Monday, March 29, 2010

Non-Citizen Voting Rights

In 1993, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that the constitution guarantees voting rights only to Japanese citizens, but that a hypothetical national law granting local suffrage to foreigners would be constitutionally acceptable [1]. Nevertheless, because of influential rightist elements in the LDP, no such laws have passed in the 17 years since the Supreme Court decision, despite repeated attempts by the Komeito and the DPJ, and signs that a large majority of the Japanese population supports such rights [2].

Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s Secretary General, has strongly pushed a proposal that would grant local suffrage to the over 900,000 foreigners with permanent residency status [3]. After the DPJ took power in August 2009, it seemed briefly that, with his support, Japan might join the growing number of countries with some form of non-citizen voting rights* as early as this year.

Mindan (在日本大韓民国民団, the nationwide association of South Koreans in Japan) was instrumental in bringing this issue to the fore; in the lead up to the August 2009 elections, Mindan threw its support behind DPJ proponents of the policy [4]. Ozawa values this support highly, and his hurry to deliver on the campaign promise may be in part a bid to maintain Mindan’s support during the election in the summer of 2010. However, the DPJ has yet to submit a bill, and in face of opposition from within the party and the ruling coalition, appears to have shelved the proposal for the time being [5].

Ironically, it may have been Mindan’s crucial support for voting rights that has helped solidify the opposition to Ozawa’s proposal. Opponents’ most urgent criticism is that foreigner suffrage would provide an avenue for foreign governments to influence internal affairs [6]; as Mindan receives operating funds from the South Korean government [7], its success in pushing the issue this far seems to prove the opponents’ point.

In actuality, this argument completely mischaracterizes Mindan’s accomplishment, and the implications of foreign suffrage. In the long term, Mindan’s movement would not primarily benefit South Korea, or even Koreans in Japan. Since Koreans are Japan’s oldest foreign minority, they are also the most integrated. The number of Koreans with permanent residence actually decreases every year, as more long-term residents naturalize [8]. And as many who have not naturalized have lived in Japan for up to four generations, it is highly unlikely that obeying hypothetical marching orders from the South Korean government would benefit them in any way.

Furthermore, the permanent foreign resident community is increasingly diverse: Chinese, Brazilians and Filipinos all make up a growing share [9]. Although Koreans historically have held a supermajority, in the future, no single nationality will dominate Japan’s foreign population. This growing diversity makes it even more unlikely that large numbers of non-citizens would be able to organize along national lines to successfully promote their home country’s national interests to the detriment of Japan’s, even if they wanted to, which the evidence suggests that they do not.

There are plenty of legitimate arguments for and against foreigner voting rights, but there is no evidence to support that interference by foreign governments is one of them. Hopefully proponents will debunk this baseless criticism, and voters and lawmakers will consider the proposal on its actual merits and demerits, not on ill-reasoned paranoia.

* Around 40 countries allow some form of non-citizen suffrage. EU member nations permit foreign residents who hold citizenship in another EU country to vote in local elections; a smaller number of countries, including Korea, Venezuela, and Belgium grant local voting rights to foreigners who have met a multi-year residency requirement and (in some cases) hold specific visas [10] .

1. Supreme Court of Japan, Senkyo Jinmeibou Futouroku Shobun ni taisuru Igi no Moshide Kyakka Kettei Torikeshi, February 28, 1993 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from:

2. Gaikokujin Sanseiken ni Sansei 60%, Hantai 29% Asahi Shimbun Chousa, Asahi Shimbun, January 19, 2010 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from:

3. Hoshuuha Hanpatsu Kamaeru Minshu, Asahi Shimbun, December 2, 2009 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from:

4. Zainichi Mindan "Gaikokujin Sanseiken ni Sansei no Kohou wo Shien", Toua Nippou, August 20, 2009 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from: .

5. Gaikokujin no Chihou Senkyoken, Shushou ga Shinchou Shisei, February 9, 2006 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from: .

6. Nagao, Kazuhiro, Gaikokujin Senkyoken Dounyuu ha Kenpou Ihan, Chuo Online: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 25, 2010 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from: .

Gaikokujin Senkyoken ni Hantai suru Kai, homepage [cited 2010 March 29];

7. Nagao, Kazuhiro, Gaikokujin Senkyoken Dounyuu ha Kenpou Ihan, Chuo Online: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 25, 2010 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from: .

8. Ministry of Justice, Touroku Gaikokujin Toukei Toukeihyo, 2006-2008, [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from: .

9. Ibid.

10. Immigrant Voting Project, Non-Citizen Voting Around the World., Updated September 2, 2006 [cited 2010 March 29]; Available from:

Japan, Korea, Migration News, July 2006, Vol. 13, No. 3.