My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column Feb 2, 2010: “NJ suffrage and the racist element”


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The Japan Times February 2, 2010
JUST BE CAUSE, Column 25, Version with links to sources.
Non-Japanese suffrage and the racist element

On Jan. 17, Takeo Hiranuma made this statement about fellow Diet member Renho:

“I hate to say this, but she’s not originally/at heart (motomoto) a Japanese.”

What could have provoked such a harsh criticism of one’s identity?

A simple question Renho, of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, asked mandarins (as is her job) who were requesting more cash: “Why must we aim to develop the world’s No. 1 supercomputer? What’s wrong with being No. 2?” Hiranuma claimed, “This is most imprudent (fukinshin) for a politician to say.”

Is it? I’ve heard far more stupid questions from politicians. Moreover, in this era of deflationary belt-tightening, it seems reasonable to ask the bureaucrats to justify our love.

Being pilloried for asking inappropriate questions is one thing (as “appropriate” is a matter of opinion). But having your interests in the country, and people you represent, called into question because you have non-Japanese (NJ) roots (Renho’s father is Taiwanese, her mother Japanese, and she chose Japanese citizenship) is nothing less than racism, and from a Diet member at that.

Hiranuma predictably backpedaled: First he accused the media of sensationalizing his comments. Then he claimed this was not racial discrimination because Renho has Japanese citizenship.

Somebody should explain to Hiranuma the official definition of “racial discrimination,” according to a United Nations treaty the Liberal Democratic Party government ratified in 1996, when he was a Cabinet minister:平沼赳夫#.E5.A4.96.E9.83.A8.E3.83.AA.E3.83.B3.E3.82.AF

“Racial discrimination shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” (U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination, Article 1.1)

So, by raising Renho’s descent/ethnicity/national origin in questioning her credentials, Hiranuma is guilty as charged.

But there is a larger issue here. Hiranuma’s outburst is symptomatic of the curious degree of power the ultrarightists have in Japan.

Remember, this is the same Hiranuma who helped scuttle a human rights bill in 2006, headlining a book titled, “Danger! The Imminent Threat of the Totalitarianism of the Developed Countries.” Within it he claimed, “This human rights bill will exterminate (horobosu) Japan.”

This is also the same politician who declared in 2006 that Japan should not have a female Empress, for she might “marry a blue-eyed foreigner” and spawn the next Emperor — managing to double-dip racism into sexism and misogyny. (Why assume women are more susceptible to rapacious NJ than male heirs to the throne?)

Hiranuma wasn’t so lucky in 2008 when trying to stop a bill revising the Nationality Law, fixing paternity recognition loopholes our Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional mere months earlier. He argued that granting bastard children Japanese citizenship would dilute “Japan’s identity.”

But he’s still at it: The Hiranuma hobbyhorse is currently rocking against the proposal of granting suffrage in local elections to NJ with Permanent Residency (PR), which may pass the Diet this year.

It is probably no surprise that this columnist supports PR suffrage. There are close to half a million Special Permanent Residents (the zainichi ethnic Koreans, Chinese, etc.), born and raised here, who have been paying Japanese taxes their entire lives. Moreover, their relatives were former citizens of the Japanese empire (brought here both by force and by the war economy), contributing to and even dying for our country. In just about any other developed nation, they would be citizens already; they once were.

Then there are close to a half-million more Regular Permanent Residents (the “newcomer” immigrants) who have taken the long and winding road (for some, two decades) to qualify for PR. They got it despite the discretionary and often obstructionist efforts of Japan’s mandarins (Zeit Gist May 28, 2008).

Anyone who puts in the years and effort to meet PR assimilation requirements has earned the right to participate in their local community — including voting in their elections. At least three dozen other countries allow foreigners to vote in theirs, and the sky hasn’t fallen on them.

But that’s not what antisuffrage demonstrators, with Hiranuma their poster boy, would have you believe. Although public policy debate in Japan is generally pretty milquetoast, nothing brings out apocalyptic visions quite like the right wing’s dry-throated appeals to Japanese-style xenophobia.

