Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ


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 re-elected 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 (The 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 the point that it began to look like 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, to present their preliminary findings about racial discrimination in Japan?

When the DPJ took power and began presenting significant proposals to enfranchise 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 — until very recently — 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,” Zeit Gist, Dec. 28, 2010) by calling himself a “foreigner” and telling people to accept and work with their lot as permanent outsiders.

Despite some public backpedaling and capitulation, Tsurunen’s attitude never changed, and even after 12 years in office he never tried to transcend the novelty factor 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!

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

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

To give them some credit, all newcomers face entrenched difficulties navigating the minefield of Japanese politics. The DPJ inherited a system corrupted by decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule and patronage, firmly nestling Japan in now more than two “lost decades” of economic stagnation. Yet regime change was still so inconceivable that ahead of the 2009 election, the media had to popularize a new phrase in Japanese (seiken kōtai) in anticipation of 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 (not to mention their refusal to cooperate with the DPJ), this would have spelled doom for any party in power at the time.

Nevertheless, here’s where the DPJ is culpable: During its short time in power, the party made some impressive policy proposals in very clear precedent-setting manifestos; the problem is that in the crucible of public debate, they didn’t stand by them.

The DPJ’s first major sign of fragility came with their policy cave-in to the U.S. government over American military bases in Okinawa (“Futenma is undermining Japanese democracy”, JBC, 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 issues other than border disputes? Weak.

Eventually, the DPJ could neither control their party narrative nor set the public agenda. By the time PM Yoshihiko Noda took charge in 2011, 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 ill-advised 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,” Nov. 6) that Japan’s rightists 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 conducted in technicolor. And last December, with the DPJ’s resounding electoral defeat, voters decided that xenophobia was OK with them.

Then this column argued in February (“Keep Abe’s hawks in check or Japan will suffer,” Feb. 4) that if both Diet houses went to the LDP in July, this would bring about radical constitutional revisions affecting civil liberties. Last month, voters apparently decided that was OK too. Thus, a perfect storm of politics has completely routed Japan’s left.

But many leftists deserved to lose their seats in the Diet regardless, 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) than who they were.

Similarly, Tsurunen will be remembered as a person with insufficient self-awareness of his role in Japanese politics. He called himself an “outsider,” then refused to fight for issues that concerned outsiders. Like Tsurunen, the DPJ ultimately resigned themselves to 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, they must 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 your comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    ““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.”

    That is how parliamentary democracy works, Mr. Arudou – hard to grasp for Colonials, I know, but there you have it.

    Tsurunen may not have achieved much, granted, but he achieved a lot more than a curmudgeon with a blog and a monthly “column” in, as a real writer put it recently, “the page that gives JT a bad name”.

  • LukeCorrigan

    Wow. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down. Anybody might suspect an element of jealousy at work here….

    This is ironic on so many levels.

    Mr. Arudou himself has had huge opportunities to demonstrate “what immigrants can do”, what with his website and his column, yet he’s squandered them at almost every opportunity with his aggressive intolerance toward differing points of view and his determination to find fault in Japanese society at every opportunity.

    I’ve avoided his website these days, given that it’s become a parade of the same five or six posters trotting out the same tired arguments, but I had a look after reading this article. A couple of recent examples (and they’re everywhere) of his problem:

    1) He claimed that the racist Suzuki Nobuyuki’s election posters, which read “Kankoku nyukoku kinshi” meant “Ban Koreans from entering Japan”, a schoolboy error. When this was first pointed out to him, he prevaricated rather than admit his mistake. He’d rather keep up a fight than play fair.

    2) He recently proudly added “yet another” karaoke establishment to his “rogue’s (sic) gallery” list of racist establishments which refuse entrance to foreigners. No mention of the fact that the previous entry dated back to 2008. A fair-minded commentator would surely have pointed this out. But that doesn’t suit the trouble-making agenda.

