In a nation where there are few foreign-born politicians in local assemblies or in the Diet, the sight of a candidate openly touting his or her foreign background through loudspeakers on the campaign trail can come as a surprise.
Reactions to their candidacy vary — from welcoming to incredulous to downright hostile.
But like it or not, as Japanese society has become increasingly diverse over the years as the nation brings in more foreign workers through various channels, “there will be more and more candidates with non-Japanese backgrounds in the future,” said Atsushi Kondo, a professor of immigration policy studies at Meijo University.
Debates over whether to allow foreign participation in politics have traditionally revolved around Korean residents who came to the country during Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula between 1910 to 1945 and their descendants, who have special residency visas.
“We’re now entering an age where the issue concerns a wider range of nationalities, from Brazilians to Chinese and Indians to Vietnamese and Filipinos,” Kondo noted.
The Japan Times recently interviewed three Japanese of foreign descent about the joys and challenges they faced as they ran in quadrennial local assembly polls in Tokyo held Sunday.
Puranik Yogendra: Edogawa
Puranik Yogendra, 41, became the first assemblyman of Indian descent in Edogawa Ward on Sunday, having finished an impressive fifth out of 58 candidates on the ballot. Of the 226,561 valid ballots cast, Yogendra — backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan — bagged 6,477 votes.
The former banker and single father of a 16-year-old lives in the Nishikasai neighborhood, which is home to a large population of Indian residents. Yogendra, who goes by the nickname “Yogi,” became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2012.
Yogi’s interest in politics was piqued several years ago when he got wind of Edogawa Ward’s plan to build a “Little India” in Nishikasai — complete with a Hindu temple, Indian restaurants and even a hospital catering exclusively to Indian residents, he said. But ward officials, Yogi claims, seemed blissfully unaware that the creation of such a designated area could result in the area’s Indian residents becoming alienated from the larger Japanese community.
“Indians here don’t want a new hospital of their own. … They already have a huge facility called Tokyo Rinkai Hospital in their area and they would rather have budgets set aside for the greater availability of English-speaking doctors or nurses there so they can use the facility more conveniently,” said Yogi, who has lived in Japan for 20 years.
“Given more foreigners will be coming in and municipal services for them are coming up short, we do need a project of some kind. But whatever reforms we carry out, we have to do so the right way. Otherwise it’s a waste of money.”
In the final days of his campaigning, local schoolchildren, mothers and his compatriots sometimes walked up to him or stopped to chat with him as a way to show their support. But that doesn’t mean he’s always had it easy.
“Some voters have said to me things like, ‘Who the hell are you? Go back to your country!'” he said of his experience on the campaign trail.
“But if you want to become a politician, you can’t take these words personally. You have to accept that there are people who think like this in society and get on with it. You’re the one who needs to be the adult here.”
Lee Komaki: Shinjuku
Few know more about the difficulty of running in a Japanese election as a foreign-born candidate as Lee Komaki, a naturalized Japanese citizen of Chinese descent who, for the second time, failed to win a seat in the Shinjuku Ward Assembly in Sunday’s poll.
Lee, 58, who ran as an independent, garnered 1,036 votes in the race, nearly unchanged from his previous total of 1,018 in 2015.
Having arrived in Japan in 1988 as an exchange student, Lee, born Lee Xiaomu, recalls having to battle deep-rooted prejudice against his non-Japanese origins throughout the campaign, with some voters frowning at the mere mention of China.
“They notice I’m from China, and immediately lump me together with other Chinese people or even the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
He recalled one instance where a Japanese woman who came across him while he was stumping launched into a tirade about how loud and ill-mannered her Chinese neighbors were before walking away without so much as accepting one of his flyers.
And on the internet, some vilified him as a “spy” of the CCP, he said.
“Not only I, myself, but ordinary Chinese citizens are different from the CCP. If anything, they’re the victims of a dictatorship and undemocratic system led by the CCP. But some people don’t make that distinction.”
In Shinjuku, Lee is best known as “the Kabukicho guide,” having authored books and starred in a documentary featuring decades of his experience navigating his way through the chaos of the notorious red-light district that is synonymous with nightclubs, sex businesses and yakuza.
He uses this background to bill himself as a “voice for a minority,” pledging to improve the social status of nightclub employees, strippers and foreign laborers who, he says, are prone to unfounded prejudice.
In Shinjuku Ward — home to some 42,000 non-Japanese residents, the largest concentration among Tokyo’s 23 wards — Lee considers himself a “bridge” between the foreign and Japanese communities, too.
“Foreigners don’t have the right to vote, so that’s where I step in to represent their voices,” he said.
Noemi Inoue: Sumida
Noemi Inoue, 57, an assemblywoman in Sumida Ward, burst into laughter when she recalled one of the highlights of the early part of her career as a Bolivian-born politician in Japan.
Inoue was attending a gathering with local residents when a Japanese woman came up to her and pointed at a badge she was wearing — which confirmed she was an assembly member — before asking, in a somewhat perplexed tone, “Excuse me, these badges are for politicians.”
“Yeah, I know, because I’m a politician,” Inoue replied, much to the disbelief of the woman, who she says is now “my No. 1 supporter.”
“When I became a politician, everybody was so surprised,” Inoue said in English. “Many people see me and couldn’t believe I have won” an election.
On Sunday, Inoue, a former economist at Bolivia’s central bank and the United Nations who came to Japan in 1995, finished third with 4,225 votes, assuring her of a third term in office.
Her forays into politics years after her arrival were in part inspired by her dismay at what she considered the lack of gender equality in Japan, including major hurdles for women looking to rejoin the workforce after having children. A shortage of day care centers and the pervasive mindset that men should go out to work while women stay at home to take care of domestic affairs are not helping either, she says.
“Even in Bolivia, which is a developing country … women and men are equal. They have (the) same rights, same opportunities, same salaries. In Japan, I couldn’t see that,” she said.
With Japan now transitioning toward a more diverse society with the launch of a new visa system and other societal changes, Inoue says more foreign-born politicians like herself are needed.
“The number of international marriages is increasing. Many people who come for business or work are increasing, as well as tourists. So we really need to have a multicultural and multilingual society,” she said. “I think more foreigners should become politicians.”
There is a way, she says, that foreign residents can get involved in Japanese politics without becoming naturalized.
“Foreigners can (reach out) to their local politicians and they can talk to them — and if they don’t speak Japanese they can find a friend and they can (express) to local politicians their concerns, their worries, all the problems they have,” she said.
Local politicians “are there to help everybody,” she added.