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Diversity in the Stacks: The Muslims in Japan Collection

A new collection focuses on the Turkish-speaking and Muslim communities in interwar and Pacific War-era Japan. 

An old, worn book with Arabic script on the cover. A tool is being used to display some of the binding material on the right side.

At first glance, the leather-bound Qur’ān, which the Penn Libraries purchased in 2021, appeared notable for its evident age, having been printed nearly a century ago, and for its deluxe gold tooling and ornate designs on the headpiece, resembling early 20th-century Qur’āns printed in Kazan, Russia. A closer look reveals such details as the Qur’ān’s cracked binding, within which we can see printed Japanese script in an otherwise Arabic volume. More intriguingly, we see a trilingual stamp on the title page that reads “MOHAMMEDAN’S RELYGION SOCIETY IN KEIJO” [sic]. The stamp indicates the Qur’ān’s journey to colonial Seoul (called “Keijō 京城”) and, more broadly, illustrates transnational connections among global Muslim communities, Japanese thinkers and nationalists in Pacific War-era Japan (c.1930s-1945), and Japanese imperial subjects. This 1934 Qur’ān is one of many new acquisitions that form the foundation of our new collection, “Muslims in Japan,” a collaboration between the two of us: Middle East Studies Librarian Heather Hughes and Japanese Studies Librarian Rebecca Mendelson.

A page with Arabic script and decorative borders.
Title page of Tatar Qur'ān
An inside page of the book, which is yellowed with age, shows Arabic text and a blue circular stamp with more text and some logos or symbols.
Keijō stamp in Tatar Qur'an

This collection started with a different work, Al-Itkan fi tarjimati al-Qur’ān (Proficiency in Translating the Qur’ān; 1950). Always on the lookout for opportunities to collaborate across geographic borders, we were intrigued by the Qur’ān translation book—written in Turkish, in Arabic script, and published in Tokyo—and were inspired to learn more about the Turkish-speaking and Muslim communities in Japan.

A page showing visible sings of aging and wear shows Arabic script in various sizes surrounded by an ornate, dark-colored border.
Title page of Al-Iktan fi tarjimati al-Qur'an (Tokyo: Unidentified publisher, 1950)


With the help of Mitch Fraas, Director of Special Collections and Research Services for the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, we acquired the 1950 Qur’ān translation book and several additional Arabic- and Turkic-language materials from early and mid-century Japan that, according to Pahor, had previously belonged to a well-known Swiss collector of Ottoman and Turkic materials, Herry W. Schaefer. After our first acquisition, Rebecca also worked with Eri Mizukane, the Kislak Center’s Assistant Director of Operations (previously our Japanese Library Specialist), to acquire related materials in Japanese from the Japanese used book market.  

Since 2021, we have expanded the Muslims in Japan Collection to include Arabic and Turkic-language materials published in Japan, mostly by Tokyo Islamic Press; Japanese-language primary sources, mostly from the 1930s and published by the Dai Nippon Kaikyō Kyōkai (discussed below); and recently published secondary sources and reprints.

Context: Muslims in Interwar and Wartime Japan

Formalized connections between modern Japan and the Muslim world began in the late 19th century, when Japanese intelligence agents established relationships with Muslims in China’s borderlands. Japan-Muslim connections also gained momentum following the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). In his contribution to the volume Intellectuals in the Modern Islamic World, Hisao Komatsu illuminates the life work of one prominent figure during this time: Crimean Tatar intellectual and activist Abdürreşid Ibrahim (1857–1944). Aligning with Japanese nationalists, Ibrahim praised Japanese people’s “national spirit” (ahlak-i milliye; Jpn. Yamato damashii) and envisioned “the union of Asian peoples by joining the Muslim world with Japan.”

This alignment between the Japanese government and global Muslim community was perceived as mutually beneficial. On the one hand, Ibrahim and other Muslim intellectuals saw an opportunity to fortify an East Asian-Muslim union against Westernization, and on the other hand, the Japanese government promoted knowledge of Islam and connections with the Muslim world as part of a broader geopolitical strategy of “managing Muslims,” per scholar Kelly A. Hammond. According to Hammond, “Japanese militarists used their connections with the Axis as a powerful rhetorical tool to position themselves as liberators throughout Asia” and therefore justify their imperial reach.

