Celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic: ‘As Muslims in Japan, we have to make the vibes by ourselves’

Normally, Indonesia-born Nazaya Zulaikha, 31, would go to one of her preferred mosques in Tokyo at least once a week during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to break her fast there, feasting on the meal provided alongside large groups of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that has no longer been an option.

This year, iftar (the breaking of the fast) was again a homebound affair for many Muslims in Japan, and what used to be grand, communal gatherings were replaced with much smaller celebrations. Many mosques closed their doors for iftar and taraweeh (special night prayers during Ramadan) or only held them under strict social distancing measures. Zulaikha, who works for Food Diversity Inc., which promotes halal food in Japan, hasn’t gone to the mosque in over a year now, and instead spent Ramadan with her family, making her home celebrations a bit more elaborate than she would otherwise to compensate for not being able to go out. “It’s pretty lonely, actually,” she says, although she feels the experience has also shown her the importance of family and connection.

With the number of Muslims in Japan steadily increasing over the past few decades, Ramadan celebrations are becoming more prevalent. Research by Waseda University Professor Emeritus Hirofumi Tanada shows there were an estimated 230,000 Muslims in Japan by late 2019, up from between 60,000 and 70,000 in 2004.

The majority are immigrants from Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with over 100 nationalities said to comprise Japan’s Muslim community, including converts and second-generation immigrants. To cater to this growing population, there are now more than 100 mosques in Japan, the majority of which are in the Kanto area.

This year, Ramadan in Japan fell between April 13 and May 13. During this period, Muslims around the globe fast from first light till sunset, which means the daily fasting time varies per location, as well as which religious authority one follows. Between these times, most healthy adult Muslims are expected to abstain from activities such as eating, drinking any liquids, smoking and sexual intercourse.

During the pandemic, most mosques have severely restricted entry to worshippers. Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in the capital, was opened for night prayers for a limited number of worshippers via a booking system, but its customary large-scale iftar, usually open to anyone, was canceled.

Ahmad Almansour, 57, a Syrian lecturer at Keio University who has lived in Japan for long stretches since 1989, says the unofficial council that oversees mosques in Japan recommended that activities cease.

“Actually, our council suggested — we cannot enforce — to stop all iftar, or group iftar,” he says. “But some mosques just don’t follow, because it’s only once a year.” He points to examples from the Islamic prophetic traditions related to disease that explain how one should be cautious and not go out if in a place suffering from disease, and pray at home in these instances. During this particular pandemic, Almansour explains, the council suggested that if you were to pray with others, to only do so in small groups, and keep these people the same throughout the month — a Ramadan social bubble.

Kaiji Wada, 27, a Japanese convert to Islam who runs his own recruitment company, says a number of mosques that did organize iftar or prayers did so under strict social distancing regulations. The Okachimachi mosque that he frequents had rules on booking in advance, wearing masks, getting your body temperature checked, sanitizing your hands in addition to the usual wudu ablutions, bringing your own prayer mat and ensuring proper ventilation; it even set a 15-minute time limit for eating iftar in silence. The floor was covered in plastic, and small iftar kits were set up at socially distanced intervals. The overall effect was not unlike a disaster center.

“Usually, we’d take from this big dish and share, but this year we had separate meals,” Wada says. At his other regular mosque in Asakusa, designated prayer spaces were marked and spaced out, although he has seen examples online of mosques that did not adhere to social distancing. Almansour echoes this, criticizing those that did so on Facebook.

Still, celebrating Ramadan under pandemic restrictions for a second year in a row has led to mixed reactions from members of the Muslim community in Tokyo. Some, such as Zulaikha, cited loneliness and missing the communal aspect of the festivities. Yet even in pre-pandemic times, the overall feeling of Ramadan is different than in her native Indonesia: “As Muslims in Japan, we have to make the vibes by ourselves,” she says.

For Ismael, an international school teacher who recently moved back to Japan from the U.K., the communal feeling is what makes Ramadan special.

“Islam is meant to be enjoyed as a community. Not being able to do that takes a significant level of enjoyment out of it,” he says. That includes taraweeh, which he says is one of the parts of Ramadan he most enjoys for the spiritual satisfaction. “Usually, out of 30-odd days of night prayers, I’d go to 20, 25. This year I’ve gone to none.” He puts this down to a combination of pandemic restrictions and practical aspects, such as ease of accessing a mosque compared to his hometown.

Others felt that the restrictions brought strong positives to their Ramadan experience. For Ghufron Yazid, 30, an Indonesian florist who was born and raised in Japan and works for Tokyo Camii, the lack of gatherings has led to a stronger focus on introspection and new insights.

“Ramadan has changed since corona happened, but it’s changed beautifully,” he says. “It’s changed from this party event, more ‘worldly’ Ramadan, to a more spiritual one.” With iftar and Eid shared in smaller groups, the bonds between people became stronger as well, he notes.

Wada recognizes this spiritual sentiment, and says that compared to last year, this Ramadan is already a huge improvement. In 2020, he was living in Indonesia, where local rules meant that all festivities had been canceled, and there was nowhere else to go but home. This year in Japan, he feels there are more opportunities to actually connect with people.

For those looking to connect with others, the place to do so was the same as for millions of others seeking comfort during the pandemic: online. Everything from seminars and Friday prayer lectures to iftar migrated online for a Zoom Ramadan. Compared to the U.K., Ismael says options were limited, which he puts down to the majority of Muslims in Japan being first-generation immigrants who are more likely to live in their own communities and stick to familiar traditions. Wada agrees, noting that although mosques took some initiative, it was often communities that decided to host online events themselves.

One such community initiative is the Asagohan no Kai, or The Breakfast Club, which was started by a group of young Muslims just before Ramadan. The group primarily attracts those who grew up in Japan or speak Japanese, and organizes talks about different faith topics every morning during Ramadan. Wada is also part of a smaller group of young, male Muslims, who gather online for short sessions every day via livestream.

But for many, nothing can replace in-person gatherings. Hanan, 20, is a Japanese university student who officially converted to Islam last year. Her family is unaware of her conversion, so she asked to be referred to her by her Arabic name. She says being able to see friends in person during Ramadan, even in very small groups, helped her a lot.

At the same time, she feels that she should be grateful for being able to celebrate Ramadan at all this year, and that ultimately, the experience has been a positive one.

“I’m able to fast, and to practice my religion, that is something I should already be thankful for,” she says. “Maybe I’ll look back in the future and tell my kids, ‘Hey, can you believe that was my first Ramadan? It was certainly an interesting time.’”

© The Japan Times