Seventy-seven-year-old Pierre Delehouzee has lived in Japan for more than half his life.
Delehouzee permanently moved to Japan from Belgium in 1971 to take part in charity work in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. Over the past four decades, he has married, raised two children and juggled several jobs in order to make ends meet.
Now residing in Mitaka, western Tokyo, with his wife, Yoshiko, he recently purchased a grave with the intention of remaining in Japan for the rest of his life.
For more than 40 years, Delehouzee believes he has been a good resident, obeying the law, paying his taxes and fulfilling all his civic duties.
However, his longtime wish to vote in his local electorate hasn’t been realized because, by law, only Japanese citizens are eligible to vote.
Whenever an election has been held, Delehouzee has accompanied Yoshiko to a polling station at a nearby kindergarten. He has shadowed his wife all the way to a voting booth and waited there for her to finish casting a ballot.
When they had children, all three of them stood behind Yoshiko at the voting booth, in effect reminding her that her vote carried the weight of four people.
“I’ve never missed an election,” says Delehouzee, who was given permanent resident status in the 1970s. “I know I can’t vote, but I want at least to show my desire to vote by showing up at a polling station.
“I’ve worked hard and paid taxes as a resident, but I don’t have a say in how my taxes are being used. I would like to be able to vote in local elections to choose representatives for the area in which I live.”
Whether to give local-level suffrage to non-Japanese with permanent resident status has long been a contentious issue.
Several political parties, including the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan as well as Komeito, have in the past attempted to enact legislation granting the right to vote in local elections to immigrants holding permanent residential status.
In recent times, however, discussion on the issue seems to have died down in the political arena.
The existing strength of the powerful ruling Liberal Democratic Party in both houses of parliament makes it unlikely that other political parties will raise the issue in the Diet. The LDP outright opposes granting voting rights to non-Japanese residents. The issue has been left completely out of campaign pledges for the July 10 Upper House elections.
For the time being, the only way foreign residents such as Delehouzee can vote in local or national elections is to become a naturalized citizen.
“I once considered acquiring Japanese citizenship,” Delehouzee said. “But I don’t look Japanese at all. Even if I legally became Japanese, I feel my identity and cultural ties are in Belgium.”
George Gish, 79, a professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University who specializes in Japanese music history, believes longtime residents have a responsibility to vote.
“If we pay taxes and fulfill our duties, we have a responsibility to see how those taxes have been used for the benefit of not only our lives, but people living in the same area,” says Gish, an American who has lived in Japan for more than 50 years but has never sought citizenship. “In one way, someone who pays taxes and doesn’t take part in how they are being used is being irresponsible.”
The government hasn’t always been so strongly opposed to giving long-term foreign residents the right to vote, says Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus of sociology at Hitostubashi University who was a leading figure in a suffrage movement that began in the 1980s.
The issue has even been discussed by the country’s top judiciary, with the Supreme Court ruling in February 1995 that the Constitution does not prevent a law being passed to grant long-term foreign residents the power to vote.
Three years after this landmark decision, the Democratic Party of Japan and Komeito submitted a bill to the Diet that granted local suffrage to permanent residents. The bill was drafted ahead of a planned visit by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. During his stay, Kim called on Tokyo to grant ethnic Koreans living in Japan the right to vote in local elections.
Later that same year, the Japanese Communist Party followed suit, submitting a bill in December that gave long-term foreign residents the right to vote in addition to the right to run for political office in local electorates.
Although both bills were scrapped following the dissolution of the Diet, a breakthrough occurred in October 1999, when the LDP, now-defunct Liberal Party and Komeito ruling coalition agreed to submit and enact a bill that would guarantee foreign residents local suffrage in a policy accord agreement.
However, the LDP failed to persuade some of its lawmakers to drop their opposition to the policy, leaving Komeito and the Liberal Party to submit the bill to the Diet the following year. A Lower House committee discussed the bill, but it didn’t get much further due to strong opposition.
Led by Secretary-General Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, an advocate of giving long-term foreign residents the right to vote, Komeito has since submitted several bills to the Diet. The last bill was scrapped in July 2009 with the dissolution of the lower chamber.
Under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ considered submitting a bill to allow foreign residents to have a say in local politics in 2010. However, the DPJ failed to file the bill due to opposition within the party and its minor coalition partner, People’s New Party.
Following the LDP’s return to power in December 2012, momentum seems to have died down, pundits say.
After being ousted from power by the DPJ in 2009, the LDP shifted to the right, a move widely seen as its attempt to differentiate itself from the DPJ. One such move was to outright oppose giving foreign residents the right to vote.
The LDP’s draft of the constitutional amendments compiled in 2012 stipulates that local suffrage is only given to “Japanese citizens.”
But Yuh Keun Ie, chairman of the Korean Residents Union In Japan’s central headquarters (Mindan), which represents South Korean permanent residents in Japan, says a number of lawmakers on both sides of the political divide support the idea of giving suffrage to permanent residents, at least on a local level.
Yuh, however, declined to specify which lawmakers supported such moves, citing fears that they could be attacked on the internet by right-wing nationalists or even lose their seats in the Diet.
