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Debate on foreigner voting rights reignites ahead of 2020 Olympics

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The recurring debate over how much of a say non-Japanese residents should have in the country’s political process is flaring up once again, amid Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to attract more foreign workers to the country’s shores ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.

In the latest controversial move, Abe’s Cabinet discouraged local governments from passing an ordinance that would give non-Japanese residents a right to vote in municipal referendums.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party had previously distributed a brochure in 2011 urging its local chapters not to pass such an ordinance, after party members became alarmed at the increasing number of municipalities across the country that had introduced — on a permanent basis — non-Japanese-inclusive polling systems as a means of reflecting the public will.

The LDP said it had advised its prefectural chapters in June once again to abide by that earlier recommendation.

The ruling party says that more inclusive local-level voting rights give non-Japanese citizens an unduly generous say in the nation’s politics, and point out that this may violate the Constitution by undermining the principle of sovereignty of the Japanese people.

“(This may be happening) at local levels, but there is a financial burden shouldered by the central government, and we have to consider the interest of Japanese taxpayers across the country,” said LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba last month. “I do not think local municipalities can do whatever they want.”

The Japanese Constitution and the Local Autonomy Act allows referendums for several uses. Article 95 of the Constitution, for example, prohibits the Diet from passing laws affecting a particular municipality unless the majority of its residents express support via a referendum. The Local Autonomy Act, meanwhile, gives Japanese citizens the right to recall public officials through a poll.

An increasing number of municipalities are now making use of local statutes to hold votes on critical issues that affect their local populations.

While the results of these local votes are not legally binding, some LDP members and academics see them as legally problematic because they recognize foreigners, including Zainichi ethnic Korean residents, as eligible voters in local referendums.

Opponents of expanded voting rights say that contradicts stipulations in the Constitution stating that only Japanese nationals above 20 — a category which includes naturalized citizens — have the right to vote in local and national elections, as well as some referendums.

“An ordinance should be within the scope of the Constitution and law, but some local communities are trying to reinterpret those laws via their ordinances, violating the Constitution,” said Akira Momochi, a Nihon University professor specializing in Constitutional law.

The former town of Maibara in Shiga Prefecture became the first local municipality to allow permanent foreign residents over the age of 20 to vote in a referendum on whether the town should merge with adjacent towns in 2002.

According to the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), some 200 municipalities granted non-Japanese citizens the right to vote in local polls around that time, as the central government pushed smaller towns to merge in a bid to streamline local governments.

And while many of those polls were one-time, single-issue affairs, some municipalities now allow foreign nationals who are permanent residents to vote whenever a referendum is put on the table.

The city of Kawasaki, for example, passed a municipal ordinance in 2009 giving residents over the age of 18, including non-Japanese who have lived in the city for more than three years, voting rights.

While Kawasaki has yet to put a statute to the vote, Momochi and other critics are concerned that foreigners in the city and others across the country could become critical swing voters in highly politicized matters such as the relocation of military bases or the reactivation of nuclear power plants.

“Supporters of this movement are trying to allow foreigners to have a larger say in political processes little by little, as they understand it is hard to give foreigners suffrage in Japan,” he said. “But foreigners could vote against the Japanese interest.”

Kawasaki resident Wang Ping admits that some foreigners, as taxpayers, want to have a bigger say in politics.

“We would like to participate in discussions to enhance our community,” said Ping, who moved to Japan from China in 1993 and has chaired the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents in Kawasaki for the past four years. “We want to find ways to coexist with the Japanese people.”

Ping, who owns a restaurant and real estate business, said the group has submitted numerous recommendations to local government officials, including those on issues that were not limited to non-Japanese residents.

Those who support the idea of giving non-Japanese more voting rights say that such a move is inevitable given the increasing number of longtime foreign residents, and the government’s drive to boost the number of foreign workers ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

“The international community will question Japan’s handling of human rights issues if it keeps refusing to recognize long-term residents as community members or fails to grant certain rights to those people,” said Yuji Nakano, a Komazawa University professor who specializes in immigration issues.

