Foreign-born lawmaker puts Japan’s acceptance of outsiders to the test

By Oscar Johnson

Marutei Tsurunen stands in front of the Diet. PHOTO BY TSUTOMU FU
TOKYO — Marutei Tsurunen relentlessly clawed at the doors of the Diet for a decade with two goals in mind: to get the inside scoop on politics and offer an outsider’s perspective in a land he says is far from ready to accept its foreign residents. It’s a task that Japan’s first and only foreign-born parliamentarian likens to a mission from God — literally. In fact, he left North Karelia, Finland, 40 years ago as a Lutheran lay missionary bent on helping Japan see the light.

“Of course, I’m a Christian and I still say I’m a missionary, not as a churchman but as a politician,” says Tsurunen, 67, whose mission has always been more about social practice than religious preaching. Having graduated from Finland’s Social Welfare College, he was a caseworker for a children’s home in Kyushu before forgoing his church ministry to head an English-language school. In 1992, he was elected as the nation’s first foreign-born assemblyman in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“Originally I had no interest in politics,” he confesses. “I had been wondering why I left the church and why I was here. There was very little I could do to affect society as a foreigner. Then suddenly it hit me like lightening: maybe I should try it. It took a long time but I finally found my calling.”

To be sure, the House of Councilors seat that fell to him in 2002 can be seen as nothing short of a miracle. Having made three failed bids (and another for the House of Representatives), it came only after former television celebrity Kyosen Ohashi stepped down, dramatically declaring politics too lowbrow for his own tastes. The job automatically went to Tsurunen, fellow Democratic Party of Japan member and runner-up in the 2001 election, whose close-but-no-cigar defeat he and everyone else considered the end of his political career.

Tsurunen is an unabashed Japanophile who, in addition to rendering his Finnish name, Martti Turunen, into its current Japanese form, has translated “The Tale of Genji” and other local classics into his native language. His populist tactics brought him tantalizingly close to victory in each race, and upon finally taking office he touted protecting the environment and “internationalizing” the nation as his priorities. These days, he’s homed in on sustainable agriculture as a member of the Diet’s Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and founder and secretary-general of the Parliamentarian’s League for the Promotion of Organic Agriculture. But he says his mission is not confined to these.

Task is to improve Japanese lifestyles

“I feel this society is sick in many ways,” says Tsurunen, an amiable and soft-spoken vegetarian with a grandfatherly demeanor. He lays much of the blame for today’s social ills on an increasingly popular “law of the jungle,” which he says rewards selfish ambition and ignores the less fortunate.

“Morale is down and there are many things that are unhealthy about Japanese lifestyles today. There are more than 30,000 suicides every year and maybe five times as many attempts. Many people drink a lot and eat too much. Environmentally, more chemicals are used in Japan than anywhere else. Sixty percent of our food comes from other countries — one of the highest rates in the world. That’s because we eat a lot of meat. My task is to improve our lifestyles, to make them healthier.”

That’s not to say that the nation’s self-styled “blue-eyed lawmaker” hasn’t spied a number of recent political trends that put foreigners who are in — and in close proximity to — Japan on edge. There’s an ominous rightwing shift toward deepening nationalism, he concedes. It’s one that includes fingerprinting foreigners, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s insistent public homage at Yasukuni Shrine and an education bill that mandates patriotism.

“It is a shift,” Tsurunen says, “and a very dangerous one. I’m very worried about it. It’s mainly in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, not its junior coalition partner New Komeito.” True to his calling, he broaches such issues with caution.

“A few years ago we stopped fingerprinting foreigners and I thought it was a good idea,” he explains. “In some ways it’s good now because of terrorism. But maybe 1% of foreigners entering the country are criminals, while 99% are not. To fingerprint all of them, I think, is counter to basic human rights.” Yet, it comes as no surprise to the member of a government wont to fault foreigners for its crime woes — to the extent of mulling a legal cap on their residency to 3% of the population.

