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A major domestic political debate is brewing over whether non-Japanese permanent residents should be granted the right to vote in local elections of prefectural governors, prefectural legislators, and chiefs and council members of lower local administrative entities. Those foreigners will still be ineligible to run for those public offices, however. The current proposal would grant the right to vote only to those who have obtained the Japanese government’s permission to reside in this country permanently.

As of December 1999, the number of non-Japanese permanent residents stood at 113,038. They included 37,960 Chinese, 28,768 North and South Koreans, 14,884 Filipinos, 5,063 Americans, 4,756 Peruvians, 4,592 Brazilians, 3,903 Vietnamese, 1,342 Britons and 1,313 Thais. Altogether, those residents come from 125 countries.

Looking at these numbers, one would conclude that what is really at issue is whether permanent residents from China and North and South Korea should be given the right to vote. Supporters of the proposal argue that it is only natural to grant that right to the second, third and fourth generations who were born in Japan, live in Japan and are paying taxes here; some questions may arise with regard to the first generation. Even among Japanese citizens, most of those born after World War II have no special feeling toward the people of North and South Korea, and do not object to granting them the right to vote in local elections.

When the secretaries general of the three coalition parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the New Conservative Party — visited South Korea recently and met with President Kim Dae Jung, they were divided on this issue. Komeito was most eager to grant such a right, the LDP was split and the NCP was taking a wait-and-see attitude. Kim expressed his strong hope that the Japanese legislature would pass a bill by the end of this year that would formally grant foreign permanent residents the right to vote in local polls. My views on this subject are as follows:

First, many eligible Japanese voters do not know all the facts, such as how many Korean, Chinese and other foreign permanent residents live in this country. The total number of 113,038 comes from the Ministry of Justice, and there are no details about where and how they live. Nor is it clear how many of them are over the age of 20. It is necessary, therefore, that the people know these and other details in order to pass proper judgment.

Second, reciprocity should be the basic principle of diplomacy. If Japan is to grant voting rights to a permanent resident from one country, that country should reciprocate for a permanent Japanese resident in that country. I know of no country — not the United States, China, or North or South Korea — that grants foreign permanent residents the right to vote in local elections.

Third, the two Koreas are gradually moving toward reunification. The Japanese party representatives visited Seoul primarily to sound out President Kim’s views toward North Korea. Kim seems to think that the North is eager to reunite with the South and that reunification may not come in the foreseeable future unless it is achieved during his tenure. He will remain in office until Feb. 24, 2003. That means the leaders in Seoul and Pyongyang are anxious to reunite their countries within the next two and a half years. That leads me to believe that we can wait another two and a half or three years before deciding to grant the permanent residents from the new unified country the right to vote in local elections. I do not see any dire need for the Diet to pass the law by the end of this year.

Finally, it is my sincere hope that the Korean Peninsula will be reunited and become a country founded on democracy, that the new country will prosper, and that the friendly relationship between Japan and that country will be further promoted.

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