Granting foreigners suffrage, they say, will carve up Japan like a tuna. Okinawa will become another Chinese province. Beijing will control our government. Even Hiranuma claims South Korea will annex the Tsushima Islands. The outside world is a perpetual threat to Japan.

This camp says that if NJ want the right to vote, they should naturalize. Sounds reasonable, but I know from personal experience it’s not that simple (the application procedure can be arbitrary enough to disqualify many Japanese). This neutralizes the Alien Threat, somehow.

But by criticizing Renho for her NJ roots, Hiranuma exposed the naturalization demand as a lie.

Renho has taken Japanese citizenship, moreover graduated from one of Japan’s top universities, became a member of Japanese society as a famous newscaster and journalist, and even gotten elected by fellow Japanese to Parliament.

But to Hiranuma, that doesn’t matter. Renho is still a foreigner — in origin if not at heart — and always will be.

This is where Hiranuma and company’s doctrinaire bigotry lies. You can’t trust The Alien no matter what they do, especially if they don’t do what Real Japanese tell them to do.

Why is this expression of racism so blatant in Japan? Because minorities are so disenfranchised in our political marketplace of ideas. In any marketplace (be it of products or ideas), if you have any barriers to entry, you get extremes and aberrations (be it in prices or views). Open the market, and things tend to correct themselves.

That is what these zealots are most afraid of: not merely The Alien, more the loss of the ability to attract votes by whipping up public fear. Let The Alien in, and those on the cosseted ideological extremes would have to be more tolerant of, if not appeal to, a newly enfranchised section of Japan’s electorate with more diverse interests.

That’s the best argument yet for giving NJ with PR the vote: to reduce the power of Japan’s xenophobic fringe, and rid our polity of these racists and bigots. Make it so that next time a Hiranuma makes racist statements, those affected will have the chance to vote him out of office.


Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month


22 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column Feb 2, 2010: “NJ suffrage and the racist element”

  • Deepspacebeans says:

    “But she caries Japanese citizenship, so it isn’t racist” is such a misnomer that it is hard not to get a chuckle out of it. However, the simple conflation of nationality=race is one so prevalent in many countries outside of the west that it really needs to be further addressed by the world community. These statements, like the one above are so patently absurd that not even those spouting them can honestly be said to support them with any kind of intellectual vigor. Should we choose to accept “race” as a legitimate category, one could never accept the corollary to the statement that Hiranuma made, that is that be changing ones country of citizenship, we also change our “race”. It is also precisely the absurdity of such a notion that really fuels which permits bigots to make such statements in the first place.

  • As I work in Kasumigaseki, I can testify a little bit to one element of this move of widening suffrage- the hysterical, vitriolic, aggressive abuse thrown by the long processions of uuyoku up and down Sakurada dori. They have a morning round, then, their indignation over this and that no doubt fortified by a bento and strident self abuse during the early afternoon, they come back for bad songs with abuse on the side for the afternoon.

    (But not on rainy days).

    It’s very draining after while to sit there writing about what a great country Japan is and have screaming abuse thrown at absurd volumes by these dreadful people.

    Over recent months the volume and aggressiveness has reached blood vessel-bursting pitch, but at one point an element of very dark humor crept in. It was about a month ago. Suddenly the police started forcing the uuyoku on, telling them to shut the hell up! I was amazed. But not as much as the uuyoku, who are not used to being told publicly to shove off. The lead uuyoku truck’s ranter was, I thought, really going to burst something- absolutely crazed with anger (or a very good actor)…

    …saw the reason…

    an open topped, double decker Hato sightseeing bus (Nippon Yokoso, welcome to Japan, etc.) had been parked outside Gaimusho when the morning madmen had come along. I looked out of my window and saw what can I only describe is a very unhappy/ confused/ perplexed/ frightened tourists (who were Asian- maybe a package tour- Chinese? Korean?) looking on at the spectacle as 25 meters away the police suddenly got off their buns to divert the uuyuoku trucks right away from the Kokkaigijicho and towards Uchisaiwaicho.

