Second in an occasional series on the quadrennial unified local elections. The second round will be held on April 26.
Komaki Lee gained fame as a pioneering “Kabukicho guide” who showed foreign visitors the ins and outs of the capital’s seedy nightlife entertainment district in Shinjuku Ward.
Now he’s going into politics.
“I’m not running to become a bossy politician. . . . I’m running as just one foreign resident in Shinjuku . . . running to represent 36,000 foreigners from 121 countries living here,” Lee, 54, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times, speaking in fluent Japanese. “If people call me sensei (teacher), I will scold them.”
If elected to the Shinjuku Ward Assembly on Sunday, the China-born Lee will be the first naturalized Japanese in the ward to become an assemblyman.
Lee, born in China as Lee Xiaomu, became a naturalized citizen in February after spending 27 years living in Japan. His goal is to become a symbol of change in a society he regards as somewhat closed to foreigners, and to show 1.3 billion people in China what democracy truly means.
The former ballet dancer and author now owns a Chinese restaurant in Kabukicho, allowing him to experience the sweet and sour of Japan from the center of the capital. He is also continuing his tour guide business, showing customers around Kabukicho’s fancy stores and restaurants as well as its cabarets, sex parlors and other shady haunts.
This has given him an insider’s view on life in Japan.
“After 27 years living here . . . I still see signs saying ‘foreigners and nightlife business workers OK’ when looking for an apartment in Shinjuku,” he said, noting this implies both are looked down upon in Japanese society. “You never see ‘salaryman OK’ signs, right?”
This bias prompted Lee to pursue a seat on the Shinjuku assembly. Shinjuku has the largest population of foreign residents in the nation. Although 11 percent of the ward’s residents are non-Japanese, its policies predominantly reflect the Japanese perspective, Lee said.
Lee’s interest in politics didn’t emerge all of a sudden. His father, a former politician, was arrested in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, leading Lee to develop a critical attitude toward the elitist nature of Chinese politics while living in Japan.
Now he can somewhat appreciate Japan for being an open society — at least on a tatemae (surface) level.
“(In Japan,) I could do everything my father wanted to do . . . from writing an article to publishing a book to being featured by a newspaper,” all of which he could not have accomplished in China, he said. He even used to write a monthly column for Newsweek’s Japanese edition.
Now, by running for office, “I want to tell 1.3 billion people in China about what democracy is like . . . that even a foreigner-turned-Japanese who is involved in a kind of job many people look down upon on can get a chance,” he said.
Lee’s first wish has come true. News that he is running for a seat in the Shinjuku assembly has generated huge buzz in China, where it was shared over 8 million times on Sina Weibo, Twitter’s counterpart in China.
“They seemed to be surprised to know how I can behave freely,” he said.
But Lee has a bigger goal: to improve democracy in Japan by changing the honne (true feelings) of Japanese toward foreigners entering politics.
“When I tell people that I’m running for the Shinjuku assembly, even my Japanese friends expressed concern,” he said. “They seemed to be afraid that a foreigner might attain a position (that would allow him) to alter their country,” because they can’t foresee how Japan would change if led by “a foreigner.”
Even harsher criticism erupted in Japanese online, Lee said. Some people began spreading rumors that he is connected with the Chinese mafia and wants to subvert Japan from inside.
“But such criticism is still part of democracy — the right of expression,” he said, adding that he wants to change such prejudiced mind-sets starting from Shinjuku, a step forward to improve Japanese democracy at the local level by adding a non-Japanese perspective to the assembly.
Even if he is not elected, Lee said he will accept that as a sign that Japanese democracy has yet to open its doors to non-Japanese.
“My challenge won’t stop” until the day when society accepts various parties and they can live in harmony, he said.