“I can’t name names, but a number of politicians say they support giving foreign residents the right to vote,” Yuh says. “A lot of foreign residents from all over the world are living in Japan. Politicians don’t seem to be seeing the situation for what it really is. Foreign residents also want to contribute to their community. We want to support local legislators, who will then represent our opinions in local assemblies.”
The Zainichi debate
The debate over whether or not to give foreign residents the right to vote has been deeply intertwined with the history of ethnic Koreans who migrated or were forcibly brought to Japan during colonial rule.
When Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910, Koreans were forced to abandon their nationality and become Japanese. Koreans who lived in Japan were given the right to vote as well as to run for office.
However, the right of foreign residents to vote was suspended at the end of World War II. Subsequently, Korean residents in Japan automatically lost their citizenship and became foreign residents when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in April 1952.
Many returned to the Korean Peninsula but those who remained in Japan faced discrimination in terms of employment or accommodation. Mindan, which was founded in October 1946, is fighting constantly to end such discrimination.
After successfully eliminating a number of discriminatory policies against ethnic Koreans, Mindan began demanding the right to vote in local elections in the late 1980s. However, every time the organization made some progress in achieving such a goal, they came up against opposition, Yuh says.
“It’s worth remembering, discrimination (against ethnic Koreans) still exists,” he says.
“Realistically speaking, we have to change the system bit by bit,” he says. “Even if the outlook looks grim, we still have to do it. I’m not pessimistic about the future.”
People who oppose giving foreign residents the right to vote and run for office at a local level argue that non-Japanese should become naturalized citizens if they really wish to vote. However, Yuh believes such an opinion reflects an ignorance of the issue.
Yuh, a second-generation Korean resident, was born in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. Although Yuh says he is culturally more Japanese than South Korean, his parents’ heritage is also important to him.
“My mother tongue is Japanese. There are words that I can’t even pronounce in Korean. When I talk to people who have moved from South Korea to Japan, I feel this slight difference in the way they think,” Yuh says.
“My home is where I was born,” he says. “However, my home is also where my parents were born and I value my parents’ heritage. After all, I grew up following in my parents’ footsteps.”
After the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1995, debate still rages over the interpretation of the Constitution regarding whether foreign residents have a right to vote.
The Supreme Court ruled that only Japanese citizens are eligible to vote in national elections under the charter.
However, Article 93 of the Constitution states that residents can participate in “direct popular votes” to select local government leaders and members of local assemblies.
Article 15 of the Constitution, meanwhile, says “the people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them.”
Constitutional experts offer contrasting views on the interpretation of these clauses.
Akira Momochi, a constitutional law professor at Nihon University, says the Constitution excludes foreign residents the right to vote in local and national elections.
Although Article 93 makes no mention of nationality, Momochi says the Constitution specifically applies to Japanese citizens and, by extension, only citizens are eligible to vote in local elections.
“The Constitution applies to Japanese citizens and, as a result, the term ‘residents’ refers specifically to Japanese residents,” Momochi says. “There is no room for argument that this also applies to non-Japanese.”
Momochi also argues the Supreme Court ruling in 1995 contains flawed logic.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that the constitutional definition of “residents” stipulated in Article 93 applies to Japanese citizens, overruling a complaint filed by ethnic Korean residents against Osaka’s Election Committee for not registering them on the local electoral roll.
But the judges, writing an obiter dictum included in the decision, said the Constitution does not deny long-term foreign residents the right to vote in local elections if enshrined in legislation.
Momochi argues that such an opinion was not included in the ruling itself and, as such, doesn’t have any judicial power.
“It’s merely the judges’ opinion,” he says.
Atsushi Kondo, a constitutional law professor at Meijo University in Aichi Prefecture, disagrees.
While he agrees with Momochi that the judges’ obiter dictum lacks the power of judicial precedent, its intended message to politicians is clear.
“The Supreme Court is simply saying that the Constitution won’t be violated by introducing legislation that gives foreign residents voting rights,” Kondo says.
“The message itself doesn’t change, whether it’s included in an obiter dictum or included in the ruling.”
Hitotsubashi University’s Tanaka says the debate over the constitutionality of granting foreign residents the right to vote in local elections is a done deal.
“The only issue left is whether to enact a bill (allowing foreign residents to vote) at the Diet or not,” Tanaka says.
“It is a fundamental issue of democracy in Japan,” he says. “Politics decides things such as utility charges and commodity prices that are attached to our daily lives. Suffrage is the right to have a say in those decisions.”
Kondo of Meijo University says some 65 countries around the world give foreign residents the right to vote. That right, however, varies by country.
Many countries in Asia, don’t give foreign residents the right to vote. South Korea, however, passed a law in 2005, granting permanent residents the right to vote in local elections.
In Europe, a number of countries give foreign residents the right to vote or run for office in local elections under certain conditions.
The United Kingdom, for example, grants local suffrage to European Union citizens, as well as Irish and Commonwealth citizens who have satisfied certain criteria. This legislation, however, may be reviewed in the wake of the British public’s recent decision to leave the European Union.
