[UPDATED 30 Apr 2020: With the COVID-19 situation, we caught up with 2 of the Japanese-Muslim reverts to find out how they are spending Ramadan at home.]
In cosmopolitan Singapore, it's not hard to find people from various races, religions and nationalities. And it's amazing to be able to meet people of varying backgrounds and learn more about their journeys while still staying put in Singapore ☺️
In the spirit of Ramadan where we celebrate the diversity of the ummah, we had the opportunity of interviewing members of the Japanese Muslim community in Singapore
. Most of them married Malay or Indian Muslim locals while some married Muslims of other nationalities but are currently living in Singapore.
We spoke to 3 of them to find out more about how they are spending Ramadan in Singapore this year, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. We also asked about their families, their revert journeys and the challenges they faced 😊
Nur Azlina (Sugaya Yasuko)
1. How long has it been since you lived in Singapore?
I've been in Singapore for 12 years, Alhamdulillah.
2. Could you tell us more about how you became a revert? I was brought up in a Buddhist family - my maternal grandfather was a
priest in a shrine and my paternal grandmother was Buddhist, so my parents taught me about God and Buddha. When I grew up, I started to question Buddhism and went to a vocational college to study the faith. The turning point was when I was 27. I quit my job and decided to be a student living in Hobart, Tasmania. I was supposed to get married but it didn't go well. So, I decided to chase my dream of living overseas and learn more about myself. I was lonely when I first arrived and almost regretted my decision but my heart was saved by a man with a gentle smile who said hello to me at the student office. He was a student from Singapore and we became good friends to survive our new lives in a new place. One day, I was very worried about him as he suddenly stopped eating or drinking and then he told me he's fasting.
It was my first time hearing the word "fasting" so I looked it up and realized he's a Muslim who believes in one God and fast for the month of Ramadan. I thought if he's a Muslim then he must be very offensive and aggressive and likes to fight far far away in the Arab world. Moreover, women don't have any right and treated very sadly. But I thought, "how come my friend isn't like that? is he really Muslim? or is my perception wrong?"
He was very peaceful, very kind, funny and a modern person. I never saw him fight with other and always kept the harmony among us. He didn't drink beer or wine. I spent 2 years with him as a good partner throughout school then I became more interested in his background and how he grew up in his faith.
I returned to Japan once I graduated school then started to work to save some money for my second journey to learn Islam in Singapore. I talked to my parents about my wish in the near future with my friend of a different faith in Singapore. I read Islamic books and visited the mosque to feel Islam in my country. However, I couldn't really get it so, I asked my friend if I could stay with his family in Singapore while I study Islam.
I was afraid of making my parents disappointed as I was attracted to other faiths even though I grew up as a Buddhist since I was born. My father told me that I won't be able to survive in an Islamic environment as Islam is a way of life but I was the easy-going sort. Although he said I wouldn't be able to accept the Islamic lifestyle and would be back home in no time, he told me to go see the real Islam by myself. I was very lucky to have such parents who trusted me and supported my decision. But I still felt very guilty to abandon my parents' faith, Buddhism.
Thus, my second journey in Singapore are started when I was 30 years old. I stayed with my boyfriend's family for 3 months. They treated me with such kindness and taught me the true values of Islam. When my 3-month stay ended and I returned to Japan, I was almost fully convinced and told my parents that I'd be able to live as a Muslim. Most importantly, I told them that our relationship would not change with me converting to Islam. Even if our religions differed, I would continue to respect and cherish them, and this is also what is taught in Islam.
This was how I embraced Islam and decided to spend the rest of my life
with my husband whom I had met during my studies in Tasmania. I never ever imagined how my life would be years later - with a happy life with my handsome husband and 3 children in Singapore now 😊 3. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first reverted and how have you overcome it?
