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Ramadan As A New Revert: Reflections Of A Japanese Muslim

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Faruq Senin  •  May 11, 2020

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Every Ramadan, we celebrate the diversity of the Ummah and take the opportunity to read more inspirational stories of Muslims. Whether they are Muslim revert stories or experiences of born Muslims rediscovering their journey to Islam, this blessed month is a great time for us to reflect on what it means to be Muslim. This time, we are shining the spotlight on Manami Ono (Salma), a Japanese-Muslim revert who started her journey as a Muslim just last year. Though Manami has been staying in Singapore for 5 years, she is spending this year's Ramadan in Japan as she was in Japan when Singapore's "circuit breaker" measures were imposed. She tells us the challenges she faces as a Muslim revert and how she is spending Ramadan this year, away from her husband.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how long have you been a Muslim?
I was born and raised in Japan. 5 years ago, I came to Singapore for work. I was originally supposed to stay in Singapore for 2 years, but I changed my mind and decided to stay longer because I like the diversity and environment of this country.
 About 2 years ago, I first met my Singaporean husband through our mutual friend and I got married to him last year. I reverted to Islam on the 31st of May last year. So, I have been a Muslim for about 1 year. 
2. Could you tell us more about your journey to becoming a revert?
After I met my husband who is a born Muslim, I became interested in Islam. When I told him that I’d like to know more about Islam, he told me that there were some courses on Islam at the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore (Darul Arqam Singapore). There, I learned basic knowledge of Islam and how to pray. I also went to see a Japanese Muslim who had converted in a similar way. After listening to her story and various other experiences from friends and teachers at Darul Arqam, I decided to revert.
3. What inspired you to become a Muslim?
One of the things that inspired me was that I wanted to have the same experience as my husband. I thought that it would be good for me to get on the same page as him to understand him better.
 Through a group discussion at Darul Arqam, I also realized that Islam as a religion is similar to the underlying philosophy of Japanese culture. I felt that the attitude towards the teachings of Islam is the same as what I have been taught in Japanese ethics since young. After this experience, I thought the conversion should not be a big issue for me. P.S. The Japanese Muslims in Singapore is a vibrant community! Check out our interview with 3 of them in this article
4. What was your perception of Islam before this?
I thought that Islam is strict and stiff - like a person will be punished immediately if he/she doesn't obey. I also had a vague negative image of Islam because of the shocking news of terror attacks by Muslim extremist groups which were reported in Japan.
5. What were the reactions of your family and friends when you told them that you were going to convert?
 The Japanese are not familiar with Islam. So my mother was a bit worried that I would jump to another religion. But she accepted it because she understood that I would never give up once I had made my mind. My father also accepted without hesitation. It was surprising to me since I had thought that he was more conservative. I was glad when he said that “No matter what, you are still yourself”. My Japanese friends were interested to know how my lifestyle would change. Almost all my Singaporean and Malaysian friends were surprised to know that I was going to convert and took it more seriously than me. Though I just followed my heart and decided to convert for my own sake, some of them seemed to see the conversion as self-sacrifice. And some of them were impressed as they said it was the power of love. P.S. Check out this inspiring story of interracial marriage between a Japanese-Muslim revert and her Singaporean Malay husband.
6. What are the common questions/misconceptions that you have gotten about Muslims and Islam?
The common question I had from Japanese friends were “Are you okay not taking alcohol and pork?” The common misconception is that I will be blamed when I don’t follow the teachings of Islam like praying 5 times a day, and not taking alcohol and pork. Teachers and Japanese Muslim friends taught me that it depends on my relationship with God and that nobody should interfere with it; that I can gradually get used to Islam at my own pace. My husband and his family have also never forced me to do anything.
7. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first reverted and have you managed to overcome it?
 When I first reverted, praying 5 times per day was most challenging for me. During that time, my father living in Japan got sick. Since I was working in Singapore, I couldn’t go back to Japan. What I could do was just to contact him more frequently and pray to Allah for his recovery. After that, I acquired the habit of praying. 
