Local vote for foreign residents: time ripe?

Permanent foreign residents of Japan may finally face a realistic chance of being granted local-level suffrage under the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which has signaled a willingness to pursue such rights.

Foreign nationals at present can’t vote in national or local-level polls, and changing the law has been a bone of contention over the years, particularly under the administrations of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose conservative ranks lined up against granting suffrage by arguing that permanent foreign residents must first become naturalized citizens.

But DPJ heavyweights Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa are all advocates of giving foreigners the vote at the local level, and after knocking the LDP out of power last August the DPJ is now in a position to craft legislation it has been pushing since 1998, when the party was launched.

Special permanent residents, who include Korean and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and during the war and were forced to take Japanese nationality, and their descendants; and general permanent residents, who are relative newcomers from China, Brazil, the Philippines and other areas who have received the appropriate visa status.

At the end of 2008, some 912,400 foreign nationals were registered with the government as permanent residents. Among them, 420,300 were special permanent residents, according to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau.

Permanent residency is generally granted to people with stable jobs who have lived in Japan at least 10 years. People who are married to a Japanese national are only required to have lived in the country for five years to be eligible.

Local-level suffrage was originally a desire primarily among special permanent residents who lived and worked in Japan for generations, but general permanent residents now outnumber them and also want the vote.

Advocates point out that permanent foreign residents are treated in virtually all other regards as taxpaying Japanese and thus should have the right to vote on matters pertaining to their immediate communities.

The general public also appears to be in favor of granting such rights. According to a recent survey by the Mainichi Shimbun covering 1,066 people, 59 percent supported granting local-level suffrage to permanent foreign residents, while 31 percent did not.

Globally, at least 38 countries — including many EU nations, the United States and South Korea, to name a few — currently allow local-level voting rights for resident foreigners.

The DPJ pledged during the campaign for the August election to keep pushing for laws to grant local voting rights to permanent foreign residents, but the party’s higher priority manifesto avoided the issue.

DPJ Diet affairs chief Kenji Yamaoka recently hinted that a lawmaker-sponsored bill might be drafted during the current extraordinary Diet session. Although the plan was aborted due to expected resistance from within the DPJ and from coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (New People’s Party), a bill is expected to be submitted at the earliest during next year’s regular Diet session.

Behind the push is speculation that Ozawa — who has a strong say in Diet proceedings — is eyeing next summer’s Upper House election as well as nationwide local-level elections in 2011, and sees such a bill as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the LDP and New Komeito, which is clearly supportive of granting voting rights to foreign residents.

Should a bill eventually get passed, it will undoubtedly be embraced by the foreign resident community.

The Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan), the largest organization of permanent South Korean residents in Japan, campaigned for candidates supportive of foreigners’ suffrage during the recent general election. Many of the candidates were elected as DPJ lawmakers.

While Hatoyama and Ozawa are both strong advocates of foreigner suffrage, they still face opposition within their party.

But considering how Hatoyama and Ozawa have both promised the South Korean government and Korean organizations here to move forward with the issue, it seems likely the DPJ will seriously consider following through on its pledge in the near future.