Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Policy Proposals

2009.10.13 (Tue)

Policy Proposals to New Japanese Government #3 (Voting Rights for Foreigners)

September 25, 2009

Just before and after the inauguration of the Hatoyama government, new moves emerged within the Democratic Party of Japan in regard to the issue of voting rights for foreigners. Toward the August 30 general election, the Korean Residents Union in Japan, an organization of South Korean residents known as Mindan, proactively supported candidates who were in favor of giving foreign residents voting rights. The South Korean government has enhanced its diplomatic approach to the new government regarding the matter. Last year, we announced policy proposals under the title of “Toward the Adoption of a Special Naturalization System for Special Permanent Residents.” Based on our considerations and developments since then, we would like to renew the proposals from the viewpoint that foreign residents should not be given the right to vote in Japan.a

[Policy Proposals]

  1. Limit the right to vote in national and local elections to Japanese citizens.
  2. Give special consideration to foreigners whose residence in Japan commenced prior to 1945 and their offspring (special permanent residents) by adopting a special naturalization mechanism for them, instead of granting them the right to vote in local elections.

1. Limit the right to vote in national and local elections to Japanese citizens.

In Japan’s local elections, the points of contention are often made over matters that are related to the core of national policy, including the problems relating to U.S. military bases and nuclear power plant construction. Japanese citizens alone should be responsible for making choices regarding such matters that may have far-reaching effects on Japan’s future.

If North Korea’s Kim Jong-il regime or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were allowed to directly or indirectly interfere in choices regarding territorial disputes, U.S. military bases or any other problem linked directly to Japan’s sovereignty and national security, it could damage peace and stability in East Asia, the Japan-U.S. alliance or the Japan-South Korea friendship.b

In 1995, the Supreme Court of Japan clearly rejected foreigners’ requests for voting rights in local elections, concluding: “Given that local governments are an integral part of Japan’s national governing structure, ‘residents’ (with voting rights in local elections) in Section 2 of Article 93 in Japan’s Constitution should be interpreted as Japanese citizens residing in regions under the jurisdiction of relevant local governments.”

Of more than 190 countries in the world, those that allow foreigners to vote in elections are limited to less than a quarter. These countries have had special reasons for accepting foreigners’ voting rights, including a long-held policy of attracting foreign workers.

The number of Japanese nationals with permanent resident status in South Korea is limited to several dozens, against hundreds of thousands of South Korean special permanent residents in Japan. Given the disparity in numbers, it is difficult to justify reciprocity between Japan andSouth Korea. c

Some view Korean residents in Japan as persons who were transported to Japan through coercion, and their offspring. However, only 320,000 persons or 16% of two million Koreans who were residing in Japan in 1945 were mobilized to work in Japan during the war. Most of them returned to Korea after the war. At one time, there was systematic discrimination against special permanent residents regarding social security and the like. Since around 1982 when Japan signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and implemented social security programs that treated Japanese and foreign residents as equals, however, such discrimination has vastly decreased.

One of motivating factors behind Korean residents’ demand for the right to vote in local elections is the fact that increasingly fewer Korean residents perceive themselves as foreigners. Tokyo Metropolitan University Professor Chung Dae-kyun says, “Allowing special permanent residents to vote in Japanese elections while holding Korean citizenship will perpetuate the gap between citizenship and identity.” It makes a great deal more sense to give Korean special permanent residents the right to vote by enabling them to become Japanese citizens. Doing so is certainly in keeping with global conventional wisdom.

2. Give special consideration to foreigners whose residence in Japan commenced prior to 1945 and their offspring (special permanent residents) by adopting a special naturalization mechanism for them, instead of granting them the right to vote in local elections.

Currently, special permanent residents wishing to become Japanese citizens are forced to complete the same laborious formalities as foreigners without special status. They must also select Chinese characters for their surnames from a list that excludes many of the characters used to write the most common Korean surnames such as “Choi,” “Kang,” ”Yun” and “Cho.”

For foreigners who have been awarded special permanent resident status and are willing to acquire Japanese citizenship and fulfill the concomitant duties and responsibilities, the current formalities are too laborious and should be simplified as follows:

(1) Identification: A census record from the applicant’s home country (or similar document) and an alien registration certificate
(2) Confirmation of intention to naturalize in Japan: A naturalization permission application, a written motivation to naturalize in Japan, and a written oath in which the applicant promises to be a law-abiding, upstanding citizen.

Even the simplified mechanism, like the ordinary naturalization system, should be based on approval. It is desirable to enact a temporary law to limit an effective period of time for the mechanism.

The special permanent resident system for those who have resided in Japan since before the war and their offspring should be reviewed after the special naturalization mechanism is implemented. One choice would be to integrate the system into the ordinary permanent resident system.

Naturalization means that a foreigner becomes an official member of Japan to share the same political destiny with original Japanese citizens. For all naturalization cases including special ones, the written motivation to naturalize in Japan and the written oath should be treated strictly. Some sober ceremony should be implemented when the oath is presented. But any ceremony has never been carried out.. Since July 2003, Japan has discontinued to require even the written motivation to be submitted.

In 1998, a stay in Japan as a condition for the ordinary permanent resident status was reduced to 10 years from 20 years. Since then, foreigners with this status have quickly increased. When granting the status, the government should strictly check whether an applicant's permanent stay in Japan would meet the country's national interests. From the viewpoint of Japan's national interest, however, the government should positively address the permanent resident status for political refugees who escape from oppression under dictatorship.


a The policy proposals are based on discussions after the March 2008 proposals were given. Nihon University Professor Akira Momochi was among participants in the discussions.

b Registered foreign residents in Japan numbered 2,217,426 at the end of 2008. Of the total, Chinese (including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong) accounted for the largest share at 655,377 or 30%, followed by 589,239 South and North Koreans or 27%.
The number of foreigners with the special or ordinary permanent resident status stood at 912,361 including 420,305 special permanent residents. Koreans accounted for 99% of the special permanent residents. Since the early 1970s when South Koreans exceeded 50% of special permanent residents, the Japanese government has discontinued to specify the number of South or North Koreans. We estimate the number of North Koreans at 50,000 or less. We call for the government to disclose specifics. Special permanent residents include members of the General Association of Korean Residents, which is known as Chongryon and claims that all its activities are based around the concept of Juche (Chonryong Website).
Ordinary permanent residents numbered 492,056 including not a small number of Chinese under the CCP influence.
Any nationality-wise breakdown of ordinary permanent residents at the end of 2008 is not available. Of 439,757 foreigners with the ordinary permanent resident status at the end of 2007, Chinese accounted for the largest share at 128,501 persons. South and North Koreans captured the fourth largest share at 49,914 persons.

c According to the 2003 Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics on overseas Japanese residents, the number of Japanese nationals staying in South Korea stood at 55.