For me, the biggest challenge was food, in particular, my mother’s home-cooked meals. I felt very sorry to my mum as she had to adjust her cooking style to suit me. It was not easy to order halal meat from my village but I tried to order frozen meat. My mum wasn't used to see whole chicken or huge beef cubes as she is not used to cooking using frozen food. I had to help her cook as I didn't want to disappoint her further.
My mum also didn't know that the ham at supermarkets are usually made from pork so she used it for my favourite potato salad. I just didn't want to overwork her or make life difficult for her. So, over time, I decided to cook myself or just eat seafood. Or if I were to eat my mum's cooking that she had prepared with love for me, I'd even eat non-halal meat except for pork. I felt guilty but this was the only way I could maintain a good relationship with my Japanese family. I'd say Bismillah before eating and solat to help make myself feel better.
When I wore the hijab for the first time in Japan, it was also a challenge. My mum and sister asked me to remove my hijab as I did not look like a Japanese. The perception of Islam wasn't good in Japan so my older sister was afraid of anything happening to me. She was afraid I'd get discriminated by those who misunderstand Islam.
My friends were also very surprised to see me and asked me to remove my hijab as I didn't look like the Yasuko they knew. But I understood them because I'm Japanese myself. I wanted to let them know it's my decision and that I wasn't forced to wear the hijab. So, I showed my friends that even after removing hijab, there's no difference in my heart - I'm still Yasuko, their friend and their family. I was only different in my appearance.
I also visited my Buddhist Vocational College to share my Islamic life with the students there. They were very curious about my hijab and asked
me how I did it (wear the hijab). So, I removed it and showed them how to wear it. I wanted to show them that I am just a Japanese Muslim - I'm no different from them, I'm only more conscious about my way of life now than before. I try to be active in the Japanese community and wish Allah would let more Japanese people learn Islam through me. Ameen. [P.S. It's not easy being a new revert! Check out what this Chinese-Muslim revert had to go through when he first embraced Islam.]
4. How are you and your family coping with the current COVID-19 situation?
My daughter's project
This situation has brought my family members together at home. In the mornings, all of our three children will be in front of the computer and they will show me their school life at home. I can hear their teachers' voices, the sounds from their classmates I can see their friends. It's an opportunity for me to see how our children work very hard and study with ambition thanks to home-based learning (HBL).
I also have the opportunity to sit together with them and help them with their challenging mathematics homework. It is quite tough and my husband will teach me gently before I teach the children. But my children teach me instead because I fail to teach them at last 😅 So, through HBL, I recognize how smart they are and how hard they work. Alhamdulillah.
I don't need to send and fetch my children. I don't need to prepare their lunch box early in the morning. I don't need to rush to the market and cook before they come back home in the afternoon. But I can relax at home and rest at home. Alhamdulillah.
As a family, we also live a simpler life. We have not gone out since schools closed in early April; only my husband goes out for grocery 2 times a week. We buy what is necessary and cook the right portion for the family. I have to be more creative and prepare dishes with whatever I have. With the situation, we can save water, energy and money but we also have use more brain, knowledge and time with my family members at home in safety.
5. How are you and your family spending Ramadan at home this year?
The best part of this Ramadan for my family is that we pray together at home. My husband is the Imam, my son is Bilal, my daughters are with me behind and we pray together at home. Mashaa Allah, my dreams have come true.
It is the biggest chance ever for me to share knowledge of Islam with my precious children. The meaning of our life; what is important for our life? Where do we come from and where do we go afterwards? What will happen in the hereafter and how do we prepare for that goal? What is the meaning of every recitation of the prayer? What is the meaning of this dua? Why do we pray? Why do we fast? How do we feel when we are fasting?
We used to send our children to weekend madrasah class. However, we stopped sending them due to many reasons. We were very worried about their Islamic studies after quitting school. So, I decided to learn more about Islam for myself and my family. Whatever I do in my everyday life, it has to be in line with Islam - I don't forget Allah, I pray, I choose the world for my children and I care how I am with them. I can see how pure and good Muslims my children are.
