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.