Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 66: “Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ”, Aug 5, 2013


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Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ
By ARUDOU Debito
August 6, 2013
Courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/08/05/issues/ol-blue-eyes-isnt-back-tsurunens-tale-offers-lessons-in-microcosm-for-dpj/
Version with links to sources

Spare a thought for Marutei Tsurunen, Japan’s first European-born naturalized immigrant parliamentarian. He was voted out in last month’s House of Councilors election.

You might think I’d call it tragic. No. It was a comeuppance.

It needn’t have turned out this way. Squeaking into a seat by default in 2001, Tsurunen was later reelected in 2007 with a reaffirming mandate of 242,740 proportional representation votes, sixth in his party. Last month, however, he lost badly, coming in 12th with only 82,858.

For a man who could have demonstrated what immigrants (particularly our visible minorities) can do in Japan, it was an ignominious exit — so unremarkable that the Asahi Shimbun didn’t even report it among 63 “noteworthy” campaigns.

However, Tsurunen offers lessons in microcosm for his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and on why Japan’s left wing was so spectacularly trounced in the last two elections.

Tsurunen became an MP partly because, as a Caucasian Newcomer, he offered protest voters something different (even visibly) from established expectations. But he wasn’t a sphinx. He said he would speak up for outsiders, promote intercultural tolerance, and support laws banning discrimination in housing and employment (New York Times, Mar. 8, 2002).

However, mere months later he distanced himself from “foreigner issues.” In a 2002 interview, he told me that his basic policy was to hitch his fortunes to the DPJ. Quote:

“There will be cases, such as international problems, where… I will have to vote along party lines, even if it is at odds with my personal convictions… After all, if I don’t follow party discipline, I will be expelled from the party. Then I won’t be able to do my job. I will maintain my ability to say my own opinion, but at important times I will be a party man. That’s how I stand.”

That’s not much of a stand. Yet as the DPJ’s fortunes rose to become a viable ruling party, Tsurunen became more invisible.

Where was Tsurunen (or his staff) when the United Nations visited the Diet on May 18, 2006, presenting preliminary findings about racial discrimination in Japan?

When the DPJ took power and began presenting significant proposals enfranchising outsiders, such as suffrage for Permanent Residents and anti-discrimination laws, where was Tsurunen when opposition debates became racialized and xenophobic?

When bigoted politicians such as Shintaro Ishihara and Takeo Hiranuma began questioning the loyalty of Japanese with “foreign ancestors” (“Last gasps of Japan’s dying demagogues”, JBC May 4, 2010), why wasn’t Tsurunen standing up for himself? After all, if not him, who? (The most vocal protests were from Mizuho Fukushima, the leader of a different party altogether.)

Not only did Tsurunen fail to influence the debate, he even relinquished control over his own public narrative and identity.

He famously gaijinized himself in the Japan Times (“Mind the gap, get over it: Japan Hands,” Dec. 28, 2010) by calling himself a “foreigner,” and telling people to accept and work with their fate as permanent outsiders.

Despite some public backpedaling and capitulation, Tsurunen’s attitude never changed, and even after twelve years in office he never tried to transcend mere first impressions of being Japan’s First Gaijin MP.

As proof, check out one of his pamphlets shortly before this election, where he even metaphorically offered to “change the color of his (blue) eyes” (“me” no iro kaete, i.e., change his mind). Now that’s what I call racialized pandering!


See full pamphlet at https://www.debito.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/tsurunenmarutei2013pamphlet.jpg

So in the end, what was Tsurunen’s agenda? Unclear, because he let others dictate it.

As did the DPJ. And that’s why they fell from power.

To give them some credit, Japan’s politics has entrenched difficulties for newcomers. The DPJ inherited a system corrupted by decades of LDP rule and patronage, firmly nestling Japan in now more than two “lost decades” of economic stagnation. Yet regime change was so inconceivable that the 2009 election had to popularize a new word in Japanese (seiken kōtai) to reflect a new party coming to power.

The DPJ also had the bad luck of the March 11, 2011 disasters happening on their watch. Given how badly Japan’s nuclear industry botched their job (plus refused to cooperate with the DPJ), this would spell doom for any party in power.

