By Yasuo Takao*
The number of foreign residents living in Japan has increased significantly over the past decade, marking a change for a population traditionally perceived as “homogeneous”. A local municipality’s debate over the civic participation of its foreign residents recently sparked a nationwide backlash from conservatives and nationalists.
The influx of foreign residents to Japan increased from 287,100 in 2010 to 592,000 in 2019 – the fourth highest inflow in the OECD. In October 2021, there were 2.8 million residents of foreign nationality registered in the country.
The debate on how to integrate these new residents into Japanese society is ongoing. By the end of 2021, 42 of Japan’s 1,718 municipalities (excluding special wards in Tokyo) had passed public ordinances establishing permanent local referendum systems and granting foreign residents the right to vote. Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture and Toyonaka in Osaka Prefecture even allowed foreign residents to vote without special “stay period” conditions.
But in December 2021, the municipal assembly of Musashino, in the suburbs of Tokyo, voted against (14 against 11) an ordinance which would have granted such a right to vote to foreign residents. Progressive mayor Reiko Matsushita had proposed establishing a permanent local referendum system that would include foreign residents aged 18 or older who have been on the resident register for at least three months. While the results of the referendum would not be legally binding, the ordinance would oblige the mayor and the assembly to “respect” them.
In March 2021, Musashino conducted a survey which found that 73.2% of respondents agreed that foreign residents could vote in local referendums. Before the vote, the city was divided – a backlash from conservative and nationalist politicians and newspapers led to street protests against the proposal, while many grassroots community groups were supportive. Foreigners’ right to vote had not been an issue in the national lower house election in October 2021, but Musashino’s proposal caught the attention of conservative media and quickly became an issue of national importance. .
So how did all this controversy come about? The issue of non-citizen voting has its roots in the broader local self-government policy of Japanese municipalities.
Ongoing decentralization to local councils was a key part of public sector reforms in the 1990s, and the Omnibus Law for Local Decentralization came into force in 2000. This saw the first Local Self-Government Ordinance (jichi kihon jorei) established in Niseko in 2001, and in 2012 there were 284 such laws — known as “municipal constitutions.”
The dynamic changed in 2012 when national elections brought the old guard of the Liberal Democratic Party (PLD) back to power. In 2014, the LDP ordered its locals to “respond with caution” to any move to enact basic local self-government ordinances. In particular, the LDP Policy Affairs Research Council warned that some local authority discretionary powers went “too far” beyond Japan’s constitutional framework. Consequently, the number of new prescriptions fell from 25 in 2014 to one in 2020.
After the entry into force of a Basic Ordinance on Local Self-Government, municipalities – including Musashino – have regularly started to make institutional arrangements for inclusive public referendums. Most of the proposals for the participation of foreign residents in local referendums were based on these laws.
While some local ordinances followed national guidelines issued by the Department of Home Affairs and Communications, local authorities also wrote many of them themselves. The LDP tried to break this momentum by arguing ‘jichi kihon jorei represents a denial of the nation”.
In this political climate, Musashino’s proposal has been singled out for attack by conservative groups. A group of nationalist LDP politicians, led by Seiichiro Murakami and Shigeharu Aoyama, have warned that the right of foreign residents to vote in referendums could undermine Japan’s national security, as the items on the referendum agenda are practically unlimited. In opposing the city’s proposal, Murakami and Aoyama argued that it would “lead to easily granting foreign nationals equivalent suffrage rights”. Subsequently, 14 Musashino council members heeded these conservative attacks and voted against the proposal.
This backlash highlights the LDP’s intention to allow more foreign workers to stay in Japan – to address labor shortages – while removing their rights to maintain the image of a ‘homogeneous’ nation. . The Japan International Cooperation Agency said Japan will need to quadruple the number of foreign workers to more than 6 million by 2040 to sustain economic growth.
But the civic and political participation of foreign residents in Japan is necessary for good social integration. Despite conservative protests, it is local authorities who are being forced to step in, fill the vacuum and deal with the growing pressure of the needs of foreign workers, who are not well taken care of by the national government. Prospects for better protection of the rights of foreign residents in Japan will depend on effective policy coordination and leadership at the local level.
*About the author: Yasuo Takao is Associate Senior Researcher at the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, Curtin University, Perth.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum