When US war jets bombed the Japanese city of Kobe in 1945 during World War II, nearly wiping out the entire city, many residents sought refuge and sanctuary in an unlikely location: Kobe Mosque, Japan’s oldest surviving Muslim place of worship.
The earliest documentation of Islam in Japan dates back to the 1700s as mentions and depictions of Islam and Muslims featured in a number of Japanese books.
It was not until the 19th century, however, that proper diplomatic contact between Muslims and Japan occured. Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II sent frigate of the Ottoman Navy ‘Ertugrul’ on a goodwill voyage to Japan in 1889. Upon its return, a violent storm disintegrated the ship and it sank off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture, killing hundreds onboard. Only 96 crew members survived the shipwreck and were taken to Kobe before they were sent back to Istanbul aboard two Japanese corvettes. The tragedy, still remembered today, garnered Japanese sympathy towards Turks and laid the foundations of friendship between Turkey and Japan.
By the 1930s, Tatar Muslim migrants and refugees who escaped the Russian Revolution during World War I became the largest Muslim ethnic group and established the original Tokyo Mosque in the Japanese capital in 1938, later demolished and rebuilt under the direction and support of Tukey.
But the Tokyo Mosque was not the first to be established in Japan. The first recorded place of worship for Muslims in the country was in fact built in Osaka Prefecture in 1905 for Muslim soldiers who had escaped Russian captivity during the Russo-Japanese war. However, the structure did not survive. Another mosque was established in 1931 in Nagoya, but it was burnt down during WWII and Nagoya did not see another mosque for over 50 years.
The first mosque to be built in Japan which continues to serve as such today is Kobe Mosque.
Kobe’s ‘Miracle Mosque’
In the 1900s, Kobe was a central trading hub and one of the first cities where foreigners and businessmen would take up residence. In 1928, the port city’s growing Muslim community, made up mostly of Indian traders and Turks, began collecting donations to build the city’s first mosque. With permission from the Emperor of Japan, Kobe Mosque was officially opened in October 1935 and would attract Muslims from all over the Kansai region for congregation and prayer for years to come.
The mosque may not be as notable or as grand in its size and design as Tokyo Mosque, Japan’s largest mosque which was actively supported by the Japanese government, dignitaries and diplomats who attended its inauguration in the year 2,000 following its reconstruction; however, the historical significance of Kobe Mosque makes it stand out as a unique and extraordinary part of the history of Japan.
The building was seized by the Japanese Navy in 1943 and was one of the few structures which survived the US bombing of Kobe and remained fully intact after the war with no structural damage.
Its construction and reinforced concrete foundations also enabled the mosque to withstand the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which claimed the lives of up to 6,434 people. The mosque’s survival of both man-made and natural disasters, including the deadly Kobe floods of 1938, earned it the title of ‘miracle mosque’ as it is often described by locals.
Kobe mosque is located in the Kitano-Cho foreign district and lies at the heart of one of the busiest and most popular tourist areas of Kobe, being only a 10-minute walk from Kobe-Sannomiya Station.
Designed by Czech architect Jan Josef Svagr, who moved to Japan in 1923 and was known for designing several churches, cathedrals and monasteries in the country, the mosque features traditional Indo-Islamic architecture inlaid with intricate geometric and Islamic patterns. It stands three-stories high with a large dome at the top and two minaret towers used for the calls to prayer.
The Turkish-influenced interiors feature a modest pulpit and a mihrab, adorned with lowkey golden inscriptions and pristine white marble walls. A glistening chandelier hangs in the main prayer hall on the ground floor surrounded by amber stained-glass windows all around.
On the first floor, a smaller prayer hall opens onto the main hall below and is used by female worshippers. Another larger prayer hall lies on the second floor.
The mosque is open all year round and functions as a place of worship; the five Muslim daily prayers are held for Kobe’s relatively small Muslim community with larger numbers from Kobe and nearby towns attending the mosque during Muslim holidays and celebrations such as Eid. The mosque also holds weddings and other religious ceremonies.
Non-Muslims and tourists are always welcome to visit the mosque and larger groups are able to call in advance for a tour of the mosque, with modest clothing advisable as a show of respect.
Today, there are some two hundred established mosques and musallahs (temporary prayer rooms) across Japan and Japanese Muslims number somewhere between 70,000-120,000 with approximately 10 per cent being native.
If you happen to be living in or visiting that part of the world and want to learn something about the history of Islam in the Land of the Rising Sun, Kobe Mosque would be an excellent place to start.