Ex-foreigner on a Diet ‘mission’

In February, Marutei Tsurunen made political history when he became the first Westerner to take a seat in the Diet. This was as much of a surprise to him as anyone. After being first reserve in the proportional representation list of Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) after last July’s Upper House election, he thought his fourth attempt to enter parliament had gone the way of the three before. Then, after the unexpected resignation of Kyosen Ohashi, one of Minshuto’s elected members, Finnish-born Tsurunen suddenly became entitled under election law to fill the vacant seat.

I met the 61-year-old former missionary at his office in the House of Councilors where, even as I turned to close the door, he was on my tail, smiling, and speaking fluent English.

How does it feel to be the token gaijin in parliament?

Finns in particular ask, “What are you these days?” I answer that I’m not Finnish, I’m not Japanese; I want to be an international person. But my name is in katakana, my face is not Japanese, so I’m a kind of ex-foreigner.

Have people been kind and welcoming?

Here? Oh yes, very kind. And I’ve received lots of nice e-mails and letters wishing me luck, hoping I can succeed. There were a few unpleasant ones — “We don’t want foreigners in the Diet!” “Go back to your home country!” But the reaction was much stronger when I first began campaigning in Yugawara. Then I had threatening phone calls, sometimes really quite nasty.

How did you hear about Ohashi’s decision to resign?

He was on his way back from the Izu Peninsula and he called and made an appointment to visit my house in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture. After we chatted for about 90 minutes, he asked me if he quit, what would I do? I said, “Take the seat, that is my mission.” Two weeks later, on February 8, I was sitting in this chair.

What is your background?

I was born in a small village — just 11 houses — in eastern Finland near the Russian border. We had a small farm with cows, horses and trees for timber. My parents were good people, honest Christians, but I was the only son and they wanted me to stay home. Determined to see more of the world, I ran away as soon as I’d finished compulsory schooling. At 15 or so I went to the nearest big town and didn’t go home for three years. I worked by day and studied by night to go to college, dreaming of going to Africa as a missionary.

Did you go to Africa?

Eventually, but only for a monthlong trip. I won a lottery. The church was raffling a free ticket from an airline to raise funds. Later I applied for a missionary post, but due to a conflict in Angola they couldn’t send me there. Disappointed, reading a magazine the next morning, I saw an ad for social workers for the Lutheran Church in Japan. I’d been working as a deacon, mostly with young people. I believe I won that ticket to discover I was supposed to go to Japan, not Africa. At age 27 I was sent to Michigan for six months’ orientation, then spent two years at a language school in Tokyo. As soon as I arrived here, just before Christmas 1967, I decided to stay at least until my retirement.

Where did you begin work?

Beppu, in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, as an instructor in a children’s home. After four years I left missionary work. I have written extensively in Japanese about this period — about my first family — but it was 30 years ago and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Basically, I wanted to go outside the Church, and as a result my first wife went back to Finland.

Did you have a crisis of faith?

No. But to effect any real change, I realized I had go deep inside the culture. And here I am, a politician, in the dirtiest world imaginable. You can criticize politics from the outside, by no one listens. It’s more constructive to go inside and try to make the situation better from there.

Is Tsurunen your Finnish name? It sounds Japanese.

Turunen is a very common name in Finland. When I naturalized, I adapted it to sound Japanese.

How did you meet your second wife?

She was a nurse in Beppu. We often sent children from the home to the hospital where she worked, and I was the only one with a car. We settled in Azumi, a tiny village in the Northern Alps in Nagano Prefecture. She got a job in the local clinic. I opened my English school, and began translating classical literature from Japanese into Finnish. I always like to do something that is almost impossible. I challenge.

Then, after seven years in Azumi, I began to think, “This is not why I left the Church.” I began to feel very frustated — my blood pressure went up. First we moved nearer to Tokyo, where for one thing it’s a lot warmer.

What led you into politics?

Some of my students in Yugawara were local council members, or worked in the city office. Through them I became interested. Knowing there was going to be an election the following year, 1991, one night I said to my wife, “What if I try to be a councilor?” She thought it a great idea. From that moment I knew my mission. I had no idea I was the first Western foreigner to stand. There were ex-Koreans, but they were born here. When I expressed my intention to stand in the local paper, the media got hold of the story and there was enormous interest.

And you got in . . .

That time, easily. There were 24 candidates for 22 seats, and I came in fourth.

Having got in, was it as easy to be effective, to make changes?

Not at all. I was quickly disappointed. Coping with the language was hard — all those specialized terms, legal stuff. The most difficult thing was that I was in the opposition, against our mayor. I thought I had many good ideas to make life better in Yugawara, but at question time he would just say, “OK, let’s think about it.” Nothing went any further. My colleagues were very polite, but would make comments like, “You may be able to do things like that in Finland, but not in Japan.”

Were you allied to a party then?

No, I was completely independent. That is common in local politics.

How quickly did you decide to try for the Diet?

After about a year. When I look back, I realize I could have found other ways to influence local members and get proposals through. But I was becoming quite famous, traveling around the country giving 10 to 12 lectures a month. That’s when I realized I could get more done in the Diet.

When did you decide to join a political party?

I wanted a nomination for a party from the very beginning, because it’s hard to be an independent in a national election. You have to do everything by yourself. But twice my application was rejected. First it was called Sakigake, a very small group with Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan in it, but they had a preferred candidate. They didn’t believe I could waltz, or they didn’t trust me at that time, or something. The second time, Keiko Chiba was chosen. Seniority always wins. This time there was already an older candidate in the district, so my only chance was for the national list. Then they accepted me, and I was nominated quite easily.