Nevertheless, here’s where the DPJ is culpable:

During its short time in power, the DPJ made some impressive policy proposals in very clear precedent-setting manifestos. The problem is that during the crucible of public debate, they didn’t stand by them.

The DPJ’s first major sign of fragility was their policy cave-in vis-à-vis the US Government over American bases in Okinawa (JBC, “Futenma is undermining Japanese democracy”, Jun. 1, 2010).

This eventually cost us our first DPJ prime minister, and gave glass jaws to future policy proposals sent into public policy brawls. Increased welfare services? Bogged down. Historical reconciliation with neighbors? Lame. Renewable energy? Nixed. Any other issues than border disputes? Weak.

Eventually, the DPJ could neither control their party narrative nor or set the public agenda. By the time PM Noda took charge, the electorate and the media were somehow convinced that a gridlocked Diet (due to the LDP’s machinations) was the DPJ’s fault!

Allowing the LDP to set the agenda is particularly fatal in a society that fixates on brands (and the LDP is THE default political brand of Postwar Japan), and generally roots for winners rather than underdogs. (After all, if the media is constantly telling you that the DPJ is going to lose, why would you waste your vote on them?)

Contrast this with how clear the LDP has been about their intentions over the past year, even if it includes erasing Postwar democratic liberalism.

This column argued last November (“If bully Ishihara wants one last stand, bring it on”) that Japan’s Right should show their true colors, so the electorate could decide if they wanted a Diet of historical revisionists, bigots, and xenophobes. The debate was indeed in technicolor. And last December, with the DPJ’s resounding electoral defeat, voters decided that xenophobia was okay with them.

Then this column argued last February (“Keep Abe’s hawks in check or Japan will suffer”) that if both Houses of Parliament went LDP in July, this would bring about radical constitutional revisions affecting civil liberties. Last month, voters apparently decided that was okay too. Thus a perfect storm of politics had completely routed Japan’s Left.

But many Leftists still deserved to lose their position in the Diet because they were too timid or disorganized to carve a space for themselves in Japan’s political narrative. We knew more about who they were not (the LDP), rather than who they were.

Similarly, Tsurunen will be remembered as a person with insufficient self-awareness of his role in Japanese politics. He openly called himself an “outsider,” then refused to fight for issues that concerned outsiders. Like Tsurunen, the DPJ ultimately accepted their fate as permanent outsiders.

So, barring an unlikely “no-confidence” vote, we have around three more years of LDP coalition rule. During this time in the political wilderness, Japan’s Left had better learn the power of controlling their own narrative, and grasp the fact that the party in power should set the terms of debate on public policy. If they ever want to be insiders again, seize the agenda accordingly.


Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now available as a downloadable e-book on Amazon. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

10 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Col 66: “Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ”, Aug 5, 2013

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I’m trying to figure out the meaning of ‘citizenship’ from the perspective of naturalized Japanese through this Finnish guy’s tale. In my impression, he did nothing more than serving as a poster boy(ahem) for naturalized Caucasian who successfully assimilated into traditional Japanese society. I don’t think he was willing to spearhead human rights agendas or cultural diversity within Japanese political system from Day 1, since I don’t see any such records in his entire career dating back to his days as Yagawara city council. I wonder his choice to serve ‘quietly’ in the Diet has something to do with his cultural origin in homogenous Scandinavian society, which might make it easier for him to conform–rather than challenge the conventional norms of dominant culture. Even so, he could have made more remarkable contributions to the Japanese politics by initiating the agendas such as equity on social welfare and public education that are exactly the strengths of his country of origin. Instead, he made his choice to ‘gaijinize’ himself—rather than find persons from DPJ, its coalition parties or even opposing party(LDP) and create a strong bi-partisanship to propose the agendas that are significant and meaningful to both Japanese and NJ. Anyway, what his tale showed us is that his presence has little impact on cultural conformity (or, insularity, you might say) of Japanese politics.

