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Editorial: Giving foreigners referendum vote step toward inclusive society

  • December 18, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 5:25 p.m.
  • English Press

A proposal by the Musashino city government to allow short-term foreign residents to vote in local referendums represents a meaningful policy attempt to build a diverse and harmonious society. It will help create a more rewarding social environment for those with diverse backgrounds to accept differences and exchange views and opinions in a constructive manner.


Under the envisioned municipal ordinance in the western Tokyo suburb, foreign nationals aged 18 and older listed as registered residents for three straight months will be able to vote in local referendums, regardless of their nationalities.


The measure, which is drawing attention nationwide, is expected to be voted on by the city’s assembly on Dec. 21. But during discussions on the proposal at the assembly’s general affairs committee, members from the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, the two parties of the ruling coalition, raised objections on grounds it would give foreign nationals a say on policy issues.


The six members of the committee were evenly split. The committee chair then cast a “yes” vote to break the impasse.


Debate is fundamentally important, naturally. But some of the opponents put up arguments based on misunderstanding or twisted interpretations. The most extreme examples included the contention that the proposal could enable foreign nationals to harm Japan’s national interest. Another was that the measure could be unconstitutional on grounds it would give suffrage to foreign nationals.


The municipal government proposed the ordinance to allow it to establish a system to hold a referendum on any important issue concerning the municipal administration when a quarter or more of the eligible voters in the city have signed a petition calling for a referendum. The ordinance would require the mayor and the assembly to “respect” the results of such referendums but not oblige them to comply with them. They would be allowed to decided for themselves how best to respond to the outcomes of referendums.


There is no good reason to question the constitutionality of the measure. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not prohibit giving the right to vote in local elections to permanent foreign residents who have “especially close relations” with the local administrations in the areas in which they dwell. The top court said this is a legislative policy question that should be sorted out by the legislature.


Given this Supreme Court decision, it is obvious that allowing foreign residents to vote in local referendums that are not legally binding does not violate the Constitution or any other law.


Foreign residents who have been listed in the city’s basic resident registration system for three straight months are subject to such obligations as tax payments and enrollment in the public health care insurance program. We support the proposal to give those foreign residents the opportunity to express their opinions over local policy challenges. It should be seen as a sign of a commitment to accepting them as fellow members of the local community and respecting their rights and presence.


Already, more than 40 local governments allow foreign residents to take part in local referendums under an ordinance similar to the one proposed by Musashino. Many of them set certain conditions for participation concerning such factors as qualifications and period of residence.


Musashino is following the examples of Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture and Toyonaka in Osaka Prefecture, which have established ordinances to allow foreign residents to vote in local referendums under the same criteria as those applied to Japanese nationals. These ordinances, established in the late 2000s, have caused no notable problem to this day.


It is odd to see Musashino’s proposal being singled out for attacks, including those based on totally nonsensical arguments like the warning that China could control the municipal administration by relocating 80,000 Chinese to the city so that Chinese residents outnumber Japanese citizens. Racist speeches are often heard on the streets of the city.


Such xenophobic sentiments in a country that is seeking to accept more foreign workers to maintain its economic activity will only prove detrimental to its society.

The Musashino municipal assembly should base its decision on the proposal in the spirit of local autonomy and cool-headed, fact-based judgment.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 18

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