Tsurunen’s more than 30 years of naturalized citizenship — if not books he’s penned in Japanese with titles such as “I Want to be a Japanese,” “Here Comes a Blue-Eyed Assemblyman” and “Blue-Eyed Diet Member Not Yet Born” — speak to his vested interest in foreigner acceptance. But he’s no longer as optimistic as when he took office in 2002.

Goal is to get right to vote for foreigners

“Well, it is still my goal — or wish — but I’m not sure I have been able to do much. For example, I am for the right of permanent foreign residents to vote,” he says of a bill now on ice that would allow them to do so in local elections. “But our party is not united on this issue. Last year, I was the leader of a committee that dealt with the issue of accepting more foreign laborers and we made some progress. But I’m not sure if it’s the best solution now. Japanese people are not ready to live with foreigners. There will be problems such as discrimination. We have some cities where 10% of the population is foreign and they already have these kinds of problems.”

Tsurunen says he and his views as an outsider are welcome in the upper house, but admits it wasn’t always so in the Yugawara assembly, a post he resigned to run for the Diet. After spending two-thirds of his life here with his Japanese wife Sachiko and two adult children, he’s “hopeful” but makes no promises.

“For foreigners this is not a very friendly country — it can be very cold. I’m one of the lucky ones.” The key, he insists both by word and example, is to learn the language and avoid retreating to the bubble of gaijin communities. “If they want to get inside Japanese society, they should try to work for this society, not just for their rights. Japanese must learn to live with foreigners, but foreigners must also learn to live with Japanese,” he says. That may also mean living with an increasingly nationalistic worldview fostered by public education.

On plans to revise the 60-year-old Fundamental Education Law to mandate “loving the nation,” Tsurunen defers to the Democratic Party line. The ruling LDP bill, which is widely expected to prevail over opposition alternatives, plays on a conservative-posited notion that occupation-era education reforms are behind national woes ranging from declining academic performance to surging juvenile crime. Critics fear it could turn back the clock to a time when loving the nation meant nosediving fighters into battleships, occupying neighboring countries or rationalizing sexual slavery for a war effort deemed unpatriotic to question.

“This Fundamental Education Law bill is very difficult,” Tsurunen says. “In our (DP) bill we say patriotism should be encouraged but not mandatory. Maybe this trend has something to do with the law on the national anthem in Tokyo,” he says of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s popular nationalist reforms. They have punished well over 300 teachers — and reportedly some parents — in the metropolis for not standing before the flag and singing the anthem, or for not encouraging students to do so, at school events.

“They’re very strict about it. In Japan the history of the flag and the anthem, which pays homage to the emperor, is unique,” he says. “I’m afraid if this new education bill gets through in its present form, then when you look at students’ records you’ll be able to say, ‘You love the government this or that much.’ That’s not good.” Recent media reports have noted that 40 to 50 schools in Saitama — citing the Ministry of Education’s current guidelines for social studies — have already started to assess sixth-graders on their demonstrated “love of the nation.”

As for Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes Japan’s war dead including convicted Class-A war criminals, Tsurunen offers a measured but candid view.

“Yasukuni Shrine very much relates to China,” he says of Japan’s emerging rival in terms of regional power and resources. “I’m a little afraid of China because it wants to control the region. The prime minister should not go to Yasukuni now — but not because of China’s protests. We must find a good solution.”

He notes that controversy still swirls over the convictions of the criminals enshrined at Yasukuni and says building a new national memorial to bypass them is untenable. “I think it would be best if we could remove them from Yasukuni. But solving this issue will not solve all our problems with China.”

Japan’s relationship with China is not the only one that gives Tsurunen pause. “I think there should also be less emphasis on our relations with the United States,” he says. It’s a recurring theme in his thoughts on diplomacy.

