What do you think of when you hear the word 'Muslim'?
In July 2017, I moved to Malaysia. One big reason was because I took a strong interest in Muslim culture, which I only knew about through media reports. Now, I’m inspired daily by Muslim history and culture, especially its art and architecture. But, what first got me interested was this video that appeared in my timeline a couple of years ago:
The video features American Muslim millennials, presenting them as “Mipsterz”—a portmanteau of “Muslim” and “hipster”—and showing them in their daily lives (in the same way, hipster women wearing hijabs are referred to as “hijabsters”). Having limited knowledge of Muslims, it was quite a culture shock for me to see these young women in colourful hijabs skateboarding, riding a motorcycle, and enjoying sports. Though there seemed to be controversy about whether this video was commodifying religion, for me, it was valuable content that triggered my strong interest in the Muslim lifestyle and way of thinking that made me realize that I was missing a very important part of the world in not knowing about their culture.
When I showed this video to artists in Japan and my friends in the Japanese ad industry, they were as surprised as I was to learn about a world they hadn’t known about and were inspired by this new culture, which intensified my interest even more.
The Muslim population is growing at twice the speed of the world’s
According to the US research company Pew Research Center, the world’s Muslim population is around 1.8 billion (as of 2015), which amounts to one-fourth of the world’s population. Moreover, they are also the fastest-growing population, increasing at about twice the speed of the world’s. This trend is expected to continue, and by 2070, their number will equal that of Christians. By 2100, they are projected to become the world’s largest religion. While we imagine the Middle East when we hear the word 'Muslim', in actuality, around 1 billion, or 62% of the entire Muslim population, reside in Japan’s neighbouring region of Southeast Asia. And did you know that the Muslim youth of this region today have a very strong interest in Japan?
Japan: The country they want to visit next
The Mastercard-HalalTrip Muslim Millennial Travel Report 2017 (MMTR2017) indicates that the number of Muslim travelers, which was around 25 million in 2000, will increase to more than 150 million by 2020, and tourism spending rising to US$300 billion (30 trillion yen) by 2026. The report also shows that, among the Muslim millennial travelers, Japan has been chosen as the third most popular destination after Malaysia (No.1) and Indonesia (No.2).
In the top two-ranked countries, Muslims make up more than half the population, which means they offer an environment that’s comfortable and convenient for Muslims, including a rich variety of halal options and a number of mosques and prayer rooms. As a non-Muslim destination, Japan is at the top of the list. For our country, it’s a great opportunity for tourism and business in general, but more than that, I feel that it’s a trend that Japanese people—especially in their 20s and 30s who will be leading the country in the future—should personally take note of. Because the growth of the Muslim market is an undeniable fact, the Japanese government and businesses are working quickly to prepare infrastructure that’s friendly to Muslim businesses and travelers. However, in terms of knowledge and attitude toward Muslim culture, Japanese people still have a long way to go. Most people have no more information except the limited and negative ones they see on the news every day.
People have the right to choose whatever information they wish to consume, but when you consider that as many as one in four Muslim youths are interested in visiting Japan, isn’t it missing a great opportunity to experience and learn, both on a business and personal level, if we remain ignorant of how Muslim people think and live? According to the previously mentioned study by the Pew Research Center, the same situation is occurring in the US, where limited information provided through the news is creating a distorted image of Muslims.
Brands casting a spotlight on Muslim culture
Last year, Nike debuted sportswear for Muslim women called 'Pro Hijab'. Though I am neither a Muslim nor a woman, as a sports fan, I thought this move on Nike’s part was incredibly cool. At the same time, I realized, for the first time, that Muslim women were just like me and wanted to enjoy sports with smart-looking sportswear that made them feel pumped. This fact shouldn’t have come as a surprise, of course, but I didn’t feel the reality of it until that moment. It made me like the Nike brand even more. In recent years, numerous other brands, like Gucci and Uniqlo, have also been actively developing products and communication aimed towards Muslim consumers. In an environment where information that lets us deepen our understanding of Muslim culture is overwhelmingly lacking, it is very meaningful for brands that we love to cast a spotlight on how Muslim people think and live.
Presenting the truth about Muslim youth
One of my big missions in moving to the Malaysia Office as a Japanese creative director was to learn about Muslim culture. Having lived here for a while now among Muslim people, I’ve come to think that it isn’t enough to just learn about their culture—I also have to spread knowledge in order to bring the people of Japan and other non-Muslim countries closer to this world. In an age of information overload, this must be done in an organic way to be effective; it can’t be just a presentation of cold facts and history. I began thinking about how I could introduce the real, everyday lives of Muslim people in an interesting way, at times weaving it into stories about art and sports.
This is how I came to launch a special team called MUSLIM NEXT with my Muslim colleagues in McCann’s Asia-Pacific offices. The team will focus on Muslim youth and will provide client services, conduct research, and develop products and services. Furthermore, in future articles of this column, the members of the MUSLIM NEXT team will be shedding light on the truth of Muslim millennials. I hope to show commonalities and differences where we can learn from them, and what to be careful of in communication, while also presenting Muslim perspectives on various topics, such as business, culture, and lifestyle. I also hope to ask experts and professionals outside of McCann to contribute their writings to provide the people of Japan and other non-Muslim countries with a more multi-dimensional understanding of the truth about Muslim millennials.
Shun Matsuzaka is digital creative director at McCann Kuala Lumpur, and founder of McCann Millennials Asia-Pacific.