Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kobe Mosque History (firts Mosque In Japan)

The Japanese name 'Kobe' can be translated into English as 'Gate of God', so it is no wonder that the first mosque to be built in Japan was established in the city of Kobe.

The past serves as a reminder, a lesson, and an inspiration to us all, so let us show respect to our elder brothers and sisters, for they are walking history books. This glimpse into the lives of the pioneers who established Islam and built Kobe Mosque was obtained in an interview with our oldest brother, Farid Kilky, who served on the mosque committee for 45 years, the last 20 years president. We would like to offer our sincere thanks to him for sharing with us his unique view of the life of the original Muslim community of Kobe . Thanks are also due to Imam Mohsen, because if it were not for his encouragement this story would have been lost for ever, covered by the sands of time.


The history of Kobe mosque is closely interwoven with the story of the Kirky family, who were among the Turkish-speaking Tartars from Central Asia and Russia granted asylum in Japan in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution during World War I (1914-18). Under threat of religious persecution by the communist regime the Tartars first sought refuge in Turkey to avoid the fierce purges of the Stalin's Red Army. Having obtained Turkish passports some settled as far away as Finland and many more emigrated to neighboring Manchuria . However, there was little opportunity to make a living in China , which was undeveloped at that time, so they sought asylum in Japan , where they had heard society was more technologically advanced. This was a courageous move, considering they had little money and no knowledge of the Japanese language, but the Tartars have reputation as brave men, warriors and scholars. Among them is the famous leader Salahudin al Ayoobi, who drove back the Crusaders who came to take Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Tartars have left the world a great heritage, but one their lesser known achievements is their contribution to the establishment of Kobe Mosque.

Farid Kirky was born in 1926 in Nagoya , where the Kirky family originally settled when they first arrived in Japan in 1922. There was a small community of about thirteen families that established a small school there. As his business in Nagoya was not going well his father, Hussein Kirky, decided that the future of his growing family would be brighter in Kobe , so they joined the community of two-hundred Turkish speaking Tartars, who formed the Turkish Tartar Association of Kobe. Having been forced to leave everything behind them in Russia , the Tartars were not wealthy, but they were resourceful, hard working, thrifty people, and Hussein Kirky was a shining example. He preferred walking to taking a bus and disliked wasting money on taxis. He was a devout Muslim, a kind father, a vigorous and charismatic man who quickly rose to be a prominent member of the Kobe community.




The first Muslims to settle in Kobe were traders. In the early days when their numbers were small, they would gather at someone's house to pray together. Later, in the 1920's when many wealthy Indians came they established the Kobe India Club, and prayers were held there. For larger gatherings they would hire a hall from the Tor Hotel .

By the mid-20's, there were amongst the foreign community some very prominent Indian businessmen, both Muslim and Hindu, who were successfully operating large scale businesses, mostly in textiles. Other members of the Muslim community were Arabs, including the staff of the Egyptian Embassy and there was an Egyptian butcher called Musa whose shop, which was located directly opposite the present mosque, supplied the community with halal meat, which at that time could be slaughtered on the premises. He was a great character and always wore an Egyptian fez when he was at work in his shop. He was not married and returned to Egypt after the war. On Muslim Festivals he would slaughter a cow for seven people and a sheep for three. Later, when the slaughtering of livestock was permitted only in the local slaughterhouse, this practice was stopped and instead the equivalent value in cash was sent to the needy in Muslim countries.
The thriving community began to expand and in the late 1920's there were so many Muslims that they decided it was time to build a mosque. In 1928 a committee was formed, and the many Indian and several Middle-Eastern businessmen from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who frequently traveled abroad, decided that wherever they went from then on they would ask the wealthy Muslims they met for donations to build the mosque.





It took 5-6 years to raise enough money. Finally, the president of the committee, Mr. Ferozuddin, a wealthy Indian businessman, donated the bulk of the money, 66,000 yen, which was a huge sum in those days. A suitable piece of land was purchased and on Friday 30 th November, 1934, the foundation stone was laid by Mr. Muhammad Bochia, the man who was primarily responsible for initiating and guiding the project.

