DPJ weighs voting rights for all permanent residents

by Setsuko Kamiya

A group of Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers is drafting a bill that would give foreign nationals with permanent residence status the right to vote in local elections. They plan to gear up after the Golden Week holidays and submit the bill during the current session of the Diet.

Giving foreign permanent residents voting rights in local elections is a controversial issue that surfaces in Japanese politics from time to time without resolution, mostly due to the strong opposition of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

But the DPJ, which has raised the issue a few times over the past decade since the party was established in 1998, wants to press the advantage it gained in the Upper House election last July.

If the bill passes even one of the two houses of the Diet, observers say it will be a milestone in Japan’s history of the issue of alien suffrage. Nevertheless, not everyone in the DPJ is in lockstep on the matter.

On Jan. 30, Katsuya Okada, a former DPJ president, told a group of DPJ lawmakers who support alien suffrage that he was prepared to lead the quest.

“As a party, we have long wanted to improve the legal rights of permanent residents,” Okada said. “I believe this bill symbolizes that Japanese society respects diversity.”

The group was formed less than two weeks after DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa met with Lee Sang Duk, the special envoy of newly elected South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, in Tokyo in mid-January.

With a growing number of foreigners in residence, South Korea in 2006 began allowing permanent residents to vote in local elections. Ozawa, himself a supporter of alien suffrage, reportedly told the envoy that he would try to accomplish the same in Japan.

Ozawa made the same vow to President Lee in February when he visited Seoul to congratulate him on his inauguration.

By contrast, when the issue was raised by President Lee during his official visit in late April, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda responded that the country has yet to come to a decision.

Some speculate that Ozawa sees it as yet another opportunity to drive a wedge between the LDP and coalition partner New Komeito, which is a strong advocate of granting permanent residents the right to vote.

But Ozawa, at least in public, denies this. “We shouldn’t start from the assumption of making this a political affair,” he said at a press conference in January.

At the end of 2006, some 837,000 foreign nationals were registered with the government as permanent residents, making up 40.2 percent of the total 2.08 million registered foreigners.

Among them, 443,000 were special permanent residents — mostly descendants of Koreans who lived in Japan before World War II and were forced to take Japanese nationality at that time.

The remaining 394,000 were general permanent residents, or relative newcomers to Japan from countries such as China, Brazil and the Philippines.

Permanent residency is generally granted to those with stable jobs who have lived in Japan at least 10 years. The time period is five years for those married to a Japanese national.

Voting rights has been an issue primarily for the special permanent residents, who have been here for generations, but they are expected to be outnumbered by the newcomers within a few years.

The DPJ lawmakers in favor of alien suffrage held seminars almost every other week until the end of March, inviting guest speakers on both sides of the issue to clarify their ideas.

In early April, the group declared that voting rights should be given to all permanent residents who come from countries with which Japan has official diplomatic ties, thus excluding North Koreans.

Under the envisaged bill, permanent residents who wish to vote would be granted the right upon application.

“Japan is increasingly depopulated, and it’s important to get foreign residents to join together in the process of developing local communities. But to encourage their sense of being an interested group themselves, it’s necessary to give them their rights and duties,” said Shinkun Haku, an Upper House lawmaker and member of the group. “This in the end will benefit Japan.”

But others in the DPJ hold a different view. Like LDP lawmakers who are against the idea, they say that because the Constitution stipulates that sovereignty rests with the people, and that the people are defined as those who hold Japanese nationality, one must obtain that before the right to vote.

DPJ Lower House lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima concurs. He says granting suffrage without the right to run for office in local elections constitutes a new form of discrimination.

Also, the Constitution does not distinguish between suffrage regarding local and national elections. Thus, for a permanent resident to obtain full suffrage, the best way would be to obtain Japanese nationality, he said.

Rather than simply give a segment of society voting rights, “if we really wanted to get more ideas from foreign residents and reflect that to form a better community for everyone, more effort has to be made to increase such opportunities first,” he said, citing the example of some local governments that allow foreign residents to participate in referendums.

“I totally agree that this society should respect diversity, and to encourage foreign residents to take part in the communities they live in. But we have a different approach,” Nagashima said.

After the Golden Week holidays, the DPJ is scheduled to establish a project team on the issue for further discussions before the party’s executive committee decides whether to endorse the bill.