In another new acquisition entitled Books in Tatar-Turkish Printed by Tokyo’da Matbaa-i İslamiye (1930–38), authors A. Merthan Dündar and Nobuo Misawa trace the development of the Turko-Tatar community in 1920s and 1930s Japan; provide a list of the press’s 38 publications of which they were aware; and make accessible, via DVD, digitized versions of 35 of those publications. According to Dündar and Misawa, Japan’s Turko-Tatar residents immigrated to Japan for various economic and political reasons in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Their central leader was Muhammed Abdulhay Kurbanali (1889–1972), who arrived in Tokyo in 1924 after defecting from Russia’s White Army. Between 1924 and 1931, Kurbanali helped found the Mahalle-yi İslâmiye (Islamic Foundation); an elementary school for Muslims; the Tokyo Muslim Association, for which he served as leader; and a press called Tokyo Matbaa-yi İslâmiye (Tokyo Islamic Press; Jpn. Tōkyō Kaikyō Insatsusho 東京回教印刷所), which served the immediate need of providing textbooks and other materials for the Muslim community and published numerous titles throughout the 1930s. Abdürreşid Ibrahim—who had spent five formative months in Japan in 1909—returned to Japan in 1933 with an even more vigorous critique of Christianity and Westernization, and he encountered a vibrant Muslim community in Tokyo. In 1938, the long-awaited Tokyo Mosque was established, with Ibrahim elected as imam. Hammond notes that at that time, there were about 600 Muslims in Japan.

Many scholars of Japan’s Muslim community focus on Tokyo, but Turko-Tatars and other Muslims also settled in other Japanese cities—including Kobe, Nagoya, and Kumamoto—as well as in Korea and Manchuria, colonized by Japan in 1910 and 1932, respectively. The Qur’ān with the Keijō stamp that we acquired illustrates the breadth of these networks. [1]

Arabic and Turkic Materials

Our purchases from the Tokyo Islamic Press include materials relating to religion, history, poetry, and other topics. These works were seemingly intended for religious and general educational purposes and featured a range of ornateness.

Like the deluxe Qur’ān discussed above, Proficiency in Translating the Qur’ān (1950) also features some ornate details. The work comprises a photographic reproduction of the original Turkic-language text that was published in 1907 in Kazan, Russia, as well as a printed list of the names of Japanese Muslim donors—and donation amounts in Japanese yen—who contributed to this publication. Our volume is apparently the second volume of a two-volume set and contains similar floral motifs and borders to other works in our Muslims in Japan collection.

A page filled with handwritten Arabic script shows numerical values on the left side of the page and names written on the write. Lines separate different columns.
Names of donors and their respective contribution amounts in Al-Iktan fi tarjimati al-Qur'ān

Other, more humble texts were intended for educational use. Works such as Islam Tarihi (Islamic History) and Mufassal İlm-i Hal (Manuals of Faith) express their intended audiences through notes about specific academic class years. They are simpler texts without many decorations, although handwriting provides clues of ownership and use. A marbled booklet entitled Kizlara Mahsus Milli Şiirler (National Poems for Girls)—described in the foreword as a “beautiful source for our Turkish Tatar Muslims”—shows how these educational publications, through a gendered lens, were key in helping Tatars in Japan to preserve and nourish their religious and national identities.

Two books are placed side by side. Both have Arabic text on their covers.  The book on the left has an orange cover with blue binding, while the one on the right has a greyish-blue cover with a textured appearance.
 Islam Tarih-i (Tokyo Islamic Press, 1932) and Mufassal İlm-i Hal (Tokyo Islamic Press, 1933)
A hand is shown turning the page of an old book with Arabic script. The visible page has Arabic text surroundeid by a decorative border, and there are some stains on the page indicating its age. The paper appears aged and slightly yellowed.
Kizlara Mahsus Milli Şiirler (Tokyo Islamic Press, 1936)


Japanese Materials: Primary Sources

Thus far, we have concentrated our Japanese-language acquisitions on literature published by the Dai Nippon Kaikyō Kyōkai 大日本回教協会, or Greater Japan Islam League, which Ibrahim helped to found in 1938 and which educated the public and government workers alike on Islam-related matters. Hammond notes that this organization “…enlisted academics to issue publications, translate works from Arabic and Persian, and produce a plethora of policy documents offering advice to military advisers for handling unfamiliar Muslims.” Along these lines, we acquired numerous explanatory pamphlets and other semi-ephemeral materials that the Greater Japan Islam League published around 1939. [2] These publications included such titles as “大日本回教協会の使命に就て” (The Mission of the Greater Japan Islam League); “我が南洋貿易と回教徒” (Muslims and the South Seas Trade); “回教最古の王国イエーメン国王子との談話” (Conversation with the Prince of Yemen, the Oldest Muslim Kingdom), published following the Prince of Yemen’s visit to Japan; “回教圏早わかり” (A Quick Guide to Islam); “回教圏貿易座談会” (Muslim Trade Roundtable); “世界回教徒対策の必要性に就て” (About the Necessity of Countermeasures Against Muslims Around the World); and “苦悩するソ連回教民族” (The Suffering of Soviet Muslims).