    So, sorry Mr. Arudou; merely by being elected, doing his job and keeping his mouth shut, Mr. Tsurunen has done more for Japanese-foreign relations than your actively harmful provocations.

  • Toolonggone

    Aside from author’s sarcasm–and same old mundane tirades and invectives seen here, I think it’s fair to say that this man didn’t make any agendas that drew attention from both Japanese and non-Japanese. I really wonder how many Japanese know that this Finn-born guy was serving as a diet member for the House of Councilors. Take a close look at his profile in the photo above. He never won the election by garnering substantial votes in any of previous elections. It was a sudden resignation of top voter (Kyosen Ohashi) that gave him an entrance to political arena. Arguably, he’s one of the very few westerners who were privileged to serve as national public servant.

    All I learn from his background and the reflection from recent election is that he squandered the opportunity to no avail. Should all we be patient enough to wait for a decade or two to see non-Japanese candidate take the seat—or an exceptionally open-minded Japanese candidate initiate the agendas important to the international community?

  • Fight Back

    As far as I know this political apologist made no attempt to approach Debito or come to him for advice. He had ample opportunity to try to add to Debito’s legacy and yet did nothing.

    This is why I believe apologists should be named and shamed. I have purged myself of any associates with apologist leanings an urge others to do the same. Only when they are left out in the cold ala Tsuruben Marutei will they realize their mistake.

  • Sam Gilman

    This is all rather tawdry. Debito’s criticism of Tsurunen boils down to this: Tsurunen is white and therefore should have spent his political career fighting for the rights of foreign-born residents.

    However, although quite understandably expressing support for the rights of non-ethnic Japanese when asked, Tsurunen’s primary focus has always explicitly been on the environment (he’s managed to get laws passed in the area), with a nod to international cooperation and understanding as part of his pacifism. He’s worked as the head of various committees and groups in the Diet relating to the environment and natural disasters, as well as with Korean Christian groups reflecting his own background as a Lutheran pastor. This all sounds pretty normal, if undramatic, to me. Debito deciding what Tsurunen “should” have been doing based on his ethnicity is pretty unpleasant. Debito dictating to this other naturalised Japanese how he should be describing himself ethnically is simply ridiculous. It’s Tsurunen’s business.

    Debito also trivialises Tsurunen’s achievements in getting into the Diet by insinuating that Tsurunen’s electoral success is down to the novelty value of the colour of his skin and eyes. Tsurunen fought and lost four diet elections in a row, after campaigning hard with street corner speeches, half of the time as an independent. Despite losing, he acquired a notable share of the vote. He may have traded off a rather poor electoral slogan, but it’s not like he waltzed into elected office as Charisma Man. It took a certain amount of character. And, if I may be permitted a slight jab at the author’s own attempts at practical politics, an ability to work with others.

    As it happens, I don’t agree with Tsurunen’s environmental views, but he should be judged as a person, not as an ethnicity. His ethnicity matters when we judge the system: it appears at least on the left, and with the centre-left DPJ in particular (thinking also of Renho and Haku Shinkun) and with the large numbers of people who vote that way, there are not the impenetrable racial barriers to participation that Debito wants us to believe. Tsurunen’s example of normality is heartening. Delighting at Tsurunen’s “comeuppance” is not the behaviour of someone invested in the future of a multi-ethnic Japan.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    To address a couple of claims in the column:

    “This column argued last November … that Japan’s rightists 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 conducted in technicolor. And last December, with the DPJ’s resounding electoral defeat, voters decided that xenophobia was OK with them.”

    The LDP won 42.7% of the prefectural constituency vote this last election, and 34.7% of the proportional representation vote. Its coalition partner, Komeito, who was publicly expressing caution about the possibility of Constitutional amendment, got 5.1% and 14.2% respectively, for a coalition total of 47.8% and 48.9% respectively.

