Trying to navigate yourself through a foreign country is hard as it is, but Muslim tourists have reported not feeling particularly comfortable in Japan when it comes to having their cultural demands met.

In a country where as many as to 90% of Muslims are foreign born migrants, we can assume that mainstream Japan does not readily cater for their specific needs. This, however, is changing, as not only Japan but other countries such as Russia are actively trying to accommodate for Muslim tourists.

After the 2011 earthquake, Japan was hit by a drastic fall in overall tourism, and on top of that, Chinese tourism dropped because of territorial disputes. This has quickly made a turnaround, and the number of tourists spiked to a record high in 2013—a total of 11.25 million tourists, equaling to a 22.7% increase from the previous year. Japan’s popularity as a tourist destination keeps rising, and showed a further 26% increase when comparing the January–September periods of 2013 and 2014. Various factors were involved in this sudden peak: a weaker yen, cheaper air fares, and a change in visa requirements. Specifically for Muslim tourists in Japan, the largest number came from Malaysia and Indonesia. There was a 52.3% increase of Malaysian tourists and a 13.4% increase of Indonesian tourists year on year. This can be explained by the visa exemptions for Malaysian citizens that was granted last year, and which is due to start for Indonesians on December 1.

Now, what exactly is it that Japan is planning to change to accommodate Islamic cultural needs? Last year, various seminars were held in 20 different regions in Japan, where hoteliers and restauranteurs were invited to learn how to cater to Muslims. A simple understanding of what can and cannot be eaten will allow a better communication between tourists and food caterers—no alcohol and no pork would is a rather unique stance for Japan, and quite unimaginable for izakaya (the Japanese equivalent to pubs), yakinikuya (grilled meat eateries) or famiresu (family restaurants).

However, a change these places could potentially make is adding halal meals to their menu. Brahim’s Food Japan, a company specializing in easy-to-prepare Malaysian halal food products, have already signed a deal with All Nippon Airways (ANA) to supply in-flight halal meals, and a number of hotels have also approached the company, looking for advice on how to cater to Muslim guests.

Modern technology also plays a part in facilitating visits. Halalminds is a smartphone app that allows users to find halal products and restaurants in Japan using GPS. Depending on the country of use, the app can also find halal medicine, arrange hotel bookings and find nearby mosques.

Slowly but steadily, various regions across Japan are making changes. As Muslims should pray five times a day, prayer rooms are of high importance, yet still hard to come by—there have even been anecdotes of someone praying behind a 7-Eleven parking lot. Major airports now have dedicated prayer rooms, and popular department store Takashimaya opened a prayer room (link in Japanese) for the growing number of Southeast-Asian shoppers.

There are still quite a few steps to be made for Japan to be considered a destination that is comfortable for Muslims to travel to. But given that boosting tourism is a major part of the Abenomics plan, further development seems all the more likely—particularly if Japan wants to diversify its tourism industry. Reaching out to a new tourism market and not simply relying on visitors from China, Taiwan, and South Korea may be the way forward.

—Mona Neuhauss

Feature image: sebra /