Schizophrenic Constitution leaves foreigners’ rights mired in confusion

So what rights do foreign residents have under the Constitution? Well, according to the Supreme Court, they are entitled to all the same rights as Japanese people, except for those which by their nature are only to be enjoyed by Japanese people. Does that help?

This Delphic guidance comes from a very important 1978 Supreme Court ruling in what is known as the McLean Case. Ronald McLean came to Japan as an English teacher in 1969 but quickly got involved in the local anti-Vietnam War protest movement. When he sought to renew his visa, the Ministry of Justice refused. He challenged the denial in court, asserting that he was being punished for engaging in lawful political activity, exercising his rights to free speech, assembly and so forth.

He lost (of course), and although the case is supposedly significant because in it the nation’s highest court enunciates the general principle that foreigners enjoy some of the rights enumerated in the Constitution, it does so with a caveat: that even those rights are limited by the scope of the regime of immigration laws which allow them to enter, reside and work in Japan.

Take the case of Kathleen Morikawa, an American resident in Japan who was fined for refusing to be fingerprinted as part of the alien registration process of days gone by. When she applied for a re-entry permit for a short trip to South Korea, her application was denied and she sought recourse in the courts. In 1992 the Supreme Court declared that foreigners had no constitutional right to enter or re-enter Japan, and that the Justice Ministry’s refusal to issue a re-entry permit was an acceptable exercise of administrative discretion in light of her refusal to be fingerprinted.

“Ignore the law and pay the price” is a fair comment here, but what I find noteworthy about the Morikawa case is that it did not seem to matter that she had a Japanese spouse and Japanese children. That the Justice Ministry can punitively strip Japanese nationals of their ability to travel or even live with a family member would seem to be at least as important constitutionally as whatever rights foreigners may or may not have.

The fact that many of us may be willing to live in Japan essentially at the sufferance of the government does not mean that our Japanese spouses, children and other kin should not have their own independent constitutionally protected rights to a family life free from arbitrary bureaucratic caprice. Article 13 of the Constitution refers to a right to the “pursuit of happiness,” but meaningful court precedents tying this provision to a right to family life are thin on the ground.

Recent revelations by a former prosecutor about being taught by his superiors that “foreigners have no human rights” raise further doubts about whether Japan is really up to the legal issues implicit in globalization.

Finally, since Japanese courts often justify their decisions using references to shakai tsūnen (commonly accepted social norms), even constitutional decisions can tend to reflect a distinctly majoritarian bent. In some countries a judiciary committed to defending minorities and unpopular viewpoints combined with clearly defined constitutional protections is expected to function as a bastion of human rights. Whether this can be expected of Japanese courts is debatable.

The fact that many of us expats are still here nonetheless may thus be because of the inherent kindness of the Japanese people rather than any high expectations of their government. At the end of the day, perhaps that is what popular sovereignty is all about.