It seems I am a bit late to the ball, but as a follow up to my bit on the expanding role of foreigners in Japan in my “Japan apologists” post, I’d like to introduce you to the first American elected official in Japan, Anthony Bianchi, who was voted into the city council of Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture in April 2003. The best way for you to learn about him is to listen to this 2003 NPR interview (Requires Windows Media Player). The native Brooklynite came to Japan as an English teacher in 1989, married a Japanese woman and became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2002 after 3 years of paperwork. It’s great to hear him explain in his thick Brooklyn accent how he managed to get more votes (3,000) than any native-born Japanese candidate in the election.
He explains that the keys to his huge success were: a) His years of teaching produced a large contingent of people of voting age who knew him from being his student; and b) Dissenting voters appreciated his promises to bring a more open style of politics to the city. In Inuyama, a suburb of Nagoya with a population of 73,000, he was able to ride his close relations with the citizens and a populist platform (given all the more relevance by his status as an experienced outsider) to victory in a low-turnout election.
Bianchi speaks in an earnest, convincing manner and uses American-style aggressive political tactics to push populist causes. His first initiative was easy: he demanded that the mayor carry out a plan to broadcast city council proceedings on the Internet, something that many other cities had done already but that Inuyama had been dragging its feet on. But it made for great press when he demanded the change in his first question after being elected. Thankfully, he did it, so now the world can watch him spout off about fascinating topics like government procurement and public comment systems here (requires Internet Explorer).
Bianchi’s story is a fascinating example of how a Western foreigner can successfully assimilate in Japan. He campaigned on a platform of “Protect traditions together and make the future bright for the sake of Inuyama,” and his homepage exclaims, “Progress over precedent, common sense over ordinances!” He also looks to be very involved in the Japanese vision of “internationalization” meaning lots of cultural exchanges and eikaiwa classes.
Bianchi’s political style stands in stark juxtaposition with that of a better-known Western-born activist in Japan, Debito Arudo (Pictured below). Debito, also a naturalized Japanese citizen who was born and raised in the US (California), is much more confrontational, divisive, and preoccupied with identity politics. While Debito demands to be accepted as a “Japanese person” as part of his multiculturalist vision for Japan, Bianchi seems to relish his status as an American who made a life for himself in small-town Japan. He even uses his “New York-ness” to make himself more accessible (See picture on right). Bianchi is also much less of an “activist,” even to the point of not wanting to be called a politician as that would distract from his goals as a servant for the town of Inuyama. That’s certainly an understandable desire as “politician” is an much crueler epithet than “gaijin,” but it reflects his decidedly provincial aspirations.
When Debito tried to help his wife’s ultimately successful bid for a city council seat in their hometown of South Sapporo City by holding a debate of the candidates, he ended up feeling rather miffed when the local authorities forbid it citing a conflict of interest (properly, IMO). I’m not sure if Bianchi ran into similar frustrations, but I suspect his long experience in his city’s public school system as head of the native English teacher program gave him a better idea of what would be tolerated in the city.
It’s a little unfair to compare two men with vastly different careers and aims, but reading about Bianchi was a refreshing reminder that there are other models for expat social activism out there.