A book cover depicts a scene in a Middle Eastern market with the title at the top in Japanese text. The scene includes individuals in traditional attire and camels. The architecture of the buildings, possibly shops or homes, with arched doorways and windows can be seen in the background.
“Kaikyōken hayawakari 回教圏早わかり (A Brief Guide to Islam)” (Dai Nippon Kaikyō Kyōkai, 1939)

Interestingly, three booklets—with titles translated as “The Mission of the Greater Japan Islam League,” “South Seas Trade and Muslims,” and “About the Necessity of Countermeasures Against Muslims Around the World”—are all stamped with the Japanese words that mean “Secret: handle with caution” (秘 取扱注意). An insert in “About the Necessity of Countermeasures Against Muslims Around the World” explains the stamp, warning that it is not permitted to distribute the booklet to foreigners (or allow them to read or listen to the content), lest they misunderstand and pose obstacles to the group’s Islam-centered activities and mission.

A yellowing book cover shows Japanese characters written vertically, as well as a red stamp featuring intricate designs and more Japanese text. A barcode label is affixed to the top left corner, indicating that this item is cataloged.
Cover of Kaikyō sekai 回教世界 vol. 1, no. 8 (1939)
A worn pink slip of paper is covered in Japanese text and includes a circular logo in the center of the page.
Insert with warning accompanying “About the Necessity of Countermeasures Against Muslims Around the World”

We also acquired 21 issues of Kaikyō sekai 『回教世界』 (The Muslim World), a monthly journal published by the Greater Japan Islam League from 1939 onwards, which sought to introduce the Muslim world to the Japanese public. From its inception, this periodical was international in scope. Its first issues, for example, included photos and essays discussing Islam in China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and other geographic locales. The periodical featured serialized accounts of pilgrimage to Mecca as well as expository essays about Islam’s history, religious tenets, and key figures; Islam’s modern significance and relationship with Japan; comparisons with Christianity; reports of lectures and other local Islam-related activities; and discussions of Islam in the contexts of family, gender, and different cultural milieux.

A worn, beige-colored book cover shows bold green Japanese text indicating a title over a prominent green emblem with intricate designs inside. Smaller red text as well as two faded purple stamps also adorn the page.
Cover of Kaikyō sekai 回教世界 vol. 1, no. 8 (1939)
A yellowing page is filled with Japanese text written vertically in red ink and bordered by a red rectangle.
Table of contents of Kaikyō sekai vol. 1, no. 8 (1939)

Using the Collection

Most of our Muslims in Japan collection holdings are rare and ephemeral materials that are held in the Kislak Center and can be viewed by request in the Kislak Center Reading Room.

We also acquired several secondary sources and pictorial reprints by the Japanese scholar Nobuo Misawa, whose research focuses on Japan-Turkish relations; most of these items are in our circulating collection. In addition to the above-cited book that Misawa edited with Dündar, we acquired the following items either edited or written by Misawa: Tokio'da Mekteb-i Islamiye'nin 1927–1937 (Tokyo Muslim School Album 1927–1937, 2011), Türk-Japon ticaret ilişkileri (2011), Tatar Exiles and Japan: Kōji Ōkubo as the Meditator (2012), Album of Tatar Exiles in Interwar Japan (2014), and Bulletin (Kobe İdil-Ural Türk-Tatar Kültür Cemaati, part 1, original text no. 1-4, 2017).


Cover of the Tokyo Muslim School Album (1927-1937) with texts in English and Arabic, published by the Asian Cultures Research Institute, TOYO University. The cover features a title in large, bold English letters at the top, Arabic text and dates written in both Arabic numerals and script, and a crescent moon and star symbol. At the bottom, there’s a note indicating that this work is part of “Basic Studies about the Turkish & Tatar Muslims in Modern Japan” Project supported by TOYO University.
Tokyo Muslim School Album (1927–1937) (Asian Cultures Research Institute, Toyo University, 2011)
A page features two black and white historical photographs with captions in Arabic script, all set against a bright pink background. Both photos depict groups of people. The bottom photo shows flags behind the group.
From Tokyo Muslim School Album

To make the collection easier to find, the Penn Libraries’ metadata team has created a collection called “Muslims in Japan Collection (University of Pennsylvania).” Users can search for the collection by entering this name in the search bar in the library catalog.  

Future Directions

We are eager to continue building this collection and helping to acquire more primary sources in Arabic, Turkic, and Japanese. Given the relationship of Japan’s Tatar and Muslim community to communities in Russia and China, we plan to collaborate with the Center for Global Collections’ Chinese Studies Librarian and Slavic and East European Studies Librarian to expand the collection further and encompass Tatars across East and Central Asia.  



[1] For more information about Turko-Tatars in Korea, see A. Merthan Dündar, “Articles Published about Korean Turco-Tatars in the Magazine Yanga Yapon Muhbiri (New Japanese Courier),” Acta Via Serica 3, no. 2 (December 2018): 181–96.

[2] For a treasure trove of images related to the Greater Japan Islam League, see Waseda University’s open-access digitized collection with nearly 2000 images, “List of Photographs from the Greater Japan Muslim League.”




May 16, 2024