Metropolis Mag has thoughtful article regarding the convoluted debate for NJ PR suffrage


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Hi Blog.  Andy Sharp in Metropolis Magazine offers up a very well researched touchstone article on the debate re NJ Permanent Residents getting suffrage, unearthing more arguments and attitudes behind those who support and oppose it.  Love the quote from the former cop (Sassa) who mistrusts NJ, but of course makes an exception (typical) for the NJ interviewer in the room (‘cos he’s White and from a developed country).  I myself don’t see the DPJ expending more political capital on the NJ PR suffrage issue anytime soon.  But let’s see how the upcoming election treats the Kan Cabinet.  I have already heard from a friend in politics that the below-mentioned far-right People’s New Party is awash in enough cash that they’re attracting a few underfunded candidates ready to make Faustian bargains.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Japan weighs up whether to give foreign residents the vote
Metropolis Magazine By: Andy Sharp | Jun 17, 2010 | Issue: 847 Courtesy of lots of people.

“The Chinese coming to Japan now were educated during the rule of Jiang Zemin. Their ideology is not welcome in Japan. We want more foreigners like you—Americans and Britons—to come here.”

Atsuyuki Sassa, 79, makes no bones about what type of gaikokujin he’d prefer to see living and working in his native country. The former secretary general of the Security Council of Japan is up in arms about recent moves to allow the nearly 1 million permanent residents here to vote in local elections. In April, he organized a “10,000 People Rally” at the Nippon Budokan to bring together opponents of the plan, with keynote speeches by the likes of People’s New Party leader Shizuka Kamei and Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe.

“If Chinese could vote in local elections, they wouldn’t vote for [candidates] who criticize China or North Korea,” he says. “What could happen if this type of person were granted the vote?”

The debate over foreign suffrage has rolled on for decades, but it was reignited last summer when the Democratic Party of Japan—a longtime champion of the issue—ousted the ruling Liberal Democrat Party from power. However, with the DPJ itself split over the subject, is there any hope of permanent residents ever getting the vote—local or otherwise?

Forty-five countries—about one in every four democracies—offer some sort of voting rights for resident aliens, according to David Earnest, author of Old Nations, New Voters, an extensive study of why democracies grant suffrage to noncitizens. These range from first-world powers such as the United States, Canada, the UK and other European Union members, to less preeminent nations like Malawi and Belize.

The type of voting rights differ from country to country: the UK permits resident Commonwealth citizens to vote in national and local elections; New Zealand allows foreigners who have lived there for more than a year to vote in parliamentary polls; Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway grant all foreign residents the vote in local polls, but not in national elections; and Portugal offers a hybrid that lets EU nationals vote only in local elections, but gives full enfranchisement in parliamentary elections to Brazilians.

Earnest explains that the consequences of granting local suffrage to foreigners are not yet entirely clear, seeing as how it is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, he gives four benefits that are typically cited by advocates: it encourages foreign residents to naturalize; it leads to better government; it’s an opportunity for “brain gain” rather than “brain drain”; and it makes for a more just society.

On the other hand, there are two core arguments for refusing to enfranchise alien residents. “By far and away, the most common reason is that governments or courts conclude that, as a constitutional or legal matter, the right to vote is reserved exclusively for citizens,” he says. “Another reason is that governments and citizens alike object to discrimination in voting rights. Canada and Australia once allowed British nationals to vote in parliamentary elections, but have since revoked this right. In both cases, the governments concluded that it was unfair to favor one group over other similar foreign residents.”

According to Earnest, critics argue that extending voting rights to foreigners can devalue the institution of citizenship and discourage naturalization. They also say it can marginalize as much as integrate foreign residents, because governments may use it as a substitute for naturalization, assuring permanent populations of foreigners with no prospect of becoming citizens.

According to the most recent Ministry of Justice figures, 912,361 of the approximately 2.22 million foreigners living in Japan are permanent residents. These eijusha are divided into two categories—a classification that has muddied the waters of the suffrage issue.