  • Winning Gold at Dressage Doesn't Count says:

    To be fair, did Tsurunen ever actually make the issue of foreigners’ rights a part of his campaign? I thought he ran more for the ecology vote. I don’t see why he should be singled out as somebody who MUST necessarily have a cultural diversity or human rights agenda. The question is, who made him a “poster boy” for successful assimilation? If the answer is that it was he himself with his silly slogan, wasn’t he simply saying, in a rather crude (trying to by cute) way that because he had a different background, he himself might do things a little differently than other Japanese politicians? How does that connect with an obligation to spearhead human rights agendas or cultural diversity policy? The problem for me is that I don’t want to assume what others should do based on their ethnic/cultural/genetic background. And when I assume that Tsurunen should stand strong for his fellow persons of non-Yamato descent, that’s exactly what I’m doing. True, Tsurunen might have made some small difference in some people’s lives, but he will not be remembered for earth shattering policy. In that sense, he is exactly the same as most that enter and exeunt the national political stage in Japan, or probably any other parliamentary democracy. Tsurunen, like most of his colleagues, was simply an ineffective politician. The only reason we’re paying him any attention seems to be because he is white. And I find that more than a bit problematic.

    — As you should. But remember, he did make the issue of foreigners’ rights a part of his campaign. As I cited within my article (the New York Times piece, remember). We’re paying attention to him because he did not deliver on his promises.

    Same as any politician, you could argue. Which means we could choose to hold any ineffective politician’s feet to the fire. I chose to hold Tsurunen’s feet, because he was a politician I knew.

    You’re the one making an issue of his skin color. I’m the one making an issue of defeated expectations based upon his own promises. Obviously I’m not alone in sharing the disappointment in his record. He was voted out very soundly.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    >As proof, check out one of his pamphlets shortly before this election, where he even metaphorically offered to “change the color of his (blue) eyes” (“me” no iro kaete, i.e., change his mind). Now that’s what I call racialized pandering!

    I didn’t get the point on this, since the Japanese statement “me-no-iro-kaete-ganbari-masu” is a colloquial sentence which is similar to “shinu-ki-de-ganbaru,” “ku-rutta-youni-ganbaru” in Japanese. It figuratively means “I will work myself to the bones”, or “I’ll knock myself out until I get tired with my eyes getting blood-shot or watery” in English. It doesn’t mean one’s eye color is gonna change as the result of his/her commitment.

    I couldn’t find the pictures that show the real color of his eyes. Does he actually have green eyes–instead of brown, as said in the article headline? If he does, the above statement makes sense to me, although I will hold either DPJ campaign organizer or digital photo technology accountable for this alleged pandering.

    — According to at least one source, Tsurunen has called himself the “blue-eyed Japanese” for quite some time now, so I’m pretty sure the pamphlet is accurate. I’m sure this imagery was done with his assent and cooperation too. It’s part of his brand.

    My point is he racialized himself for his own branding purposes without working for issues that affect people in similar circumstances.

  • @Loverila (#1) “in homogenous Scandinavian society”

    Can you elaborate on that, please? I am not sure what you mean.

  • Loverilakkuma says:


    What I mean is culture of his country of origin is considered homogenous, although Finland has Swedish and Russian influences in its history. The reason for this assumption is, I think, similarity in ethnic/cultural/genetic traits other than race (i.e.,white). It could be very tough for me to argue for cultural diversity in a country where almost 100% of population is classified as white (I don’t know how much Finland accepts ethnic minorities. Do you know?), if race or skin color stands as a prime indicator of identity.

  • @Loverila (#5) As for Scandinavia, the Fins and most other Europeans don’t consider Finland part of it – it belongs to the Nordic countries, although some argue that the southern part that was once Sweden could be counted to Scandinavia. Ethnic minorities, including non-white people, are very common in Sweden and Denmark. Hence my confusion with your sentence.
    I am not sure about the situation in Finland either, but the statistics suggest that Finland accepts ethnic minorities as well or not as other EU states, so it should theoretically far more advanced than Japan in this regard. As the world’s most embarrassing Japanophile, Breivik, says, at least Norway is already “lost” to multiethnicity.

