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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.