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The June 25 Lower House election will test Japan’s commitment to carry out reforms of its inward-looking political circles and accommodate various Asian views in the 21st century, Zhu Jianrong of Toyo Gakuen University said, noting the expectations of various non-Japanese Asians living in the country.

“It is high time Japanese politicians realized that their old-style politics, directed only to certain segments of voters, are outdated,” said Jianrong, 42, a professor of Chinese studies who has lived in Japan almost 14 years.

Since coming to Japan in 1986 as a visiting researcher at a quasigovernmental think tank, Zhu has sought to enhance the rights of non-Japanese Asians living in the country while also pursuing his academic goals.

Korean and Chinese communities are the two largest resident ethnic minorities in Japan, roughly constituting 60 percent of the nation’s foreign population.

“We expect this election to be a starting point for Japan’s reforms to accommodate foreigners in a true sense,” Zhu said. “To this end, the government and lawmakers must speed up efforts to grant local suffrage to aliens with permanent resident status.”

Although suffrage has long been debated, little progress has been achieved. During the last Diet session, three related bills were briefly deliberated but left to die as the Lower House was dissolved on June 2.

“Taking such steps (as suffrage) is becoming a common practice in countries that depend more or less on foreign labor,” Zhu said. “Japan should realize that sooner or later, Korean and Chinese residents here may become political forces that can’t be ignored.”

According to Justice Ministry statistics, the number of registered foreign residents hit a record high of 1.55 million — 1.23 percent of the population — at the end of 1999.

“As long as Japan needs these people as a workforce to help run the economy, the government must create a mechanism that can reflect their views, reform the alien registration system to grant legal status to more foreigners and create a social security net for them,” Zhu said.

Despite calls for such reforms, however, Japan’s sentiment toward other Asians seems to have worsened recently, as the number of crimes involving Chinese, Koreans and other non-Japanese Asians reportedly is on the rise.

According to the National Police Agency, 5,382 foreigners were arrested in 21,689 criminal cases in 1998, excluding those arrested for violating traffic laws. Of those arrested, 75.1 percent were non-Japanese Asians, 44.6 percent of whom were Chinese.

“Although Japan must deal with the rising number of crimes involving foreigners, the public should not be misled by figures alone,” Zhu said. “Since a growing number of foreign workers is flowing into Japan, such crimes can naturally increase in proportion to the flow.”

Zhu meanwhile expressed deep concern over what he considers “growing xenophobia and rightist impetuses among Japanese,” citing recent remarks by leading politicians, including Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

In April, Ishihara stirred up outrage by warning members of the Ground Self-Defense Forces that “sangokujin” and foreigners illegally staying in Japan may stage riots in the event of a major earthquake.

Sangokujin, a term now regarded as derogatory, gained currency after World War II. Literally meaning “people from third countries,” it refers to those from Japan’s former colonial possessions of Taiwan and Korea, as well as their descendants.

Mori has been under fire for his remark last month about Japan being a “divine nation centering on the Emperor.” Although he later apologized for the uproar it caused, he did not retract it.

Zhu said these “anachronistic comments” overshadow his hope that the upcoming election will pave the way for the reforms Japan needs to carry out to make it more attractive to non-Japanese Asian communities.