Nearly half of them (420,305) are considered tokubetsu eijusha, “special permanent residents” who hail mostly from the Korean Peninsula and have additional privileges in relation to immigration matters. The remaining 492,056 “ordinary” eijusha come from 190 different countries, the largest populations being Chinese (142,469), Brazilian (110,267), Filipino (75,806) and Korean (53,106). The Western country with the most permanent residents in Japan is the United States, with 11,814.

Granting local suffrage to these residents has long been a pet policy of DPJ pooh-bah Ichiro Ozawa, and was supported by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. However, like many of the pledges that the party made prior to its election victory last year, it remains unfulfilled. The government has procrastinated over the issue as it became bogged down by funding scandals and the Futenma base controversy, which spun Hatoyama off the prime-ministerial kaiten-zushi belt and toppled Ozawa from his secretary general perch. New PM Naoto Kan also backs foreign suffrage, but it’s unclear whether he will make it a top priority.

Other parties are divided on the subject. The leftist Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party are joined by New Komeito in their support of foreign suffrage, while the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party, People’s New Party (a member of the DPJ-led coalition) and Your Party are opposed.

The liberal-conservative split is also evident in the media. The Asahi Shimbun is in favor, while the Sankei and Yomiuri have slammed the idea, the latter stating in an editorial last October: “It is not unfathomable that permanent foreign residents who are nationals of countries hostile to Japan could disrupt or undermine local governments’ cooperation with the central government by wielding influence through voting in local elections.”

Yet the public seems to approve of opening polling stations to these “lifers.” Surveys conducted by the Asahi in January and the Mainichi last November found that 60 and 59 percent of respondents, respectively, supported foreign suffrage in local elections—turnout for which tends to hover around the 40 percent mark.

This August will mark the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, an event which understandably has enormous resonance with the Korean diaspora living here today. Zainichi Koreans who were forcibly brought to Japan for work had been able to vote in local elections until they lost this entitlement in December 1945 (which was, ironically, the same month in which women were first given the vote).

Since its establishment in 1946, the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) has repeatedly urged the government to restore local suffrage to zainichi. The pro-Seoul organization (which is distinct from the Pyongyang-affiliated Chongryon) stepped up its campaign in the ’70s through increased activism by second-generation zainichi.

“We were born in Japan,” says Seo Won Cheol, secretary-general of a Mindan taskforce on foreign suffrage. “All our friends were Japanese, yet we couldn’t become teachers [or] local civil servants, nor could we take out loans or buy homes. We started [campaigning] because of this prejudice based purely on our nationality.”

Mindan has continued to push for enfranchisement of all permanent residents over the years, filing a number of lawsuits—one of which led to a historical ruling. In 1995, the Supreme Court concluded that aliens with permanent residency have the constitutional right to vote in local elections, because local government is closely linked to the daily lives of residents.

Reenergized, the DPJ and Komeito submitted a bill to the Diet advocating foreign suffrage, prior to a visit by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 1998. Similar bills have been presented on several other occasions since, but successive LDP-led governments have bounced them all out of parliament.

The South Korean government’s decision in 2005 to open ballot boxes to permanent residents in local elections gave proponents fresh hope, as did the change of government last summer. But Seo, a second-generation zainichi, frets over the DPJ’s procrastination.

“It’s unlikely [a bill] will be submitted before the upper house election in July, but depending on where it lies on Kan’s list of priorities, it may or may not be put to the Diet during an extraordinary Diet session starting in September,” the 58-year-old says. “The resignations of Ozawa and Hatoyama are a blow, but Kan has long been a supporter and we’ll have to wait and see what develops.”

Opponents often argue that foreigners should become Japanese citizens if they want to vote, but permanent residents can be reluctant to relinquish their nationality for reasons of culture and identity—especially zainichi, many of whom were forced migrants or their descendents. “The Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling showed we were entitled to vote at the local level without naturalizing,” says Seo.

Supporters of foreign suffrage aren’t the only ones who were galvanized by the DPJ’s election victory. There has also been a surge in activity by rightists, one of whom was so incensed that he stormed into the DPJ headquarters brandishing a wooden sword and smashed up a computer in Hatoyama’s empty office last October.

Sassa, who was decorated as a Commander of the British Empire for arranging security for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit here in 1975, takes a more conventional stance.

