CHIBA, Japan (AP) — Yohei Matsuyama breaks his daylong Ramadan fast with chopsticks. He's seated on the floor at a narrow table with a dozen other Japanese Muslim men and boys as they eat "gyudon," a dish consisting of rice topped with beef.
These Japanese Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan. The dawn-to-dusk fasting, which is an exercise in self-restraint, is intended to bring the faithful closer to God.
"Praying is very important for me. Praying is more important than work," said Matsuyama, 31, who does postdoctoral research on the history of Islamic thought at Tokyo University. He lives with his wife and 8-year-old daughter, to whom he teaches Arabic. His family is all Muslim.
Shinto and Buddhism are the predominant religions of Japan. The Japan Muslim Association, of which Matsuyama is the director, puts the number of native Japanese Muslims in the country at around 10,000.
Matsuyama's interest in religion began early. In junior high school, he was influenced by the Bible and considered himself a Christian. But he changed his mind a few years later, converting to Islam at the age of 18.
"I read the basic teachings of Islam on the Internet and thought that's the ultimate religion for me. So I decided to convert," he said.
"Perhaps I was a bit different from the average Japanese," said Matsuyama, who is also known by his Muslim name, Mujahid.
"My family (was) surprised about my conversion," he said. "But my family is open-minded."
Each day this week, The Associated Press will focus on a Muslim devotee living in the minority in the Asia-Pacific region, illustrating what the fasting month of Ramadan means to the Muslim community in that country.