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The recurring debate over how much of a say non-Japanese residents should have in the country’s political process is flaring up once again, amid Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to attract more foreign workers to the country’s shores ahead of the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.

In the latest controversial move, Abe’s Cabinet discouraged local governments from passing an ordinance that would give non-Japanese residents a right to vote in municipal referendums.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party had previously distributed a brochure in 2011 urging its local chapters not to pass such an ordinance, after party members became alarmed at the increasing number of municipalities across the country that had introduced — on a permanent basis — non-Japanese-inclusive polling systems as a means of reflecting the public will.

The LDP said it had advised its prefectural chapters in June once again to abide by that earlier recommendation.

The ruling party says that more inclusive local-level voting rights give non-Japanese citizens an unduly generous say in the nation’s politics, and point out that this may violate the Constitution by undermining the principle of sovereignty of the Japanese people.

“(This may be happening) at local levels, but there is a financial burden shouldered by the central government, and we have to consider the interest of Japanese taxpayers across the country,” said LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba last month. “I do not think local municipalities can do whatever they want.”

The Japanese Constitution and the Local Autonomy Act allows referendums for several uses. Article 95 of the Constitution, for example, prohibits the Diet from passing laws affecting a particular municipality unless the majority of its residents express support via a referendum. The Local Autonomy Act, meanwhile, gives Japanese citizens the right to recall public officials through a poll.

An increasing number of municipalities are now making use of local statutes to hold votes on critical issues that affect their local populations.

While the results of these local votes are not legally binding, some LDP members and academics see them as legally problematic because they recognize foreigners, including Zainichi ethnic Korean residents, as eligible voters in local referendums.

Opponents of expanded voting rights say that contradicts stipulations in the Constitution stating that only Japanese nationals above 20 — a category which includes naturalized citizens — have the right to vote in local and national elections, as well as some referendums.

“An ordinance should be within the scope of the Constitution and law, but some local communities are trying to reinterpret those laws via their ordinances, violating the Constitution,” said Akira Momochi, a Nihon University professor specializing in Constitutional law.

The former town of Maibara in Shiga Prefecture became the first local municipality to allow permanent foreign residents over the age of 20 to vote in a referendum on whether the town should merge with adjacent towns in 2002.

According to the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), some 200 municipalities granted non-Japanese citizens the right to vote in local polls around that time, as the central government pushed smaller towns to merge in a bid to streamline local governments.

And while many of those polls were one-time, single-issue affairs, some municipalities now allow foreign nationals who are permanent residents to vote whenever a referendum is put on the table.

The city of Kawasaki, for example, passed a municipal ordinance in 2009 giving residents over the age of 18, including non-Japanese who have lived in the city for more than three years, voting rights.

While Kawasaki has yet to put a statute to the vote, Momochi and other critics are concerned that foreigners in the city and others across the country could become critical swing voters in highly politicized matters such as the relocation of military bases or the reactivation of nuclear power plants.

“Supporters of this movement are trying to allow foreigners to have a larger say in political processes little by little, as they understand it is hard to give foreigners suffrage in Japan,” he said. “But foreigners could vote against the Japanese interest.”

Kawasaki resident Wang Ping admits that some foreigners, as taxpayers, want to have a bigger say in politics.

“We would like to participate in discussions to enhance our community,” said Ping, who moved to Japan from China in 1993 and has chaired the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents in Kawasaki for the past four years. “We want to find ways to coexist with the Japanese people.”

Ping, who owns a restaurant and real estate business, said the group has submitted numerous recommendations to local government officials, including those on issues that were not limited to non-Japanese residents.

Those who support the idea of giving non-Japanese more voting rights say that such a move is inevitable given the increasing number of longtime foreign residents, and the government’s drive to boost the number of foreign workers ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

“The international community will question Japan’s handling of human rights issues if it keeps refusing to recognize long-term residents as community members or fails to grant certain rights to those people,” said Yuji Nakano, a Komazawa University professor who specializes in immigration issues.

Since the 1990s, Japan has taken steps to enfranchise permanent non-Japanese residents, while other countries — including South Korea and some Scandinavian and European countries — have granted foreign residents who have maintained residency for more than three years the legal right to vote in local elections.

The Supreme Court in 1995 upheld an Osaka High Court ruling that the Constitutional definition of “Japanese citizens” and “residents” only applies to Japanese nationals, denying foreigners the right to vote in local and national elections.

The ruling was issued followed a 1990 lawsuit in which nine ethnic Korean permanent residents filed a complaint against the Osaka Election Committee for not registering them in the voter’s list based on Article 24 of the Public Offices Election Law.

An obiter dictum included in the ruling did concede the basic Constitutionality of granting local voting rights to non-Japanese nationals, although legal scholars have since claimed that statements included as obiter dicta are not legally binding.

Nevertheless, this particular footnote has provided the momentum for opposition parties as well as members of the ruling LDP-led coalition to draft bills granting voting rights to permanent non-Japanese residents.

Since 1998, opposition parties including New Komeito have repeatedly submitted bills to the Diet that give permanent residents the right to vote. And while an agreement was reached in 1999 with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is generally against such a move, the bill has yet to be passed due to fierce opposition from several conservative LDP lawmakers.

The Cabinet of then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2010 upheld the obiter dictum from the Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling, but the party found itself ousted from power before it could enact any related laws.

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