Fourteen months after Tokyo learned it would be hosting Olympics 2020, Japan’s capital city held its first international halal forum and exhibition in November 2014, which kickstarted other Islamic economy events as the country started focusing on how to serve the expected influx of Muslim athletes, games delegates and visitors.
Last Friday on Nov 23, second city Osaka won its bid to host World Expo 2025 that expects to attract 28 million visitors. Osaka-based Ammar Jebawi, founder of Nishi Nippon Halal Association (NNHA), believes a lot of changes will happen in the city leading up to the expo and the halal sector must keep apace if it wants to properly serve its Muslim guests.
Muslim visitor numbers to Japan as a whole have been steadily rising. The Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) doesn’t reveal visitor statistics by religion but as an indication of travellers from Muslim-majority countries, in 2013, 176,521 travelled from Malaysia and 136,797 from Indonesia. By 2017 these numbers almost tripled to just under 800,000: 439,548 from Malaysia and 352,330 from Indonesia.
“[The expo] is a great step forward for Osaka City, construction is booming after Chinese and Koreans started investing in real estate; lots of hotels and cafes,” Jebawi told Salaam Gateway.
“We wish some Muslim investors can join in as well. It’s quite hard to find true Muslim services, whether it’s in hospitality and tourism or in trading, export and import,” added the Jordanian businessman who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years.
Jebawi acknowledged that Tokyo has held a lot of halal and Islamic economy events since 2014, including the country’s first modest fashion show two years ago, but says that, on the ground, halal-certified food establishments and hotels “have no eyes watching” them.
Japan does not have a centralised authority that monitors the halal sector. Instead, it has many independent halal certifiers. Seven are recognised by Malaysia’s national-level Islamic authority JAKIM, as published in its Jun list, while the UAE’s standards body ESMA recognises three. The Japan Halal Association and Japan Islamic Trust are the only ones recognised by both.
Recognition by important halal authorities such as JAKIM and ESMA facilitates an easier export of halal goods from Japan to countries that recognise Malaysian and UAE standards but businesses in the country itself are not subject to strict oversight.
“One obvious problem in Japan is the difficulty in knowing if a package of food contains something that might be forbidden to eat according to Islam,” said Jebawi.
“This sense of doubt exists as most products in Japan contain alcohol, additives from dead insects, as well as gelatin and animal fats derived from pigs or non-halal slaughtered animals,” he added.
The lack of oversight has led to an abuse of halal certification, according to Jebawi. “We have done some research and visited these restaurants and found out that they serve alcohol [and] pork dishes; some even operate under halal certificates that have been expired for more than a year and are actually registered under different restaurants,” he said.
“On top of that, our request to visit local slaughterhouses was rejected, but from outside, we observed pigs around the area of the same farm.”
Jebawi’s NNHA, which has been serving its local community since 2009 largely as a body that facilitates exchange of “food, culture and religious information”, wants to push up Osaka’s halal understanding and standards of compliance.
This week, it will hold its first-ever international halal forum in partnership with the Kansai Muslim Community.
The event is given a boost with the participation of Malaysia’s key halal bodies. Dr Sirajuddin Suhaimee, director of the Secretariat of the Malaysia Halal Council and former director of JAKIM’s Halal Hub, will be giving its keynote address.
Malaysia has been a keen halal partner to Japan, contributing its expertise to conferences such as this and as well benefiting from a more open bilateral halal trade.
In Aug 2017, the Malaysian government signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Japanese External Trade Organisation (JETRO) that opens doors to Malaysian halal exporters especially for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games.
“We have a good relationship with the University of Kuala Lumpur, MARA (People’s Trust Council) and JAKIM in Malaysia. We have had a lot of discussions in regards to all the problems faced by us here and we gained support through sharing halal experiences in Japan with these organisations,” said Jebawi.
Other representatives participating at the Osaka conference include halal and Islam bodies from Denmark and Kazakhstan.
Moving forward for Japan’s halal sector, NNHA hopes the conference will be a permanent fixture for Osaka. The city will also host the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology’s International Research Conference on Halal Food, Nutrition and Food Security in May next year.
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