Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2010
After spending an hour zipping through the outskirts of north Tokyo on the sleek Tsukuba Express, I find myself on the receiving end of a sales pitch from a local city councilor on the virtues of living in “Tsukuba Science City.” We walk through a shopping mall as he enthusiastically explains how the municipality was laid out to enhance technical research and scientific innovation. He waves a quick hello to a constituent on the escalator.
Perhaps it’s not so odd for a local politician to promote his turf, but what is unusual is that the guy I am talking to looks like he might be Bill Clinton’s younger brother. It’s clear he is a dedicated public official; it’s also clear he isn’t originally from Japan.
I have just met Jon Heese, a Saskatchewan native, Japanese citizen and Tsukuba city councilor. Heese is a member of a small but burgeoning group of foreign-born politicians whose experiences are a testament to Japan’s internationalization—and the success that comes with integration into a difficult-to-penetrate local culture.
Like many foreigners, Heese, 46, got his start in Japan as an English instructor. “I came in ’91 in the good old days, when teaching salaries were ¥400,000 a month with an apartment included,” he says, with a distinct note of nostalgia in his voice. He also tried his hand at acting, playing American presidents in independent Japanese flicks like Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu and Girara no Gyakushu.
But Heese wanted to connect with Japan more deeply. “All day long I was speaking English. My Japanese just wasn’t improving,” he recalls. “I wanted to put myself in a position where I had to speak Japanese, so I opened up a bar—it was pretty easy to get going, I was really surprised how cheap it was. The liquor companies basically gave me everything I needed on spec, so all I needed was the location. Getting the actual liquor license was unbelievably easy.”
Heese’s business initially met with overwhelming success, but as Japan’s inflated Bubble economy went flat, his customer base began to dry up. Then, in 2002, the Japanese government enacted new drunk driving laws—a death sentence for his pub.
“At least 30 percent of my business came from 10km away. The cops sat outside my bar five nights a week, catching everybody—even if they had only drunk half a glass of beer, they were busted. I had never seen anything like it anywhere, how hardcore these cops were. We lost 70 percent of our business overnight.”
The venture soon collapsed under the weight of debt. Shell-shocked at how quickly decisions by national bureaucrats could affect his livelihood, Heese felt the need to act.
“I am not advocating drunk driving in any way,” he says. “However, in Canada, when they did the same thing—setting up checkpoints and busting people—and the bars started to lose business, what did the bars do? They organized and went to the town or city council to say, ‘Hey, we need help.’ The city council would start doing public service announcements to advocate having a designated driver, so people could still go out.”
Heese visited other bar owners and found out they were hurting, too. “I explained that we should organize—I even wanted to go demonstrate in front of the police station. People don’t realize what an asset a good nightlife is for a city. It means that young people want to live there, and if you have young people, you have a future. If you only have old people, your city dies.”
Despite getting sympathy from fellow pub owners, Heese realized that not many of them were willing to speak up.
“It’s like the one nail that sticks out—no one wanted to stand up and get knocked down. So I said, ‘I’m out of here,’ and closed up and sold the bar—with a lot of debt that I am still paying off.”
Yet this sour experience provided the impetus for Heese’s new and novel vocation. “When you get lemons, you make lemonade, and that was kind of my push. We had an election in 2004 and I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot!’”
In order to become an elected official, foreign-born residents first have to apply for Japanese citizenship, a process that Heese recounts as tedious but not particularly difficult (see sidebar). In fact, just two years prior to Heese’s election to city council, Marutei Tsurunen, a former Finn, became the first foreign-born politician to serve in Japan’s national government.
A Lutheran missionary-turned-politician, Tsurunen made a name as the first naturalized citizen to serve on a town council, in Yugawara, Kanagawa, in 1992. Like many groundbreakers, however, success did not always come easy. In his bid for national office, Tsurunen, 69, suffered four defeats before making it into the House of Councilors—and then only when the elected Diet member decided to relinquish his seat and it automatically went to Tsurunen, his runner-up.
“Luckily, he quit after just five and a half months, so I got five and a half years for my first term” explains Tsurunen as I sip tea with him in his office in Nagatacho. Things went smoother in the next election, in 2007, when he was directly elected with 240,000 votes—more than enough to seal his legitimacy as Japan’s first blue-eyed Diet member.
At around the same time, another foreign-born political contender was making his debut. Brooklynite Anthony Bianchi had decided to make
a go at life in Japan when a TV show he was working on in New York got cancelled. After starting off in the JET program, he got a job with the board of education in Inuyama City, outside of Nagoya, to develop a specialized English program using proprietary materials.
“I felt a responsibility to find good teachers, so the students could get a good education,” Bianchi, 51, tells Metropolis. “And I also felt a responsibility to those teachers to make sure they were treated well in the schools.”
It took years to get the program up and running and, like Heese, Bianchi became frustrated dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy.
“I felt like I was just complaining about stuff, and I got tired of complaining and decided
I should do something more positive for the community,” he says. “That’s when I started thinking about getting citizenship and running for office.”
Bianchi admits that he knew “zero about running a campaign” when he started out, but thanks to a platform based on greater transparency in government and empowering schools—not bureaucrats—to make decisions about education, his message resonated with voters. In 2003, he was elected as a city councilor in Inuyama with 3,300 votes—a record number.
