The DPJ has agreed to submit a bill that would grant foreign permanent residents of Japan (let’s call them PRs) the right to vote and run in local elections. Getting voting rights without having to give up Korean citizenship has long been a goal of zainichi Korean activist groups. But this proposal would apply both to “special” permanent residents that include the population of “zainichi” Koreans and Chinese from Taiwan who remained in the country after WW2, and to any foreigner granted permanent residency.
The bill has stirred up a firestorm of criticism, most loudly from the right wing. However, in support of the bill are some powerful forces, first and foremost DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, whose job it is to ensure a lasting majority for his party. According to at least one critic, the decision to offer suffrage to all PRs may be an attempt to secure a more permanent voting base because the zainichi population has been falling precipitously as the original group dies off and their decendants naturalize.
Personally, although I could potentially benefit from this bill if I one day am granted permanent residency, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Except for unique circumstances, only the citizens of a country should be allowed to vote.
The right wing and their allies in the opposition LDP have mobilized against this bill. Right-leaning Sankei Shimbun has run features pointing out the “big problems” with the bill. Financial services minister and conservative People’s New Party President Shizuka Kamei is against the proposal, noting he would refuse to sign a cabinet decision on the matter. In a statement, he worried that some areas with large foreign populations would see an upheaval of political power. He also suggested the compromise measure of loosening the requirements to naturalize, without being specific.
Protests have been common, and generally have taken a highly xenophobic tone. The crux of the argument is that there is no good reason to give PRs the vote and that almost no nations unilaterally grant foreign citizens the right to vote (some EU countries allow it for other EU citizens, along with some other exceptions made for special groups (PDF)). Some of the criticism veers into the paranoid, however. In addition to the long, long list of furious red herring arguments documented by Debito, here is a video of one activist calmly explaining that this is an attempt by China to take over Japan by populating the country with foreign voters.
Almost non-existent support
It’s obvious enough that these protesters are making ridiculous arguments and have cranked the outrage way out of proportion. But what is the case for giving PRs the vote?
In addition to expected support from zainichi Korean groups, we have some uncharacteristically half-baked support from Debito, the well-known human rights agitator: “Debito.org is in support, given how difficult it can be to get PR in Japan, not to mention how arbitrary the naturalization procedures are.” But just because it’s tough to get the status, that doesn’t mean one should get the right to vote and be elected. I am not accusing foreigners in Japan of being spies or degenerates, but a basic tenet of a country and the Japanese constitution is that it is to be governed by its citizens. That requirement helps assure those who will be involved in politics are committed citizens of the country. Permanent residents are already protected under the law and do not need to renew their visa to stay in the country. I think if they want more than that they should be ready to give up their original passport and become citizens.
In an article in Japan Focus, professor Chris Burgess praises the zainichi suffrage movement as “multiculturalism in practice” but makes no mention of the expanded proposal.
I can understand giving the special permanent residents the vote because they are for all practical purposes citizens of the country. The current DPJ proposal would essentially exclude those who did not explicitly take South Korean citizenship (朝鮮籍維持者), if I understand correctly. But I would not even have a problem with these people getting the vote as it was an tragedy of history that put them in the country in the first place. If Japan would permit dual citizenship that would be one thing, but absent that letting them vote one way to let them participate in society.
But really, what constituency of non-zainichi PRs is actually asking for the right to vote? The only one who really stands to gain is the DPJ itself which would earn itself an expanded and loyal voter base. That’s an irresponsible way to decide election policy in this country, and as much as it pains me to side with rabid right-wingers who may wish me ill will, they are right on this issue. There are more important issues in my opinion (allowing dual citizenship, establishing an immigration policy) that should be given more priority.
(Thanks to Mulboyne for the video link)