A foreign residents’ advisory council to the Tokyo governor on Tuesday had its most heated debate.

The politically sensitive topic of whether long-term non-Japanese residents should be allowed to participate in local elections and work in local governments split the panel.

The issue is one of most controversial among ethnic North Koreans and South Koreans, the largest foreign groups in the country. While many Pro-Pyongyang residents, fearing loss of their ethnic identity, firmly oppose the idea, Pro-Seoul residents wanting more opportunities in their communities ardently support it.

“We will not be able to live as foreigners in this society unless this is changed,” said Yu Si Yol, a South Korean council member, referring to restrictions that deny non-Japanese to ability to land public servant jobs and vote in local elections.

But Kwon Sok Bong, a director of the Korean Scholarship Foundation and a North Korean member of the council, argued that the rights belong only to Japanese nationals and that giving them to foreigners could cause friction with Japanese and weaken foreigners’ ethnic identity. “This is the theme most likely to divide the opinions (of council members),” said broadcaster Peter Barakan, vice chairman of the council.

Metropolitan government officials asked council members not to take votes on specific issues because the body is only a private advisory panel to the governor and, they say, does not democratically represent ethnic groups.

The council, coordinated by chairwoman Amelia Inoue, a translator, did not try to reach a conclusion, but allowed members to freely state their opinions. Council member Ryann Connell, a staff writer for the Mainichi Daily News, criticized the government for not letting the council clarify itself through voting.

He argued that the council should make clear its opinions on specific issues, claiming that his own unofficial telephone poll showed a majority of council members support giving foreigners the rights under debate.

Connell’s announcement caused a stir as some North Korean members claimed taking the unofficial poll is unfair. Metro officials said that they would consider striking his remark from the record since the council is not authorized to take votes.

Barakan said that the council could not make decisions by voting because the 25 members are not democratically elected. Half are selected through an application process; the rest are appointed by the governor. “I don’t think a decision by a majority voting would be valid, nor very meaningful,” Barakan said, adding that the council will naturally reach consensus on some issues without voting.

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