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Cartoon war and unsolved murder

The Prophet Muhammad cartoon uproar evokes memories of 1991 murder of translator in Japan

Jakarta Post
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
By Hisane Masaki

Tokyo --- Though the violence continues to heat up over the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, it is widely seen in Japan as just a fire on the other side of the river; but it has evoked some bitter memories about The Satanic Verses murder.

Hitoshi Igarashi, Tsukuba University assistant professor of literature and translator of the novel by Salman Rushdie, was found murdered on the morning of July 12, 1991 near his office on the university campus in Ibaraki prefecture, 69 kilometers north of Tokyo. He was stabbed in the abdomen and his neck was slashed. Police found only footprints and stains of type O blood, which they believe belonged to the attacker. He was 44-years-old when he was killed. The case remains unresolved.

The Satanic Verses was first published in 1988. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's political and spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ruled that the book was blasphemous against Islam and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the death of Rushdie and all those involved in the book's publication with knowledge of its content. The Japanese translation was published in 1990.

An Italian translator of the book also suffered injuries in an attack in Milan several days before Igarashi's murder. In 1993, a Norwegian publisher was shot and severely injured in an attack outside of his house in Oslo. In Turkey, 37 people died when their hotel in Sivas was burned down by Muslims protesting against Rushdie's Turkish translator.

Several days after Igarashi's murder, an anti-Tehran Islamic group issued a statement claiming the Iranian government had dispatched an assassination squad to kill him. The Iranian Embassy in Tokyo strongly denied the allegation. To the indignation of the Japanese public, some Muslims in Japan applauded the murder and declared that even if the murder was not committed by a Muslim, God made sure that Igarashi "got what he deserved."

In Japan, the Muhammad cartoon issue has attracted a lot of media and public attention, but not as much as most other countries. That is primarily because the country has a very tiny Muslim population.

Although there is no official data, one unofficial estimate puts the number at about 200,000, of which 50,000 are Japanese that have converted.

Japan's Foreign Ministry was also quick to take a precautionary measure. It has requested that the Japanese media refrain from reprinting the cartoons. The ministry's top spokesman issued a statement on Feb. 6 expressing concern about the "difficult situation" over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in newspapers and magazines published in Denmark and dozens of other countries around the world.

Arab envoys stationed in Tokyo have lauded the Japanese government's response to the cartoon dispute.

To be sure, the Muhammad cartoon wars have not sparked violence in Japan. But for many Japanese, violence and the freedom of speech-blasphemy debate in other parts of the world have served as a vivid reminder of the killing of Igarashi at a time when their memories of the case have been fading.

Coincidentally, in July this year, the statute of limitations on the case will expire. The victim's wife, Masako, is still calling for Japanese people to remember the case to put pressure on the police. She says she hopes that the case will not fade away.

The principal religions in Japan are Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity. Most Japanese are said to be exceptionally tolerant when it comes to religious beliefs. They do not think it strange to be involved in several religions simultaneously. The birth and marriage ceremonies of most Japanese are generally in the Shinto style, while funerals are usually in the Buddhist style.

A survey conducted last summer by the largest Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun showed that 75 percent of Japanese do not believe in any particular religion, and a majority, 60 percent, do not think religion is important.

For most Japanese, Islam has become a household name after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many books about Islam have sold well in recent years. But many Japanese still do not know little more than the typical stereotypes; and that Muslims pray five times a day, refrain from pork and fast during Ramadhan.

Indifference or ignorance sows the seeds of trouble. Just a few years ago, Ajinomoto, the Japanese food-seasoning giant, got burned when it drew the wrath of Muslims in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, for allegedly using pig enzymes in its flavor enhancing products.

Some experts point out that Japanese people need to face up squarely to Islam as the nation's population has begun to shrink and the number of foreigners, including Muslims, living in Japan is expected to grow in a way that makes up for a decline in the number of Japanese.

The writer is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy.

Date Posted: 3/1/2006

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