Marutei Tsurunen

Japan's Blue-Eyed Politician

Marutei Tsurunen
Marutei Tsurunen, a naturalized Japanese citizen from Finland, smiles as he shows a pin as a member of Japanese Upper House at the National Diet in Tokyo Feb. 8, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

It took four attempts—and four defeats—in Japan’s parliamentary elections, but in February, Marutei Tsurunen—a naturalized Japanese citizen of Finnish heritage—finally won his seat in the Diet. The victory, which would have been unthinkable for any gaijin 20 years ago, makes Tsurunen, 61, the first Caucasian lawmaker in Japan.

Tsurunen, who was born Martti Turunen, first went to Japan from Finland as a Lutheran missionary in 1967. He worked at an orphanage for several years and then became an English teacher, Finnish translator of Japanese literature, and author. But it was not until he met and married a Japanese woman that he decided to spend the rest of his life in Japan and, consequently, to seek citizenship.

Emulating Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish writer and journalist who went to Japan in 1890 and became a Japanese citizen and renowned interpreter of Japanese culture to the West, Tsurunen wrote a book, I Want to Be Japanese. But his attempts to adopt this new identity resulted only in frustration.

“I realized it’s impossible,” he said to Melbourne’s The Age. “I can’t become Japanese. [The Japanese also] don’t expect me to be completely Japanese, but to have an outsider’s view of this society.” Tsurunen says he doesn’t see himself as Finnish or Japanese, but as “an international person.”

Tsurunen’s foray into politics began in the town assembly in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, where he served as an independent assembly member. But feeling fenced in by the limitations of a small town, he soon resigned and ran in the House of Councilors election in 1995. In early campaigns, Tsurunen, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, would urge his voters to elect “the first Japanese lawmaker with blue eyes” to the Diet.

His goals for his tenure in parliament are clear: first, to tackle environmental issues, and second, to end racial discrimination in Japan’s homogenous society. As a non-native Japanese familiar with the country’s often exclusionary practices, Tsurunen can sympathize with the large numbers of residents of Korean descent who are denied suffrage and other basic rights—despite the fact that many of them are third- or fourth-generation Korean-Japanese who do not even speak Korean.

In an interview with the Nikkei Weekly, Tsurunen said, “I want to allow a fresh breeze to blow into Japanese politics, which is needed in order for politics here to become truly international in scope.”