    In any case, I wouldn’t follow your argument that Tsurunen chose to conform out of familiarity due to his cultural origins, because even if Finland is in fact more homogeneous than other European countries, it is definitely still worlds apart from, and doesn’t even come close to conformity pressure in Japan. After all it is still a Western, mainly Christian society, member of the EU, and has seen constant immigration. The English fluency level in Finland is extremely high. In short, Finnish culture is as different from Japanese culture as for example, British culture.

    I think it is rather more likely (but I am speculating here), that Tsurunen might have become a Japanophile for the same reasons as Breivik did – maybe he hated the open culture of his home country and saw Japan as a bastion of racial homogeneity where “the trains run on time” and “there is no crime”. He wouldn’t be the only one – Japan seems to be an Uopia for all sorts of Western nut cases and neo fascists, and maybe not even completely undeservedly so.

  • Well said Markus.

    The link between apologists and the far right has been a hot media topic recently and certainly this would fit that pattern. Too many Japanophiles check their Western, multi-ethnic backgrounds at the door to gain ‘favor’ with the traditionalist elite. It looks like Tsurunen sold his soul but paid the price of not really fitting in anyway.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Markus #6

    I think you’re right about Tsurunen; the Japanophile who didn’t ‘fit in’ back home, came to Japan believing all the Japan myths (‘one people, language, culture’), and his climb to political office was self-affirmation of his ‘worthiness’ amongst Japanese; ‘proof of his acceptance’. It’s a reasonable theory.
    And like all apologists, the first thing they want to do is go out of their way not to help other NJ.

    — I think we should stop speculating overmuch on Tsurunen’s mindset. We might be able to argue convincingly that as a politician he lacked conviction or courage, but less convincingly that he saw Japan as some kind of haven for semi-bigoted views.

  • Loverilakkuma says:


    I think you’re right. The reason why people hold bias toward Finland is possibly because of its geographic location in the farther east of European continent, separated from the center of EU? I have even heard of some cultural bias toward Scandinavians, in general, regarding their lifestyle (i.e., hunting, fishing, drinking– Russian cultural influence?) and characteristics behavior (i.e., shy, modest, compared to people from western Europe). I don’t know how they feel about this kind of bias, but anyway…

    Regarding Tsurunen, no, I’m not arguing that he made that choice solely out of his cultural origin. I mentioned it as one possible factor, but it’s just my speculation. Hence I said, “I wonder.” I am not convinced with that at all, either. The fact is that he left his home country more than 45 years ago for his missionary trip and lifetime commitment to his adopted country. I doubt he is aware of changes his home country has made in the last several decades, in terms of growing cultural diversity in, even though it may look subtle and minuscule to some (or most) people. My guess is that he probably had some sort of experiences in cultural diversity through his Christian missionary career, but was not much inspired to make his commitment to the realm of social justice in the first place. He couldn’t find any reason to do so for his sake. Hence, conformity sounds wise choice to him.

    >Japan seems to be an Uopia for all sorts of Western nut cases and neo fascists, and maybe not even completely undeservedly so.

    Um, I’m not sure about this. Those who choose to become Japanophile are not necessarily anti-socialist/
    anti-Marxist, neo fascists, or free market advocates, are they?

  • “Um, I’m not sure about this. Those who choose to become Japanophile are not necessarily anti-socialist/
    anti-Marxist, neo fascists, or free market advocates, are they?”

    Not all of them of course – that’s just a Red Herring. But isn’t even one ultra-right person who loves Japan for its disdain of multiethnicity one too many? Especially if it is a mass-murdering psychopath.

    I don’t even think many of those right-wingers and neo fascists have ever visited Japan, or plan to do so, they simply hold up it up as an ideal of what they heard about the country’s view on immigration and foreigners in general, and use it as an argument to point out their own countries’ “wrong ways”.

    Japan doesn’t seem to have a problem with this image. At least in this area, Japan is somewhat honest about itself. Somewhat, because the attempts at relativizing its uniquely unique xenophobia and love for quack science relating to blood heritage as being “normal” are still there of course.


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