For one thing, self-made, boundary-crossing leaders generally arise in times of upheaval, when it's clear familiar ways aren't working.The obvious question for Japan, given its long term structural problems, economic, demographic and otherwise: What are the prospects for a Japanese Obama? What are the chances of an outsider becoming Prime Minister?
About their atypical and unprivileged status, boundary-breaking leaders have, like Obama, usually been open, not shy—a second trait they often share. They make a loud, clear show of the fact that they aren't hiding or trimming their origins.
When charges of subterfuge fail to stick to a minority candidate, it is often because the target has made them ridiculous by showing a strong, sincere strain of don't-rock-the-boat conservatism.
The lesson to be gleaned, then, from the hardly new success of "outsider'' leaders is that, in troubled times, people want leaderly reassurance. But it's not necessarily ethnic/religious/one-of-us reassurance. Rather, they want something new and brave to address their fears, without effacing what they love most about their country. In other words, they want society to be new and old, changed and restored, familiar and unfamiliar. Anyone can say the right things about those contradictory desires, but it's much more convincing to elect a person who by birth embodies them.
Of course if you go far enough back in Japanese history, literally everyone can claim foreign ancestry. In fact, when the current Emperor visited South Korea as Crown Prince, he spoke of his probable Korean origin—an allusion to the Horse Rider Theory, which states that horse-riding nomads from Korea conquered Japan around 300AD and established the unbroken imperial line—which generated much goodwill among Koreans. But that’s probably not what we are looking for here. Let’s narrow the search a little.
Currently, three naturalized Japanese citizens serve in the Diet. They are:
(MURATA) Renho (Taiwanese) http://www.renho.jp/That’s three out of 739 (479 Lower House, 242 Upper House), not a high percentage, an indication less of discrimination than a more general reluctance to accept immigrants. There is no quick and easy way to figure out how many others have non-Japanese parents or grandparents.
HAKU Shinkun (South Korean) http://haku-s.media-trust.com/index.html
Marutei TSURUNEN (Finn!) http://homepage2.nifty.com/yugatsuru/index.html
Renho is probably the most promising of the three, although I’ve never heard her being talked up as an up-and-coming political leader. It may interest people who are looking for change, any change, though, that They all belong to the DPJ, which, of course, does not have to field so many heirloom candidates. Some years back, ARAI Shokei, a naturalized (North) Korean-Japanese, was a promising, up-and-coming LDP Diet member who had made the jump from the Ministry of Finance to politics, but committed suicide under suspicion of shady financial dealings.
How do other “outsiders” fare in politics? There has been one Ainu Diet member, SUGANO Shigeru, who also belonged to the DPJ for a couple of years before retirement. There have been a number of burakumin Diet members, usually standing from the opposition parties. But NONAKA Hiromu, who has long acknowledged his burakumin origins, was a powerful LDP kingmaker. Osaka's enormously popular (and right-wing) governor Toru Hashimoto has stated that he grew up in the Dowa regions, although he has not explicitly acknowledged burakumin ancestry. The DPJ fielded an openly lesbian candidate, Kanako Otsuji, in the 2007 Upper House election. In balance, the DPJ currently appears to be more progressive than the LDP where non-traditional candidates are concerned,.
More generally, the recent record suggests that we are quite receptive to non-traditional leaders. In soccer, six of the seven (eight if you count repeater Takeshi Okada twice) head coaches of the national team during the J-League era have been foreigners, and six out of eighteen and two out of fifteen in the J-League First and Second Divisions respectively. Gaijins have been making inroads in the more insular professional baseball as well, where four of the twelve managers in 2008 were non-Japanese. (The number dropped to two as two resigned for purely personal reasons.) In the business world, Carlos Ghosn became a national hero when he nursed the near-bankrupt auto manufacturer Nissan back to health.
Come to think of it, we the Japanese people have always been receptive to, even venerating, foreign teachers. That goes back to the beginning of our known history. It appears, though, that we have a harder time accepting outsiders as pure equals. If that is true, then it is food for thought, and I’m sure those culturalists will have a ready explanation. But I’m not a culturalist, so this is as good a place as any to end this post.
ADD (Nov. 21): My heartfelt thanks to James (see comments), who has kindly linked to this Newsweek article. The visit actually never materialized. I’ve managed to totally misremember the whole event, though the point remains the same. It was something I’d believed in so strongly that I hadn’t bothered to fact-check.
Note: the Emperor’s talk came in 2002. The following year, the South Korean soap opera Winter Sonata became a megahit on Japanese TV and Korean drama and Korean celebrities exploded on the Japanese entertainment scene.