The Japanese woman was unhappy.
“An avalanche of foreigners could swarm into Japan and eventually occupy pivotal posts in the Japanese government,” she recently wrote on a Web site. “Then, what if war breaks out and those foreigners leak out Japan’s classified information to their home countries?”
The site is campaigning against a growing political movement to give limited suffrage to foreigners who have permanent residency status in Japan.
Eccentric as it may seem, she is not the only one who fears the rise of foreigners in her country, because dozens of remarks similar to hers have been posted on the Web site as well.
Similar sentiments can be found among members of the Liberal Democratic Party, whose two coalition partners, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, have submitted a bill to grant all foreign residents with permanent residency the right to vote in local-level elections.
The ruling party at one time appeared ready to throw its support behind the bill. Faced with tenacious opposition from within the party, however, LDP leaders are now backpedaling.
During his meeting with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori last weekend in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung urged that the bill be passed by year’s end. But Mori dodged the request and simply said he would closely watch Diet deliberations on the legislation.
Ethnic Koreans make up about 90 percent of the some 630,000 foreigners who are permanent residents in Japan.
Most Korean residents are descendants of those who ended up in Japan during its 36-year-long colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Those Koreans lost their voting rights following Japan’s defeat in World War II. Then they were stripped of their Japanese nationality, in 1952.
They have since lived as “Korean nationals living in Japan” partly because dual nationality is not allowed in Japan.
Even among legislators opposed to the idea of giving the vote to all foreigners with permanent residency, many admit that something must be done for the Koreans here as part of Japan’s atonement for its wartime past.
Thus, last week, LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka offered a compromise proposal: give local suffrage only to victims of Japan’s colonial rule and their descendants. This proposal would effectively grant voting rights to some 520,000 Koreans and Taiwanese, in local elections.
Some members of New Komeito are critical of the proposal, which they and other critics say would draw a new line of discrimination through foreign residents in Japan.
The party, an arduous advocate of the suffrage bill, however, decided Tuesday to accept Nonaka’s idea on the condition that voting rights are eventually extended to all permanent foreign residents.
Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, secretary general of New Komeito, said the foreign suffrage issue is testing the maturity of Japan’s democracy and respect for human rights.
“(The permanent residents) constitute a certain part of Japanese society, and they have made Japan their final home,” Fuyushiba said during a recent TV program. “The main point of the proposed bill is that we should give (suffrage) to people who are determined (to live in Japan) and (whose commitment is) acknowledged by the state.”
Indeed, many Western countries are more generous in granting local suffrage to foreigners, with Scandinavian nations considered pioneers in the field.
In 1976, Sweden allowed foreign residents who have lived in the country for more than three years to vote in local elections. The move was followed by Finland and Norway.
In 1993, members of the European Union agreed to mutually grant suffrage in local elections to residents from other member countries.
The United States does not give voting rights to foreign residents. But on the other hand, it automatically gives U.S. citizenship to those born in the country regardless of the nationality of their parents.
Consequently, the offspring of foreign residents are free to vote once they reach voting age.
In contrast, babies born in Japan are eligible for Japanese nationality only when either of their parents is Japanese.
Hardcore opponents within the LDP — who are dismissing even Nonaka’s compromise — are now trying to find grounds for their assertion in the Constitution.
Seisuke Okuno, head of the LDP lawmakers’ group campaigning against the proposed suffrage bill, stresses that it clearly infringes on the supreme law, which in Article 15 states: “The people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them.”
Okuno and his fellow lawmakers interpret the clause as excluding foreign nationals from voting in elections, despite a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that giving suffrage to foreign nationals is constitutional.
Okuno, a former justice minister, also claims that some politicians are taking the issue too emotionally, feeling sympathy for those who suffered under colonial rule.
“Japanese people, steeped in peace for so long, have grown numb about national security,” Okuno said.
“They have forgotten to think about the future from the standpoint of national security.”
Proponents of the foreign suffrage bill meanwhile point to another clause in the Constitution. Article 93 says: “The chief executive officers of all local public entities . . . shall be elected by direct popular vote within their several communities.”
Proponents insist that permanent foreign residents are members of Japanese communities and therefore should be allowed to vote in local elections.
Atsushi Kondo, assistant professor in law at Kyushu Sangyo University, warns that Japan’s continued refusal to give voting rights to foreign residents could distort election results in some areas.
In Osaka’s Ikuno Ward, for instance, a quarter of the residents are ethnic Koreans, and without their participation in elections, it would be hard to reflect the true feelings of all the people living there, he said.
Not all ethnic Koreans, however, are pleased with the suffrage-for-foreigners proposal.
The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), which is tied with North Korea, claims suffrage would only detract from Korean residents’ ethnicity and assimilate them into Japanese society.
“Asking for suffrage would bring more minuses than pluses,” said Kim Myong Su, a Chongryun spokesman. “As long as Japanese society and police authorities continue to harbor negative images about us, our participation in politics could only induce more discrimination against Korean residents (affiliated with Pyongyang).”
Kim said that it is critical for Japanese politicians to work out measures for improving education and human rights for Korean residents here, before discussing suffrage for them.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.