In this blessed month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast, iftar and experience Ramadan together. This year, we have reached out to several Muslims around the world to showcase the similarities, differences and uniqueness of Muslims everywhere in our series, Ramadan around the world ?
We had the opportunity to learn about one Muslim revert's story. Meryem is a Singaporean-Muslim revert who currently resides in Tokyo with her family and runs an innovation-centric lifestyle brand for Muslims, TAKVA
? She reverted in 2013 and has been learning more and more about Islam ever since ❤️ We have been lucky enough to get to know her more as she shares her experience about being a revert, as well as Ramadan in Japan where Muslims are a minority.
1. How is Ramadan like in Japan?
Ramadan in Japan is pretty much non-existent unless you're at the mosque or at a gathering with your Muslim community- we don't exactly feel much atmosphere here since there are only about 100,000 Muslims in Japan and are scattered out. BUT! the some of the local mosques here (Tokyo Camii, for example) serves free iftars daily for the Muslims and extend the invitation to non-Muslim Japanese, so it is very common to find Muslims and non-Muslim Japanese people sharing a table in the mosque for our daily Iftar :) It is a very heartwarming scene, to be honest!
Credit: @immeryem on Instagram
When I was working in Tokyo in 2015 and had less commitments, I found myself visiting the mosque every weekend to help out with my friends, and we'd spend the time distributing plates, arranging tables, cleaning up in the kitchen (where there were many Japanese volunteers helping out too!) and at the end we would be rewarded with some leftover Turkish ice-cream before we headed up for Isha prayers. Those were really times that I deeply treasured and really helped me forge my Ramadan memories in a country where you wouldn't expect Ramadan memories to be forged. :)
Breaking fast together with my friends at the ladies' prayer hall while the athan sounds and people start to distribute water and dates around- one of the memories I fondly remember. (Photo from my Instagram account @immerychan in 2016)
Many mosques in Japan give out free iftar meals! But because we are not living too near a mosque we do not travel there everyday. For example, when we were living in the countryside in Kyushu last time the nearest mosque would be about 2hrs travel by car, so we would only go there once in two weekends, or only on Eid. Alhamdulillah now it is only 45mins by train to reach Tokyo Camii so we go there during the weekends!
The mosque's imam on the right and the mosque's cooks serving out iftar - credit @tokyocamii on Instagram
2. What’s your biggest challenge/struggle during Ramadan and how do you overcome it?Credit: @immeryem on Instagram
My biggest challenge now is actually finding the commitment to pursue my ibadah during this month of Ramadan. I know there is no excuse for not finding time to take up the Quran, or doing the terawih prayers, but with everything that is going on here (multitasking with TAKVA, baby, housework... ) we struggle very much with finding enough time to do so- and with no one else to remind us to stop and pause and remember Allah, we sometimes don't do it. :(
3. What are the timings for sahur/iftar like especially in summer vs winter? How does this affect your fast?Credit: @immeryem on Instagram
I must have been pretty blessed to have experienced Ramadan in Singapore, Japan AND Sydney ever since I reverted to Islam 5 years ago. In Japan, we sahur at around 2.30am and iftar at 6.40pm, and seriously, at 2.30am you don't really have much appetite for anything. But Alhamdulillah the weather for this year is pretty good since it's still spring, so it isn't too hot or humid :)
4. What are some of the activities the Muslim community in Japan does during Ramadan?
I think I answered it pretty much above in the first part! Tokyo Camii also organizes talks during Ramadan catered to mostly letting the public understand what Ramadan is about (then followed by the iftar- who can resist!). But other than that, we're quite alone because to date we have not found a Singaporean-Muslim community or a Turkish community apart from the one at the mosque, so we spend Ramadan by ourselves at home (which is still a blessing to be doing together, so alhamdulillah)
A talk explaining about Ramadan to local Non-muslim Japanese at Tokyo Camii, Credit to Tokyo Camii FB account
5. Do non-Muslims understand fasting and how do they react to it?
I remember my colleagues were mostly shocked that I could not even drink water, but they were so accommodating Alhamdulillah. As a memory that I had when I was working, my non-Muslim colleagues all waited till Iftar time to eat together with me. They're also so apologetic about eating in front of me, but seriously, it's okay! I really don't mind!
I had a bit of difficulties explaining about fasting to my family, though, because many Catholics see fasting as a way of suffering (see story below), so especially during those times where I was pregnant and fasting, I was quite severely scolded by my parents because they didn't want me to harm my baby. Alhamdulillah she's a healthy little ball of fun right now, otherwise, I'd get into more trouble ?
