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Japan mulls granting right to franchise to permanent foreign residents

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • January 21, 2010

    In a move intended to gain the trust of Seoul and Beijing, the Japanese government has completed ground work to present a bill in the Japanese Diet which will grant right of franchise to foreign nationals registered as permanent residents, a majority of whom are South Korean and Chinese. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has taken this step as part of its strategy of reconciliation with China and South Korea, its two erstwhile colonies and with whom the incumbent Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants to form an East Asian Community. Yet this is likely to give greater say to existing South Korean and Chinese constituencies in Japanese politics, a move the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and many conservative Japanese oppose. At the same time the move is also likely to accelerate a ‘demographic invasion’ of Japan by neighbouring countries, especially from China whose citizens find Japan a favourite destination for migration. The move from the Japanese government to give foreigners’ local suffrage coincides with the completion of 100 years of annexation of the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese media expects the bill to be submitted during the 150 day session of the Diet which started on January 18.

    During the last few years Seoul has been urging Tokyo to grant these rights to its citizens in view of protests from the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), the largest organization of permanent South Korean residents in Japan, which has been struggling to get the right to franchise on the streets.

    The Japanese Supreme Court in its 1995 ruling on a lawsuit filed by South Korean residents in Japan said the right resided with people of Japanese nationality based on the principle of popular sovereignty. However, in an observation to the ruling, the apex court said the Japanese Constitution does not prohibit permanent foreign residents from being given the right to vote in elections for municipal heads and assembly members, and legislatures should decide whether to give them that right. Thus the court passed the buck to the legislature.

    The issue of local suffrage resurfaced again in the 2009 general elections. During the campaign, Hatoyama had said that “the time has come to take positive steps” for granting the right starting with local elections, sparking speculation that the DPJ would implement the goal which it adopted in 1998 as part of its basic policies.

    This is not the first time that a bill in this regard is being moved in the Japanese parliament. The bill seeking the right to vote for permanent residents had been presented by opposition parties as many as 13 times including one by the DPJ during the LDP administration whose conservative ranks lined up against granting suffrage to foreign nationals and all the bills failed. But this is the first time that the bill will be presented as a government bill rather than sponsored by individual lawmakers. DPJ’s heavy weight Ichiro Ozawa recently said that “in view of the importance of Japan-South Korea relations the government, not the party, should submit a foreign suffrage bill.”

    The party positions in the 480 member House suggests that the bill will sail through without much resistance. Apart from the DPJ which has 308 seats the New Komeito which won 21 seats, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which has seven seats and the Japanese communist Party with nine seats are in favour of granting the right of franchise to foreigners. The opposition will come from the LDP which managed to get only 119 seats and People’s New Party (PNP) which has three seats.

    Like the parliamentarians, the general public also appears to be in favor of granting such rights. A 2009 opinion survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun covering 1,066 people revealed that 59 per cent of respondents supported granting local-level suffrage to permanent foreign residents, while 31 per cent opposed the measure.

    According to the Japanese Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, there were more than 910,000 foreign nationals registered as permanent residents at the end of 2008.

    In Japan, permanent residency is generally granted to people with stable jobs who have lived in Japan for at least 10 years. However, foreigners married to Japanese nationals get a five year relaxation.

    The permanent resident status granted to foreigners fall into two categories: special permanent residents and general permanent residents. The special permanent residents include Korean and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and during the Second World War and were forced to take up Japanese nationality, including their descendants. General permanent residents are relative newcomers from China, Brazil, the Philippines and other countries who have received the appropriate visa.

    The foreigner local suffrage bill which is in the offing however is unlikely to grant the right of franchise to North Koreans citing the reason that Pyongyang has no formal diplomatic relations with Tokyo. But analysts believe that the ruling party has apparently excluded ethnic North Koreans to appease the public over North Korea’s previous kidnappings of Japanese citizens and also to appeal to conservative lawmakers who oppose the bill.

    Apart from gaining the trust of its neighbours, the push is also aimed at gaining some political mileage at home. The ruling DPJ is eyeing next summer's Upper House election as well as nationwide local-level elections in 2011 as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the LDP and its ally New Komeito, which is clearly supportive of granting voting rights to foreign residents.

    If the bill passes through the Diet and becomes law, Japan will join the ranks of 38 countries - including many EU nations, the United States and South Korea, which currently allow local-level voting rights to foreign residents. It will also help Japan do away with some of the historical problems which have been lingering since the colonial period.