Granting foreign residents voting rights needs careful consideration

The decision of local governments can affect issues involving security, energy policy and other national interests. Giving foreign residents the right to vote in local referendums should not be taken lightly.

The city of Musashino, Tokyo, has submitted a proposed ordinance to the municipal assembly’s regular session. The proposal does not distinguish between Japanese nationals and foreign residents, giving anyone aged 18 and over who has lived in the city for at least three months the right to vote on municipal affairs. Voting on the proposed ordinance in the assembly is scheduled to take place on Dec. 21, but the assembly members are reportedly divided on the pros and cons of the proposal.

If the proposed ordinance is passed, a local referendum on important issues of municipal matters becomes possible if a petition for a referendum is submitted with the signatures of a quarter or more enfranchised residents. Foreigners with the residence status of student or technical intern trainee would also be eligible.

The number of foreigners living in Japan is increasing. It is, of course, necessary for local governments to reflect the views of foreign residents in their administrative services.

However, whether to allow foreigners to participate in local referendums is another matter. The Constitution stipulates that the right to vote is an inalienable right of Japanese nationals.

A 1995 Supreme Court ruling concluded that foreigners were not guaranteed the right to vote, not only in national elections but also in local ones. Debates over the pros and cons of allowing foreigners to vote in local elections have also not gained momentum in recent years.

Under such circumstances, granting foreign residents the right to vote in local referendums could be seen as allowing their suffrage in a broad sense.

Won’t this lead to a situation in which people who have not lived in Japan for a long time carry out political campaigns or cast votes without fully understanding the Japanese way of thinking and customs?

Past referendums in Okinawa Prefecture have covered issues involving national interests, such as the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to the Henoko district in Nago in the prefecture and the revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. In other regions, referendums have focused on inviting nuclear power plants to local areas.

Even though the results of referendums are not legally binding, hasty action must be avoided.

It is hard to believe that the ordinance proposed by the Musashino municipal government is well understood by its residents. A total of only 13 people participated in two meetings organized by the city in March and August this year to exchange opinions with residents on the proposal.

There are reportedly more than 40 local governments nationwide that have ordinances for referendums that allow foreign residents to vote. Many of them require foreign voters to be permanent residents or to have lived in the municipality for at least three years, but should this trend be left to continue as is?

In the same manner as Musashino, the cities of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, and Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, do not distinguish between Japanese nationals and foreign residents in their ordinances on referendums.

Why is it now necessary for Musashino to give foreign residents the right to vote? How will this bring about benefits to the region? The municipal assembly needs to reflect on these points before coming to a conclusion.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 2, 2021.