Allah is great.
Without teaching, our children feel Allah so, they pray and they are wondering how Allah is. They are conscious about what to wear, what to eat, what to do, even when nobody is there.
This Ramadan, we share our feelings more closely together.
My children say “I am hungry, I do not like Ramadan” for the first few days.
I say “ Yes, it's true. It is the feeling of people who can not eat or drink”.
Few days later, they said “I won't say I'm hungry anymore.”
Today, my five-year-old boy said “ I like Ramadan”.
I asked him why?
He said, "I can fast the whole day! I puasa for Allah”.
Our home becomes more comfortable during the month of Ramadan ❤️
6. What’s a typical day like for you in Ramadan, in previous years?
Usually, Ramadan relieves me from my duties as a busy housewife and this is the time when I can take care of myself.
Islam has taught me that my family is a great gift for me from Allah. Thus, my husband and I try to our best to look after our 3 children for Allah. My responsibility is to make my
family feel safe and smile to keep sending the message that my love for them is from Allah. On normal days, I cook, send them to school, deliver obento (home-packed meal) to them for their after-school lessons, wash clothes, going to the market, teach my kids Japanese, listen to them and show them the way of Islam by my behaviour. I'm always busy for my family but in the month of Ramadan, I slow down, Alhamdulillah, I cook less and have more time to myself to practise Iqra and to read the Japanese translation of the Quran. I have more time for prayers and I reduce expenses like water and electricity.
I have more time to be with my children who are fasting for the whole day. I can see the beauty of Islam through my children trying to keep their promise to Allah by fasting and I tell them how good it feels to be a parent to have something to feed. There are other children who have nothing to eat or are yearning for a peaceful time with their families during Ramadan. By fasting, we can empathise with them and share their feelings.
7. How do you balance being a Muslim in Singapore, yet still staying true to your Japanese roots? Are your children proud to be Japanese Muslim too?
I am Japanese so my cooking is Japanese-style too but I also learn how to cook some Malay dishes. I enjoy cooking both but I'm scared to use a lot of oil and chilli so my dishes are a fusion of Malay and Japanese styles of cooking. It's very light and healthy but the taste is not right. I also use seasonal fresh ingredients as they are healthy and it's part of Japanese culture so I stick to it.
I didn't have to change myself much even though I became a Muslim as the values are almost the same for both Muslims and Japanese. Be polite, respect the elders and care for the younger ones; clean after yourself and be responsible no matter where you are. Be kind, speak gently, be tidy, be honest and work hard. Be kind to your parents; greetings are very important and so on.
I wear Yukata with the hijab and I speak Japanese to my children as I wish to pass on my culture - not only the language but also good manners. I automatically salam while bowing my head 😂
I feel shocked and uncomfortable to see messy shoes in front of houses or mosques as my culture teaches us to arrange our shoes whenever we take it off. Thus, I sometimes arrange the shoes outside the mosque or the houses to tidy them up when I visit for Hari Raya. I feel a bit shy to do it but Islam teaches us to do good because of Allah. So it makes me feel better just for the sake of Allah. People have also told me that it's very dirty to do so, but I'm okay with it.
8. Which part of Japan are you from and do you have any tips for travellers hoping to visit your hometown?
I'm from Chiba prefecture near Narita airport. Disneyland is located in Chiba! We often go there with my family. I love Chiba because you can see how the Japanese live. Their manners and fashion sense are very interesting.
9. What are the common questions/misconceptions Japanese locals have about Muslims/Islam?
Perception People have told me that they didn't know Islam is very flexible after my communication with Japanese visitors at the mosque. They seem surprised that I look very happy with my life as a Muslim. They
ask me why I decided to become a Muslim, how I can survive being a Muslim and that they are very sorry that I have to fast in Ramadan.