The construction, by the Japanese Takenaka Construction Company took two years, and construction was supervised untiringly by Mr.Vallynoor Mohamed. The Mosque was finally opened by Mr. Ferozuddin on Friday, August 2 nd , 1935 before a large international gathering of Muslim men and women, coming from many lands, including India , Russia , Manchuria , China , Turkistan, Java , Japan , Egypt and Afghanistan . After a short speech by Mr. P.M. Master, the President of the committee, Mr. Ferozuddin opened the mosque gate with a silver key and proceeded to the minaret to give the first Adhan for the Friday Prayer. The prayer was lead by the first imam, Imam Mohamed Shamguni.

As they were still in the heat of summer, they waited until October 11 th before inviting Japanese officials and leaders of the non-Muslim community to see the mosque. About six-hundred visitors attended, and the event was followed by a great reception in the Tor Hotel . The mayor of Kobe , Mr. Ginjiro Katsuda, said in his message to the Muslim community on this great occasion that he shared the joy and satisfaction of the Muslims and hoped that the mosque would be an instrument to promote friendship among races. He added; “I feel I am expressing, in this message of congratulation, not only my own personal feelings but the feelings of all the people of Kobe . As the years have gone by Japan and Muslim countries including Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and also India, have felt closer and closer, and it is my earnest wish that this new place of worship will prove to be another strong link in the chain of Muslim-Japanese friendship.”





As Islam was not recognized as an official religion by the Japanese government at that time, the deeds to the Mosque had to be registered in the name of an individual, and Mr. Ferozuddin, who had generously donated so much of his wealth to purchasing the land, was the natural person to assume this responsibility. One of the community's first tasks after constructing the mosque was to achieve recognition of Islam as an official religion by the Japanese government, so that the Muslims can enjoy the same privileges as people of other established religions residing in Japan.

The Muslims of Kobe had raised 118,774.73 yen for the construction. Much of this money had been collected by businessmen from companies in India , and also included were generous donations from the Egyptian and Afghan consulates and the Turko-Tartar Association. The total cost of the building, School, ground, walls, furniture and outbuildings was 87,302.25 yen, and they wisely decided to invest the rest of the money in real-estate. They bought three properties. The smallest was a property in Yamato-dori, which is a parking lot today . There was a building which became the school where the young Farid Kirky studied. The largest, which was purchased from a German resident of Kobe , was a 160 tsubo plot in Kitano-cho, which included a 5-storey Ijinkan , European-style house.

Mr. Bigilitzi, another Turko-Tartar, who assumed the presidency of the mosque committee around 1938, moved into the second floor of the Kitano property with his family. The Kirky family also moved in taking the ground floor. It was just before the beginning of WWII, and the community, which at that time consisted mainly of Indians and Turkish Tartars and some Arabs, was thriving. In Ramadan, Iftar was served in the basement everyday, and Muslim Festivals, Eids were very lively events. Tables were set out in the basement and every family would contribute some food so that the locals and people who had come from further away could enjoy sharing an Eid party together, after the Eid prayer. The Tartar community was very close, and on Eids they would celebrate for three days, going from house to house visiting relatives and friends, giving presents to the children, taking care of the elderly people and serving each other tea or coffee while eating the delicious traditional Turkish sweetmeats and other traditional recipes that they had prepared especially for the occasion.





The Muedhin at that time was Ahmedy Mohammady, a Turk who came to Japan in the 1920's. He lived in the mosque and took the responsibilities of caretaker, cleaner, and gardener very seriously. He was very strict with the children and would not allow them to play or make a noise in the mosque. He would stop young women from bringing babies into the mosque, because he was concerned that when they put them down so that they could pray, they might soil the carpet. Even in his old age in the 1980's and 90's, he would still climb the minaret to call the Adhan (Call to prayer). However, the local community finally requested that this practiced be stopped as the noise was disturbing the non-Muslims. After that, the adhan was only pronounced in the mosque and amplified with a small speaker. Ahmedy Muhammady lived to be 102 years old, may Allah have mercy on him.

When the first Imam of Kobe Mosque, Imam Shamguni passed away in 1938, Hussein Kirky senior was the natural choice to take the position of honorary imam until the next imam arrived. However, the next imam never did arrive, and as imam, Hussein Kirky continued to lead the prayers for 40 years. He was loved by all the community, for whom he cared as if they were his own family.
Farid Kirky, having grown up in Kobe as the son of the honorary imam, was very much in the center of the community. He studied for 5 years in the Turkish school, next to the mosque, where the students would pray together and spend two hours every day studying Arabic, classical and modern Turkish, in addition to regular subjects.

