Osaka homeless in residency registry limbo ahead of polls

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — As the Osaka Municipal Government’s deadline looms for thousands of the city’s homeless to change their residence registrations or be struck from the books, the two sides are still far apart about establishing bona-fide addresses for them to be able to vote in next month’s local polls.

The Osaka High Court on March 1 stunned city officials when it overturned a lower court ruling and ordered Osaka to suspend removal of a 34-year-old construction worker’s city registration.

The man was one of nearly 3,300 homeless people who had registered their places of residence as one of three private welfare facilities in the Kamagasaki day-laborer district. Currently, there are just over 2,200 homeless who are calling those facilities their addresses.

Osaka officials, including Mayor Junichi Seki, insist those residency registrations are illegal.

The city had planned to start erasing the entries March 2. However, it announced on that day it would postpone striking the addresses for about three weeks, during which time it would contact the private facilities to find out who was registered there and try to get those people to move into city-run facilities.

However, many people have refused to move into the city shelters because most are not near their friends and the network of aid agencies in Kamagasaki.

The district is a city within a city and Osaka officials have much less influence there than the rest of the city. There have been violent clashes between the city and the homeless in the past, most notably in October 1990, when hundreds of homeless and yakuza clashed with police and city officials in battles that lasted several days and left scores of people injured.

The city did not make public an exact deadline for expunging the registrations, but it will come some time next week.

Representatives for the homeless and the city met Monday in an attempt to strike a compromise. The two-hour meeting, which nearly ended in blows, resulted in no decision and no clear idea what the city plans to do next week.

Hiromichi Endo, a human-rights lawyer working on behalf of the homeless group, said the city’s sudden decision earlier this year to nullify the registrations violated at least two articles of the Constitution — Article 15, which guarantees the right to vote, and Article 14, which gives equal treatment under the law.

“By erasing the residency registrations of the homeless, the city will end up discriminating against them by denying them their right to vote,” Endo said, noting the election to choose Osaka Municipal Assembly members takes place next month. In the past, people registered as living at one of these facilities were allowed to vote. But if the city now denies them that right, the April election would be unconstitutional, he said.

The Osaka official in charge of the registration issue, Hirokazu Hayashi, said at Monday’s meeting that the city had not considered Article 14 when discussing striking the registrations.

“Our decision was based on residency laws on the books,” Hayashi said.

The city noted that nearly 160,000 people living outside Osaka are registered as city residents, giving them the right to vote in municipal elections — a situation the internal homeless decry.

“The bureaucrats are being hypocritical by attempting to void the residency permits of the thousands of homeless who actually live in the city, while they ignore the residency registrations of people who actually live elsewhere,” said Kousuke Nakagiri, a member of Kamagasaki Patrol, a civic group that helps the homeless.

It is unclear what the end result will be. It is unlikely that, even if the city decides to nullify the residency registrations of the remaining 2,200 people, there will be enough time to move them out and register them at city-run shelters before the April 8 municipal polls.

The homeless group is asking the city to postpone making a decision until after the polls and has requested another meeting. City official Hayashi gave no indication of when Osaka will make its next move, but said no decision would be made until at least Monday, when the mayor returns from a trip overseas.