8. Is this your first Ramadan? How has it been so far?
Actually, I tried 1-month fasting during Ramadan last year before reverting to Islam. Thus this is my second Ramadan.
Last year, I was surrounded by my husband, his family and a lot of Muslim friends. But now I’m the only Muslim in my hometown in Niigata City, so it feels a little lonely.
9. How was your first Ramadan like last year?
At that time, it was just before my conversion. So, it was my first experience with Islam as well as my first Ramadan. I remembered I had a stomachache during the first few days after I started fasting. After about a week, I got used to the 2-meals-a-day lifestyle and learned how to control hunger even though I felt that I got easily tired and lost concentration. Weekdays were easier than weekends because there were a lot of things I could do.
 During that time, I sometimes had iftar with my husband and his family together. I was happy because I felt like I became a member of a family and a member of a Muslim group. 
10. Do you find that it is easier to fast this year? What challenges do you face now?
Yes, I feel I can control my hunger and emotions better than last year. And it’s easier to secure a time and place to pray because we can't go out due to the current COVID-19 situation. But actually it’s tougher for me to spend the period of Ramadan this year in a different way. Because I’m the only Muslim around here in my hometown, so I have to encourage and discipline further myself. I think my challenge this year is to endure loneliness and cheer my husband up because he stays at home alone.
11. Were there any preparations you did before you started fasting?
My husband advised me to eat 2 pieces of dates during sahur as it will give me energy for the whole day. So I went to a local supermarket to look for dates. Luckily, I could find a packet of dried dates before fasting started.
12. How is it celebrating Ramadan in Japan with the current COVID-19 situation?
 Because Japan is a Muslim-minority country, there is no custom of celebrating Ramadan. So, regardless of the COVID-19 situation, the lifestyle of the majority of people are the same as usual. Because I haven’t had a connection to any Muslim community in Japan, I’m not sure how they celebrate Ramadan usually and how it has changed due to COVID-19. Regarding the COVID-19 situation, we Japanese also refrain from going out to prevent the spread of the virus. Normally, people go on vacation during this season because of the long national holiday and good weather at the beginning of May. But it's a pity that people have to stay home especially for children. For me, because I had been looking forward to the Geylang Serai Bazaar in Singapore during Ramadan, I’m very sad that I can't do that this year. Though I sometimes get lonely because I’m fasting alone, I value the time I get to spend with my mother. 
13. How do you keep yourself occupied while spending Ramadan alone in Japan?
 During the day on weekdays, I work from home. After iftar, I usually do some light exercise or stretching. I never get bored because there are a lot of different kinds of exercise videos on Youtube. I spend weekends going out shopping for groceries, watching TV and surfing the internet. And sometimes, I help my mother on her farm. Pulling out weeds and ploughing the field is a nice change of environment. 
14. How do you remain connected to your loved ones while spending Ramadan alone?
Fortunately, I’m staying at my parents' house, so I can see my mother every day. I can see how my friends have been recently through Facebook, so I sometimes message them to catch up. I also talk to my husband through video chat before going to bed every day.
15. How do you balance being a Muslim, yet still staying true to your Japanese roots?
As I mentioned, Islam has many things in common with Japanese culture, so I usually don't have difficulty keeping the balance. The communication with non-Muslim Japanese friends might remind me of the way of thinking and behaving that's unique to the Japanese without even realizing it. Moreover, my husband likes Japan very much and we often watch Japanese TV programs. That might also help me to stay Japanese.
16. Do you have any tips for others who are going to revert to Islam?
 As I was advised by various people when I reverted to Islam, you don’t need to expect yourself to be perfect from the beginning. It’s okay to take it easy and get used to Islam little by little at your own pace. I think it might be good to listen to different views and perspectives, then think well and make your own decision.