In 1939, World War II began, and after Pearl Harbor, when Japan became involved in the war, the Indian community evacuated, and many of the Tartars moved away too. First the Americans bombed Tokyo and Yokohama , and then they started to fire-bomb the shipyards of Akashi . Slowly, the sound of the bombs drew nearer to Kobe , and it was time to evacuate the mosque.

To prevent fires and to protect the beautiful parquet floors against incendiary bombs, they were covered with oil paper, then old tatami, and finally a foot of sand, so the Muslims who remained in Kobe could not pray in the mosque during the war. In the 1943, the mosque was commandeered by the Japanese navy who needed to store some special equipment in the basement. The committee was never told exactly what this equipment was but they had no choice but to agree, and in any case the mosque could not be used. It must have been important as there were always around ten Japanese soldiers on guard outside the mosque which was used by the military until the end of the war.

One of our Japanese visitors kindly sent us this picture taken at the end of WWII, from his grandfather's collection. Looking from Mt.Rokko you can see the mosque standing firm in the foreground surounded by the ruins caused by the Allied bombing raids on the city.
In 1947, after the war ended, the Muslims gradually started coming back to Kobe . Many Tartars came from China , and the Tartar community grew to about 360. The Indian businessmen and their families began to return, only to find many of their homes had been completely devastated by the Allies' incendiary bombs.

Kobe Mosque was returned to the Muslim community. By the grace of God, it was still standing, but there were some cracks in the outer walls and they were all blackened by smoke. Moreover, the intense heat of the fires caused by the incendiary bombs had melted and destroyed all the windows and the wooden school building and washrooms next to the mosque were completely destroyed.

This picture of Kobe Mosque, was taken in 1945 after the bombing of the Second World War. It was considered a safe haven by the Japanese miliary, who would shelter in the basement during Allied bombing raids.

Unfortunately no original plans remain today as the company offices were destroyed and the blue-prints were lost during the war. Many years later, when the company was requested to give an estimate to extend the mosque, they could not find any records or plans of their work.
Oil rich nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were requested to help, and Kuwait immediately donated about 2,000 pounds sterling which was used to restore the mosque. Glass for the new windows was imported from Germany . Abdul Hadi Debbs, a prominent committee member and wealthy business man, who had come to Japan in 1935 soon after the mosque was completed, helped with the restoration and Mr. Al Bakir donated the chandelier and paid for the air-conditioning system to be installed.

The Muslim school had been destroyed by fire bombs and as the community began to grow again, so did the need for a place to educate their children, so they began collecting money to build a new school. After 3 years, the Turkish community had collected about 1.3 million yen, which was enough to buy a piece of land next to the mosque. This 150 tsubo plot where the parking lot is today had been a foreigner's house before it was destroyed in the war. The land was purchased and a school was built on it. It had a large hall and there was a place for women upstairs. A small building for toilets and wudu was also constructed behind the mosque. Some of the women of the Turkish community, including Farid Kirky's sister, began to teach there, and Farid's son and daughter both learned to speak Turkish and Arabic there.

As the community was growing older, so the need for a graveyard was growing. Before the present Foreigners' Cemetery was opened on Mt. Rokko , the first Muslim graveyard was located on the mountainside about one kilometer from the present Shin Kobe station next to a temple in Kasogano Street . Later, Farid's mother, Zahra Hasen Kilky was buried there. When the foreigners' cemetery was completed, all of the 50 or 60 Muslims' remains were moved there. Imam Hussein Kirky personally supervised this work every day for several months. He would be very careful with the remains and treat them with great respect and pray for the deceased. The site of these graves is on the right a little down the hill from the present graveyard.

Meanwhile, Mr. Farid Kilky worked hard and established his place in the business community. At one time he held the franchise for Ford motor cars, and even met with Henry Ford himself on several occasions. Mr. Ford could never remember his name and frequently addressed him as the ‘Turk'. Farid was too polite to point out that his true ancestors were the Tartar warriors of the Steppes. Kirky-san became a well-known figure in Kobe , respected and loved by everyone he met, Japanese and foreigners.

