As campaigning for Sunday’s Lower House election heats up, two candidates are lucky to have a guaranteed point of interest — one comes from Finland, the other from China.
Marutei Tsurunen came to Japan from Finland as a Lutheran missionary, and Meilan left her native Shanghai for Tokyo to pursue a singing career. Both are now naturalized citizens and are aiming to win seats in the Diet.
“I have long been looking for ways to contribute to Japanese society . . . and I realized that becoming a lawmaker was the best way to do that,” said Tsurunen, 60, who is running in the Kanagawa Prefecture No. 17 single-seat constituency on the Democratic Party of Japan ticket.
Meilan, 35, is running under the Social Democratic Party umbrella in the Tokyo No. 3 single-seat district, saying she wants to act as a bridge between Japan and other parts of Asia by increasing cultural and sporting exchanges.
Although both say they are not running in the election as representatives of foreigners in Japan, the fact that they were not born in Japan is of course an issue.
Japan has 1.55 million registered foreign residents. About 635,000 of that number — mostly Koreans born in Japan — are permanent residents. Foreign nationals, however, are not granted the right to vote or to run in elections at either the local or national level.
Tsurunen and Meilan can run because they have renounced citizenship to their home countries and become naturalized Japanese.
Many non-Japanese residents are urging the government to grant foreigners the right to vote. Tsurunen and Meilan, however, say those eager to participate in national-level politics should first obtain Japanese citizenship.
“It’s not fair to have voting rights in two countries,” Meilan said. “You have to choose one or the other, like I did, if you want to become a lawmaker in the Diet.”
However, she added, “it doesn’t mean we can ignore the voices of the 1.5 million foreign residents of Japan.” She said she wants to create a special framework under which selected foreigners can ask questions at the Diet.
To vote at the national level, foreigners should attain citizenship, as is the practice all over the world, Tsurunen said, but added that suffrage for local elections is another matter.
Tsurunen, who became the first non-Asian to serve on a local council after winning a seat on Kanagawa Prefecture’s Yugawara Municipal Assembly in 1992, said foreigners should have the right to vote and run in elections at the local level after living in Japan for a few years.
“Foreigners pay taxes here and the work of local governments is directly connected to the daily lives of residents,” he said, adding that foreigners are granted voting rights for local elections in his native Finland after three years of residency.
Originally named Martti Turunen, he came to Japan in 1967 as a Lutheran missionary and worked in social welfare services. He obtained Japanese nationality in 1979 after marrying a Japanese and operates an English-language school in Yugawara.
For Tsurunen, the upcoming election will be his third run for a Diet seat after losing in Upper House elections as an independent candidate in 1995 and 1998. If elected, he will be the first Westerner to sit in the Diet.
This time, he faces a tough race against Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, a veteran Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, and Shinzaburo Suzuki of the Japanese Communist Party.
Every morning, Tsurunen delivers speeches at the train stations in his district. He’s covered all 37 of them seven times, he says. In an improvement over his last failed campaigns, he has gained the support of more than 40 labor unions and other organizations.
In his campaign, Tsurunen is calling for the introduction of an environmental tax, a new law to enhance recycling and the establishment of a barrier-free society.
“We need someone like Tsurunen in the Diet to change Japan’s rigid political system,” said Hiroshi Futami, secretary general of Tsurunen’s 580-member volunteer support group.
If voter turnout reaches 70 percent, Futami believes the race will be advantageous for Tsurunen.
The campaign team for Kono, who won 105,000 votes in a district of some 420,000 voters in the 1996 general election, is not optimistic about a landslide victory either.
“Frankly speaking, we’re scared,” a member of Kono’s campaign staff said. “We really cannot predict how much support Tsurunen will get.”
Meilan, who is running against six other candidates — all new faces like herself — is calling for the spirit of Japan’s pacifist Constitution to be spread to the world, for rising youth crime to be curbed and school problems such as bullying and truancy to be overcome.
Meilan became a singer at age 5 and won a pop music singing championship in China in 1987. With dreams of becoming a singer in Japan, she arrived in Tokyo the following year and became naturalized in 1994, taking the Japanese name Keiko Hira.
Shozo Yoda, head of her campaign team, said it is good she is running as Meilan, and not under her Japanese name, “because it attracts attention.” He conceded, however, that some voters, when hearing of her campaign, ask, “Why is a Chinese running in a Japanese election?”
For some of her campaign events, Meilan wears a traditional “yukata” gown and sings Japanese folk songs.
Voters, however, have mixed feelings about expatriates running in elections.
“I have a good feeling about Tsurunen because I think he can bring new ideas to Japanese politics,” said Tomiko Mitsui, 49, from Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
But Shigeo Okabe, 69, also from Odawara, said he feels somewhat uneasy about seeing an expat candidate. “I think truly Japanese people should handle Japanese politics,” he said.
Ichie Mimura, 84, from Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, said as she listened to Meilan’s speech, “As long as they work hard to make Japan a good country, it doesn’t matter where they originally came from.
“But if they want to run in elections, I think foreigners should become Japanese citizens.”