“I’m not prejudiced against foreigners, but the law states that foreigners must not take part in election campaigns,” he says. “The Constitution states that only Japanese citizens may vote.

“Foreigners should nationalize if they have money and speak the language. I do think, however, that [this process] takes many years and the conditions should be relaxed.”

Sassa has bitter memories of zainichi North Koreans from his days as a top brass in the Metropolitan Police Department. He fears that enfranchising pro-Pyongyang Koreans could lead to a repeat of the violent attacks against his constabulary peers during communist-led demonstrations in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

“If we granted them suffrage, many police officers would have to put their bodies on the line, and so from a security perspective, there is no way that I could agree with the enfranchisement [of North Koreans],” he says. “We’d have to clamp down on some, but grant the vote to people of other nationalities. This is contradictory.”

Sassa also argues that foreign suffrage in local elections could have repercussions at a national level, if residents of prefectures that administer disputed territories were coerced by their respective governments to vote for particular candidates.

Kazuhiro Nagao, a professor of constitutional law at Chuo University, explained how this might work in a March 1 Daily Yomiuri op-ed: “There are about 30,000 eligible voters in Tsushima city, and a candidate can win in the city council election with at least 685 votes. If foreign residents are granted voting rights, those candidates who regard Tsushima Island as a South Korean territory can win in the election.”

While opponents and advocates seem to be interpreting the law to suit their own beliefs, Earnest sees the zainichi situation as unique, and argues that the suffrage issue raises important ethical questions.

“Japan’s special permanent residents did not choose to migrate to Japan,” he says. “No doubt there was some forced migration among the former European colonial powers and their overseas possessions, but Japan’s forced migration is more recent. What obligation does Japan have to permanent foreign residents?

“Japan may offer a case where two wrongs make a right,” he continues. “While one might normally object to discrimination in the granting of voting rights, in this case, one might justify special rights for Japan’s special permanent residents as the country’s commitment to redress an historical injustice.”

While such a solution could appease zainichi, however, the majority of permanent residents would remain disenfranchised. This is unlikely to placate the likes of Shayne Bowden, an Australian teacher and musician who is a permanent resident living in Fukuoka.

“I’ve been here 11 years,” he says. “I should be able to have a say in the politics of my community. We pay our share and contribute to the place we live. This should justify our right to vote.”

61 comments on “Metropolis Mag has thoughtful article regarding the convoluted debate for NJ PR suffrage

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  • D.B,

    If suffrage isn’t given, then that means that only one side of the equation is going to have a say in how our government works. I realize that there are many views among the japanese, many being kind towards foreigners, but when you are going against a government that pays little attention to the minority, it would be like only letting the tea party in America vote. Perhaps I am being too dramatic, but I think everyone is entitled to have their say. But you know, suffrage is very important in local elections because of the very fact that it is local. As a member of that community, one should have the right to vote and say their opinion on how to make their community a much better place.

    — I’ll step in here to save some time and summarize: D.B. doesn’t appear to believe in representative democracy working at all, so giving suffrage to anyone in a system this broken is meaningless. There is no indication in this camp’s position of how the system can be improved. So don’t even strive for NJ suffrage, the conclusion becomes. That’s why all one can do here is agree to disagree.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    HO, neither marriage nor citizenship in Japan are gained through an oath. Marriage is gained through a bureaucratic process. (It is also harder to *prove* marriage than to obtain it)
    Citizenship is gained only through jumping through whatever hoops the MOJ decides to put up. Unless, of course, it comes through birth. No oaths there. So your argument doesn’t hold water.

    Why is it inherently wrong for someone without citizenship but with a particular visa status (which acknowledges that the holder is unlikely to leave the country) to have voting rights in their council area?

  • Why is it inherently wrong for someone without citizenship but with a particular visa status (which acknowledges that the holder is unlikely to leave the country) to have voting rights in their council area?

    Not a good way to phrase the argument for the following reasons:
    1) Voting ought to have nothing to do with likelihood to leave the country. Citizens can pack up and leave any time, assuming they have money and a visa for somewhere else.
    2) Visa status absolutely has nothing to do with likelihood to leave the country; it only proves one’s ability to stay. (Banks and landlords: are you listening?!)