The new Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry, tasked with rebuilding Japan's economy helped Japanese trading companies to establish themselves and as the grew larger and larger during the 1950's they began to take over the export trade. Sadly, companies with smaller working capitol could not compete, Muslim trader's businesses began to decline, and many of the Tartars returned to Turkey or moved to the USA and Australia . The Kirky's neighbor, Mr. Bigilitzi, who had served the community as the second president of the mosque committee until the 1960's could no longer continue in Japan . When the Biglitzi family moved eventually moved out, the large five-storey Kitano house became too big for one family, and so the Kirky family moved out too and rented a smaller house. When Mr. Biglitsy left, Mr. Estarco, also a Tartar, who had been the secretary of the mosque since the beginning was promoted to the post of President and Farid Kilky also became a committee member around this time.

Soon only a handful of families, including the Kirkys were left in the city that they loved. Farid was running his car business. Unfortunately, he too became a victim of the expansion of large Japanese companies, and he sold his franchise for Ford Motor Company to the Kintetsu Company of Japan . However, he continued to run the yard which employed around 200 workers.
As the community was shrinking, so was the number of students in the school, and the building, which due to a shortage of funds had been constructed as cheaply as possible, was getting run down. Eventually it was rented out to a company for storage. Finally the building became too old and it was pulled down and the land was given over to the mosque and used for parking.

In 1978 Mr. Estarco died, and Farid Kirky, who was now the senior member of the committee, took over as president.

In 1984, after leading a vigorous and healthy life, Imam Hussein Kirky became ill at the age of 84. He was found to have chest cancer, and after receiving and operation he lived on for another two years. He passed away in 1986, and is buried in the Muslim section of the Foreigners' Cemetery on Mount Rokko , may Allah have mercy on him.

At this time, two Filipino Muslims Mahid Mutilan and Yahya, who had been educated at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo , came to Kobe under the sponsorship of the Libyan Government, which had sent them to do missionary work in Japan . Mahid, the senior of the two missionaries, assumed the position of temporary Imam. Yahya acted as muedhin and taught Quran recitation and Arabic in the mosque school.

In the early 1980's the Kitano building was lying vacant, and as land tax was getting expensive the committee decided to rent it as a dormitory to Kobe Women's College next to the Mosque. It was used by the college for 2-3 years but then after an inspection the Kobe fire-department declared it unsafe because due the effects of subsidence and to its advanced age many of the doors and windows were stuck. In those days, the government did not offer any financial assistance for the renovation of private property, and as it would cost too much to repair, it was once more left vacant. Eventually it became to costly to pay tax on the site, and in the late 1980's it was decided to demolish the building. On hearing this, the Kobe City Council asked the mosque committee to donate it to the city, because of its unique and historical design. The committee agreed and it was moved piece by piece at a cost of 25 million yen to Sorakoen, a large park of more than 10,000 tsubo which had been the property of a previous mayor of Kobe , some 100 years ago. It still stands there today, restored to its former glory.
The temporary imam, Mahid Mutilan returned to the Philippines in 1988, where he built an Islamic school, and eventually became the governor of a province in Mindanao . In Mahid's absence, Yahya assumed the position of temporary imam. Then al-Azhar asked the committee if they would like them to send an imam from Egypt . They accepted, and Imam Muhammad arrived in around 1993.

The Kitano site, which had been leveled, remained empty for 10-15 years, because the mosque had no money to develop it. However the land tax on this valuable piece of ground was a heavy burden on the mosque finances, and the committee decided to make a deal with the city to reduce these expenses. In return for allowing the city to use the land free of charge as a children's park, the mosque was exempted from paying land tax on it, which was a very convenient arrangement since they could not use it anyhow at the time. The city put a slide, a roundabout and some swings on it and it continued to be a children's park for several years.

During the 1990's Mr. Kirky, due to his advancing age, passed the presidency to another committee member, Mr. Fouad Debs, a wealthy Lebanese-born Syrian textile trader and the owner of several properties in downtown Kobe . His father, Abdul Hadi Debs was a respected member of the Muslim business community, and Ezzat Debs was one of the original donors of Kobe Mosque. His son Fouad was widely respected for his business acumen, generosity, and religious devotion. He had memorized a great deal of the Holy Quran which he loved to recite, and he would lead the taroweeh prayers during Ramadan and act as imam when the occasion arose. When the mosque committee decided that the outbuildings of the mosque needed replacing, Mr. Debs donated 50 million yen towards its construction, and in 1992 the Kobe Mosque Cultural Center housing the washing facilities, classrooms, offices, library and apartments was finally completed at a cost of 110 million yen.

