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SUFFRAGE

Absentee ballot system up, running

Expats won hard-fought battle but suffrage still eludes foreign permanent residents

by Setsuko Kamiya

Suffrage is a fundamental right of a democracy, and many countries ensure their citizens can cast absentee ballots.

It was only a decade ago, however, that Japanese living abroad won the right to vote in national polls. They had to campaign actively before politicians were pushed into establishing this right.

Over the years, improvements have been made to the voting system, but some critics say that more needs to be done to ensure that all eligible voters can exercise this right fairly.

Another issue being considered is allowing foreign nationals with permanent resident status to vote in local-level elections.

Following are questions and answers about the voting system, and where expatriates and permanent residents fit in:

How did Japanese abroad win suffrage?

The process began in 1993, when politics went through a transition that saw the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lose its Lower House majority for the first time ever.

Many expatriates observing the developments back here in Japan with great interest were disappointed that they could not participate in the election process.

At the time, the Public Office Election Law did not grant suffrage to voters living outside the country.

Only Japanese registered as living in Japan were allowed to vote.

Seeing this as a violation of the Constitution’s stipulation that all Japanese nationals at or above the age of majority have the right to vote, expatriates living in Los Angeles formed the lobby Japanese Overseas Voters Network, which later expanded to 13 cities in 11 countries.

In 1996, its members sued the government, claiming their denial of the right to vote violated the Constitution.

As the litigation proceeded, the government submitted a bill to revise the election law in 1998.

It cleared both chambers and was enacted that year.

It took until 2005 for the group to win their legal case at the Supreme Court, however.

What are the qualifications required for Japanese living abroad to vote? How are they registered?

Citizens of Japan who are 20 and older who have lived more than three months in another country qualify.

But unlike Japanese living in Japan whose residence registration is automatically reflected in the voter registration, expatriates must apply to be listed as overseas voters.

An application must be submitted to a Japanese embassy or consulate, which in turn sends it on to Japan for registration.

Basically, one is registered with the local government where the applicant lived in Japan before moving away, or with the locality of one’s family registry.

What revisions have been made to the voting system?

When the law allowed Japanese living overseas to participate in Diet elections, they could only cast ballots for proportional representation candidates, meaning they could only vote for parties.

The 2005 revision finally allowed them to cast ballots for candidates in districts and to participate in by-elections.

Technically, it was only at last July’s Upper House poll that expatriates won full suffrage for national elections.

How many Japanese are regis tered as overseas voters?

According to the Foreign Ministry, as of July there were some 798,000 eligible voters overseas, but only a little more than 100,000 are registered.

Observers say the number of eligible voters probably exceeds 1 million, because people who don’t bother to register with their local embassy do not appear in the official numbers.

Many claim the government has failed to grasp the exact number of eligible expatriate voters, and thus the system is already flawed.

Why does the number of registered overseas voters remain low?

Several technical reasons prevent expatriates from pressing their right to vote.

Voting day always falls on a Sunday in Japan, but embassies and consulates abroad are only open on weekdays. And people who do not live near them must vote by mail.

The troublesome procedure of having to use the mail to apply for and receive expatriate voter registration and then send ballots to Japan before the polling deadline prove a deterrence, said Hayahiko Takase, president of Japanese Overseas Voters LA, who was among the leaders of the initial campaign.

And voters have no way to confirm that their ballots made the deadline unless they send them by express mail.

“Voters are still not equal under the law,” Takase said, noting that casting ballots via e-mail would be an efficient way to solve the problem.

How do politicians feel about this issue?

A group of nonpartisan politicians recently launched a league to promote overseas voting and said they will work to raise registration and facilitate the process.

Online voting may be a solution but has yet to be allowed domestically.

Pushing this would require further revision of the Public Office Election Law, the politicians said.

Tetsundo Iwakuni, head of the Democratic Party of Japan’s international affairs division, said his party is aiming to establish overseas offices to increase its profile with expatriate voters.

What is the status of efforts to give permanent residents of Japan the right to vote?

Foreign nationals currently do not have the right to vote in Japan and the issue of giving foreign permanent residents that right for local-level elections is controversial.

Permanent residents, mainly Korean descendants of those who lived in Japan before the war and were forced to take Japanese nationality at that time, have been fighting for local-level suffrage.

Newcomers with permanent resident status from other countries and regions, including China, Brazil and the Philippines, are also part of this movement.

Recently, DPJ members started work on a bill to grant them suffrage. New Komeito has also been active in this area.

However, conservative lawmakers oppose granting foreigners suffrage, arguing such residents must become naturalized Japanese first. This is because the Constitution stipulates that sovereignty rests with the people, and people are defined as those who hold Japanese nationality, they say.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk