Foreign Born Diet Member Tsurunen Utters the F-word


Marutei Tsurunen



In Dec. 28’s Japan Times, Charles Lewis wrote a respectful Zeit Gist column asking three fellow wise men (sumo wrestler Konishiki, musicologist Peter Barakan and Diet member Marutei Tsurunen) about their successful lives as “foreigners” in Japan. Despite their combined century of experience here, the article pointed out how they are still addressed at times like outsiders fresh off the boat.

Their coping strategy? Essentially, accept that you are a foreigner in Japan and work with it.

That is fine advice for some. But not for us all. I talked to three other wise men, with Japanese citizenship and a combined tenure of more than 50 years here, who offered a significantly different take.

Takuma (who asked to be identified by only his first name), a university professor who was granted Japanese citizenship last year, felt “puzzled” by the attitudes — particularly Tsurunen’s quote, “We are foreigners and we can’t change the fact. . . . It’s no problem for me to be a foreigner . . . I always say I am a Finn-born Japanese.”

Takuma: “That’s a bit absurd. It’s as if he’s contradicting himself in the same breath. I would understand if he said something like, ‘I accept that I am often viewed as a foreigner, or that people mistakenly take me as a foreigner.’ It’s sad that he would refer to himself as a ‘foreigner’ — when in fact he isn’t.”

Kento Tanaka (a pseudonym), a corporate manager in Osaka, even felt a degree of indignation.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and lifestyle, and if you wish to see yourself as a foreigner in Japan no matter what, that’s fine. But it’s very strange for a naturalized Diet member to call himself a ‘foreigner,’ he said.

“Mr. Tsurunen in particular knows Japan’s Nationality Law, and has worked on committees dealing with it. It makes no sense for a legal representative of Japan to contradict the laws of the land like this. He made these statements in English, right?”

I confirmed with the author that yes, Mr. Tsurunen’s original quotes were rendered as is from the original English.

Kento: “Then I think he should consider clarifying or retracting. What’s the point of taking out Japanese citizenship if he undermines the status for us naturalized (citizens)? Like it or not, he represents us.”

Kaoru Miki, a technical writer in the video games industry, concurs.

“I agree Mr. Tsurunen should know better. I wouldn’t call myself a foreigner, no. Foreign-born, sure, or even ‘British’ when casually referring to my background. But not foreign. Ever. Just on general principle. Unfortunately, it’s an easy trap to fall into when the author of the JT article makes sweeping statements like: ‘It is still also a fact that no matter how long a foreigner lives in this country they will never shed their outsider status in the eyes of most native-born Japanese.’ “

“I often hear this kind of anecdotal hearsay bandied as fact, but it really doesn’t hold water. Exclusionary establishments exist, sure, but outside of guesting systems like the JET Programme or exchange students, it’s been my experience that people are for the most part accepted as is.

“Being asked for the 1011th time if you can use chopsticks may be tiresome, but it’s a far cry from being treated as an outsider, and to claim otherwise cheapens the experiences of those that face genuine discrimination,” argues Kaoru.

“Back to Mr. Tsurunen. The way I read his comments — and I’m assuming he meant ‘foreign-born,’ not ‘foreign’ — is that you don’t need to pretend to be something you’re not in order to fit in.

“Mr. Tsurunen’s being born and brought up outside of Japan is something that will never change (i.e. in that sense, always a foreigner), and he doesn’t feel he needs to take up kendo, learn to make sushi, and walk around the house in yukata while listening to enka all the time (i.e. pretend to be Japanese) just to be accepted here.

“It’s an extension of the ‘there is no single Japanese way’ concept that Debito has always been a proponent of. Given Mr. Tsurunen’s achievements, I’d be surprised if he hadn’t meant something along these lines,” Kaoru wrote in an e-mail.

That brings us to the point of this column: What might have been meant, and what comes across in the article, are the common misunderstandings that we long-termers should understand and avoid.

One issue to consider is what trail is being blazed, since Mr. Lewis offered his three wise men up as examples of “foreigners” who have “made it” in Japan.

Congratulations to them. Seriously. However, they are not really templates for others. Given the extraordinary hoops these gents had to jump through, they are the exceptions that prove the rule — that the barriers to success are too high for most non-Japanese to get over.

In fact, if they still feel that they are “foreigners” after a generation of life here and Japanese citizenship, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the template.

The bigger issue, however, is the image these high-profile long-termers are projecting when they still refer to themselves publicly as “foreigners.” Not only are they avoiding the appropriate status (after a century here, they should be calling themselves “immigrants”), but it also has knock-on effects that go beyond them as individuals.

These attitudes imperil the ethnic identities of Japanese children of international marriages.

Our wise men and many international children are probably here for life. But there is a fundamental difference between them. Long-termer immigrants came over here by choice, and most arrived as fully formed adults — with the choice to keep or subsume their ethnic identity.

Children of international roots are not offered that same choice. Born and raised here, and often left to their own devices within the Japanese educational system, they have an ethnic identity thrust upon them at a more malleable age, often based upon their physical appearance. That’s why we have to be careful when using “foreigner” in a way that conflates nationality (a legal status) with ethnicity (a birth status).

It is accurate for Mr. Tsurunen to say, as he did, that he is a “Finn-born Japanese.” However, as Kento pointed out above, it is inaccurate to say that a naturalized person is still a “foreigner.”

Personal choice of identity, coping strategy, whatever — a high-profile immigrant should be careful never to condone, or miscommunicate that he condones, this conflation. Otherwise, we will have a lot of ethnic Japanese children who call Japan their native land, yet are labeled and treated as “foreigners” — because the famous adult “foreigners” do it.

Instead, we long-termers should be using our status to promote the freedom of choice of identity for international children — helping them learn about retaining their ethnic roots within Japan, and helping other people understand that it is possible to be “Japanese” yet retain non-Japanese ethnic roots.

Mr. Tsurunen declined to comment for this article. In responses to many e-mails about the original article, his office released the following comment in Japanese (my translation):

“I wish to thank everyone for their comments. As people have pointed out, my use of the English word ‘foreigner’ was inappropriate. I was trying to express that I am not a ‘Japan-born Japanese’ and used ‘foreigner,’ but strictly speaking I should have said ‘foreign-born person,’ or, as I said in the article, ‘Finn-born Japanese.’

“I regret using expressions that gave rise to misunderstandings, and would like to offer my apologies.”

Let’s give Takuma the last word on coping strategies for immigrants who are less famous, but also comfortable and successful in Japan:

“Personally, I don’t get angry — or even a little bit upset — when someone refers to me as a ‘foreigner.’ But I do calmly say, ‘Actually, I’m Japanese now,’ and explain if necessary.

“Regardless, I don’t think it’s necessary to fight or argue with everybody over this issue. Just calmly state your case, and leave it at that. There will always be close-minded people — and we have to admit there are a lot of Japanese who have a narrow view on the issue of nationality — but most Japanese are pretty accepting.

“The concept of ‘being accepted as a Japanese’ is very fuzzy and can be interpreted in many ways. I have found that most Japanese — much more so than my foreign colleagues, friends and family — are very accepting of my new nationality. Mostly, though, I just want to be accepted as me — an individual — not as a nationality.”

Words to the wise.

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