Since the 1990s, Japan has taken steps to enfranchise permanent non-Japanese residents, while other countries — including South Korea and some Scandinavian and European countries — have granted foreign residents who have maintained residency for more than three years the legal right to vote in local elections.

The Supreme Court in 1995 upheld an Osaka High Court ruling that the Constitutional definition of “Japanese citizens” and “residents” only applies to Japanese nationals, denying foreigners the right to vote in local and national elections.

The ruling was issued followed a 1990 lawsuit in which nine ethnic Korean permanent residents filed a complaint against the Osaka Election Committee for not registering them in the voter’s list based on Article 24 of the Public Offices Election Law.

An obiter dictum included in the ruling did concede the basic Constitutionality of granting local voting rights to non-Japanese nationals, although legal scholars have since claimed that statements included as obiter dicta are not legally binding.

Nevertheless, this particular footnote has provided the momentum for opposition parties as well as members of the ruling LDP-led coalition to draft bills granting voting rights to permanent non-Japanese residents.

Since 1998, opposition parties including New Komeito have repeatedly submitted bills to the Diet that give permanent residents the right to vote. And while an agreement was reached in 1999 with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is generally against such a move, the bill has yet to be passed due to fierce opposition from several conservative LDP lawmakers.

The Cabinet of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2010 upheld the obiter dictum from the Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling, but the party found itself ousted from power before it could enact any related laws.

  • Ron NJ

    “The Supreme Court in 1995 upheld an Osaka High Court ruling that the
    Constitutional definition of “Japanese citizens” and “residents” only
    applies to Japanese nationals”

    Though fairly tangential, this is a good reminder that even as a “permanent resident” you will never be more than a temporary visitor in the eyes of Japan. Don’t let the fact that you don’t have to renew your SOR every year or three go to your head.

    • Mike

      My thoughts exactly. But does that mean I don’t have to pay my “citizen’s tax” then? :) WOOHOO!

      • phu

        You know, “taxation without representation” has a fairly familiar ring to it. I wonder where I’ve heard that before…

      • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

        You heard it being said by British colonists (nationals) in the American colonies of Britain (at the time). The people that coined this phrase were not “foreigners”.

      • Mike

        If one is considered a citizen, they should pay taxes and be allowed to vote for how those taxes are used.

        To me, that is just common sense. However, If one is not considered “a citizen” and instead considered “a guest” or “a visitor” and is not allowed to vote, why is it that he should still pay the “citizen” tax?

      • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

        Because paying “tax” and/or working has never been considered to be a requirement for voting in most modern democracies. They’re not legally linked. In Japan or most countries of the world.

        If you are unemployed and don’t pay tax, but are a citizen, you can still vote. It’s a citizen’s right no matter whether you’re smart, dumb, able to pay tax, earn a lot of money, are rich or powerful etc. The right to vote and the duty to pay tax are two separate Constitutional articles. Not just in the Japanese constitution, but in many constitutions of the world.

        Regarding the “citizen” tax (I take it you’re referring to the use of the word “kokumin” in Article 30), most countries of the world have ruled that just because citizens have to pay tax according to the constitution, doesn’t mean that they can’t pass additional laws requiring foreigners to pay tax too. And like most other countries of the world, they have.

      • Mike

        Actually I’m referring specifically to shiminzei, I pay it, I think as a “shimin” I should be able to vote for mayoral candidate. I think that is only fair. Let’s but nationality aside for a moment, too. As I claim permanent residency in Japan and own property here.

      • phu

        Yes, I’m aware of the difference. It was not intended as a direct comparison; my point is that people are arguably contributing and being denied the benefits that can be reasonably assumed to be derived from such contributions.

        My point is not the people who coined it, it’s the applicability of the phrase to this situation; that’s also, obviously, open to debate, but I do stand by the idea that Japan seems largely uninterested in the opinions of anyone who’s not ethnically Japanese.

        The only reason I expect anyone to care is that my concern isn’t for all us whiteys (or even the CJK that aren’t J), it’s for Japan. If Japan doesn’t start understanding both sides of the globalization coin — that Japan has a role in the world, and that the world has a role in Japan — then how is anything supposed to change, and how are young Japanese supposed to take seriously or be taken seriously by the rest of the world?