    You can imagine it- the beautiful silk screen image of Japan….suddenly ripped asunder by gatecrashing ranting racist thugs in the heart of Japan’s government district.

    This got me thinking about things- so it’s OK for these madmen to scream vitriolic abuse about foreigners when there are no foreigners in sight, but when there are foreigners around, suddenly it’s a problem.


    — Well, maybe when there are foreign TOURISTS around (spending lots of money in the short term; rich Chinese these days are very welcome now, in a land where deflation means few people have much spending money or the will to spend it), it matters. But the presence of foreign RESIDENTS around is precisely the problem to these people — you know, those uppity foreigners who are paying long-term taxes and actually doing something for Japan for generations, and who dare expect to become something more than just passive guests. Anyhoo, the Keystones are acting within character.

  • I know this is a logic thrown around ad nauseam, but I still want to point out to it to see what kind of rebuttals I get.

    WHETHER YOU PAY TAXES OR NOT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH SUFFRAGE. The reason you pay taxes is to keep the public system you live in running, including the police force, fire fighters, public schools, street pavements, and many more: it’s the price we pay so that we don’t have to live in some kind of an anarchic warzone. It is certainly NOT something you pay in exchange for having the right to make changes to the system. Other arguments are fine (whether I agree to it or not is a different story), but this logic in particular bothers me a lot.

    — Disagree, of course. If you pay taxes (particularly residency taxes), you are a participant in a society, and part owner of things that are public (hence NJ cannot be refused entry into public facilities; cf. the private-sector establishments displaying “Japanese Only” signs that became a problem cos there was no law to stop them). You also have a say in how that money is spent; or rather, should have a say, like everyone else.

    If you buy into the ill-considered argument being bandied about by those xenophobes you (so unwisely) marched with some months ago that “taxes are merely 使用料金 “, then you invite all manner of avenues for corruption and unaccountability for public spending, because once you pay in (citizen or not), then you logically have no right to make changes to the system. Rubbish. Nobody in their right mind buys into this. But xenophobes aren’t in their right mind.

    Take a hint from Steve in “Blue’s Clues”: Find an armchair where you can sit and contemplate, and spend some time thinking these things through thoroughly before you embarrass yourself any further with hook-line-and-sinker half-baked conclusions.

  • Thank you for your reply, although I don’t think I actually said they are “使用料金.” More along the lines of “維持費” is what I had in mind. People who don’t pay taxes should not have their right to access police and other public services (for human rights purposes etc.), but of course they would face possible legal consequences for tax evasion. But that’s a whole different story…

    — Sorry, yes, 維持費. It was incestuous-talking-heads and often-loony-reactionary TV debate show ここまで言って委員会 who used the words 使用料金 in conjunction with this issue, IIRC. Essentially the same thrust of argument, anyway.

  • “No taxation without representation” is an old and well-established concept. Of course there is plenty of room for debate over the precise details of its application – children pay consumption taxes on various products (as do the insane, tourists…) and few would argue for full voting rights for them. But IMO it is an important concept to keep in mind when considering which people should be allowed to participate in a democracy.

    Also, see my comments on posts passim, everyone who lives here for 5 years is a “permanent resident” for tax purposes, irrespective of visa status or nationality. That is, on top of anything I earn here, the Japanese Govt demands a share of my UK-derived income to support its shonky pensions debacle. What exactly is the coherent and ethically sound argument that I should not be allowed any say in the matter?

    — Comparing NJ to children and the insane is definitely a non-starter of an argument.

  • Debito,

    Yes couldn’t agree more: it’s taken for granted that it’s fine to racist and loony sometimes and not at other times.

    Something wrong with this picture…..

  • James Annan said:That is, on top of anything I earn here, the Japanese Govt demands a share of my UK-derived income to support its shonky pensions debacle.

