Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Friday defended her recently launched party’s policy of denying foreign residents in Japan the right to vote or run in local elections, stating that such measures are necessary to protect the national interest.
Controversy over the policy was stirred when her nascent party, Kibo no To (Party of Hope), required new members switching from the disintegrating opposition Democratic Party to confirm their agreement to the policy of denying non-Japanese local suffrage before being allowed to join the new party.
In an official list of campaign pledges unveiled Friday the party skirted the issue, but Koike didn’t rule out the later incorporation of denying suffrage to foreign nationals.
“If we give foreign residents the right to vote and run in local elections, we need to consider what may happen in those small, thinly populated islands, where people with a certain motive may be able to wield significant power,” Koike told a news conference in Tokyo.
“We need to approach the issue from the perspective of how to protect our nation,” she said.
The governor admitted certain issues were left unaddressed by Friday’s campaign pledges, and that she will consider whether any updates will be necessary in the future.
Kibo no To states that it is ostensibly a “tolerant,” if conservative, party pushing for diversity in society.
Diversity is one of the key concepts that Koike has espoused since assuming the Tokyo governorship last year. It it not clear, however, whether her idea of diversity includes foreign residents. They are omitted on the website of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, where she states that she will empower women, men, children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
Earlier this week, the Korean Youth Association released a statement denouncing Kibo no To’s stance against foreign suffrage in local elections, saying it pointed to Kibo no To’s “disregard for human rights.”
Denying foreign residents local suffrage is not a policy measure peculiar to Kibo no To.
In 2010, the then-opposition Liberal Democratic Party opposed a bill proposed by the government of the Democratic Party of Japan to grant non-Japanese the rights to vote and run for office, labeling it an “unprecedentedly evil” law that will “destroy” Japan, according to its website.
Noting the Constitution stipulates that suffrage is a right “inherent to Japanese citizens,” the conservative LDP argues that foreign residents shouldn’t be allowed to have a say in politics even at a local level.
If local suffrage is given to non-Japanese, their influx to remote islands adjacent to Japan’s Asian neighbors such as Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, in the Korea Strait would raise fears that foreign elements may be able to exercise “significant influence” over the decision-making process in municipal offices, thereby “affecting the way the whole nation operates,” the LDP also says.
The Supreme Court, for its part, ruled in 1993 that the current Public Offices Election law limiting the right to vote and run in national elections to Japanese citizens is constitutional, but it left some degree of ambiguity when it comes to the question of whether to give foreign residents local suffrage.
In 1995, the top court stated that the Constitution does not ban long-term foreign residents from voting in local elections if necessary legal steps are taken. But this statement was made in what is called an obiter dictum — a legally non-binding utterance made by judges that is not part of the actual ruling. Controversy therefore persists over the efficacy of the statement.
Japan’s refusal to grant foreign residents a say in local politics sets itself apart from a number of European countries where noncitizens are enfranchised for local elections under certain conditions, such as the United Kingdom, France and Italy, some experts say.
In the U.K., for example, European Union citizens as well as Commonwealth and Irish citizens are declared eligible to vote in local polls.
Japan stands out less within more conservative Asia — although South Korea did pass a law in 2005 giving permanent residents of more than three years the legal right to vote in local elections.