Japan was isolated, literally, for hundreds of years. No one knew what was happening on the islands, nor did the Japanese have a clue about what was beyond their islands. And only by 1868, the legend began to uncover.
One example of those differences is the concept of "religion”. Let me give you an idea about religion in Japan. To begin with, Buddhism and Shinto are the two most popular religions in Japan. Interestingly, they do not contradict in values and teachings. So, one can actually believe in both, as most Japanese do. However, when it comes to marriage, or death, most of Japanese follow Buddhism traditions and rituals.
From my experience, most Japanese are a bit confused whether to define themselves as believers or not, especially the youth. That’s why religion for Japanese is not related to things you can or can’t do, nor to rewards and punishments. It is just not a thing that you remember and live by every day, nor does it affect how you think or how you act.
It is also NOT okay to discuss things like hell and heaven, afterlife or God in a casual conversation with a colleague or on a dinner table with a friend. It is just not right. And if you try, there is a fairly good chance that you would be avoided by that person forever.
Saying this, it’s pretty understandable why Japanese get very surprised and confused when they know that I pray five times a day, I don’t eat pork, or drink alcohol, just to follow my religion and to please my God. Hence, when they know about fasting from sunrise to sunset or a whole month, it does not make much of a sense for them.
Keeping all this in mind, let me take you to a whole different side of the story that really blows my mind away. Ready? I always thought that the picture I just painted for you is to be generalized. But it is not, let me tell why. I was lucky enough to personally meet non-Muslim Japanese who are fasting for the whole holy month, just like a Muslim would do. This actually leaves my mouth wide open and keeps me thinking.
Since this Ramadan is my second in Japan, and I have also spent two other Ramadan in the U.S. before, luckily, I have always been around people who are interested in Arabic and Islam. But honestly, I have never seen such a will to fast for a whole month, especially when all they know about Islam is either too little or too recent. Not to mention the many silent "whys” that they get from their family and friends.
I also kept asking them a lot of questions to try to understand why would they do this. Now, let me summarize two interesting and quite diverse answers I’ve gotten from two Japanese ladies I know.
The First Lady
She started learning Arabic last year, and so she got to meet some Arabs and Muslims. Last Ramadan, she fasted for only one day and she explains "it was very hard, because I didn’t do it with my heart”, I have to add that her image about Muslims was not very good at first due to the few people she met. She says "some people do not respect time and do not keep their word”.
This year, she is fasting just like a Muslim. She told me that throughout last year, she has met two Muslims whom she truly cares about and believes they are good people. So, she wants to take Ramadan as an opportunity to pray for their safety and happiness, and also to pray for her own daughter as well. She adds:
"I am not a Muslim, and do not have plan to be one, but my heart is softened when I hear the Quran and the call for the prayers from the application on my phone. It makes me very calm”.
The Second Lady
The story began four years ago when she was in high school. I quote: "I met a Muslim for my first time four years ago, and we talked about death. Unfortunately, all Japanese have to burn the dead bodies by law. I always thought that maybe the destiny for all people is hellfire.”
She adds, "…and then he told me ‘all people burn dead bodies, except Muslims’, this is very important and I was really amazed. Also, two weeks later, my grandmothers’ brother passed away, a Christian, but because of the Japanese law, they burned his body as well.
Since then, I always think about Islam. Now, I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol, and I pray. But, I can’t touch the Quran though, I learn through my phone”. I asked her for the reason, and then she answered: "Many scholars say that non-Muslims can’t touch the Quran”.
One of things that distinguishes non-Muslim Japanese from other non-Muslims around the world is that most of them do not have existing stereotypes about Muslims. They receive the information, process it logically, "the Japanese way”, and react to it. And maybe as not many Muslims travel, study or live in Asian countries, we are not used to getting different reactions than from what we expect.
This world is really big enough to never stop learning, communicating, helping, exploring, trying, and smiling.