Regular viewers of Japanese TV may remember young Haruka Christine’s first appearances on the variety-show circuit in early 2010, when she had her fellow entertainers and audiences in stitches.
Here was a girl of 18, often dressed in traditional Swiss garb and every inch the European, who would abruptly transform into a wild-eyed creature exuberantly aping the acts of well-known Japanese comedians. Regular-looking foreign girl does zany Japanese impressions? So far, so Japan.
Nearly four years later, having racked up dozens of TV appearances, Christine is more likely to be found discussing national politics than cracking jokes. Most recently, she came under fire from Japan’s notorious Net-uyoku (right-wing Internet trolls) after she was asked about the view from abroad regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December visit to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine, where the remains of Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals, are enshrined. Overseas, she suggested, some liken the visits to a modern-day German leader praying at Adolf Hitler’s tomb. Though the comparison is often made abroad, and despite Christine offering no opinion on whether the comparison was fair, Internet forums were abuzz with angry discussion about the subject. She has recently been on a mission to get young people talking about politics, although this particular controversy was probably not what she had in mind.
Christine, the child of a Swiss mother and Japanese father, was born and raised in Zurich, on a continent where, she says, “Everyone speaks openly about current affairs and politics.” On arriving in Japan to study at 16, Christine was surprised to find that people her age were often indifferent to such matters.
“One of the first things I was told after coming to Japan, during my high school years, was that it wasn’t worth engaging in or talking about politics because ‘all politicians are liars,’ ” she says.
Coming to Japan to study had been a childhood dream for Christine. Having been too young to remember her first visit, aged 3, “When I came for the second time to Tokyo, when I was 9, I was overwhelmed.”
TV shows from Japan further fueled her interest in her father’s native land, and she soon found herself regularly perusing the Internet for information about the country.
“When I transferred to my Japanese high school, I thought I would blend in quite easily, but I didn’t,” she recalls. “It wasn’t what I had imagined the Japan I knew was from TV programs that aired, like, 20 years ago.”
Owing her interest in Japan to what she had seen on TV, Christine decided to try to carve out a career in show business. She made her TV debut in March 2010, and soon learned that Japanese TV was wildly different from what she had been watching in Switzerland.
“Apparently the impression TV programs made on high school students seemed to be different too, as well as the way young people spoke about what they had seen and how they perceived it,” she says. “It’s the age when everybody should be the most concerned, but instead, young Japanese acted as if discussing our political views was inappropriate.”
Many Japanese, she says, only seem to become politically aware and concerned when, for example, they end up struggling to find a nursery school for their children or face other everyday problems that require political solutions, either locally or nationally.
Six years after arriving, Christine — now a journalism student at Tokyo’s Sophia University — has established a reputation for shoehorning her interest in politics into her career as a TV personality.
As part of her mission to alleviate political apathy among the young, she published a book in which she offers an insight into her passion. It has resulted in her becoming known as a seijika-okkake, which is something akin to a political junkie.
In the book, whose title, “Nagata-cho Daisuki Haruka Kurisutin no Omoshiroi Seiji Japan” roughly translates as “I Love Nagata-cho — Haruka Christine’s Fascinating Japanese Politician Scene,” she shares her enthusiasm and introduces political activities in a visually appealing and comprehensible manner. The “Nagata-cho” in the title refers to the location of the Diet and prime minister’s residence.
She says she decided to write the book because “many people don’t really care, believing their votes would not matter. I’ve met some people who didn’t even know the name of the prime minister or what the term ‘Abenomics’ refers to.”
Christine herself has interviewed such political figures as Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and former Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa.
“Many consider politicians as aloof creatures who discuss things that don’t really affect normal people,” she says. “In fact, Diet members are really interesting and friendly.”
Therefore the aim of Christine’s book was to show the more human side of the country’s elected representatives. Her approach is similar to one a music fan might have toward a band. She has even gone so far as to create her own trading cards, which include a photo of the politician, his or her name and a funny anecdote about them.
“When I met Mr. Ozawa, I showed him the card I’d made of him, which was a good icebreaker,” she recalls. “I had heard that during his college years he was nicknamed ‘Otochan’ (Dad) as he was much older than his peers. I included that on the card and found it got him to open up and speak frankly about his life. It was a great experience.
“To many, Japanese politicians just seem like old men in suits. Contrary to Europe, there are still very few women or young people on the political stage here,” she says, suggesting this may be the reason for widespread apathy. “People feel discouraged, believing that it’s just the old guys who govern the country in their own way, as if they were in another world.”
She also pointed out that many Japanese tend to categorize politicians as either left-wingers or right-wingers, when things are more nuanced.
“There are even Net-uyoku who criticize politicians without even listening to their opinions on particular issues,” she adds.
Christine’s level of interest in politics and social issues is admirable.
However, as a TV persona her views are exposed to the public in a way other citizens’ are not. The celebrity system she is a part of tends to demand conformity to societal expectations and beliefs.
Last year, popular model and actress Norika Fujiwara made headlines when she broke an unwritten rule of the celebrity world by sharing her political views in public. In that case, it was her objections to the government’s state secrets bill.
Christine’s comments about Abe’s visits to Yasukuni weren’t necessarily her own views; she was reporting what people abroad might think. After the Web backlash, she appears to have emerged largely unscathed in the real world, and still appears regularly on TV.
Hopefully, this shows young people that they can talk about politics and even if they are met with disagreement, it’s not the end of the world.
“I hope that through my activities I am able to pass a message of political engagement to other young people,” she says. “However, I also hope that message from our generation can be conveyed to the generations that came before us. It would be such a shame if people remained indifferent.”
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