Kanagawa gives foreign residents stronger voice

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff writer

YOKOHAMA — To better reflect the opinions of Kanagawa Prefecture’s growing foreign population, which has more than doubled over the past decade, officials have followed other localities in creating an advisory panel to the governor.

Officials are now accepting applications from non-Japanese residents for the new Kanagawa Foreign Residents’ Council, to be established in November. Similar advisory boards have already been established in Kawasaki and Tokyo.

Now one in every 75 residents in the prefecture is non-Japanese, and most pay taxes as Japanese residents but have virtually no participation rights in local government or the prefectural assembly. According to local officials, the number of non-Japanese registered residents in Kanagawa more than doubled — from 50,735 in 1987 to 110,278 in 1997.

Judging by the continuous influx of foreigners that seems unaffected by the economic slump, Kanai predicts Kanagawa’s foreign population will continue to increase. “Even now, the number (of foreign residents) continues to increase by between 3,000 and 4,000 people on average each year,” he said.

Members of the 20-member advisory council, slated to meet four times a year, will be chosen by application. Roughly proportionate to the ethnic mix, the council will allocate four seats to Koreans, four to Chinese, two to Brazilians, and one each to a Filipino, Peruvian, American, Thai, Vietnamese, Briton and Cambodian. Three other seats will be left open to undesignated nationalities. Members should be able to speak Japanese, the common language of the council.

Kanagawa Gov. Hiroshi Okazaki has promised to “respect as much as possible” the council’s views, although like other local government heads, he is not obliged to implement the recommendations of the private panel, which has no legal basis.

“(Instead) we will be obliged to explain to the council what can and cannot be reflected in policies (after recommendations are submitted),” said Akio Nishimura, another Kanagawa official in charge of the planned council.

Kanagawa officials say a private panel is more flexible than one with legal pull and can be changed easily by council members themselves because it requires no procedures involving the prefectural assembly.

But in Tokyo, the council’s status as a private body has drawn criticism from some who say the board should have legal power. Metro government officials insisted that a private body is not a place of policy decision making, and if members are divided, they should not hammer out a conclusion by a majority vote.

“A private advisory panel, by nature, is a place where members express their opinions. If they are divided (over certain issues), the council’s recommendations should include opinions of both sides (without drawing a conclusion),” said Shogo Suzuki, a metro official in charge of the advisory council.

In its third session last May, an apparent majority of council members supported including a recommendation to allow foreign residents the right to vote in local elections and work in local government. But some North Korean members were strongly opposed to the idea, and metropolitan officials did not allow the council to vote.

“We hope the council respects minority opinions, and that both opinions will be reflected (in recommendations) if they are divided. But in the end, the procedures of discussion are up to council members,” Kanai said.

Prefectural officials are now accepting applications for council membership. Applicants should be non-Japanese, 18 or older, who have lived, worked or studied in Kanagawa Prefecture for more than one year. Refugees who have obtained Japanese citizenship are also eligible.

Members should also be able to speak Japanese. Applicants will be selected for two-year terms by an independent committee of scholars and other experts on issues pertaining to foreigners.

Application forms should reach the prefectural government by Sept. 11. For more information, call (045) 201-1111, ext. 2915. Information is also available on the Internet at press/26115/26115.htm

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