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What’s in a name? Politics as usual

by Mark Schreiber

When the Democratic Party of Japan indicated in its political manifesto that it favored voting rights for foreign permanent residents, the reaction from some quarters of the media was visceral. In early April, publisher Takarajima-sha produced a 96-page “emergency publication” titled “Gaikokujin Sanseiken de Nihon ga Nakunaru Hi” (“The Day that Japan Ceases to Exist Due to Foreigner Voting Rights”), whose cover ran frantic exclamations such as “A Legal Invasion by China!” and “With a policy to admit 10 million immigrants, Japan will become a foreign country!”

But when Upper House Diet member Renho was appointed as minister for administrative reforms in Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s new Cabinet, the media took her background in stride. Renho, age 42, was born Hsieh Lien-fang with Republic of China (Taiwan) citizenship. Her mother is Japanese, and when Japan’s Nationality Law was modified she opted for Japanese citizenship at the age of 18.

If she had so chosen, Renho could have retained Hsieh as her surname even after acquiring Japanese citizenship. Instead, she opted for Saito, her mother’s surname. Then upon marriage she became Mrs. Nobuyuki Murata. So while her original surname has changed twice following her choice to become a citizen and marriage, her given name — written with characters that mean “lotus mooring” — has remained unchanged.

Renho, minus her surname, is also the name she used when she emerged in 1988 as the 14th “Clarion Girl” for the eponymous manufacturer of car-audio systems. During its heyday (Clarion’s campaign became defunct three years ago) such status served as a launchpad for many careers in show business or modeling, and, in this case, politics.

Perhaps because the post of minister for administrative reforms is comparatively low in the Cabinet hierarchy, reaction to Renho’s appointment by the media has been considerably less clamorous than when Makiko Tanaka was appointed minister of foreign affairs in April 2001. The vernacular Yomiuri newspaper and one magazine pointed out that people in Taiwan had affectionately referred to her as warera no banana musume (“our banana girl”), a reference to one of Taiwan’s best-known agricultural exports to Japan. But most articles seem to have taken Renho’s half-Chinese ethnicity in stride, or made only passing reference to it.

Takeo Hiranuma, of the conservative Sunrise Party of Japan, stirred controversy last January by remarking, “Before, she wasn’t a Japanese,” but Tokyo Sports (June 9) reported that while on the stump, Hiranuma’s colleague and party cofounder Kaoru Yosano sensibly refrained from making a reference to Renho’s background, merely boosting his own party’s candidate, Asako Ogura, by saying, “Instead of a female candidate who just goes gyan-gyan-gyan-gyan (“yakitty-yak”) on the TV, we should elect Ms. Ogura, a woman with real substance and a strong marrow.”

Along with the image of youth and competence that the DPJ has been attempting to project, Kan may benefit from the glamour Renho brings to his Cabinet, and she seems to be favored for re-election in the upcoming July 11 poll. In the long term, her non-Japanese roots may be less of a political hindrance than her lack of moneyed family connections or a regional power base.

Flash (June 29) ended its two-page feature on Renho by remarking, “Naturally, waiting in the wings is the seat of Japan’s first female prime minister.” The phrase carries no tone of sarcasm, and one can only wonder if Flash’s editors tacked it on to voice support, or merely to stir up controversy.

But politics can be a dirty business. Renho wasn’t in the Cabinet even a week before scandal arose. Her secretary, referred to in the media only as “Mr. M.,” was accused of molesting a young woman, and as reported in Shukan Bunshun (June 24), during a meeting of political supporters a man reportedly stood up and demanded, “You should resign both your minister’s portfolio and your seat in the Diet.”

Quotable quote: “Yes we Kan.” The sound of “Kan” also invites plenty of puns in Japanese. DPJ Diet member Nobuo Matsuno from Kumamoto posted in his blog June 9 that an unnamed participant at a party session on human rights had nicknamed Kan’s new government the “Shinkansen Naikaku” (shinkansen Cabinet), taking the characters shin (new) and tacking on Kan-Sen, characters from the surnames of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Yoshito Sengoku, the new chief Cabinet secretary.

The person went on to say he could see some nozomi (hope) and hikari (light) — references to the names of limited express trains — and then added “Watashi mo ooi ni kanshin shimashita (I was also deeply impressed),” with the first syllable of kanshin (impressed) replaced with Kan’s surname to convey the meaning something like, “I have taken Mr. Kan to heart.”

This week’s magazine roundup:

A military affairs analyst tells Weekly Playboy (July 5) that the United States may be preparing the orbiting space shuttle for military use against North Korea.

Three of Japan’s major electronics firms are allowing thousands of staff to work out of their homes, Shukan Post (July 2) reports.

Shukan Asahi (July 2) goes after newspaper reporters who have accepted monetary payouts from government ministries.

Shukan Gendai (July 3) looks at the impact of foot and mouth disease on the daily lives of the residents of a town in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Sunday Mainichi (July 4) provides advice on managing family budgets after the next round of tax hikes.

Nikkei Business (June 21) coins the word “Chapan” to describe the East Asia economic sphere and says more Japanese will be working under Chinese bosses.

Sapio (July 14) looks at the sinking U.S. dollar and euro, and considers the role of gold in the world’s new economic equation.

Shukan Asahi Geino (July 1) probes for ties between professional sumo and organized crime.

Spa! (June 29) probes the “goofy” boom in kanji that’s been going on overseas.