Even tourists from Japan is afraid of visiting the mosque in Singapore. Humans are naturally afraid to do or touch anything they are not sure of and all they have is an image of danger. This is why I wish to be active in the Japanese community through my children, Alhamdulillah. Allah gave us (my husband an I) 3 Muslim children in Singapore so they can give me the opportunity to meet other Japanese living in Singapore through Japanese education, club activities or even at the playground. I wish our salam can reach to out to the non-Muslims through my Muslim life. Ramadan A lot of people have the misconception that during Ramadan, we must be eating and there are many dishes on the table and that it must be very bad for our health. People think of Ramadan and they think of the Ramadan bazaars and what they sell. Some hotels and restaurants offer Ramadan specials during Iftar and maybe Suhoor. They see it as a festival, as a relief from fasting. That's the kind of atmosphere they associate Ramadan with. For Raya,
we'd buy many new things and even new clothes.
But I try to explain Ramadan is like in my home through Facebook - how we fast and what we feel during fasting, what my children feel during fasting. This is because a lot of people don't know that there's a difference between Singaporean-Malay Muslim culture and Islamic teachings.
I'm lucky to be a Muslim convert because I have so many questions with regards to what I learn about Islam versus what I see in Muslims. I love the culture in Singapore as it's more easy-going and not as serious as the Japanese one I grew up with. It's less stressful and it's easier as I can be myself in Singapore. And I am attracted to the Islamic way of life.
10. How is the Eid atmosphere like for you in Singapore?
My parents visited during Hari Raya a few years ago and we visited many houses of our relatives. They were impressed that there were so many things to eat at each house and that we went visiting until midnight. They were also surprised that there were so many relatives.
During Hari Raya, the Japanese Muslim sisters will usually have a gathering. We will each bring a Japanese-style potluck dish, so it's something we really enjoy! 11. Do you go back to Japan often? What are some of the things you miss about Japan?
I miss the nature, the cultural events for each of the 4 seasons and onsen.
I'm quite used to leaves changing colour, the smell of flowers, wind, atmosphere and so on... It might be because of my background growing up in Japan and having 4 different seasons. Each season smells different - the trees, flowers, food, climate, clothes and even our skin colour is changing.
I miss that kind of feeling the most.
Nur Sakinah (Akiko Torii)
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how long has it been since you lived in Singapore?
I was studying Polish language and culture in the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. After staying for a year in Poland, I decided to go to Australia as part of an exchange program to meet a Polish professor who was teaching in Australia.
There I met my future husband, a Malay Singaporean, who was also studying there. A year later I became Muslim, two years later I got married and 4 years later, in 2009, I was in Singapore to start my new
life here. It's been 10 years since I came to Singapore. 2. How many years has it been since you reverted? Could you tell us more about how you became a revert?
I converted in 2006 in Masjid Otsuka in Tokyo. So it has been 13 years. Alhamdulillah. After I met my future husband in Australia, I went back to Japan and started finding out about Islam through books and meeting Japanese Muslimahs. Among the Japanese Muslimahs I met was a scholar who was studying in Syria. She patiently answered my questions about the religion. Eventually I found myself convinced and decided to convert. Alhamdulillah!
3. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first reverted and how have you overcome it?
Even though I was convinced of Islam and happily converted, I was not ready and strong enough to practise the religion fully yet - solat, fasting, wearing the hijab and eating only halal food (I was still living in Japan with my family).
Halal beef Sukiyaki prepared by my mother at my parents' place in Tokyo I was struggling and feeling overwhelmed and sad that I cannot do what I was supposed to do. It took
a while for me to realize that I needed to take steps and also that I need to make lots of du'as as only Allah can make things possible. [P.S. Reverts all over the world face their own set of struggles. Read more about the challenges of being a revert from this Swedish-Muslim!]
