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Japan Muslims worried by graveyard shortage

Many Muslims in Japan, where space is at a premium, have expressed worry about graveyard shortages, because Islamic principles stipulate deceased Muslims should be buried without cremation.

New graveyard sites are difficult to obtain, as local ordinances in many parts of the nation prohibit burial without cremation, as well as due to opposition from local residents.

Though national laws do not prohibit burial without cremation, many local governments, including those of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, cite sanitary reasons in prohibiting the practice via ordinances and other forms of regulation.

Worries have increased among Muslims about places for eternal rest in Japan.

In 2006, a male Muslim in Sapporo died, leaving his wife and three small children. His Muslim friends collected donations to bury the body. They managed to obtain permission from a cemetery in Yoichicho, Hokkaido.

In the same year, a Muslim couple brought their miscarried infant from Fukuoka Prefecture to bury the body in the same cemetery. The couple wept after they received relief, according to people involved in the burial.

Monjuin, a Buddhist temple belonging to the Sotoshu sect in Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, is one of a limited number of sites that allows burial without cremation.

The temple has set aside a 4,800-square-meter cemetery section exclusively for Muslims, where about 120 Muslim graves now are located.

All the graves accommodate uncremated bodies, and on some of the headstones, names of buried people are carved in Arabic.

The Buddhist temple offered the section of land, which is managed by the Japan Muslim Association, a Shibuya Ward, Tokyo-based religious organization.

Those buried in the cemetery include Muslims from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries who had lived in Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture as well as the Tohoku and Kyushu regions. Bodies of Japanese who converted to Islam also are buried there.

While Christians in Japan generally are cremated when they die in line with the nation's custom, Muslims more strictly adhere to religious principles. Generally, bodies of Muslims are buried uncremated in the places where they spent long periods during life.

Though the Japan Muslim Association and the Islamic Center Japan, a Setagaya Ward, Tokyo-based mutual aid organization for Muslims, searched for places nationwide where Muslims' bodies could be buried, their requests largely were declined by cemetery managers.

One said, "The image of burial without cremation isn't good."

Despite such efforts, the two Muslim organizations could find only three sites--in Koshu, Kobe and Yoichicho--where bodies of Muslims could be buried uncremated.

However, Kobe's cemetery is run by the city government and permits only city residents to be laid to rest there. The cemetery in Yoichicho is located in a remote part of Hokkaido, making it inconvenient for relatives to visit graves.

Therefore, many Muslims have chosen the Islamic cemetery in Koshu, in Yamanashi Prefecture west of Tokyo. However, Kazuhiko Furuya, 44, Monjuin's chief priest, said, "The cemetery will be full in a few years.

"Some local residents have said burial without cremation scares them and they oppose the practice. Such conditions make it difficult to build a new cemetery [for Muslims]," he said.

Salimur Rahman Khan, 54, an Islamic missionary director of the Islamic Center Japan and a lecturer at Chuo University, said: "The number of Muslims in Japan is estimated at 100,000, and the number likely will increase in the future. Muslims with Japanese nationality have no place to rest after death."

(Aug. 16, 2010)
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