Japan Times FYI on voting rights in Japan (including Zainichi & Newcomer NJ)


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Hi Blog.  I’m finding that the Japan Times is also doing excellent “FYI” articles these days as briefings of certain situations and issues that aren’t necessarily “in the news” at the moment.  See for yourself below with this week’s briefing on voting rights in Japan for citizens who live overseas, or for people who should arguably have the same rights as citizens by now…  Arudou Debito in Sapporo
Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Absentee ballot system up, running

Expats won hard-fought battle but suffrage still eludes foreign permanent residents

By SETSUKO KAMIYA, Staff writer
 Suffrage is a fundamental right of a democracy, and many countries ensure their citizens can cast absentee ballots

News photo
Absentees: Japanese voters living in Australia turn out at the Japanese Consulate in Sydney on Aug. 31, 2005, to vote in a Lower House election held the following Sept. 11. KYODO PHOTO

It was only a decade ago, however, that Japanese living abroad won the right to vote in national polls. They had to campaign actively before politicians were pushed into establishing this right.

Over the years, improvements have been made to the voting system, but some critics say that more needs to be done to ensure that all eligible voters can exercise this right fairly.

Another issue being considered is allowing foreign nationals with permanent resident status to vote in local-level elections.

Following are questions and answers about the voting system, and where expatriates and permanent residents fit in:

How did Japanese abroad win suffrage?

The process began in 1993, when politics went through a transition that saw the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lose its Lower House majority for the first time ever.

Many expatriates observing the developments back here in Japan with great interest were disappointed that they could not participate in the election process.

At the time, the Public Office Election Law did not grant suffrage to voters living outside the country.

Only Japanese registered as living in Japan were allowed to vote.

Seeing this as a violation of the Constitution’s stipulation that all Japanese nationals at or above the age of majority have the right to vote, expatriates living in Los Angeles formed the lobby Japanese Overseas Voters Network, which later expanded to 13 cities in 11 countries.

In 1996, its members sued the government, claiming their denial of the right to vote violated the Constitution.

As the litigation proceeded, the government submitted a bill to revise the election law in 1998.

It cleared both chambers and was enacted that year.

It took until 2005 for the group to win their legal case at the Supreme Court, however.

What are the qualifications required for Japanese living abroad to vote? How are they registered?

Citizens of Japan who are 20 and older who have lived more than three months in another country qualify.

But unlike Japanese living in Japan whose residence registration is automatically reflected in the voter registration, expatriates must apply to be listed as overseas voters.

An application must be submitted to a Japanese embassy or consulate, which in turn sends it on to Japan for registration.

Basically, one is registered with the local government where the applicant lived in Japan before moving away, or with the locality of one’s family registry.

What revisions have been made to the voting system?

When the law allowed Japanese living overseas to participate in Diet elections, they could only cast ballots for proportional representation candidates, meaning they could only vote for parties.

The 2005 revision finally allowed them to cast ballots for candidates in districts and to participate in by-elections.

Technically, it was only at last July’s Upper House poll that expatriates won full suffrage for national elections.

How many Japanese are registered as overseas voters?

According to the Foreign Ministry, as of July there were some 798,000 eligible voters overseas, but only a little more than 100,000 are registered.

Observers say the number of eligible voters probably exceeds 1 million, because people who don’t bother to register with their local embassy do not appear in the official numbers.

Many claim the government has failed to grasp the exact number of eligible expatriate voters, and thus the system is already flawed.

Why does the number of registered overseas voters remain low?

Several technical reasons prevent expatriates from pressing their right to vote.

Voting day always falls on a Sunday in Japan, but embassies and consulates abroad are only open on weekdays. And people who do not live near them must vote by mail.

The troublesome procedure of having to use the mail to apply for and receive expatriate voter registration and then send ballots to Japan before the polling deadline prove a deterrence, said Hayahiko Takase, president of Japanese Overseas Voters LA, who was among the leaders of the initial campaign.

And voters have no way to confirm that their ballots made the deadline unless they send them by express mail.

“Voters are still not equal under the law,” Takase said, noting that casting ballots via e-mail would be an efficient way to solve the problem.

How do politicians feel about this issue?

A group of nonpartisan politicians recently launched a league to promote overseas voting and said they will work to raise registration and facilitate the process.

Online voting may be a solution but has yet to be allowed domestically.

Pushing this would require further revision of the Public Office Election Law, the politicians said.

Tetsundo Iwakuni, head of the Democratic Party of Japan’s international affairs division, said his party is aiming to establish overseas offices to increase its profile with expatriate voters.

What is the status of efforts to give permanent residents of Japan the right to vote?

Foreign nationals currently do not have the right to vote in Japan and the issue of giving foreign permanent residents that right for local-level elections is controversial.

Permanent residents, mainly Korean descendants of those who lived in Japan before the war and were forced to take Japanese nationality at that time, have been fighting for local-level suffrage.

Newcomers with permanent resident status from other countries and regions, including China, Brazil and the Philippines, are also part of this movement.

Recently, DPJ members started work on a bill to grant them suffrage. New Komeito has also been active in this area.

However, conservative lawmakers oppose granting foreigners suffrage, arguing such residents must become naturalized Japanese first. This is because the Constitution stipulates that sovereignty rests with the people, and people are defined as those who hold Japanese nationality, they say.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk


6 comments on “Japan Times FYI on voting rights in Japan (including Zainichi & Newcomer NJ)

  • I would have to agree with the conservatives. Getting the vote locally is a small step away from demanding it nationally. Where should it stop? Tsurunen Marutei says exactly the same thing, and I wouldn’t class him as conservative either (since he’s DPJ).