4. How are you and your family coping with the current COVID-19 situation?
Alhamdulillah, we are thankful that all of us can stay home during this pandemic. Occasionally, my husband goes out for grocery shopping. As for me, I only leave the house for my monthly pregnancy checkups as we are expecting another child due this August. My mother was planning to come here from Japan to see the newborn, but this might not happen due to the pandemic. I'm just hoping and praying that Allah makes things easy for us. I am talking to my parents through Facetime almost every day and the situation in Tokyo is just as worrying. However, we are thankful for the available technology. At least we can easily stay in touch despite the distance.
At home, we are busy with HBL. Our three kids have their HBL activities every day. My husband, who is an educator, is also busy preparing lessons for his students. I am impressed with the online learning system in Singapore and the teachers' efforts to keep the learning going as much as possible in this situation.
Once the children are done with their work, they will start playing with one another - toys, games, pretend play, drawing, reading, watching DVDs..the list goes on. Even though they cannot go outside, they seem to be enjoying time at home.
5. How are you and your family spending Ramadan at home this year?
Ramadan this year seems peaceful with everyone at home. We do five daily prayers and Tarawih prayers together at home as a family. Each of us tries to spend more time reading the Qur'an. Our daughter's school has organised a school-wide Qur'an reading session via Zoom every day. Thanks to her school's initiative, she is motivated and eager to finish reading the Qur'an during Ramadan.
Our iftar/sahur table is not much different from previous years. For sahur, we have leftovers from the previous night. For the kids, I prepare something light such as sandwiches/cereal, cheese, fruits and scrambled eggs. For iftar, I try to make it rather simple as past Ramadans have taught us not to prepare too many dishes to prevent wastage. Since Masjid porridge is not available this year, I tried making one at home, thanks to a recipe I found online. We also prepared simple fusion iftars: Satay, Miso soup, rice, salad and fruits (refer to the photo). Ramadan this year is different from usual, but I hope we can learn a lot from it and make the best of it, inshaAllah.
6. How do you balance being a Muslim in Singapore, yet still staying true to your Japanese roots? Are you children proud to be Japanese Muslim too? For me personally it's important to stick to my Japanese roots whenever it's possible as I feel that no matter what I am still Japanese. Also it's important as I want to stay connected to my Japanese family. I usually cook Japanese food (of course making sure it's Halal) and I speak to my kids in Japanese. I want my kids to stay close to my Japanese family, to be able to speak to their grandparents in Japanese, speak about Islam in Japanese eventually, to be able to eat what their Japanese grandma cooks for
With my parents at Changi Airport after they visited us here
This is so that my parents will feel close to their Muslim grandchildren despite the distance. My kids have Japanese names. They say people find it difficult to pronounce them sometimes, but I hope one day they can be proud of their Japanese roots and live as a proud Japanese Muslim too.
We also attend gatherings of Japanese Muslims living in Singapore. We share our experience and exchange info. It is really helpful and encouraging to have this group.
7. Which part of Japan are you from and do you have any tips for travellers hoping to visit your hometown?
I am from Tokyo. Alhamdulillah, Tokyo is getting more and more Muslim-friendly as compared to years ago. There are more and more halal shops and restaurants. Tokyo Camii (mosque) is a beautiful Turkish-style mosque that Muslim travelers should visit!
8. What are the common questions/misconceptions Japanese locals have about Muslims/Islam? Unfortunately, not many Japanese people know much about Islam, like how I was before. Many think it's a religion somewhere far away, and it has nothing to do with themselves. They also think it's a very strict
religion with complicated rules. I wish more and more Japanese will find the beauty of Islam for themselves. 9. Have you celebrated Ramadan in Japan? If yes, how is it different from the Ramadan atmosphere in Singapore?
I had my first few Ramadans in Japan. Unlike Singapore where non-Muslims also know about Ramadan, in Japan it looks just like any other time of the year. If you do not make the effort to go to a masjid or meet other Muslims, you can feel lonely. In Singapore however, you feel like the whole Muslim community is celebrating the month together.
