Bill foot-dragging belies pluralist goal

Foreign residents ponder if xenophobia, democracy will win out

by Hiroshi Matsubara

Staff writer

The postponement of debate on a bill that would grant limited suffrage to foreigners until next year at the earliest has prompted long-term foreign residents of Japan to question whether the nation is serious about embracing the foreign population.

Marutei Tsurunen, 60, a former member of the Yugawara Municipal Assembly in Kanagawa Prefecture, expressed his anger over arguments by opponents of the bill that granting foreigners suffrage would allow them to interfere in Japan’s domestic affairs, thus threatening national security.

“To regard foreigners’ suffrage as a threat to the national interest reflects the public belief that foreigners are different from Japanese and somehow dangerous,” said Tsurunen, a Finland-born former missionary who acquired Japanese citizenship in 1979.

“Such voices symbolize the persisting xenophobia among Japanese,” he said.

But the public generally seems supportive of the bill, as reflected by the results of a survey by a major national daily last month that showed 64 percent of respondents approved of granting suffrage to long-term foreign residents.

Many local governments also favor the bill, with about 1,489 — or 45 percent — of all local governments so far submitting written requests to the central government expressing their support.

Tsurunen, who prompted the Yugawara assembly to make the request in 1995, said Japan must allow foreigners to participate in local politics, as is the case in a number of other countries.

“Scandinavian nations — including my home country, Finland — allow all foreigners who have lived in the country for more than three years to vote and stand in local elections,” he said.

Western countries are generally more willing to grant local suffrage to foreigners. In 1993, members of the European Union agreed to mutually grant local suffrage to residents from other member countries, while the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries have all granted suffrage to foreigners from non-EU countries. Many other EU nations also grant suffrage to people from designated countries outside the EU.

The backlash from nationalist LDP members, however, may undermine the planned new legislation.

LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka in September offered a compromise proposal to help placate opposition to the bill within the party. His proposal called for limiting the number of recipients of suffrage to victims of Japan’s colonial rule and their descendents who have “special permanent residency status.” That accounts for about 520,000 Koreans and other Asians.

This proposal has already won support from the LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, which has been the most vocal advocate of suffrage for foreigners. If it is adopted and passed into legislation, more than 110,000 foreigners with permanent residency status would be excluded from voting.

Mohammad Anwer, 40, a Pakistani member of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, strongly criticized Nonaka’s proposal, saying it is a “mutilation” of the bill, not a compromise.

“Suffrage for foreigners should be regarded as a means to create a society in which all people are equally respected,” he pointed out. “(But Nonaka’s) proposal turns the forward-looking nature of the bill into (just another) part of the country’s wartime compensation.”

Established in 1996 as the first of its kind by a local government under an ordinance, the Kawasaki foreigners’ assembly has served to reflect foreigners’ voices in city politics.

Opponents of the suffrage bill say the input provided by the Kawasaki foreigners’ group should be the maximum allowable for foreigners in local politics.

Anwer pointed out, however, that such limited political rights run contrary to the ideal of a pluralistic society, under which minorities would enjoy the same rights as Japanese.

He said Japanese society will inevitably become more diverse as foreign workers are brought in to combat the expected labor shortage in the near future.

“The argument on suffrage must start from this question: Can Japan, one of the world’s leading nations, continue to treat foreigners as second-class citizens in this situation?”

He said that the absence of voting rights makes individuals feel like they are not completely accepted as members of society.

Shin Sugok, a 41-year-old human resource consultant who has written several books on the rights of Korean residents of Japan, said that granting suffrage to foreigners would be the first step in eliminating administrative and social discrimination against minorities.

As evidence of the unease foreigners feel in Japan, she noted that her 67-year-old mother recently changed her name to a Japanese one in order to avoid the persistent anxiety she has felt as a Korean living here. Shin said strong prejudice and systemic discrimination targeted at social minorities, including Koreans, still exists in Japan.

“The absence of foreigners’ right to vote symbolizes not only the existence of administrative discrimination but also the strong xenophobia of the Japanese,” the third-generation Tokyo-born South Korean national said.

“Granting suffrage to foreigners is only a starting point for Japan to achieve a pluralistic society, in which even the weakest members of minority groups, including my mother, can embrace their identity,” she said.

Katsuhiko Okazaki, a professor of administrative law at Shimane University in Matsue, said the suffrage issue is a test of Japan’s maturity as a democratic country that respects human rights and the ideal of local autonomy.

“The issue poses the question of whether Japan really wishes to move on to a truly democratic society, in which human rights of all individuals are protected and local residents govern themselves,” he said, “or back again to a country of statism and ethnocentrism, in which state interests infringe upon individual rights.”

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