Local suffrage for foreigners in sight, but opposition grows stronger

For Chang Yooka, there is hardly a moment in her daily life that she feels she is a third-generation Korean.

But the 27-year-old faces that reality every time an election takes place in her hometown because she does not have the right to vote in any election.

Chang was born to Korean parents in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture. She hardly speaks Korean and most of her friends from school or work are Japanese.

Unlike her parents or grandparents who all suffered bullying and various forms of discrimination in Japanese society because of their nationality, Chang spent her childhood without facing such problems and had no trouble finding a job.

“I’ve had few bad experiences as a result of being Korean,” said Chang, who now lives in Tokyo’s Taito Ward and works at Japanese game software developer Konami Corp. She even started studying Korean at college in the hope of learning more about her ethnic identity.

“The only thing that still differentiates us from Japanese people is local suffrage,” she said.

But she and others like her may be granted the right to vote in elections for local governments and assembly members soon, or in a couple of years at the latest, as the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is eager to enact a law to extend local suffrage to permanent foreign residents.

It remains not clear, however, whether the government will submit legislation on the matter to parliament or if it would be passed during the current Diet session through June 16 because of an increasingly fierce backlash from conservative lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition camps.

Kim Jong Soo, an active advocate of granting local suffrage to foreigners and a third-generation Korean who headed the Korean Youth Association in Japan until very recently, said Koreans and other permanent foreign residents in Japan deserve the right to vote in view of the fact that they have long fulfilled their duty to pay taxes.

“We’re talking about local elections not national elections,” said the 33-year-old who now serves as a supervisor for the Tokyo-based organization. “We’re certainly interested in how our residential areas are managed and we should have the right to take part in local politics.”

“If Japan makes this come true, it will be a strong message to the international community that the country does not ignore foreign residents, whose number already exceeds 2.2 million,” he said.

The issue first drew attention in 1995 when the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution does not prohibit granting permanent foreign residents the right to vote in local elections in order to have their views reflected in local administration.

Since 1998, Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan and a few other parties, including the New Komeito party and the Japanese Communist Party, have submitted related bills in vain to the Diet.

Hatoyama and DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, the kingmaker in the ruling party, are among those strongly advocating the legislation.

Hatoyama expressed his eagerness to submit a bill to extend local suffrage to foreigners earlier this year, noting that this year marks the centenary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910.

Opposition lawmakers claim, however, that Ozawa, who is in charge of the DPJ’s election strategy, has the ulterior motive of capturing the support of permanent foreign residents in Japan, who numbered over 910,000 as of 2008.

Of the total, 490,000 foreigners hold regular permanent residency status, with Chinese constituting the largest group followed by Brazilians and Filipinos.

The remaining 420,000 have special permanent residency, which is granted to those from the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan who have lived in Japan since before the end of World War II and lost Japanese nationality through the San Francisco Peace Treaty, as well as their descendants. Of those special permanent residents, 99 percent are Koreans.

The planned legislation faces a major stumbling block in Shizuka Kamei, leader of the minor conservative People’s New Party, one of the DPJ’s two coalition partners.

Kamei, an outspoken political bigwig, has said the envisioned law could fan ethnic sentiment among Koreans and lead to conflict with Japanese, and that anyone seeking the right to vote should apply for naturalization.

In Japan, nationality is based on parentage not location of birth and those who obtain foreign nationality automatically lose Japanese citizenship.

But Chang, who greatly values her ethnic roots and identity, and does not hesitate to use her real name, has no intention of renouncing her Korean citizenship in exchange for local suffrage.

Some members of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party have also stepped up their opposition to hamper the enactment of such a law.

“We are strongly concerned that the results of local elections, especially in a major city or prefecture such as Osaka, could influence national politics,” said Seiichiro Murakami, a senior LDP lawmaker who heads a party group opposed to such legislation.

Murakami and other opponents have expressed concern that Korean voters could sway the course of long-standing territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea over islands such as Tsushima and Takeshima.

Some opponents argue that if Koreans gain voting rights, they could move to Japan-controlled Tsushima, for example, and elect local assembly members claiming that the island is South Korean territory.

“That’s such an extreme assumption,” Kim said, arguing that it is based on the prejudiced idea that foreigners are some sort of menace to Japanese society.

The National Association of Chairpersons of Prefectural Assemblies has also adopted a cautious stance on granting local suffrage to foreign residents.

It adopted a resolution in January calling on the government to listen to the organization’s views on the issue, which it claims “concerns the foundation of democracy” and has “a significant bearing on the administration of local municipalities.”

Supporters maintain that many countries in Europe have introduced some form of local suffrage for foreigners.

Murakami of the LDP said, however, “Europe has historically functioned in a different framework and that should not be applied to Japan.”

Advocates also maintain that South Korea adopted a legal amendment in 2005 to allow permanent foreign residents aged 19 or older to vote in local elections.

Although opponents counter that the amendment affects only around 100 Japanese residents living in South Korea, Kim said it signifies a radical shift for a country often described as “nationalistic.”

“Japan will not be able to buck the growing international trend,” he said, suggesting that the time may come soon for Japan to eventually allow dual citizenship.