    Really? When I left Japan for the UK a few years back I suspected something like this might be the case (it wasn’t made clear) so I didnt apply for PR status (I wasnt sure if I was coming back anyway), even though I was told I could apply (I d been in Japan 10 years at that point).

    The cynic in me says this is yet another attempt to gain more foreign income while denying rights.

    No taxation without representation! Bring on the Boston Tea Ceremony!

  • In my mind there are several points to consider. I will try to bullet point them and so—

    1. The issue( the in mind of the DPJ) relates more to tokubetsu eijuken (zainichi)
    2. It is more about politics than the following–human rights, immigration policy, the future of japan, the declining population, the aging society
    3. The DPJ is unaware of the real statistics of the eijuken population
    4. While I might enjoy voting in my local elections–does this law allow me to RUN for local elections? 
    5. If this passes I am going to take the candy–but I am still not sure of the intentions. This seems to easy and too superficial. And might come back to bite.(they could take it away!) A reformation of the rules to become a citizen would be much better. But looks like we will have to wait even longer for that.

    — You’re speculating with a lot of this. Sources for assertions of what’s on the DPJ’s mind in 1, 2, and 3 please.

  • > Sources for assertions of what’s on the DPJ’s mind in 1, 2, and 3 please.

    Here is a possible source for 1:
    Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Akamatsu, who attended the new year’s party held at a hotel in Tokyo by the Korean Residents Union in Japan, gave his “most heartfelt gratitude” for the union’s support for the lower house elections. Then he stressed that their support was for foreigners’ local suffrage, and that the local suffrage for permanent foreign residents is a “public promise” (公約) with the union. This is the first time a DPJ official admitted that they received election support from the Korean Residents Union with the granting of suffrage as its condition.
    Akamatsu said, “Last year we received a great amount of support from President Chung Jin and union members. Although you cannot vote for us, you have supported us in various ways across the country, and we were able to make the regime change by winning 308 seats.”
    He also promised to make the foreign suffrage bill pass the diet, saying “I believe your support comes from your hope that the local suffrage problem will be resolved under the DPJ administration. With that understanding, it is only common sense for us to keep our promise with you. We are truly only steps away from achievement. I am full of gratitude.”
    Due to a difficulty in gathering party opinion, the DPJ has not included the granting of suffrage to foreign permanent residents in the lower house manifesto for Japanese voters.
    Excuse my poor translation. Couldn’t find an official one.
    Of course, this statement (whether truly intended or not) does not necessarily prove that they will limit the suffrage to the zainichis. Certainly sparks some speculation for it though…

    BTW, he later backpedaled, saying it was a “personal promise” rather than a 公約:

  • Hey Debito. Congratulations on a first-rate article. It calls it like it is. Very refreshing, indeed.

    PKU – appreciate the irony of your post on the sound truck guys. That post also reveals a lot about how things really are.

  • And still there are some stoneheads out there (thanks PK):

    Foreigner suffrage can fuel nationalism: Kamei

    Kyodo News
    Financial services minister Shizuka Kamei reiterated his opposition Wednesday to granting permanent foreign residents the right to vote in local-level elections, saying doing so could incite nationalism during polling times.

    Kamei, who heads Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), one of the junior partners in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan-led government, has been a vocal opponent of the drive, making it difficult to submit a local suffrage bill to the current Diet session.

    “Elections could heat up,” Kamei told a plenary session of the House of Councilors. “Granting the right to vote would run the risk of creating antagonism because it could spur nationalist sentiments.”

    He was apparently referring to a potential clash of feelings between Japanese and ethnic Koreans.

    People of Korean descent comprise about half of all permanent foreign residents in the country, mostly because many Koreans came or were forcibly brought to Japan as laborers when the Korean Peninsula was under colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

    Kamei reiterated his view that those hoping to vote in elections should be naturalized.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano has said a consensus must be reached within the Hatoyama Cabinet on the matter before the government can proceed with legislation to realize local suffrage for foreign residents.

    Hatoyama and other DPJ leaders, including Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, support the measure, but reservations remain even within the party.

