By Tomohiro Osaki, JT
For the most devout followers of Islam, traveling to Japan has often spelled trouble.
Some may recall entering clothing shops in a desperate search for fitting rooms where they could perform one of their five daily prayers. Others may cringe at the times they had to prostrate themselves in the corner of an airport lounge, only to invite suspicious glances from other travelers. And finding a halal-certified restaurant has always been a laborious task.
But the days are gone when such inconveniences had to be considered one of the inescapable quirks of visiting Japan.
Motivated by an increase in visitors from Islamic countries, Japan’s major airports are falling over themselves to find ways to capitalize on their new clients by proudly proclaiming themselves “Muslim-friendly.”
One example is Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, which last December rebranded its “silence room” as a “prayer room” for Muslim tourists to perform their daily prayers. It has also promised to make several upgrades to the room over the coming months to improve its functionality.
In February, the room was fitted with a special tap to encourage ablutions — a bathing ritual carried out to purify believers before they pray. It also leaves the room unlocked, allowing the faithful to drop in any time they wish without the hassle of asking permission.
Before the tap was installed, “we saw some Muslims wash their feet using sinks in the bathrooms, splashing water all over as a result. Admittedly, that was a surprising sight for many of us Japanese who are not familiar with their custom,” said Toru Motoyoshi, senior manager of passenger service at Narita.
The prayer rooms, set up in Terminals 1 and 2, attract six or so visitors per day, Motoyoshi said. The airport is considering opening additional facilities outside the immigration gates as early as this summer.
Meanwhile, a branch of souvenir shop Kyoto Craft Mart in Terminal 1 has started selling an array of colorful “jilbab” — a scarflike garment worn by Muslim women. On sale since January, the special jilbab, which are all dyed by Japanese craftsmen, were developed with the specific aim of luring extra business from Muslim tourists.
“So far sales have proven greater than we expected,” said shop owner Teruno Fujii.
Narita’s move came after New Kansai International Airport in Osaka blazed a trail last August with a batch of initiatives catering to Muslims, including prayer rooms and halal meals.
Chubu Centrair International Airport in Aichi Prefecture has also jumped on the bandwagon, announcing a similar set of Muslim-friendly measures earlier this month.
Behind their collective eagerness to roll out the red carpet is the rise of Muslims as a portion of all visitors to Japan — a benefit of the relaxed visa requirements that took effect in July 2013 to make it easier for people from Southeast Asia to visit.
Statistics released in January by the Japan National Tourist Organization show that the number of tourists from Malaysia surged to 28,500 in December 2013, up 65.5 percent from the previous year, while Indonesian visitors totaled 17,000 the same month, up 27.3 percent.
Ensuring the availability of halal meals, however, is more daunting than it seems.
Under Islamic dietary guidelines, Muslims are strictly prohibited from consuming alcohol and pork — two prominent examples of nonhalal ingredients — as well as any of their derivatives. Animal-based foods must have been slaughtered or otherwise prepared using methods amenable to Islamic scripture, and completely untouched by any culinary utensils used to prepare pork.
Starting in December, Narita airport started a catering service to provide several pork- and alcohol-free meals for Muslims and other passengers using the premium waiting rooms located in both terminals. The options range from cut fruits, sushi and sandwiches to typical “bento” (boxed lunches). All ingredients are halal-certified.
The meals are produced by airline food service TFK Corp., which has performed in-flight halal catering for Malaysia Airlines for more than 10 years. The company’s kitchen boasts a section completely segregated from the other areas that prohibits the use of pork and other nonhalal ingredients.
“We have heard many Muslims say one of the biggest troubles they encounter upon coming to Japan is that they can’t find a restaurant in Narita that caters to their needs,” said Katsuya Takahashi, deputy executive officer at TFK Corp.
Takahashi said the airport plans to renovate an existing curry restaurant in Terminal 2, perhaps this summer, to make it halal-friendly, a process that will involve cleansing the kitchen.
But he also acknowledged that, despite its best efforts to keep the special meals “uncontaminated,” they can’t technically be called halal because they are transported to the airport in the same truck as other, nonhalal meals, which can be considered sacrilegious even though they are packaged separately.
“The best thing we can do at this point is to show to Muslims that we’re doing our best to understand and respect their culture,” said Mario Oshita, manager of Narita Airport Rest House, owned by TFK.
So far, the company has only received a handful of orders.
“Given the weak demand, commercially speaking that’s the closest we could come to being Muslim-friendly,” he said.
Koichi Hayakawa, owner of Marroad International Hotel Narita, agrees. Like TFK, his hotel has declared part of its kitchen strictly off-limits to nonhalal foods. It has also made prayer mats fitted with special compasses available to its Muslim guests so they can properly direct their daily prayers toward the holy city of Mecca.
But Hayakawa has so far stopped shy of undertaking bolder steps, such as hiring Muslim employees and undergoing rituals to cleanse the entire kitchen.
“The important thing is to make Muslims understand we’re not rejecting them,” he said.
Being Muslim himself, Hideaki Yotsutsuji, spokesman for the Japan Halal Association, said Muslim communities in Japan by and large welcome the airports’ attempts to improve hospitality toward Muslims. He also noted that such moves may help reverse the largely negative way Muslims have been perceived by Japanese since the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
“I think Japanese people and Muslims have a very positive affinity. They’re by nature both modest, shy and hospitable,” Yotsutsuji said, adding that Japan-made merchandise, including such brands as Sony and Toyota, have long been popular with Muslims.
But Yotsutsuji also warned airports to keep in mind that trumpeting their pursuit of Muslim-friendliness could backfire if they failed to meet the strict expectations of Islam’s more devout adherents.
“By touting your place as ‘Muslim-friendly,’ you’re basically getting their hopes high,” he said.
“No matter how ‘friendly’ you think your place is, some of the Muslims will feel betrayed just by, say, finding a person next to them drinking alcohol,” he warned.