In July, a week after North Korea lobbed seven Scud, Nodong and Taepodong-2 missiles into the Sea of Japan, Nagatacho rang with the bullhorns of right-wing protestors calling for an attack on the Stalinist state. Tsurunen dismissed the caravan of black vans with the wave of a hand. “They’re here all the time,” he says. “I’m not worried about North Korea. If they do anything, it would be suicide. To tell you the truth, I’m more worried about what the United States will do. Japan cannot act alone. If North Korea continues to aggravate the situation too much, the United States may attack them. That would destroy them and a lot of people would die.”

Tsurunen developed a distaste for war at the tender age of 4, when his family was one of a few in their small Finnish village to escape an attack by Soviet soldiers. “Our house was in the middle of the forest so they didn’t notice we were there,” he recalls. “Yes, you could say I am a pacifist. I don’t believe war can solve anything; it just makes things worse. Of course, sometimes it’s unavoidable, such as if we are attacked and must defend ourselves.”

War-renouncing Constitution is outdated

As director of the Diet’s Research Commission on the Constitution, this informs his position on whether and how to revise war-renouncing elements of a constitution the U.S. imposed on Japan during its occupation. He says the document is outdated, and polls show 60 to 70% of the nation believes some kind of amendment is in order.

“I think under certain conditions it’s needed,” Tsurunen says. “The first article should be changed so that it mentions the Self-Defense Forces, their task to defend the nation and to help with international humanitarian efforts at the United Nations’ request. Right now, it doesn’t,” he says of the missions that Japan’s quasi military have already undertaken.

But he stresses SDF deployment overseas should only be at the behest of the U.N., not the United States, as was the case with sending troops to Iraq. He also notes that similar to the fate of the education law, there’s a need to be on guard against LDP hawks that might seek to expand the SDF’s international role.

“Our party’s idea is quite different than the LDP’s,” Tsurunen says. “They may have ideas about making Japan stronger, more independent or nationalistic but they cannot change the constitution alone. Still, we must be careful when the LDP makes their proposals.”

In this case, his faith is not so much in his party’s ability to stop such tactics as it is in the need for a referendum to change the constitution. But he’s also hopeful the day will come when the Democratic Party of Japan will break the near half-century grip the conservative LDP has had on government.

“Because there is so much corruption many people are finally anticipating a shift in power,” he says, adding it’s the most significant change he’s seen in politics since he’s been in Japan. “During the last election the opposition actually won the most votes. The LDP won the election but that was because of the proportional electoral system. For the first time, more than 50% of the voters want change.”

To that end, Tsurunen is putting the faith he has in his political calling to the test one last time in a bid to retain his seat in the 2007 upper house election. It could be his first and only outright victory in a Diet election before reaching retirement age. “The people are very interested in me,” he says of his two-hour early morning glad-handing sessions with locals at train stations. “I believe I can get it.” The result may also say a little something about how truly ready Japan is to accept their “blue-eyed Diet member”— or any other foreigner.

August 9, 2006

COMMENT: I’ve met Tsurunen on several occasions, even had a chance to talk to him one-on-one (see my October 2003 interview with him at ). I personally like the guy. I also understand that he’s trying to make his mark as a politician trumpeting more than just ethnic-rights issues (one of his biggest policy pushes is for recycling), and as a politician, he’s not in a position to please everybody.

However, I have qualms about the degree of his distancing. For example, when UN Special Rapporteur Doudou Diene came to Japan for a second time, talking about racial discrimination and the need for legislation to combat it (see ), Diene attended a 2PM meeting at the Diet’s Upper House on May 18, 2006. A few Dietmembers attended, and some of their offices sent secretaries to at least leave their office’s meishi business card behind as a sign of awareness or interest. Tsurunen’s office did neither. I find this deeply disappointing. This is, after all, a meeting with the United Nations–and on foreigner and ethnic issues. If Tsurunen’s office can overlook this, what kind of example does this set for the rest of Japan’s politicians?


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