    There are strong calls among permanent foreign residents for the right to vote in local-level elections on grounds that they pay taxes like Japanese.

    The Japan Times: Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Dear Mr. Kamei,

    You say that granting the right to vote to foreign nationals could spur nationaist sentiments.

    I trust then that you equally oppose all activities that might incite nationalist sentiments, such as international sport, history of the war period, and visits to Yasukuni.

    P.S. Good luck winning an election without the DPJ

    [disengage sarcasm]

  •  I know the tax reason is often written about, but it would be nice to see some other reasons printed which may be more a powerful reason for the Japanese themselves and just maybe, less arguable. Please remember, not everyone works, can work or pays taxes (unless you want to include consumption tax). Many Japanese children for example, are being denied the right to have both parents act as a political advocate for them, in relation to voting for education policy,health policy,or other social services which are directly and indirectly being used by the children/family. Some NJ family members are looking after Japanese adults and children who are disabled and can’t influence local policy and yet, they are expected to take on the financial and emotional responsibility that goes along with such burdens . It is clear from this we do not just vote because we pay taxes. We also vote for our families needs, and it is here that 50 percent of the family of a Japanese national is being denied the chance to act as a child’s political advocate. In other cases, both parents are denied the right to have a voice at local or national on the services they use. I understand people like to talk about taxes and ownership of services and that’s important, but it is not the only or main reason.

    — It’s not. But you try and scrunch what you just wrote above within 900 words when it’s not the main thrust of your column anyway (the blatant yet trojan-horsed racism of the xenophobic right is).

  • debito,talking of the racist element,will you be doing anything on the campaign that brought asa down?

    — No. This time, I think he got what’s coming to him. It’s to me not a NJ issue.

  • interested you think that
    in sumo its been shown that you can kill someone and nothing happens to you if you are japanese.
    think toki,without even going into the death of the young wrestler which the police refused even to investigate at first.

  • I got a copy of this flier in my mailbox the other day:

    I give them points for using factual data in their claims but the racist spin on all of their “points” served only to piss me off. Lot of silly non-sequitors and crap with all kinds of holes throughout the hole thing.

    Whoever put it in my mailbox better hope I don’t catch them doing it a second time.

  • “If you pay taxes (particularly residency taxes), you are a participant in a society, and part owner of things that are public ”

    If you follow that reasoning further, I should be able to claim that since my tax bill is significantly larger than the average salariman, my vote should count for more. After all, my part ownership is larger, right?

    — Doesn’t work like that, as you know. You don’t get part votes. And even people who are too poor to pay taxes can vote.

  • John (Yokohama) says:

    In the ya we kinda support you but not if we have to department:

    “An LDP member of the Ishikawa prefectural assembly expressed a similar view, saying the assembly had been supportive because giving permanent residents the right to vote was not ‘‘realistic’’ before.”

    — And how about this one?

    “The Kagawa prefectural assembly says in its statement that foreign residents should be nationalized first to obtain the right to vote.”

    Nationalized, like a bank? Now that’s a commitment! 🙂

  • I Hope I’m not straying too far off topic but isn’t Japan trying to compete for skilled foreign migrants? Who (from a developed country) would want to live there when basic rights are restricted and these attitudes continue to be so prevalent? Surely, thanks to people continuing to speak out, these attitudes will change when over 65s out-number under 20s two to one in 15 years. But if increasing immigration isn’t the desired option, I highly doubt they will change.

  • ‘Who (from a developed country) would want to live there when basic rights are restricted and these attitudes continue to be so prevalent?’

    I don’t think Japan has much chance of attracting people from developed countries, not only from a rights perspective but also because of cultural and language factors. Japan’s best chance for high skilled workers is countries like India and especially China. Unfortunately China has a much worse human rights record than Japan so I don’t know if the Chinese would be too worried about the issues we discuss here.
    However with an image change I agree that Japan would become a much more attractive proposition to skilled workers than it is now. As it stands, skilled workers will choose western countries first , regarding Japan as close to the bottom of the barrel.


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