Mayor’s haste to let foreigners vote stirred up social division, confusion

The local community was divided and confused over whether to allow foreign residents to participate in local referendums. The mayor bears heavy responsibility for having pushed ahead to introduce the system.

At a plenary session of the city assembly of Musashino, Tokyo, a proposed ordinance that would have allowed foreign residents to vote in referendums was rejected by a majority vote. The proposal did not distinguish between Japanese nationals and foreign residents, giving anyone aged 18 or older who has lived in the city for at least three months the right to vote.

Under the proposed ordinance, a local referendum on important municipal matters would become possible if a petition for a referendum were submitted with the signatures of a quarter or more of enfranchised residents. Foreigners with the residence status of student or technical intern trainee would also obtain the right to vote on such referendums. The vote in the city assembly was 14-11 against the ordinance.

The Constitution states that suffrage is an inalienable right of Japanese citizens. A 1995 Supreme Court ruling concluded that foreigners were not guaranteed the right to vote, either in national elections or in local ones.

Granting foreign residents the right to vote in local referendums could be seen as acknowledging their suffrage in a broader sense. The rejection of the proposed ordinance is a natural conclusion.

Citizens for and against the proposed ordinance were in sharp conflict with each other. A demonstration of about 100 people occurred, at which some even made comments calling for the expulsion of foreigners.

The cause of the division among citizens may have been the city’s rush to submit the proposed ordinance without sufficient civic consensus. The mayor said she would consider amending the proposal, but a situation should not be allowed in which another hasty decision causes further confusion.

It is important to reflect the views of foreign residents living in local communities in their administrative services. However, it is reasonable to confirm these views through means such as conducting a questionnaire among all residents, including foreigners, and then reflecting the results in administrative measures. It is hard to understand why the city instead pursued a referendum scheme.

Although the city has insisted that foreigners are members of local communities, and that there is no reason to distinguish them from Japanese nationals, local referendums do sometimes involve national interests such as security and energy policy.

Past referendums held by other local governments have addressed issues involving national interests, such as the relocation of a U.S. military base and the invitation of nuclear power plants to local areas.

Even though its referendum results would not be legally binding, Musashino’s proposed ordinance contained language to the effect that the city should respect the results. In some areas around Japan, the number of foreign residents has increased to the extent that it has begun to have an impact on local governments. Passing such a proposed ordinance should not be taken lightly.

There are more than 40 local governments nationwide that have ordinances for referendums that allow foreign residents to vote. Such local governments should think hard about what should be the subjects of the referendums. It should go without saying that careful deliberations are required by municipalities that plan to consider enacting ordinances for that purpose.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 22, 2021.