Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010

“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.”

Atsuyuki Sassa

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.

Seo Won Cheol

“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.”