Presumably you had financial backing from Minshuto?

We get about 15 million yen for a national election. Everyone gets the same, and some complain it is not enough. But it’s enough for me. However, the three years preparing for a nomination are hard. We need 500,000 yen a month for our office alone. Even if there is enough for the campaigning, we are not allowed to use that money to support a family. It was always a battle to keep the house warm.

You have children?

My son is recently back from a working holiday in Australia, thinking what to do. We worked together on my campaign. He drove the campaign car; my daughter was uguisu (bush warbler) — speaking through the microphone. She is working in IT, and looking after my Web site. As for my wife, she is working very hard, answering letters and e-mails.

Do you have any free time?

None at all. For the past eight years I’ve grown nearly all our fresh food on a 40-tsubo plot next to our house. Or rather, the bank’s house! I need to find time very soon to get the compost into the soil for seeding two weeks later. Finding the days I need will be tough, but it too is part of my mission.

What drew you to Minshuto?

There was no other choice. The LDP is too old-fashioned and corrupt. There are good people there but the system is outdated. The Communists? No. Komeito? Well, I can’t even think about it for religious reasons. Minshuto was the only party close to my way of thinking, and I’d had a long relationship with Kan and Hatoyama.

I hear you have already joined an environmental committee.

Yes, I was nominated to the environmental committee in the Upper House. I’m already planning to work for a new law which will make the recycling of kitchen waste statutory. The problem is that being in the Opposition, proposals are usually rejected. So I must find another way, getting bureaucrats to make the law.

How big is Minshuto?

In the Upper House we are 60 out of 248 members. In the Lower House, we number over 100. We’re the biggest opposition group, so have some influence. But we must get into government; then we can get much more done.

How can you get into power when the feudal Tokugawa structure is still effectively intact?

Not through elections as structured. Also we need a new party, made up of people from all parties. Koizumi wanted change but he can’t succeed now. He’s compromising more and more under pressure; giving up. I want him to do something radical. He can dissolve the Lower House and call a new election, but basically that changes nothing. If he left and took 40-50 members with him, and people from other parties agreeing basic policies joined him, then there might be a chance. I’m not saying its a possibility, just a hope. He must have some plan in the face of LDP opposition and the falling away of public confidence.

What will happen when the banks finally have to face their bad loans? People are in a panic.

We need that kind of crisis. Crises are good for change. Crises mean chances. I think something will happen, and then people will realize the need to begin thinking in new ways. I’m not worried about it.

You’ve written extensively about the need for change, listing your main interests as the environment, foreigners’ rights, the need for a new Constitution, revision of medical care, education reform, demise of Japanese agriculture and gender equality. Are they all on your agenda still?

Yes, but changing the Constitution will take a long time — at least 10 years — because there needs to be a referendum, and at least 75 per cent of Diet members must agree. The Constitution is more than 50 years old and many new situations keep arising, especially relating to the United Nations and the Japanese peacekeeping forces. A Lower House committee was formed a year ago on this issue, but so far they can’t agree. Even in my own party, we can’t agree, especially on foreign policies. Change must and will come, with the spirit of the Peace Constitution remaining intact, but it will be a long process. In the meantime, there are other more important matters.

Such as?

Environment issues. Making the focus of education more independent-minded so that children can learn to think for themselves in smaller classes. Suffrage rights for foreigner residents. International marriages are increasing fast, maybe 10 to 15 per cent a year. Several politicians have foreign wives, etc. This is very healthy. Social welfare is using huge amounts of money, so lifestyles need to change. With regards farming, Japan uses more pesticides than any other country. Only 1 per cent is organic, maybe less. Many people don’t agree, but I believe Japan should — and can — be self-sufficient in rice. We should keep our rice culture.

Is Japan really broke?

I don’t think so. We are doing very well. We just have to lower our expectations. Zero growth is enough right now. I use the word “enough” as in the idiom, “Enough is as good as a feast.” We must concentrate on quality rather than quantity in the economy, concentrating more on the environment than achieving the rapid blind growth of old. Then we will do even better. This is still a very good country — a very rich country — and Japanese are ready for change. They are a very flexible people, but they need new leaders, new dreams, a New Age.

What would you say to the many people who feel helpless in the face of corruption regarding food labeling, construction, and in politics generally?

Elect new people you can trust to change old policies. Use the democratic system to cast your vote. Unfortunately, in schools politics is taboo. I go to schools to lecture, and staff whisper, “No politics please.” It’s the same in universities: “No politics please.” That must change. In Finland we have education in politics in all high schools. The result is that over 60 percent of young people vote. Here it’s under 20 percent. Education is the answer, with schools leading the way.

Why are young Japanese so apathetic?

They have no aim, no dream, nothing to study for. The goal was clear after the war: to achieve Western-style economic growth. Now, there is nothing. They just take part-time jobs and live for the moment. They need to find a new purpose for living.

What would you say to young people to encourage them?

Think about your future and try to find your dream. Many are willing to work as volunteers and find a new way of thinking about life and the world, but just as many are lost in blindly having fun. You know, I sometimes think the only way Japan will really change is if we are given a major warning. Society cannot survive going on this way. I don’t know how it will manifest itself — a war, a massive earthquake, a terrorist attack. A wake-up call. I don’t want it, but maybe there is no other way.

How is the future looking for you personally?

I’m very hopeful. Maybe something terrible is coming, but it’s only one step and after that, everything will be completely new. I’m very optimistic.

Interview by ANGELA JEFFS, Special to The Japan Times.