  • @DB, one reason people are making a fuss about the right to vote is it is just that; a right.The vote is for me just the tip of the iceberg of the complete lack of rights we have, from being invisible on a koseki to losing custody of our kids when our J-ex partner doesnt want us around anymore.

    Once upon a time, (the 80s) city tax was lower and varied according to the area one lived in. If you lived in a crappy area, your city tax was low. If you lived in Azabu, it was higher.

    Not so any more, now its 10% of your income last year. Add that with your income tax which may also be 10%, and then the until recently “compulsory to get a visa” health insurance, and you can look forward to 30% plus of your income going into propping up the Japanese state.

    But wait a minute, I thought as “gaijin” we are “guests”. Guests dont vote, but then nor should they pay local taxes or be “encouraged” to join state insurance schemes.

    Japan can’t have it both ways. If you re going to tax us at the same rate as Japanese citizens, we want to be treated better than pets.

    As it stands, this is a big scam and I dont know why that racist Sassa has the nerve to say “we want foreigners like you (western Caucasians) to come to Japan”. Why? So we can lose the vote and our kids?

  • Jon,

    You seem distraught.

    You make some very good points. But, since “they” are in control they CAN have it both ways. It sucks to be us. We have 2 options, 1) fight, or 2) give up. I prefer to fight.

  • @Jp, “thanks” for saying I seem distraught-lets not get personal shall we? I d say I m tired and bitter, but not distraught.

    There is a third choice, and others; leave Japan but dont give up.

    “They” (a word I actually avoided in my post to refer to the GOJ or whatever)dont necessarily have to have it both ways. Just avoid paying all your tax, it can be done if you keep moving house or leave Japan. Turn a slackness into a virtue!

    Complain loudly. Make pin prick protests. Speak Japanese to voice complaints articulately without buying into a system where you appear to be on the bottom.

    Or, leave Japan as a detractor and use your Japanese experience to get a trade-related/foreign office/UN/EU job, then spread the word from overseas. It’s the only way to be sure, as Sigourney Weaver once said…

    — And Michael Biehn. But look what happened to him. 🙂

  • Michael Biehn was just unlucky because he didnt want to be in the second sequel(?)

    Actually, I spoke too soon on escaping the city tax as a means of registering dissent; it might just get your visa cancelled. Having called immigration today, they told me there is a new law or regulation as of September last year: you will need to prove payment of the previous year of local taxes (juminzei no kaze shomeisho oyobi no zeishomeisho) in order to renew a visa though this may partly depend on the size of the company you belong to, which are now grouped into 3 categories.

    I still say pay it late, or time your payments with having to renew a visa. They re only asking for last year’s tax payment certificate; it is possible if you kept moving for the first two years of a 3 year visa and didnt pay, you could then just pay the final year in a new location in order to renew, but I can’t say if this would work.

    Do the bare minimum if you re not satisfied with local services or rights; we don’t have a vote so what do they expect? Blind obedience from foreigners, it seems.

    — Michael Biehn was in the sequel. His scenes were cut. You can see them in the DVD extras. Anyhoo… thanks for the information!

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Now we have some university professor telling us that foreign suffrage is illegal under the constitution. But the article makes it seem that HE doesn’t understand the issues (local elections only, etc) either.

    2010.9.6 00:14


    中央大学の長尾一紘教授(憲法学) 在日外国人が参加できる民主党代表選は「違憲の疑いあり」ではなく、はっきりと憲法違反だと言い切ってよい。現行憲法下の議院内閣制は、政党の存在を前提としている。政党の党首の選挙は、衆参両院での首相指名選挙の前段階であり一部分を構成している。




  • @Andrew Smallacombe,

    The prof in this article is arguing that it is unconstitutional for the foreigners to be involved in the DJP party leadership election. The DJP allows foreign party members and supporters, who have votes in the party leadership election. Generally, the leader of the party forming goverment becomes Prime Minister. So foreigners having a say in who gets to be Prime Minister is unconsitutional, according to the Prof.


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