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International relations

Malaysians enjoy Japan Bon dance, defying Islamists' call to skip

Minister had advised Muslims to avoid the festival due to its 'religious elements'

Women clad in traditional Japanese Yukata dance during the Japanese Bon Odori festival in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia on July 16.   © Reuters

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia (Kyodo) -- Thousands of Malaysians thronged a festival of Japan's traditional summer Bon Odori dance Saturday evening, defying conservative Islamists' call for Muslims to stay away.

After a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, many locals, including hijab-wearing Muslim women, turned up in kimono and "yukata," or casual summer kimono, at a stadium in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur.

The festival proceeded smoothly in a carnival-like atmosphere.

The Bon Odori dance festival has been held annually in the predominantly Muslim country since 1977 without any issue, with the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur being involved as organizers.

But it was suddenly thrust into the spotlight last month when Islamic affairs minister Idris Ahmad advised Muslims to avoid the festival due to its "religious elements." Other Islamic authorities weighed in, saying the festival has links to ancestor-worship that could lead to polytheism.

Participants perform a Japanese folk dance encircling a platform called Yagura during the Japanese Bon Odori festival on July 16.   © Reuters

It was the intervention from the Selangor state monarch, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, that cooled down the matter.

The sultan, who had attended the event in 2016, said in a statement last month that the event was merely to promote Japanese culture and there was no religious ceremony involved that could compromise the faith of those observing.

He ordered authorities not to obstruct anyone from attending and even asked minister Idris and other religious officials to observe the event themselves.

At a press conference on Saturday, Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia Katsuhiko Takahashi said Japan highly appreciates Malaysia's cultural diversity and tolerance.

"This diversity and tolerance has been an engine to promote bilateral relations in all aspects, including this Bon Odori festival," he said.

Dai Hoshiai, chairman of the organizing committee, said at the press conference that everyone, including Muslims, can join in the dance.

The controversy did not seem to dim the festivities, judging by the full-capacity crowd filling up the stadium.

"Personally, I feel this is a unique event," said Umar Hakimi, a 23-year-old interior designer who came with his kimono-clad hijab-wearing female friend. "It unites a lot of people, not just Japanese but different races and culture in one place."

He dismissed the Islamists' call for Muslims to avoid the event, saying, "As a Muslim, you are thought to embrace other culture, increase your knowledge. My advice to people who are skeptical is to come here and see for yourself."

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