        For better or worse, we’re all in this together. Continually alienating non-native-Japanese simply does not help Japan.

    • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

      There is one benefit to having PR: some (not all) banks and lenders prefer PR to some other SoRs — though this is not by far the only factor: many banks will overlook lack of PR if your other credentials (wealth, savings, etc) are substantial. On the flip side, just having PR (or J-nationality) does not opt you out of the other credit worthiness tests.

      As you implied, there is no law that obligates lenders to give more weight in the point evaluation system to one type of non-Japanese over another.

  • Mike

    I had high hopes, when Ozawa was around, that the DPJ would push for perm. res. suffrage but in the past 3-4 years, there has been so much xenophobia going around, I doubt PR’s will ever get gubernatoral or even municipal voting rights.

  • hachiroku

    Permanent residents can’t vote in many countries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_foreigners_to_vote) not sure why the big deal in Japan…if you wan’t to vote…become a citizen.

    • Dan

      How?

    • qwerty

      “Permanent residents can’t vote in many countries”

      zzz. but this is The Japan Times

    • wrle

      “Japan has taken steps to enfranchise permanent non-Japanese residents, while other countries — including South Korea and some Scandinavian and European countries have granted foreign residents who have maintained residency for more than three years the legal right to vote in local elections.”

    • Mike

      We are not talking about federal elections. The question is about local elections

  • Guest

    While the constitutional issue’s regarding local voting rights for foreign residents are interesting and should be debated, as a foreign resident I am actually more interested in first resolving the voting disparity between rural and urban votes which has been ruled unconstitutional by various Japanese courts over the years with no action being taken to remedy the breach.

    Rural votes in Japan are sometimes worth 4 or 5 times more than votes from urban constituencies and heavily favour the LDP. If you are interested in votes for foreign residents, scrapping the unconstitutional electoral system which keeps one party firmly in power should be first on your agenda.

    It is also worth pointing out that the Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny Japanese citizens who live abroad the right to vote in national elections. Clearly, it’s difficult to say how Japanese living abroad can share the same ‘interests’ as those living in Japan, so I don’t think Prof Momochi has squared the circle on this argument. It begs the larger question as to whether the constitution was designed to protect those who actually live in Japan whoever they may be, or those who happen to have Japanese nationality but live completely outside of the authority of the Japanese state.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic…

  • wrle

    Tax paying permanent residents who have lived in japan for generations cant get welfare benfits or voting rights. Its only for “pure japanese” people…

    • Jimmie Tsuboi The

      please explain what do you mean by “pure japanese”
      BTW, I’m not a “pure japanese descend” but I am a Japanese Passport Holder with voting rights.

  • disqus_78r6IPfptX

    It seems probable that when LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba says “we have to consider the interest of Japanese taxpayers across the country” his intention is to distinguish Japanese from non-Japanese by using citizenship as a wedge: separate Japanese citizen taxpayers from non-citizen taxpayers – people like me – in the belief that my interests are separate from or at least different from Japanese citizens’ interests. But that’s not the case. When I consider the word “Japanese” as an adjective describing place rather than a noun describing identity I easily consider myself a Japanese taxpayer. I live here. I pay taxes here. I’ve spent half my life in this country. I will die here. Therefore Japan is my country and I am a Japanese taxpayer whose interests easily synchronize with those of citizen residents. Since Mr. Ishiba’s salary is derived in part from the taxes that I pay it is both fitting and apt to call him my employee, as well as the Prime Minister and all public servants. His remarks are both inaccurate and ineffective – not to mention morally suspicious – but the Japanese way of doing things gives me no leverage over my own employees. Oh, well. Enfranchisement will help give us leverage.

  • Guest

    Ok but why do I have to give up my right to be British just to have a say in the country where I live, pay taxes, have kids blah, blah blah. Seems a bit arbitrary.

    • Jimmie Tsuboi The

      Did anyone here tell you to give up your right to be british? I don’t see any single word about that. It’s you choice. And if you dont like paying taxes, just don’t pay and see what happen. Dont like the rules here? Leave the country!!