Long a challenge for people with varied dietary needs, the land of the rising sun is slowly shaking its reputation as a culinary minefield. Fresh off a recent trip there, Jonathan Wilson shares his observations on the changes he’s seen.
At the end of 2013, Dr Arata Mariko, Gurunavi-endowed chair in future food at Tokyo Institute of Technology, sent me an email inviting me to come to Japan. Gurunavi is a Japanese restaurant guide that has supported Dr Arata’s research interests, both as a food cultural anthropologist and an expert on Indonesian culture.
In June, Dr Arata organised an international symposium on the halal food industry for the second time. I was invited for 12 days to speak at the symposium, give a guest lecture at the university, research the current state of affairs in Japan, and write a series of reports.
My involvement in this project looked like it was going to be a dream job for me. All those years researching, writing and speaking about halal, travelling to Japan and practising martial arts were now joining hands in ways that I had never imagined. My previous experiences had seen these things intersect only from time to time, and mostly during Ramadan; I remember being put through my paces on one occasion for a gruelling five-hour training and grading session in Kendo.
But now here was an opportunity for me to draw from all these experiences of Muslim and Japanese culture and practices, presenting a compelling reason to academics, industry, policymakers and the media why and how halal has a place in Japanese society.
One of the drivers for this interest is the 2020 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo. The Japanese are known for their meticulous planning, and preparations have long since started. On this visit I also noticed upon my arrival at Tokyo airport how many Indonesians and Malaysians (from Muslim-majority nations) were standing with me in the immigration queue.
I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a wave of people from several generations who, like me, love Japanese culture: the food, fashion, manga, anime, samurais and technology; topped off with the neon, quirkiness and eccentricities. I love the dedication, free and young spirit juxtaposed with shyness, and courtesy with which Japanese from all ages approach things.
However, like me, we are a group of Muslims who are used to struggling for our love of all things Japanese when it comes to eating in Japan. I’m open-minded when it comes to food. I’m used to my noodles, tea, and coffee being served hot or iced. I enjoy my fish and seafood raw or cooked. But if you speak to most Muslims, they’ll have their own culinary horror stories.
For me, of course, pork and alcohol are a big ‘no’. But I’ve learned that saying so just isn’t enough. I’ve taken to stating to shopkeepers and restaurant owners that I will die if I consume either of these, but at times this hasn’t been enough to stop these things arriving on my plate.
From a typically Japanese mindset, some have thought, “Okay, he doesn’t drink alcohol, but a little bit on his chocolate cake should be fine.” Or, “He doesn’t eat pork, but ramen with pork bone stock isn’t eating pork.”
On my last trip here, I was in an international hotel and there was an urn of what was labelled as vegetable soup. It also had an allergy label next to it stating that the soup contained wheat, egg and milk. But when I poured myself a bowl I could see that it was also swimming with pork bacon. I asked why this was, suggesting there had perhaps been a labelling mistake. The response I received was that the “vegetable soup” label meant that the soup had lots of vegetables. So there you go.
I don’t want to frighten anyone off, because you can actually eat lots of food here – you just have to be careful. A bit of survival Japanese helps, or I suppose these days Google Translate, because not everyone here speaks a great deal of English or fully understands Muslim dietary practices – yet. But I guess that’s why I’ve been invited, right?
There are lots of cool things and similarities that make Japan such a special place. The fact that at many restaurants, and even some traditional stores, you have to remove your shoes. The toilets with built-in bidet, sound effects, seat heater, auto seat rise and air freshener are a sight to behold. I recommend going to the 12-storey Uniqlo in Tokyo’s Ginza, not just for the clothes (because they have an awesome selection and super-large sizes), but also just to see those toilets.
Another thing that I’ve noticed since my previous visit is the increase in alcohol-free beer on offer. The Japanese are sensitive about making sure everyone is able to enjoy experiences and fit in. When I asked why there was such product growth and who the products are aimed at, I learned that the interest comes from a range of consumers. Those embracing such beer include motorists, women and golfers, as well as white-collar salarymen, who have to socialise with colleagues and clients late into the evening before getting up early for work the next day.
Viewing socialising as an obligation and a group activity is something the Japanese take very seriously, more so than many other cultures. The pressure to attend and participate is great. After all, Japan is the home of karaoke.
I can see potential in this product crossing over to the Muslim world. Airlines and hotels are increasingly looking for ways to balance the varied dietary needs of their customers. We’ve already seen the rise of pork-substitute products like turkey and beef bacon. So why not beer? Currently there are one or two flavoured beers, which I’ve seen available mainly in the Arabian Gulf, Iran and the UK. But maybe tastes will mature beyond this sugar-pop fruity faux beer, towards that bitter taste that non-Muslims applaud and recommend with curry and salty snacks.
Alongside the home-grown research work of Tokyo Tech and other universities, things are happening in industry, too. I met Hind Hitomi Remon, a Japanese convert who set up the Japan Halal Association certification body. Another Japanese convert, Miwa Essaadi, runs i.Solutions, which offers consultation services on Muslim affairs in Japan.
I also visited Tokyo Camii & Turkish Cultural Center, which in terms of design looks like any mosque that you would find in Turkey. And would you believe when I was watching television I saw the Egyptian sumo wrestler, Abdelrahman Ahmed Shaalan? Known here as Osunaarashi (translation “Great Sandstorm”), in the TV programme he was filmed praying and talking about eating halal.
So there you go; these are exciting times in the land of the rising sun. I’m looking forward to seeing how this is all going to play out in terms of more food, fashion and hospitality tailored for Muslim audiences. One of the ideas that I’ve been thinking through is seeing how I could work with others on an augmented reality app, and better Wi-Fi packages for tourists. Language will probably remain a barrier for some time, but technology could help to fill that gap.
And if all that works, who knows? Maybe in the future the Muslim world could become a recruiting ground for sumo wrestlers.