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July 3, 2016

Blanket surveillance of Muslims in Japan

  • By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Japan's Supreme Court has rejected a second appeal by the country's Muslim community against nationwide surveillance of Muslim groups, mosques and even halal restaurants.

This may not be surprising to America’s seven-million-strong Muslim community which has been under real and virtual surveillance since 9/11.

After 15 years of broadly targeting the community and extensively monitoring its activities, the FBI declared an end on June 18, 2016 to its surveillance of Muslim Americans, saying “its exhaustive study of their beautiful culture was finally complete.” The Onion News Network quoted the FBI sources as saying, the harvesting of internet data, widespread racial profiling, and the nationwide mapping of Muslim communities have allowed agents to closely observe the followers of Islam.

Not surprisingly, on April 15, 2014, the New York Police Department announced that it has abandoned a secretive program that dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped. The police mapped communities inside and outside the New York city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch counter conversations. The Police Department’s tactics, which were the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups who said they harmed national security by sowing mistrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.

Hence the mass surveillance of the Muslims in Japan was not very astonishing, shocking and surprising.

Interestingly, seventeen Japanese Muslim plaintiffs had complained that the government's security measures constituted "an unconstitutional invasion of their privacy and freedom of religion."

The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as unconstitutional. The justices concurred with a lower court that the surveillance was "necessary and inevitable" to guard against international terrorism. The Supreme Court also concurred with the lower court that the plaintiffs deserved a total of ¥90 million ($880,000) in compensation because the leak violated their privacy.

However, the justices did not weigh in on the police profiling or surveillance practices.

Police file leaked

The case was brought after a 2010 police leak revealed officials were monitoring Japanese Muslims at places of worship, halal restaurants and Islam-related organizations across the country.

Japanese-born Muhammad Fujita (not his real name), who converted to Islam more than 20 years ago, told  Al-Jazeera the Muslim community had been unfairly targeted for surveillance. "They made us terrorist suspects," he said. "We never did anything wrong."

Fujita says he and his wife have been spied on since the early 2000s. The police documents revealed that tens of thousands of individual Muslims had been extensively profiled, with files detailing their personal information as well as their place of worship.

114 police files were leaked in 2010. The leaked files revealed profiling of Muslims across Japan. The documents included resumé-like pages listing a host of personal information, including an individual's name, physical description, personal relationships and the mosque they attended, along with a section titled "suspicions".

The files also showed by the time the 2008 G8 summit was held in Hokkaido, northern Japan, at least 72,000 residents from Organization of Islamic Conference countries had been profiled - including about 1,600 public school students in and around Tokyo.

Police in the capital had also been surveilling places of worship, halal restaurants, and "Islam-related" organizations, the documents showed.

The Supreme Court decision generated few headlines and little public debate in Japan. Local media outlets had covered the legal proceedings by focusing on the leak of information, tiptoeing around the police surveillance issue.

The most prominent public figure to comment on the Supreme Court decision was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who spoke via video linkup at a symposium on government surveillance in Tokyo.

"People of the Islamic faith are more likely to be targeted ... despite not having any criminal activities or associations or anything like that in their background, simply because people are afraid," said Snowden.

Muslims have lived in Japan for more than 100 years, with the first mosque constructed in 1935, but they constitute a tiny religious minority.

The government does not compile official statistics, there are believed to be around 100,000 Muslims in Japan, 90 per cent of them foreign-born and the remaining 10,000 or so ethnically Japanese.

There are currently between 30 and 40 mosques in Japan, plus another 100 or more apartment rooms set aside, known as musallahs.

Muslims in Japan [*]

In Japan the government does not take religion into account as part of the demographic concern under religious freedom. As Michael Penn states, "The Japanese government does not keep any statistics on the number of Muslims in Japan. Neither foreign residents nor ethnic Japanese are ever asked about their religion by official government agencies” Michael Penn is the Executive Director of the Shingetsu Institute for the Study of Japanese-Islamic Relations in Kitakyushu, Japan.

Japan's Muslim population consists mainly of Indonesians and other small expatriate communities, which represent less than 0.08% of the total population, while the estimated Japanese Muslims consist of less than 0.008% of the total population.

There are isolated records of contact between Islam and Japan before the opening of the country in 1853; some Muslims did arrive in earlier centuries.

Early European accounts of Muslims and their contacts with Japan were maintained by Portuguese sailors who mention a passenger aboard their ship, an Arab who had preached Islam to the people of Japan. He had sailed to the islands in Malacca in 1555.

The first modern Muslim contacts were with Indonesians who served aboard British and Dutch ships in the late 19th century.

In the late 1870s, the biography of Muhammad was translated into Japanese. This helped Islam spread and reach the Japanese people, but only as a part of the history of cultures.

Another important contact was made in 1890 when the Ottoman Empire dispatched a naval vessel to Japan for the purpose of saluting the visit of Japanese Prince Komatsu Akihito to Constantinople several years earlier. This frigate was called the Ertugrul, and was destroyed in a storm along the coast of Wakayama Prefecture on September 16, 1890.

The first Japanese to go on the Hajj was Kotaro Yamaoka. He converted to Islam in 1909 in Bombay, after coming into contact with Russian-born writer, Abdürreşid İbrahim, whereupon he took the name Omar Yamaoka.

Another early Japanese convert was Bunpachiro Ariga, who about the same time went to India for trading purposes and converted to Islam under the influence of local Muslims there, and subsequently took the name Ahmed Ariga.

The real Muslim community life however did not start until the arrival of several hundred Turko-Tatar Muslim refugees from Central Asia and Russia in the wake of the October Revolution. These Muslims, who were given asylum in Japan, settled in several main cities and formed small communities. They are estimated at less than 600 in 1938 for Japan proper, a few thousand on the continent. Some Japanese converted to Islam through contact with these Muslims.

The Kobe Mosque was built in 1935 with the support of the Turko-Tatar community of traders there. The Tokyo Mosque, planned since 1908 was finally completed in 1938, with generous financial support from the zaibatsu. Its first imams were Abdürreşid İbrahim (1857–1944), who had returned in 1938, and Abdulhay Qorbangali (1889–1972). Japanese Muslims played little role in building these mosques. To date there have been no Japanese who have become Imam of any of the mosques with the exception of Shaykh Ibrahim Sawada, Imam of the Ahlulbayt Islamic Centre in Tokyo.

The Greater Japan Muslim League founded in 1930, was the first official Islamic organisation in Japan.

Nationalistic organizations like the Ajia Gikai were instrumental in petitioning the Japanese government on matters such as officially recognizing Islam, along with Shintoism, Christianity and Buddhism as a religion in Japan, and in providing funding and training to Muslim resistance movements in Southeast Asia, such as the Hizbullah, a resistance group funded by Japan in the Dutch Indies.

The Japanese invasion of China and South East Asian regions during the Second World War brought the Japanese in contact with Muslims. Those who converted to Islam through them returned to Japan and established in 1953, the first Japanese Muslim organisation, the Japan Muslim Association under the leadership of Sadiq Imaizumi. Its members, numbering 65 at the time of inauguration, increased twofold before he died in 1959.

[*] Wikipedia