Giving up your nationality is not something to be taken lightly, especially in a society like Japan where so much of one’s identity is tied to citizenship. For Bolivian-born Noemi Inoue it was a necessary step to feel fully integrated in society here and to become the first person not born Japanese to serve as a city councilor in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.

In the process, she has learned about the inner workings of the city’s administrative system and the mindset of those working to effect change. In finding her own voice in Japan as a foreign-born resident of Tokyo, Inoue is now in a position to give a voice to others.

Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Inoue enjoyed a high-flying career in social development before marriage brought her to Japan. After starting out with the country’s central bank after university, Inoue went on work as an analyst and financial specialist for the United Nations Development Programme in La Paz. She subsequently moved to the organization’s New York office, where her role expanded to include regional development projects all over South America. The UNDP works around the globe to eliminate poverty and promote sustainable development.

During her time in New York, she met and married her Japanese spouse. He was working for UNICEF but was later invited run for a seat in parliament for the former Democratic Party of Japan, and so Inoue quit her job and the couple relocated to Tokyo in 1995.

Inoue used the enforced hiatus to start a family and the couple welcomed a daughter, but she felt stymied by the dearth of childcare options and social attitudes to working women.

“I was frustrated at the lack of opportunities I faced, despite my years of experience abroad. Even Bolivia is ahead in terms of chances for women and equal pay. This gender inequality was the most shocking thing about life in Japan for me,” she recalls. “There is a mentality that a man in a certain position doesn’t need his wife to work, and so I turned to volunteer work.”

Drawing on her professional background, Inoue donated her time and talents as a volunteer consultant on various projects with international themes, but eventually she longed for more.

While carving out her own place as a foreign-born person, Inoue found her thoughts naturally turning to how she could help others in Japan.

“It made me reflect on how non-Japanese are still removed from society here. I mean, we raise kids, pay taxes, contribute to society but still we get, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ etc. But Japan is not going to change, so I think we have to take the approach of working with the system.”

In 2009, Inoue started an NPO, the Japan-Latin America Friendship Association, to promote cultural and business exchange. In order to take things to the next level and work for change in society, her husband suggested she take Japanese nationality.

At first the idea was incomprehensible to Inoue.

“My initial reaction was one of shock. I thought, ‘No way!’ But then I looked carefully at the reality of such a move: My husband and child are Japanese and I will probably spend the rest of my life here.

“I respect my Japanese nationality but it doesn’t mean that I have to cut off my ties with the Bolivian community. It has not changed my face or who I am. However, now I can fully integrate into this society. I think it was a natural extension of my attitude change — I am now fully invested in exploring my options in Japan,” she says.

Inoue vowed to work as a voice for the community and decided to run for city council in her local Sumida Ward. The process itself was not as complicated as you might imagine, given Japan’s penchant for bureaucracy. Costs for campaign posters and cars are covered by the ward. There are certain strict rules in place governing topics like when and where posters can be displayed.

Inoue launched her first bid for council in 2011 as one of around 50 people trying for the 32 available positions.

“There I was, out campaigning with my sash and people were watching with open mouths!” she says. “But they were kind and friendly and I was surprised by the warm reception I received. To cut a long story short, I got in.”

Her second campaign in 2015 was featured on the NHK World TV station and was also successful.

Inoue notes that her fellow councilors were surprised at first to have a foreign-born colleague in their midst and were obviously curious as to how she would perform in her new role. However, she says everyone has always shown her due respect, just as she has always endeavored to understand the rules and customs of the Sumida City Council.

So what is daily life like for a city councilor?

“It is really a full-time position, but I combine it with my NPO activities. We have regular meetings, as well as special committees for different projects — I am on several right now,” she explains. “I have a special interest in issues relating to children, women and education. In particular, I am trying very hard to improve English education at schools.

“Then, of course, we also have a lot of invitations to local events, ceremonies, giving speeches, etc. I am grateful for the money we are paid to represent the citizens and I work hard for them. I can say, without false modesty, that I am a very hard-working woman!” she adds with a grin.

One of Inoue’s main platforms has been to better develop Sumida’s potential as an attractive destination for international visitors.

“For example, there is a high level of interest from tourists in visiting the Ryogoku area to watch sumo. We’ve improved things like signs and the amount of information available in different languages,” she explains. “We’re also working on themed tours of the area and maps with different languages, and we introduced community buses.”

She seeks to give a voice to foreign residents in her ward so their needs and views can be heard.

“We already know that Japan will need to rely on foreign people to supplement the population due to the low birthrate,” Inoue says. “I proposed a special committee to invite non-Japanese residents to discuss issues and solutions, and we have created an information corner at the ward office in multiple languages.”

Inoue doesn’t want to give the impression that her transition from frustrated foreign citizen to Japanese council member has been an easy process.

“I have struggled with the language, especially technical terms, but my husband offers support there. I have also had to learn to be patient, to listen carefully and to not speak out without being fully prepared.”

As she looks ahead to her to the next council elections in 2019, Inoue has some words of advice for anyone inspired to follow in her footsteps.

“First, you need fluent Japanese and Japanese citizenship. Then you need to show respect for and gain an understanding of the unwritten rules of this society, so that you can work within the system.”

“My dream is to see more foreign-born politicians in Japan. Now I am looking for more people, particularly women, who would like to participate in local politics. I can advise them,” she says. Even for those not interested in actually pursuing a career in city office themselves, Inoue encourages foreign residents to speak to their local representatives about issues of concern to them.

Along with her councilor duties, Inoue continues to give back through various volunteer activities, promoting cultural exchange and offering support for mothers raising small children and for the Latin American community. When she can find a spare moment, she enjoys Bolivian dancing and has recently taken up sewing,

“I like the idea of taking something traditional like kimono and remaking it into something new,” she says. Not so dissimilar from her own metamorphosis in Japan, really.

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