    Even if one adhered to a blinkered, black-and-white view of Japan that says that everyone who votes for the LDP or a party to the right of the LDP (which IMHO currently would be only the JRP) is a xenophobe, one would still have to ignore the better than 50% of the electorate that voted *against* these parties to reach a conclusion that “(Japanese) voters decided that xenophobia was OK with them”.

    “Then this column argued in February … that if both Diet houses went to the LDP in July, this would bring about radical constitutional revisions affecting civil liberties. Last month, voters apparently decided that was OK too.”

    Yes, this column did argue that, while ignoring the fact that in order to revise the Constitution 2/3 of the Diet first has to agree to any revision (a supermajority the LDP does not enjoy, even if we include Komeito, which we probably shouldn’t) and then a national referendum must be held where 50% plus 1 of the Japanese electorate who participate must vote for the amendment. Everyone who has been paying attention realizes that. The Japanese public realizes that, and the public has consistently shown in polls to be very cautious about the idea of Constitutional amendments. So again, no, voters did *not* decide that radical Constitutional revisions affecting civil liberties were OK too.

    So why did the LDP do so well? Because the only reasonable alternative, the DPJ, showed itself for the first two years of its rule to be stunningly inept in most regards – Noda made a good show of trying to turn things around, but the damage had been done by Hatoyama, Ozawa and Kan. This election was a referendum on DPJ rule and a referendum on the economy. Those were the issues on voters’ minds. But it is a bit harder to get a bile-filled diatribe out of that I guess.

    One last point:

    “a society that … generally roots for winners rather than underdogs.”

    Fascinating analysis. One of the first things I learned about Japanese culture is that the Japanese tend to feel a much greater sense of affinity and sympathy for losers and underdogs, at least as compared to Americans. To give a pop culture example, in a police drama if one policeman is gunned down and then avenged by his partner, most Japanese view the “hero” to be the dead cop, whereas most Americans would view the “hero” to be the one who avenged his partner’s death. Certainly, the surviving cop is admired, but admired for fulfilling his duty – the dead partner is the truly sympathetic character, the one who made it all possible. This is such a prominent trait of Japanese culture that I find it fascinating that someone could live in the country for 2 decades, be married to a Japanese, and even become a Japanese themselves and yet still not be able to see it. However perhaps I should not be surprised after all.

  • Steve Novosel

    I sure wish Mr Arudou would do more with the unique position he has, too, but sadly he chooses to disappoint as well with his tired shtick. Go look through the comments on his site if you must; you’ll see a uniformly monochromatic (and negative) viewpoint, with any dissent being refused publication and the poster banned.

    We don’t get to vote on him, though, we can just choose to ignore him and his site as most foreigners in Japan already do.

  • robertwgordonesq

    Debito Arudou wote: “…firmly nestling Japan in now more than two “lost decades” of economic stagnation.”

    Actually, there were no “lost decades” nor any “economic stagnation” in Japan.

    See: Fingleton, Eamonn (January 6, 2012). “The Myth of Japan’s Failure”. The New York Times. Found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/the-true-story-of-japans-economic-success.html?ref=opinion&pagewanted=all–


    “Video interview on BBC News with Eamonn Fingleton”. BBC News. found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/9677356.stm


    “The Myth of Japan’s Lost Decades'”.The Atlantic. Found here: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/the-myth-of-japans-lost-decades/71741/

  • The Apologist

    It is ironic that Debito seems to think that ‘outsiders’ should behave like ‘outsiders’ rather than fully integrate into Japanese society. I’m sure the more virulent Japanese nationalists would agree with him on this– indeed he seems to view Tsurunen as some type of race traitor.
    As far as representing the interests of foreign residents in Japan goes, Debito most certainly doesn’t represent mine nor the vast majority of other foreign residents of Japan, but rather appeals to a tiny constituency of race baiters who seem to think they are still fighting World War 2. The sooner the Japan Times– and a few foreign pundits– realize how out of touch he is with the pulse of Japanese society and the foreign element therein, the better.