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Introducing a Way of Life

Akmal Abu Hassan was recognized in 2012 for his achievements as an exchange student in Japan under Malaysia’s “Look East Policy.” After many years of experience living in Japan, he believes that providing a proper understanding of halal, which is garnering more attention in Japan, is the key to successfully building a halal market here.

Interest is growing in the business of halal products. It has been twenty-five years since Akmal Abu Hassan, the president of Malaysia Halal Corporation and representative director of the Muslim Professional Japan Association, came to Japan as an exchange student. Through business and education, he is trying to widen Japan’s understanding of halal—which, according to Islamic law, broadly refers to any object, food, drink or action permissible to use, consume or practice—an essential component to a broader understanding of Islamic culture.

“Under former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad’s ‘Look East Policy,’ I passed the exam for a nationally funded scholarship and studied abroad at Gunma University in 1990,” Akmal explains. “I had never been to Japan, but as I interacted with the locals I came to love this country, so I continued my career here.”

Akmal knew he wanted to start his own business one day, but joined a major Japanese bank first. He later moved to the Malaysian Ministry of International Trade and Industry before coming back to Japan when he joined the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation’s Osaka office in 2005. This experience gave him wide-ranging exposure to the realities of agriculture, stock raising and small and medium enterprises in western Japan.

“They produce great products, but they don’t sell well,” he notes. “Focused only on the domestic market, these producers were all affected by the contracting market caused by the economic downturn and shrinking population. They couldn’t sell overseas because they lacked name recognition, nor did they know how to go about it. I kept coming across this story, so I took it upon myself to bring Japanese products overseas, since their quality and craftsmanship is indeed recognized.”

Malaysia Halal Corporation, which he founded in 2010, primarily sells Japanese cosmetics, health foods and other foods to the Malaysian market. The raw ingredients and production methods must meet the halal standards that Muslims scrupulously observe, so Akmal’s position as someone deeply intimate with Japanese customs and habits and who himself observes halal brings an added advantage to his business.

“Japan is a mature society with a developed market, so its products and services are totally robust,” Akmal states. “Frankly speaking, this is not an easy market for a foreigner to break into. Despite that, I started my business in Japan because I highly value the Japanese spirit of respect for others and the ethos of giving back, acting justly, and valuing connections. As a business manager, it is appealing to work with Japanese personnel who are so scrupulous about their work, upstanding, and enthusiastic about their employer. It makes doing business easier.”

East Asia’s population continues to climb, and of the 580 million people there, 46 percent are Muslims. While there is deep interest in that market and the word halal often appears in the media, Akmal says that what Japan needs now is not more halal products, but a deeper understanding of what halal is. Japan is carrying out initiatives and holding study sessions to increase its awareness of halal.

To that end, he gives seminars to government offices and corporations. “With an insufficient understanding of halal practices,” he observes, “simply adding more products to the pile will not do. A proper understanding would make it clear what types of products and services halal customers actually need, allowing us to build a true halal business that does not fizzle out as a fad. The Muslim market is vast, so making inroads there could potentially be a shot in the arm for the Japanese economy. That is why I hope to encourage more Japanese people to understand about halal.”

Akmal feels strongly about both Japan and Malaysia, and does not merely aim for market expansion: he wants to vitalize halal business based on true understanding.