In Belgium and Holland, local suffrage is granted to foreign nationals who have resided there for more than five years. Sweden, Denmark and Norway grant voting rights to foreign residents who have lived there for more than three years.
Kondo notes that issues of suffrage for foreign residents are typically interlinked with a country’s citizenship laws.
People born in countries such as the United States and Canada can obtain citizenship regardless of their parents’ nationality, he says. As a result, he says, acquiring the right to vote only affects first-generation immigrants.
In countries such as Japan that do not accept birthright citizenship, however, the only way to gain suffrage is to become a naturalized citizen.
Without taking that step, foreign residents cannot vote in local or national elections, even if they have lived in Japan for several generations.
While debate over whether or not to allow foreign residents the right to vote or run in local elections is now sitting on the backburner, a number of local governments have passed ordinances that give foreign residents the right to vote in municipal referendums. More than 30 municipalities allow non-Japanese residents to vote whenever a referendum is held, according to media reports.
Issues included in a local referendum are typically limited, Kondo says, adding that referendums are not held very often and are not legally binding. While it is not on a par with being able to vote in a local election, it at least allows foreign residents to participate in the decision-making process, Kondo says.
The number of foreign residents with permanent residential status spiked to some 1.05 million in December 2015, from roughly 800,000 in the same month in 2005, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Ministry. Of this 1.05 million, 377,789 held South Korean heritage and 33,758 were North Korean.
Hitotsubashi’s Tanaka says there is no doubt the nation needs foreign residents to vote, especially in light of the country’s shrinking population.
“We have to think of the ways to coexist,” Tanaka says.
Aoyama Gakuin University’s Gish believes the best way forward may be to adopt a practical approach.
“I’m in favor of what I’d call the ‘local option,'” Gish says.
“What needs to be done is to start at a point where everyone can agree,” says Gish, who first came to Japan as a missionary in 1958. “Let local areas make their own decisions and make some good progress.”
That way, he says, Japanese citizens will feel more comfortable that non-Japanese aren’t seeking to take over the country.
People’s unfamiliarity with foreign residents in their community may, in part, be behind concerns about giving non-Japanese the right to vote and run for office, Gish says.
“The most solid based buildup is relating people with many differences within your own community, and building trust and understanding,” he says. “Then you spread it to a larger community.”
Gish, who is currently teaching multiculturalism at Edogawa Sogo Jinsei Daigaku, a municipality-run school in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, believes preconceived negative images of foreign residents can change once locals get to know them personally.
“Then,” he says, “(Japanese citizens won’t mind) allowing foreign residents to join them and make laws (to grant them the right to vote and decide) what we do with their taxes. That’s my approach.”
Voting and eligibility rights around the world
The only non-Australian citizens who are eligible to vote are British subjects who were on the Commonwealth electoral roll immediately before Jan. 26, 1984, at which time the eligibility requirements were altered. Voting is compulsory in federal elections and referendums for enrolled electors.
Non-Brazilians (including those with permanent residency) cannot vote in national elections.
Only Chinese citizens have the right to vote and stand in elections.
Foreign residents living in Denmark on a three-year residency visa can vote in municipal and county elections.
Citizens from other countries who reside in Finland have the right to vote in municipal elections and European Parliament elections.
EU citizens living as residents in France are legally entitled to vote in local municipal elections and European parliamentary elections.
EU citizens resident for at least three months in Germany are legally entitled to vote and stand for local communal elections and European parliamentary elections. Non-EU citizens may not vote in Germany, but may be elected by foreign members of the local community on to the Foreigners’ Advisory Councils. These are advisory boards for local politics.
Permanent residents who have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years are eligible to vote in elections.
Only Indian citizens have the right to vote and stand for election.
EU citizens living as residents in Italy and registered as a resident in local communes are legally entitled to vote in local municipal elections and European parliamentary elections. An EU citizen may also stand as a candidate at municipal elections, under the same conditions as an Italian national.
Permanent residents can vote in local and national elections if they have lived in New Zealand for one year or more continuously at some point.
Non-Russian citizens who have obtained a residency permit and are living permanently in the Russian Federation can vote in local and federal elections. Such residents can also vote on federal or regional referenda.
Foreign residents can cast votes in local elections if they acquire F-5 visa status for three years and have registered with their relevant local governments. South Korea is the first nation in Asia to grant voting privileges to foreign residents.
Municipal voting rights are granted to citizens of countries that reciprocate by granting voting rights to Spanish citizens and reciprocity is enshrined in a bilateral treaty ratified by Spain (EU member states, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway).
Residents from the EU, Iceland or Norway who are registered as living in Sweden can have a say in municipal and county council elections. People from outside Europe who have been in Sweden for more than three years may also be allowed to vote locally.
EU citizens residing in the United Kingdom and qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in the U.K. are eligible to vote in local and national elections. A qualifying Commonwealth citizen is someone who has leave to enter or remain in the U.K., or does not require such leave.
U.S. states have allowed permanent residents to vote at several times in U.S. history, but none can currently vote in any state. An estimated 13.1 million permanent residents were registered in the U.S. in 2013.
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