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Can’t vote? No problem, you’re empowered!

Sure, we foreigners don't have the right to vote (yet), but we can still get involved. Here's how to make yourself heard

by Ronald Kessler

What are you planning to do with yourself this summer? If you’re Japanese, have you given any thought to the country’s upcoming Upper House elections?

Here’s a more intriguing question: If you are non-Japanese, have you given any thought to the upcoming Upper House elections? Hmm, I can just imagine many of you readers out there thinking, “Intriguing?! What’s so intriguing? I don’t even have the right to vote!”

Well, okay, you’re right — you don’t. But haven’t you learned by now that it’s often better to look at the positives of a situation instead of the negatives? As you’re about to see, the wide range of roles Japan’s foreign residents are allowed to play in the country’s political activities and elections offer a surprisingly good opportunity to practice what we fondly refer to as “glass half-full” thinking.

We CAN get involved!

Although foreign residents may not be able to actually cast votes in elections, there are quite a few other things that we can do to involve ourselves in Japan’s political “machine” — and they are all legal. This tidbit of knowledge may come as somewhat of a surprise to Japanese and non-Japanese readers alike, but I assure you that it’s all verifiable in black-and-white. Well, to be totally honest, you’ll find this truth “told” more in white than black, as the Election Law is much more revealing in terms of what is not written on its pages than what is. The point is simply this: Although the law doesn’t directly state that foreign residents can participate in political and electoral activities, it also does not prohibit us from doing so. You can check it out for yourself; the Free Choice Foundation has posted the election rules in English on its Web site at www.FreeChoice.jp/election.asp or you can call the Election Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to hear it straight from the powers that be. The bureaucrats will be happy to tell you that, other than not being able to make political donations, residents of Japan are immune from discrimination of any kind — including by nationality — regarding participation in electoral activities.

Immigration’s take

So, does this mean that every noncitizen, even a tourist, can participate in the electoral process? Well, not exactly. Special permanent residents, ordinary permanent residents and residents holding a spousal visa are not prohibited from participating in political and electoral activity. Additionally, residents holding other visa classifications (work, culture, etc.) can also participate (in most cases) provided that such participation doesn’t exceed the amount of time spent on the main purpose of their visa. For instance, if you came here to work full-time as an engineer and then decided to also work part-time at a campaign office during your “off” hours, you generally shouldn’t run into any problems — and you can even get paid for it!

Now, if you don’t have a spousal- or permanent-resident visa, but still want to participate in political or electoral activities — and you want to make certain that you won’t look over your shoulder and find a bunch of nasty-looking immigration officials leering at you — a quick visit to your local immigration office will make things official. In some cases they’ll even give you a special permit.

What you can and can’t do

As a non-Japanese, you should be pleased to know there are only three things in the political process that Japanese citizens can do that we can’t.

1) Donate political funds

2) Run as a candidate

3) Vote

Other than these, the sky’s the limit; whether local or big-time national elections, it’s all open!

Of course, we must keep in mind that having equal rights also necessitates that we play by the election rules. Like the Japanese, we must understand and adhere to the Election Law. Break a rule and you could quickly find yourself in a fairly deep pile of nature’s finest fertilizer. And, should the mainstream media catch wind of any irregularities . . . well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty. It’s a good bet that if a noncitizen were to ever get arrested for breaking an election law, it would stand out much more conspicuously than a similar transgression by our natural-citizen counterparts. Even worse, the Shizuka Kamei-types would come crawling out of the woodwork in droves. So, please, for your own sake as well as for the rest of us, take a little bit of time and read the rules before getting involved in any activities. (Again, you’ll find a copy of them at the Free Choice Foundation Web site.)

Before I go into what we can do, there’s an important technicality that you should be aware of. Though we have the right to participate in both types of activities, there are distinct but subtle differences between “political” and “electoral” activities. Here’s an example: You cannot specifically ask someone to vote for a political candidate (that’s an electoral activity) prior to the official start of an election. However, you can talk about a political party, or even a specific candidate, prior to the start date because that is a political activity.

Also, if you have a driver’s license, you can drive a campaign car (another political activity). And, you can turn on the PA system and scream as loud as the actual candidates do while asking for votes — (if you care for that sort of thing). Keep in mind, however, that the minute you start screeching, you’ve crossed over into “electoral activity” mode.

Furthermore, you can put up posters, distribute handbills at rallies, send out postcards, call people on the phone (during permissible hours) and perform myriad other election-related tasks, as long as you bear in mind that there are important restrictions in place that you should bone up on beforehand.

You’re also allowed to join a political party (as a matter of fact, before you can take part in some of the heavier and more important campaign activities, you’ll have to). Be aware, though, that all parties have their own rules regarding membership, and that those rules may restrict said membership to natural citizens. For example, the Democratic Party of Japan, New Komeito and the Social Democratic Party allow noncitizens to join (provided that they are 18 or older), while the newly formed Your Party does not. (Hmm, maybe that last one should be called “Their Party” since the “Your” obviously doesn’t include “us.” Even more hilarious is that their Japanese name, Minna no tou, literally translates to “Everyone’s Party!”)

When asked about their membership policy, the once-dominant Liberal Democratic Party told me they would make a decision about allowing foreign members sometime this month. Somehow, I get the feeling that they’re really not overly keen on the notion, but considering the fact that their membership has plunged by more than 80 percent since its peak in 1991, they may be forced to accept dogs, cats and barnyard animals by the time the election rolls around.

But, be careful nevertheless

A few important points to be wary of should you wish to participate in the political process:

* It’s vitally important to know when an election begins, as well as its polling date. This is because you cannot ask anyone to vote for a candidate before the official start of an election, nor on the poll date itself. You can, however, invite people to attend rallies prior to an election’s start date. By the way, the official campaign start date of the upcoming House of Councillors Election is June 24. The poll date is July 11.

* Never canvass door-to-door (residences, offices, etc). This is the reason candidates often rely so heavily on loudspeakers; it’s the only way that they can “get inside.”

* Never give anyone a gift, monetary or otherwise — not even a can of coffee — when asking for a vote. This is one of the quickest and most sure-fire ways to find yourself knee-deep in fertilizer — and possibly even in the slammer. You may, however, serve green tea.

* Public demonstrations are totally banned during election campaigns.

While it would certainly be nice to eventually obtain full suffrage for noncitizens, we nevertheless have a pretty good deal right now. We can go out freely, get involved in the process and garner votes for our favorite candidate, party or cause. And, if you think about it, participating in the democratic system is one of the best ways to feel like a part of the society in which you live. Who knows, you might even inspire a few citizens to get involved as well!

Ronald Kessler is Chairman of the Free Choice Foundation, a rights organization that lobbies with government on matters of importance to the foreign community of Japan. His organization is currently sponsoring a number of online petitions, including a petition for the right to vote. For more information, visit www.FreeChoice.jp