Despite Japan’s reputation as hostile to newcomers, all three foreign-born politicians say they’ve been treated with respect and fairness—to a point.
“It’s hard to get here, but once you get in, there is a lot of acceptance,” Bianchi says.
“I am on a Japanese [right wingers’] ‘watch list’ and there are these guys in black vans,” Heese says. “[But the] Japanese are pretty open, and they have a long tradition of sending out people to bring back new ideas.”
“They can welcome me as a politician, but not as a leader,” says Tsurunen, who suggests that this may be the reason he has not been tapped for a ministerial post.
Indeed, most policy decisions in Japan are not made by politicians, but by the country’s murky and obstinate bureaucracy, as Heese learned shortly after getting elected.
“I wanted to make one small change to the timing of a traffic light in the city, but I found out it’s not the council that decided such things, it’s the police, and they just said no,” he recalls.
“Kanryoshugi—Japanese officialdom—is running everything, but it is really the politicians’ fault,” Bianchi adds. “We let them take that power, and we need to take it back. No one voted for those guys. We have elections, and the people who are elected should be making the policies.”
On a municipal level, true administrative power lies not with the city councilors, but with the mayor—an office for which Bianchi ran unsuccessfully in 2008. Tsurunen says he would have been surprised if Bianchi had won. “Foreigners are welcome, but [Japanese] want to rule this country.”
Yet despite the concentration of power in the bureaucracy, elected officials are able to bring about gradual change through concerted effort. Tsurunen talks excitedly about a push by his Democratic Party of Japan to enact a dual-citizenship bill—as it stands now, Japan is the only G8 country that does not allow it.
Like other politicians, these foreign-born officials have pledged to pursue policies that are of importance to their constituents. Bianchi has dedicated himself to reducing wasteful public spending, while Tsurunen and Heese support efforts to aid Japan’s farmers and increase domestic food production.
“In Tsukuba, we have 200,000 people and only 700 farmers, and only 200 of those farm full-time,” says Heese. “Farmers feed us all. We can pretend that there is enough food in China and the US even if some big disaster happens, [but] that ain’t the truth. It really is important to support local farmers.”
Tsurunen, meanwhile, champions the idea of reducing imports of animal feed and using under-utilized farmland to increase domestic production.
Bianchi admits that farming is not his strong suit—“I am from Brooklyn, and there is not much agriculture, except grass growing through the cracks in the concrete,” he says—but he’s focused on his own projects, particularly a push to make local government operate in a leaner fashion.
“I analyze the budget a lot and look for places where they are wasting money,” he says. “There is a lot of stupid spending.”
Heese points out that a politician’s job is not all about trying to amend policies or pass legislation. He strives to be an inspirational representative of Japan’s increasingly complex global community.
“My dream is to see 30 to 40 of us foreign-born politicians out there,” he says. “I guarantee it will benefit Japan, because it will change people’s image of the country.” He tells of a recent visit by American officials from Tsukuba’s sister city of Irvine, California.
“They walked into the room and started shaking hands with all the Japanese, and when it came to me and I was introduced as a city councilor, all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow!’ Their whole image of Tsukuba changed.”
The reaction has been much the same when delegations arrive from Tsukuba’s sister cities in Korea and China. “It really does change people’s perspective of what’s possible in Japan.”
Jon Heese: aishiterutsukuba.jp
Marutei Tsurunen: http://homepage2.nifty.com/yugatsuru/
Anthony Bianchi: www.bianchi-inuyama.com
So you’re thinking of becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen? Here’s what to do
Be serious Changing your citizenship is, obviously, a big decision. Japan doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, meaning by law you’ll have to renounce the nationality of your homeland. You will have to give up your old passport, and you may no longer be able to live freely, work, or in some cases, own property in your former country.
Get a job As wonderful as it is to freelance, Japanese bureaucracy puts a heavy emphasis on traditional full-time employment, and you’ll need to show on your application how you make a living.
Establish residency You must have been a resident of Japan for at least five years, as reckoned from the date of landing on your gaijin card. And don’t forget to get a re-entry permit if you leave; otherwise the counter will be reset.
Get married The easiest way to expedite the process is to marry a Japanese national. You will have a much harder time becoming a Japanese citizen if you don’t.
Learn the language You should anyway, but because you will be dealing with your immigration officer in Japanese and writing an essay about why you want to naturalize, you’ll need to have your speaking and (at least some) reading and writing in order.
Pay your taxes You’ll need to prove that you have made your contribution to society.
Behave Don’t get into any legal entanglements.
Get your papers in order Among other documents, you’ll need copies of your tax and financial records, birth certificate, parents’ birth certificates, parents’ marriage license and your marriage license.
Pick a name If you’ve always wanted a cool kanji name, this is your chance. In the old days, you had to pick from a limited group of standardized names, but now you can choose your own characters. You can even write your name with katakana if you prefer.
Prepare yourself for the long haul Applying for citizenship is a trying process, designed to weed out applicants through attrition. You will need to meet multiple times with the immigration officer, so be ready to accommodate any extra requests.