In Japan, a country known for its cultural homogeneity and where the Muslim population is relatively small, there is a noticeable shift towards accommodating the needs of Muslim travelers. This transformation includes the introduction of prayer rooms, locally sourced silk hijabs, and even the certification of halal whale meat to cater to the growing demand from Muslim tourists.
Despite the challenges posed by navigating unfamiliar customs and dietary requirements, Japan is actively seeking to tap into this expanding market as it aims to double the number of overseas visitors by 2020.
At a recent seminar on halal tourism in Tokyo, Datuk Ibrahim Haji Ahmad Badawi, head of Malaysian food company Brahim’s, noted that Muslim travelers have often felt uncomfortable in Japan. However, he also acknowledged that the government is increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing this issue.
In the past year, Japan has organized seminars across 20 different regions, inviting hoteliers and restaurateurs to learn about catering to Muslim visitors. The Osaka Chamber of Commerce, for instance, distributed 5,000 leaflets outlining what can and cannot be consumed, despite the fact that forbidding alcohol and pork consumption runs counter to Japan’s culinary traditions.
To coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, Japan has been heavily promoting tourism in mainly Muslim Southeast Asia. Visa requirements were relaxed in 2013 for countries like Malaysia and Thailand, with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, soon to follow suit.
According to the Japanese Tourist Office, there has been a significant increase in the number of Indonesian and Malaysian visitors to Japan. Indonesians visiting the country in 2013 saw a 37 percent rise from the previous year, while Malaysian tourist numbers increased by 21 percent.
The upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are also a driving force behind making Japan more Muslim-friendly. The influx of athletes and spectators from diverse backgrounds has prompted discussions about accommodating Muslim dietary needs during the event.
For instance, Brahim’s has already signed an agreement with All Nippon Airways (ANA), one of Japan’s largest carriers, to supply halal meals for in-flight services. Additionally, numerous large hotels have sought advice on catering to Muslim guests.
Despite a slow start, Japan is making strides in attracting Muslim travelers, who represent a significant share of the global halal tourism market, estimated at $600 billion. Major airports have introduced dedicated prayer rooms, and travelers can even purchase hijabs made from Japanese silk at Kansai International Airport near Osaka.
Long-term visitors, including students, are also being catered to, with 19 universities offering halal menus in their cafeterias.
For those seeking authentic yet halal Japanese cuisine, options are available in Tokyo. For example, a yakiniku barbecue restaurant run by Roger Bernard Diaz, a Sri Lankan Catholic, now offers a range of halal meats. This change has attracted customers from Southeast Asia and the Gulf, broadening the restaurant’s appeal.
However, sourcing halal ingredients can be challenging, as Diaz notes while retrieving Brazilian-raised halal chicken from a dedicated freezer.
Even those interested in trying whale meat are accommodated, as Japan’s whaling mothership received halal certification last year. The Japan Halal Association, one of the two organizations authorized to grant halal status in the country, has experienced a surge in demand since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games.
Japanese businesses are gearing up to export halal-certified products, such as soy sauce and rice grown in northern Akita prefecture, to meet the needs of Muslim consumers around the world.
Nevertheless, as the number of Muslim tourists in Japan continues to grow, businesses must strike a balance between catering to their specific needs and maintaining services for their other customers, including those who consume alcohol.