6. What tips would you give to someone who’s visiting Japan during Ramadan?
In a heartbeat, I'd say go to Tokyo Camii for the iftar! It would be a very good experience for your heart, seeing Muslims and non-Muslims from so many countries and races mixing together at the same place.
A scene during Iftar at Tokyo Camii- credits to Tokyo Camii FB page
7. How long have you been fasting for/when did you convert?
I converted in Oct 2013 (unofficially), but I attempted fasting during Ramadan of that year. (see below q10.)
8. What challenges did you face getting used to fasting/Ramadan as an adult/convert?
When I was a Catholic we would always observe a fast on Good Friday, because of the suffering that Jesus (Prophet Isa A.S.) endured on that day. So it was quite natural that I would have thought of fasting as an act of ‘deprivation’ in order to experience what Jesus (A.S.) suffered during the final days to his crucifixion. To me then, fasting was suffering.
Credit: @iammeryem on Instagram
During the Ramadan in 2013 before my official conversion, I fasted during the first 2 weeks of Ramadan, just to experience what it was like. And I remember the first day I fasted, I was shivering and terribly hungry by dinner time. I remember staring at the pack of nuts on my table, trying to control myself from reaching out to grab a few. And that to me, was suffering, exactly as what I idealized fasting to be. Yet I remember when I first started fasting as a when I finally broke my fast, the food and water which I consumed felt a thousandfold more sweet and enjoyable than I had ever tasted. No kidding. Being deprived of food for one afternoon had made me really appreciate the break of the fast, as simple as it was. And this was the part which opened my eyes to the deeper meaning behind the act of fasting- that it is not about suffering at all, but about enabling us to enter into the state of being that is most apt to worship God.
Alhamdulillah ever since then I'd also physically gotten used to fasting and it is less difficult now. For example my mother-in-law also advocates fasting as a means of healing (she recovered from a serious illness by doing a fasting diet for 10 days, in which no food is to be consumed for 10 days and water only for Iftar and sahur). I tried it once... and now a daily fast doesn't seem that bad after all!
9. Where did you draw your support/encouragement from while beginning your convert’s Ramadan journey?
I honestly don't remember much about my first Ramadan now, but I think I gained much support from some of my friends who were attending classes with me. Alhamdulillah for them, it was made easier.
10. How has Ramadan improved for you over the years?Credit: @immeryem on Instagram
During my first Ramadan, I expected myself to “read the Quran from back to back”. I fondly remember myself repeatedly listening to (and first loving) Surah Al-Qadr during the night where I first heard to be the night of Lailatul Qadr. I bought dates, and made myself drink water first instead of immediately digging into my iftar, because I had learnt that it was sunnah. I joined Tarawih at the mosque just opposite my house (what a blessing, Alhamdulillah!), mostly alone, and I got confused because I couldn’t count properly and thought we ended Tarawih with 13 raka’ats. I didn’t understand what people were reciting in between, and at the end, I was really quite frustrated.
Now I try to also focus on improving myself in terms of akhlaq which I sometimes severely lack - and also because I have a responsibility over my child now there is an added challenge of meeting my ibadah during this month. But I am also comforted by the fact that by struggling, every form of act of duty as a mother having to take care of her daughter also counts, InshaAllah, and I pray Allah sees my struggle.
11. What was the first Ramadan in Japan like for you and how different is the experience from spending Ramadan in Singapore?
My first Ramadan in Japan was actually more memorable in that I got very involved in mosque activities with my international friends from Malaysia, Japan, Turkey, USA etc. In Singapore I actually developed a mosque-phobia because I wasn't familiar (and unfortunately still am not, because I've not spent much Ramadans around a Muslim community much) with the terawih prayers etc. at the mosque during Ramadan and was afraid of getting scolded :(. My family isn't Muslim as well, my husband's in Japan plus my in-laws are in Turkey, so I didn't have a chance to experience Ramadan with a family in Singapore.
Credit: @immeryem on Instagram
I did try looking for 'mosque-kakis' after going back to Singapore I tried organizing a "Ramadan sisterhood" for all the convert sisters I knew in Singapore who might not have a family to spend the activities of Ramadan with, but somehow because mosques can be found in every neighbourhood (as compared to only a few scattered about in Japan), it's much more difficult to gather people since it's more convenient they just visit the mosque nearby for terawih or Iftar. For example, there's less motivation going to a mosque in Jurong if you're living in Ang Mo Kio or Tampines.
12. How do you celebrate Eid in Japan?
We travel to the mosque for Eid! In Tokyo Camii, it gets really crowded and the women have to pray at the first floor instead of in the main prayer hall, but it's always a bustling affair seeing so many people from every country imaginable in their colourful Eid outfits, I love the atmosphere!
Diversity of Eid at Tokyo Camii, Credit @tokyocamii on Instagram