Accessibility links

'Blue-Eyed' Politician Takes Seat in Japanese Parliament - 2002-03-10

For the first time in Japan, a person of European descent has gained a seat in Parliament. Marutei Tsurunen, originally from Finland, says he has a unique agenda, which includes winning voting rights for the country's foreign residents.

When Marutei Tsurunen was campaigning for a seat in the Japanese Parliament, he nicknamed himself the blue-eyed candidate. That highlighted his belief that being seen as different could help him in his quest, even in a culture where conformity is usually prized. He thought that Japanese voters had grown disillusioned with politics as usual, and were eager to see fresh faces in Parliament.

But in a nation traditionally wary of outsiders, Mr. Tsurunen had to persist. He lost his first three elections, but last June he finished as the top runner-up in the largest opposition group, the Democratic party. When a colleague unexpectedly stepped down in January, Mr. Tsurunen took his seat.

He compares himself to Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century American writer who took Japanese citizenship and played a key role in explaining Japanese culture to the West. "I have two missions. One is to work as a regular Japanese lawmaker and tackle many things that come up. But other one is to be a goodwill ambassador to Japan to foreign countries including the USA and others," he says.

Mr. Tsurunen came to Japan as a Lutheran missionary 35 years ago. Originally called Martti Turunen, he took on a Japanese name to become a citizen of the country. He got involved with politics in the early 1990s when he joined a local assembly in the small town near Tokyo where he taught English. He says that his desire to help others led him to a political career. "I really feel it is my mission here. As a missionary you can reach only a few people but as a politician you can reach more people and work inside the society as a whole," he says.

He says his key goals are to obtain suffrage rights for Japan's 1.5 million foreign residents. Foreigners who live in Japan cannot vote, and the issue is a sore point among hundreds of thousands of people from South Korea and other nations who have lived in the country for decades. He also is planning to propose legislation that will protect the environment, such as a law that mandates household recycling. He believes that environmentally friendly industries, such as organic farming, could create more jobs in Japan, where unemployment is near a record high.

In his two months as a freshman lawmaker, Mr. Tsurunen says he is receiving strong support from other legislators, regardless of their political leanings.

Gregory Clark is president of Tokyo's Tama University. He is not sure that Mr. Tsurunen will be able to accomplish his aims, but not because of his ethnicity. "Before you have any influence in the Japanese Parliament, you have to serve at least 10 years. He is already 60 years old and it is unlikely that he will come back after too many elections. I think he will be regarded as an oddity and it will be left at that," he says.

But Mr. Tsurunen may prove his critics wrong. He says his supporters send him nearly a hundred emails a day and a series of articles in national newspapers is helping raise his profile. "I can do this and I will do my best and I believe that God helps me," he says.

His supporters, such as student Masayoshi Kuboya, are also optimistic. "Every each country has its own culture and values," he says. "I have high expectations of Mr. Tsurunen because he has a foreign background and a different way of looking at things."

With widespread public disenchantment over a series of government corruption scandals and disappointment over the ailing economy, some political analysts predict that Mr. Tsurunen's straightforward approach may help him. They note that unlike many other members of the Japanese Parliament, he lacks ties to trade unions, lobbyists and pressure groups - leaving him with few conflicts of interest when it comes to policymaking.