Arfiya Eri is a young multilingual woman and former UN official, all of which would help her stand out as a Japanese political candidate except that she is also of Uighur heritage.
While her campaign is not centered on her ethnic background, it is attracting attention — positive and negative — in a country where politics is still a mostly homogenous affair.
Ethnic Uighurs generally hail from China’s Xinjiang region, where the government is accused of detaining more than 1 million of them and other Muslim minorities in a years-long crackdown that rights groups say includes widespread “crimes against humanity.”
Eri, 33, is running for the Japanese House of Councilors, the lower house of the National Diet, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on a platform that emphasizes bread-and-butter issues and her identity as a proud Japanese citizen.
As the first person of Uighur origin to run as a major party candidate in Japan, Eri said that her campaign is viewed by some through the prism of her family history.
“Instead of my vision and policies as a Japanese politician, people ask me about the Uighur issue because of my ethnic background,” she said. “I can understand why this happens, but it feels a bit strange.”
However, that does not mean that diversity is not a concern for a woman who speaks seven languages and was educated in Japan, China and the US.
It helped inspire her to run, after she watched an election in her native Fukuoka region in southern Japan and observed the uniformity of the candidates.
“I see more and more people like myself visibly represented in Japan, with names that are not traditionally Japanese,” said Eri, whose family name is sometimes mistaken for her first name.
“Women are also more visibly active and successful... But when you look at the world of politics, that diversity is still not being represented, it’s not reflected,” she added.
Japan’s July 10 election will see more than 500 candidates running for half of the 248-seat House of Councilors.
The LDP is expected to win, although Eri’s chances will be partly dictated by where she is eventually placed on the party list.
She plans to campaign for better work-life balance, gender equality and amending the pacifist constitution, which bars the use of force to settle international disputes and is interpreted by some as prohibiting the country from having any military force.
Eri endorses the LDP’s mainstream conservative politics, and insists Japan must “stand firm on our national security.”
Eri also declines to use the name Xinjiang for China’s Uighur-majority region, and said her familiarity with alleged human rights abuses has shaped her views.
The candidate described “human rights violations at an unspeakable scale in places like the Uighur region,” and said she believes even a minor rights violation “opens the door” to worse abuses.
Eri’s family moved from Japan to China when she was a teenager, after her father, an engineer, was transferred by his employer.
She graduated from an American international school before studying in the US, and joined the UN in 2016 after a stint at the Bank of Japan.
Her international resume sets her apart from many election candidates, but “rather than my actual experiences and expertise or who I really am, my background has drawn more attention,” she said.
Much of that has been positive, but there has also been online vitriol questioning Eri’s identity, her trustworthiness and even her patriotism.
Candidates such as Eri have little to gain from putting their diversity front and center in mostly mono-ethnic Japan, said Tomoaki Iwai, professor emeritus of Japanese politics at Nihon University.
They “can face an adverse voter reaction if they push their ethnicity too much,” he said, adding that things are beginning to change, especially in urban areas, but the pace is gradual.
Eri said Japan must “build a country that embraces diversity,” although she said that there is a long way to go, including in the LDP.
“I believe that this is vital for the future of Japan,” she said.
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