    It’s time for the ‘tokubetsu eijuusha’ to stop thinking about how to be even more ‘tokubetsu’. If they want to maintain their Korean (or whatever) citizenship, that’s fine, but it’s not right to demand rights in Japan that Japanese in a similar situation wouldn’t have in Korea.

    Now, if the conservative politicians make it harder to naturalize, that’s something to be complaining loudly about. I’m hoping Japan doesn’t toughen up the criteria, which are relatively lax right now (it would be a big problem if they started requiring PR).

  • I wonder if Japan were a country with a conscripted military service, how many people who currently cry out for the “right” to vote would also refuse to be conscripted into the military?

    –Historically, those people later deprived of the right to vote (the Zainichis) were during the war conscripted to fight for the Empire.

    In any case, indulging in the hypothetical to this degree is pretty much meaningless.

  • Thanks for your insightful comment there, Debito. Here’s why it’s a little more than meaningless.

    Countries confer the right to vote upon their citizens. As citizens of a country, people have certain rights (ie. voting, access to health care and pension systems, etc. etc.) and certain responsibilities (paying taxes, obeying the law, in Switzerland: serving in the militia, in Australia: casting ballots in elections).

    The current state of the world is that citizens of a country inherently have more rights in that country than non-citizen residents and visitors. Some signs of this are the need to obtain a visa to enter a country, the need to have the police informed of your hotel registration (France), the inability to open bank accounts, and in Japan, amongst many other nations, the inability to vote in elections.

    However, foreign residents of a country are not fully exempt from the responsibilities that citizens have. Taxes, for example, are used to create and maintain facilities that can be used by citizens and non-citizens alike. These include roads, parks and public spaces, amongst other things. As a result, many countries (Japan for example) collect taxes from resident non-citizens and even tourists (the consumption tax).

    One common argument used by proponents on giving non-citizen residents the right to vote is “I pay taxes, I should have a say in how they are spent”. In other words, I perform one of the duties that citizens perform, therefore I should have the equivalent rights. However, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are not to be maintained piecemeal. The government has said, if you want to vote, naturalise. Then you will receive all of the rights of a citizen, and all of the responsibilities.

    Now, going back to my hypothetical. Assume Japan were a country with conscription. Do you think it would be fair to say “I want to vote, but I don’t want to be forced to serve in the military – that’s a citizen’s job”? One cannot simply pick and choose the factors of citizenship that brings benefits to the individual. It is a part-and-parcel deal. Naturalise, or do not naturalise.

    The paying-taxes-brings-the-right-to-vote argument can be reduced to absurdity by concluding, if one pays consumption tax in Japan (as a tourist), one should have the right to vote.

    Please notice my argument does not touch on the issue of needing to renounce other citizenships in order to naturalise. That is not relevant here.

    –We’ve discussed this before. So does the article above. The Zainichis, the generational foreigners, are a special case even under world examples. Former citizens and their descendants, born here, living here as “foreigners” for up to five generations now despite all this history–would be citizens in most (if not all) countries already. Meaning with suffrage. Your arguments don’t touch upon this, instead create their own Straw-Men arguments (from mandatory conscription to taxpaying as an entitlement) that nobody here has raised. Argue with yourself if you like, but I’ll be a witness instead of a participant.

  • Steppenwolf says:

    I must agree with Simon. Having a Green Card doesn’t give you the right to vote. This is true in every country I have ever lived in.

    As concerns the Zainichis, they have always had the right to naturalise. If voting is so important for them why don’t they simply apply for Japanese citizenship. I mean really, history aside, they presently choose to live here as have their parents. Perhaps it is the special benefits the receive from Zainichi status that deters their choice of nationality.

    –And then again, perhaps not. You really should study their history more. Get to know some Zainichi and find out more why naturalization then and now wasn’t all that simple an option for them.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Simon and Steppenwolf, no one is suggesting that non-citizens be able to vote in national-level elections:

    “Another issue being considered is allowing foreign nationals with permanent resident status to vote in local-level elections.”

    I don’t see any great flaw in the position that local elections should be decided by whoever resides in the municipality in question, without regard for what nation they pledge their allegiance to. The present system bars property-owning permanent residents from voting in a village election if their passport is from another country, while at the same time allowing Japanese nationals who have long since expatriated to other countries, often permanently, to cast votes in their long-forgotten hometowns.

    (This isn’t unique to Japan — I myself can still vote in my New Jersey college town despite not having lived there in a decade! Should a person like me really have the right to vote for the next mayor? And since I now live in Japan as a foreign national, I have no local residence to transfer my voting rights to. This applies equally to Japanese people who have moved abroad but can still cast increasingly-meaningless votes in their former domestic towns.)

    Making nationality a condition for voting in a local election presupposes the absolute supremacy of the national government over all local governments. If the residents of a town think that their interests would be best served by letting all residents vote, why should the bureaucrats in far-off Tokyo be able to stop them?

    I wouldn’t want non-citizens voting in national elections, however I support tying national elections to nationality and local elections to local residency. Isn’t the point of elections to choose a government that will most effectively govern the municipality for the people who are actually there?


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