Credit: @irfangunesertr on Instagram
What I remember about Ramadan in Japan is my first Tarawih prayer in Masjid Otsuka. I did not have much idea about Tarawih prayers at that time and I was surprised that it went on and on, I thought it would never end! The Imam's voice was shaking with tears in the middle of the recitation and it was very emotional indeed.
10. Do you go back to Japan often? What are some of the things you miss about Japan? We go back every year during school holidays. I miss staying close to my family, I miss seasonal changes, I miss easy access to Japanese books.
On one of our trips back to Japan
However, I have no complaints about life in Singapore. It's very convenient and people are warm and friendly 🤗
Note: Unfortunately, we didn't manage to get updates from Masayo Hada on spending Ramadan at home this year. But you can still read her experience below.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how long has it been since you lived in Singapore?
I've been living in Singapore since 2001. I came to Singapore from the US where I studied & worked. My husband is originally from Bangladesh and I have a son and a daughter. I work in the area of environmental sustainability in Singapore.
2. How many years has it been since you reverted? Could you tell us more about how you became a revert?
I became a Muslim just before I got married in 2001.
3. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first reverted and how have you overcome it? One of the challenges was that I was unable to find any Japanese Muslim friends or convert friends for a long period of time.
I did not have any chance to
encounter those. My memory is in fact a bit vague but I think I heard about an iftar event at Sultan Mosque which was organized by a group of Japanese Muslims. I saw the event notice at one of Japanese community sites & registered myself. That’s how I got to know some Japanese Muslim ladies in Singapore. 4. What’s a typical day like for you in Ramadan?
Nothing particular really. I get up before 5am and finish eating before 5:30am. I go to my office & start working at 7:30am.
5. How do you balance being a Muslim in Singapore, yet still staying true to your Japanese roots? Are you children proud to be Japanese Muslim too?
Values depend on each individual, so it's hard to say. I speak to my kids in Japanese and my kids go to the Japanese school (since late last year my son moved to an international school from the Japanese school). I work in a Japanese company as well.
Unlike other Japanese Muslim ladies in Singapore (who married local Muslims), my husband has no relatives living in Singapore. So, I guess my kids and I carry more Japanese-ness. I hope my kids are proud of being Japanese Muslims. My kids attend a Madrasah lesson every weekend, but there are no Japanese mixed kids there.
6. Which part of Japan are you from and do you have any tips for travelers hoping to visit your hometown?
Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse
I am from Yokohama city. Yokohama is close to Tokyo and it's famous for its port, Chinatown and foreign-influenced areas. There are stylish shops and cafes that Muslim travelers can visit at the Red Brick Warehouse.
7. What are the common questions/misconceptions Japanese locals have about Muslims/Islam?
This is from my personal experience only though. Some Japanese thought I could drink water (liquid) during fasting (but no solid food). In Japan, people started learning that doing “petit fasting” is good for our internal organs. Some fasting specialists have unique methods, so I guess some Japanese misunderstand Muslims’ fasting. Another misunderstanding could be that people think the Eid (right after fasting month) celebration is the Islamic new year.
8. Do you go back to Japan often? What are some of the things you miss about Japan?
Food prepared for Kodomo no hi festival in May
Yes, once or twice a year. Having seasons there is something I find important for us to feel. Seasonal food, seasonal customs, seasonal clothes, etc.
Food prepared for Hina Matsuri in March I try to celebrate Japanese customs with my kids by decorating at home – New year (January), Setsu bun (Feb), Hina Matsuri (March),
Kodomo no hi (May), Tanabata (July), Obon (Aug), and Otsukimi (Sep/Oct). I prepare meals in line with such celebrations.
It's really heartening to see how the Japanese Muslim community in Singapore has come a long way and how they continue to be a source of support and encouragement for fellow Japanese Muslims. We hope you've enjoyed reading about their stories and do let us know what other Muslim communities around the world you'd want us to feature 😊