The Great Kobe Earthquake occurred on January 17, 1995 at 546 a.m. in the southern part of Hy?go Prefecture and lasted for approximately 20 seconds. It devastated the whole city of Kobe . About five-thousand people lost their lives and 35,000 were injured. 180,000 buildings were damaged and 300,000 people were left homeless. However Kobe Mosque, owing to its basement and structure, was able to endure through this terrible earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter magnitude scale and 6.8 on the Moment magnitude scale. It is astonishing to note that only the Mosque survived in the center of the city, while buildings on either side were completely destroyed. This miracle took vital importance among the Japanese and the Muslims, was widely covered by the media, and the mosque became a refuge for the survivors amongst the Muslim community, some of whom had lost their homes.

As land prices rose, the property became more valuable and consequently the land tax due on it increased rapidly during the ‘Bubble economy'. Some income was derived from the parking facilities, but so many problems also arose from misuse by the Muslim visitors, who especially on Fridays impeded the use of the parking spaces by its regular Japanese tenants. After serious deliberation, the committee decided to lease the land to a company specializing in automated parking lots in the city which was reliably taking care of Mr. Fouad Debs's land in the city. This wise move has continued to supply the mosque with 550,000 yen each month of valuable income to cover its expenses.

One day when Mr. Farid Kirky was preparing to transfer the deeds of the parking lot into the mosque's name, he noticed while checking the papers that the deeds to the Mosque were still registered in Mr. Ferozuddin's name. Such a long time had passed and no one who had been present during that time was in the committee, so nobody imagined that the mosque was not actually the designated owner of the property. The committee tried to have the deeds changed, but legally this was not possible without Mr. Ferozuddin's agreement. They contacted his family and asked him to come to Japan but he wouldn't come. They were anxious to resolve this matter so they discussed the issue with their lawyer who recommended that they negotiate through the foreign office. This made it possible for them to order Mr. Ferozuddin to return, and he agreed to transfer the deeds on the condition that his son was installed as a permanent, though absent member of the mosque committee.

Imam Muhammad completed his 2-year term as Imam with al-Azhar, but as he had taken a Japanese wife, he decided to stay in the country which he loved and continue to serve the community. He was assisted by some rich people from the Gulf who continued to pay his salary. He was loved by the community, and continued to lead the prayers until he became seriously ill. He was diagnosed as having throat cancer, which was in an advanced and incurable state. He was admitted to Kobe General Hospital , where he was cared for cared for by his wife and frequently visited by the community until it was clear that he could not recover. He was transported home to Egypt to say farewell to his family. Sadly, soon after returning to Egypt and he passed away there, may Allah have mercy on him.

During this time, Al-Azhar University sent Imam Mohsen Bayoumy from Egypt . He arrived in January, 2000 and after a year alone in Japan he was joined by his wife and three children to stay with him in the mosque. He was loved and respected as wise scholar and devout imam, and after his contract with the University ended he was requested to remain in Japan to teach continue to teach the community. He accepted and continues to live in Kobe , supporting his family on a modest stipend provided by the mosque committee.

Yahya stayed on as muedhin, teacher and temporary Imam until he reach the age of sixty and was retired by the Libyan Government in 2002 He returned to the Philippines where he had constructed a mosque and Islamic school, and continues to teach there.

The expenses of the mosque continued to increase, and as it grew old, repairs were needed to the roof and water pipes. Taxes also increased. To cover this burden, in 2004 Mosque President Fouad Debs generously put up the money to construct a small rental apartment complex on the site. This new property now brings in some income to help maintain the mosque structure, which is at the time of writing over 70 years old and in need of repair. Towards the end of his life he suffered many serious illnesses, and finally passed away in 2005 while visiting his family in Lebanon . After Mr. Fouad passed away, Mr. Yusuf Badhelia, A merchant from a wealthy Indian family, became president of the mosque committee, and Fouad's son, Soubhi Debs continues to serve on the committee today.

Mr. Farid Kirky continued to serve as a member of the mosque committee for 45 years, eventually becoming the mosque president in the late 1970's. He retired recently due to advancing age, but still remains a strong guiding influence on the committee and an inspiration to the community who love and respect him. He has been a great ambassador for Islam in Japan , frequently interviewed by local TV companies and newspapers about the history of the community.

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