A Japanese woman of Uyghur ethnicity and who was educated in the United States has been elected a member of the Japanese parliament — the first person of Uyghur heritage to run as a major party candidate in an election there.
Arfiya Eri, a 34-year-old member of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, was elected on Sunday to the lower house of the Japanese Diet to represent Chiba prefecture’s 5th district. She captured the seat previously held by Kentaro Sonoura, a former LDP lawmaker who resigned last December over a political funds scandal.
The World Uyghur Congress, or WUC, applauded the election of Eri, also known as Alfiya Hidetoshi, as the first Uyghur woman to be elected to any parliament, and the first Uyghur-Japanese politician to hold a seat in the Diet, or Japanese parliament.
Eri beat six other candidates from Chiba to win the contentious election, receiving about 5,000 votes more than the candidate who came in second, said Sawut Memet, a standing committee member of the Japanese Uyghur Association, based in Tokyo.
“This historic victory is significant for the Uyghur Japanese community, as well as the global Uyghur diaspora community,” the organization said in a statement issued Monday. “The WUC firmly believes that she will serve the interests of the Japanese citizens, and the country, at the same time raising the Uyghur issue in the Japanese Parliament and other high-level forums.”
Eri’s election comes as Uyghur rights groups have called on the international community to take concrete action against China for committing severe rights abuses against the mostly Muslim group in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Japan’s government in recent years has expressed concern about human rights conditions in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has detained Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in “re-education” camps, monitored them with intrusive digital surveillance technologies, subjected them to forced labor, and worse.
Japan’s Lower House adopted a resolution in February 2022, expressing concern over the human rights situation in China, including the plight of the Uyghurs, and called on Beijing to take measures to address the situation.
That September, WUC President Dolkun Isa asked the Japanese parliament to declare that China’s abuse of the Uyghurs amounted to a genocide, following similar determinations of genocide and crimes against humanity by the U.S. State Department and several Western legislatures.
Her election has “tremendous positive implications for Uyghurs,” showing that they are not “terrorists” as China has made them out to be to justify its repressive policies in Xinjiang, Memet told RFA.
Eri’s election also gives hope to second-generation Uyghurs living in exile and indicates that Uyghurs who embrace the election process can win, he said.
“She created a good opportunity for the international community to better understand the Uyghur situation, added Memet. “There are many in Japan who are not aware of the Uyghurs. Through Arfiya’s election, many will have a good understanding.”
Eri hails from Kitakyushu in Fukuoka prefecture. Her family moved to Japan in the 1980s, and she became a Japanese citizen when she was 11 years old. Her father is a Uyghur engineer educated in Japan on a government scholarship, and her mother is Uzbek.
Eri, who speaks seven languages, graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and worked for the Bank of Japan and the United Nations in New York before her foray into politics.
James Millward, a professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, called Eri, a former student, “a brilliant young woman, full of ideas.”
“Even then, her promise was clear: Her term paper from the undergraduate survey class she took with me was published in a peer-reviewed journal,” he told Radio Free Asia. “It needed very little editing. The people of the fifth district of Chiba prefecture are lucky to have Ms. Eri as their representative in the Japanese Diet.”
Eri is also an alumna of the United States-Japan Foundation’s leadership program and was in the 2018-19 fellowship cohort.
“We are proud of Arfiya’s milestone victory, and the significance of her support from Japanese voters,” said Jacob Schlesinger, the organization’s president, in a statement. “She exemplifies the goals and aspirations of our foundation as we work to support a new generation of diverse and innovative leaders in both countries.”