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Japan reaches out to devout travelers with religious accommodations

Prayer rooms and halal food are part of a drive to attract 40 million foreign visitors by 2020

Tokyo Station is one of the main gateways to the Japanese capital.

TOKYO -- A prayer room opened in Tokyo Station on Monday, the latest effort by Japan to attract more Muslims, Buddhists and other religiously observant tourists from Asia.

The 8-sq.-meter space is located in the station's travel service center. The space, open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., is small, with room for two people to pray simultaneously. But it has a faucet to allow Muslims to perform wudu, or ritual washing before praying.

This is the first prayer room set up at an East Japan Railway station. Similar facilities are in place in Osaka Station, in western Japan. All rooms are open to people of all faiths. The move comes as other countries do more to meet growing travel demand from large, predominantly Muslim countries in Asia such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

"This will be a step toward understanding different cultures," said Masaki Kakizaki, a professor at Temple University Japan. Japanese are largely unfamiliar with Islam, as Muslims make up less than 0.1% of the population.

Seizing an opportunity

Amid a rising anti-Muslim backlash in the West, brought on by fears of terrorism, a growing number of Muslims, especially young people, are looking to Japan for opportunities to travel and study, Kakizaki said.

The effort to attract more Muslim travelers dovetails with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to make Japan a top tourist destination. His goal is to double the number of foreign visitors to Japan to 40 million per year by 2020.

A prayer room for people of all faiths opened in Tokyo Station on Monday.

People from muslim countries make up around 3% of foreign visitors to Japan, but their numbers are rising fast. In 2016, tourists from Malaysia rose 29%, while those from Indonesia jumped 32%.

At the Takashimaya department store chain, purchases by Malaysian tourists increased 15%, and those by Indonesians climbed 9%, in the 12 months ending February. This compares with a gain of 5% for American tourists and declines in purchases for tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Takashimaya set up a prayer room at its outlet in Tokyo's Shinjuku district in 2014, making it the first Japanese department store to have such a facility.

All major international airports in Japan now have prayer rooms. Tokyo's Haneda Airport has two, for instance, which 14,000 people used in the 12 months through March, according to the airport's operator.

Muslim travelers are beginning to notice the efforts to accommodate them. Japan's ranking in the Global Muslim Travel Index improved to the sixth place from the eighth in 2017 among countries outside the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, according to MasterCard and Crescent Rating -- the publishers of the index.

The top three on the list are Singapore, Thailand and the U.K., the same as last year. The index measures friendliness to Muslim tourists, including availability of halal food, safety for travelers and access to places of prayer.

Japan still lags behind some countries, such as Australia, in adopting Muslim-friendly tourism policies, said Tomomi Nagai, an analyst at Toray Corporate Business Research. She said Japan should do more to develop such tourism, noting Malaysia and Indonesia -- populous nations with growing middle classes -- will become "very promising" tourism markets in the future.

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