Debito cited in article, “Japan is becoming more diverse. Will its government?” Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2024. As are several other naturalized and elected Japanese citizens originating from Canada, Uzbekistan, Syria/Egypt, and Bolivia.


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Hi Blog.  What follows is an insightful article on how NJ are becoming Japanese to the point where they’re getting elected at the local level.  Meaning it’s possible.  This is, in’s view, a good thing, because having diverse voices enfranchised in a democracy does matter at the policymaking level.  Groundwork for this article also inspired one of my recent SNA columns, where the reporter asked me if this was real evidence that fundamental changes were afoot.  The exchange went something like this:

Reporter:  “I think Heese, Orzugul, Inoue, and Sultan offer interesting insights into the shifting demographics of Japan.  But none of them are Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino—the four groups who make up the most non-Japanese residents.  Do you think it is easier for certain types of Non-Japanese to gain power and acceptance in the country?”

Debito:  “I don’t know.  There is certainly a hierarchy of treatment based upon country of origin and skin color in Japan, especially in naturalization processes.  But certainly people of Chinese and Korean ancestry have been elected in the past.  Probably when other ethnic groups aren’t overworked, underpaid, and restricted to unstable visa statuses, we’ll see more of them naturalizing and running for office.”  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.


Japan is becoming more diverse. Will its government?
By Takehiko Kambayashi, Christian Science Monitor April 12, 2024.  Article with photos of the interviewed at:

A former swimming instructor from Egypt is helping revive the sleepy mountain town of Shonai, Japan. About 200 miles away, a Canadian polyglot is singing the praises of Tsukuba city. And Orzugul Babakhodjaeva is standing onstage at a food festival outside Tokyo, decked in a traditional Uzbek dress, expressing her desire to “create a society where diversity is accepted.”

The first-term city councilor in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward – who does not use her family name, and campaigned simply as “Orzugul” – is one of a small but growing number of foreign-born local government members bringing fresh perspectives to an island nation long known for its homogeneity. These lawmakers are often multilingual and have rich international work experience. Their platforms have resonated with many Japanese voters, as well as with a growing population of non-Japanese residents.

The number of non-Japanese residents jumped 10.9% from 2022 to 2023, reaching a record 3.4 million, as the country struggles to address a chronic labor shortage driven by its aging population. Last year, 8,800 residents were naturalized as citizens, allowing them to vote in elections.

Shifting demographics are challenging Japan’s reputation as a homogeneous society – and creating unprecedented openings for immigrants to participate in local government.

Arudou Debito, author of the book “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” says the election of immigrants to local government is “very important” for Japan’s democracy.

“Non-Japanese residents’ viewpoints are woefully unseen in Japanese society. They’re treated as ‘guests,’” explains Mr. Arudou, who is a U.S.-born naturalized citizen. “The fact that former non-Japanese residents are getting elected means they aren’t ‘guests,’ meaning Japanese society can trust immigrants with public policymaking power.”

Outsiders’ lens

About 30 miles northeast of Tokyo, first-term Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly member Heese Jon cuts a dapper figure as he drives a reporter around the city of Tsukuba, boasting about its 360 parks and its culinary delights. The city also hosts the University of Tsukuba, the headquarters of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and other leading institutes.

“We are sitting at the heart of Japanese research,” says the native Canadian from the driver’s seat of his electric vehicle.

About 12,700 non-Japanese residents from 144 countries live in Tsukuba, making up 5% of its population, nearly twice the national rate of 2.8%.

Before his victory in the 2022 assembly election, Mr. Heese had already served four terms as a Tsukuba city councilor and won the most votes for three straight elections. He credits his popularity to his passion for women’s issues and the environment, as well as to his fresh face.

“The incestuousness of the political scene is really stunning,” he says. Especially in smaller cities, politicians “are almost all related to each other.” On billboards displaying local candidates, he stands out.

“One thing they can say is, ‘This is not someone who can be bribed,’” he says.

Tsukuba resident Sciortino Atsuko, who is married to an immigrant, believes that local government needs to reflect the city’s diversity. She says Mr. Heese, being married to a Japanese woman and raising kids in Tsukuba, understands the experience of being in an interracial family.

“Jon has long supported a non-Japanese community here, and played a role as a bridge with the government,” she says. “When non-Japanese speakers were in trouble at shops or gyms, Jon was the one who helped them out. … Jon has brought the needs of the minority to the table.”

Mr. Heese, who speaks five languages, says his long-term goal is to “bring politicians from all over Japan to foreign countries and be their guide. They do not look beyond their communities very far.”

Bolivian-born Inoue Noemi, a fourth-term member of Tokyo’s Sumida City Council, agrees that Japan can be an inward-looking country. “We need to go global,” she says.

Ms. Inoue worked at Bolivia’s central bank and the United Nations Development Program before moving to Japan in the late 1990s with her husband, a former member of parliament.

Inoue Noemi, a fourth-term member of Tokyo’s Sumida City Council, is from Bolivia. When she first came to Japan in the 1990s, women’s low social status was “the most shocking issue,” she recalls.

Before her first stint in local government in 2011, Ms. Inoue founded the Japan-Latin America Friendship Association in Tokyo to develop cultural, social, and business relations overseas. She also taught Spanish and still sees language barriers as a big problem.

Non-Japanese residents often have trouble communicating with police and hospital staff, she says. When facing problems from bullying to domestic abuse, few know what to do or where to go. Such information is not readily available in their languages.

Back in 2021, Sultan Nour was seriously considering leaving the northern town of Shonai, where he’d moved five years prior to be closer to nature. Like many rural areas in Japan, Shonai had struggled with severe depopulation, and no longer had any pediatricians. Mr. Sultan, who was born in Syria and grew up in Egypt, had two small children to care for.

But then he stumbled upon news of an upcoming by-election for the Shonai Town Assembly, and decided to go for it. He won that race and the next one, securing reelection with the highest vote count of all the candidates.

“I have long wanted to contribute to society,” says Mr. Sultan, who had taught English, managed an Arabic restaurant, and worked for a construction company in Japan before running for local office. He also works as an Arabic interpreter for authorities.

Change came in December 2023: Thanks in large part to continued pressure from Mr. Sultan and other parents, Shonai’s main hospital now has a pediatrician four days a week.

It’s not the end of Mr. Sultan’s mission in Shonai.

Japan’s population is aging rapidly, and like other policymakers who face the daunting task of reinvigorating Japan’s rural towns, Mr. Sultan emphasizes the need to “put more efforts into child care support, measures for the falling birthrate, and job creation.”

Ms. Inoue sees immigrants as a key part of the solution – but they need support. “Japan needs to have good immigration law to support foreigners to find a job and live a decent life,” Ms. Inoue says. “Now foreigners come, but nobody wants to rent a house to them.”

Her comments echo the experience of Orzugul, who was rejected by 53 companies when she first arrived in Japan, mainly because she did not graduate from a Japanese university. Later, she found it almost impossible to rent an apartment or business space in Tokyo without her Japanese husband present.

Despite the discrimination she faced, “I love Japan deeply,” says Orzugul. “That’s why I cannot look the other way. I would like to help open up doors to those who seek opportunity in this country.”

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