While the Japanese government aims at making Japan a travel destination, the monthly number of foreign tourists reached 1.0031 million this July, the highest ever in history. This is largely attributed to the fact that the visa application requirements for tourists from Southeast Asian countries have been relaxed. The number of visitors from the region is expected to rise even further.
However, in spite of the fact that many people living in the Southeast Asia are Islam followers (Muslims), it is not even being acknowledged in Japan. As an organization that serves as a bridge between Japan and Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN-Japan Centre is engaged in activities to raise awareness of such problems and promote improvement.
ASEAN-Japan 40th Anniversary Commemorative Events
The interactive relation between Japan and ASEAN began with the ASEAN-Japan forum on synthetic rubber established in 1973, and this year marks the 40th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, it was agreed at ASEAN-Japan Ministerial Meeting held in July 2012 that both sides carry out commemorative events.
While a variety of exchange projects and events are held across Japan and ASEAN countries, ASEAN-Japan Centre has organized ASEAN Festival 2013, as well as various other projects, such as seminars on how to welcome Muslim tourists and employment support for foreign students from ASEAN countries.
Among these activities, increasing attention has been drawn to seminars on how to welcome Muslim tourists.
Becoming a Bridge between Japan and ASEAN
With an aim to bring in 10 million foreign tourists to Japan annually, the Japanese government tries to acquire one million of them from the Southeast Asia. The number of visitors from ASEAN countries between January and June 2013 was already over 518,000, approximately 40 percent more than in the same period last year. With the visa application requirements loosened in July, the number is expected to increase even more.
Under such circumstances, “There is a need for better services for Muslim tourists from ASEAN countries,” says Mr. Ken Fujita at ASEAN-Japan Centre. The total population of ASEAN countries is said to be approximately 600 million, of which roughly 40 percent are estimated to be Islam followers. This means that, by simple arithmetic, Japan is trying to attract some 400,000 Muslim tourists. However, the fact is that there are no airports or hotels in Japan ready to accommodate them. To fill in such a general lack of knowledge, ASEAN-Japan Centre has held seminars on how to welcome Muslim tourists across the country in an effort to raise public awareness.
Challenges Surrounding Halal Foods and Salat
Now what kinds of services do Muslim tourists need? To answer this question, there are mainly two key words: Halal foods and Salat.
Although Muslims eat only the foods permitted by Islamic law (= Halal foods), Muslim tourists in Japan often encounter difficult situations due to the lack of knowledge among Japanese people. Muslims do not consume pork and alcohol, but strictly speaking, they are not even allowed to use the same knife used to cut pork or eat any food prepared with alcohol. Even if they try to check these things on their own, restaurant menus in Japan don’t provide information they need, and most of them don’t even have English descriptions.
As for Salat, there are also many issues in Japan. Muslims pray five times a day, but many Muslim tourists in Japan complain, “There are no prayer rooms in the first place,” “Even if a prayer room is provided, there’s no indication to show the Qibla (the direction of Mecca)” and “There is no time allocated for prayers in a package tour itinerary.” Additionally, they also request to arrange staff of the same gender and remove Bibles from their hotel rooms.
Muslim Rules Vary from Person to Person!?
However, the most difficult thing when serving Muslim tourists is that their rules vary from person to person. Since each of them has a different view about the number of prayers to be performed and Halal foods, it is necessary to actively communicate with them to deepen the understanding of each other.
Mr. Fujita says, “Due to individual differences, some Muslims may think they don’t have to follow the Islamic rules so rigorously during a sightseeing trip. In some cases, it is not a problem to be served by staff of the opposite gender, so long as the door is left open to avoid creating a closed space. As for Salat, some of them would perform two prayers at once due to special circumstances. What is important when serving Muslim tourists is to acquire adequate knowledge and “stay flexible to accommodate their needs while maintaining active communication with them.”
In the future, lodging facilities and restaurants will be expected to provide more accommodating services for Muslim tourists. These activities carried out by ASEAN-Japan Centre will hopefully help Japanese people gain better understanding of Muslims and further promote active exchange through tourism. At the same time, it would be fantastic if Japan could become recognized as a desired sightseeing destination among ASEAN countries, by attracting more Muslim tourists with the unique hospitality of Japan.
Cooperation provided by: ASEAN-Japan Centre (http://www.asean.or.jp/en/)