Japan’s ‘silent minority’ has its say about national election

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 October, 2017, 6:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 October, 2017, 6:03am

As Sunday’s general election looms with the public contemplating a range of complex issues facing the nation, Japan’s “silent minority” also want their voices to be heard, even if it is not at the ballot box.

For foreign residents of Japan, who are not extended the right to vote despite a population approaching 2.4 million, many issues, ranging from a proposed sales tax hike to security threats posed by North Korea matter as much as they do for Japanese nationals.

Indeed, many permanent foreign residents would argue that their tax contributions entitle them to a say, at least at the local level, even if they lack representation.

Currently, the only way for foreigners to vote in local or national elections is to become naturalised Japanese citizens, a process that requires them to give up citizenship of all other countries.

Sanjeev Sinha, 44, who has worked for several asset management companies in his more 20 years in Japan, is currently adviser to the Mumbai-Ahmadabad high-speed railway project.

He believes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a mandate for his sales tax increase from 8 per cent to 10 per cent planned for October 2019, despite recent political debate on when the increase should be imposed, if at all.

Originally slated to reduce soaring public debt, Abe is now seeking a mandate to divert part of the projected tax revenue increase towards new education and social security programmes, notably child care services, which could prove popular with voters on Sunday.

A recent Kyodo News survey showed the election is likely to deliver a clear victory for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, dealing a heavy blow to conservative challenger, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope.

“It was clearly the mandate of the PM before his last election, so it should be considered as a national plan and be followed through,” Sinha said, adding that with the country’s low birth rate and greying population it is also important for Japan to have policies that encourage people to have babies.

As far as an amendment to Japan’s war-renouncing constitution is concerned, Sinha agreed with Abe. “I am very much in favour of it. I think Japan should take a more active and proactive role in global defence with a proactive army,” he said.

The issue of allowing foreign nationals the right to vote in local elections has been raised in recent years. Politicians have been urged by the high court to make a decision regarding extending permanent foreign residents voting rights since it would not break any laws.

But Koike’s Party of Hope recently required deserters from the opposition Democratic Party to sign up to a policy that included a provision against giving foreign nationals that right. Koike skirted the issue in an official list of campaign pledges that espouse “diversity” and “tolerance”.

The LDP argues that foreign residents should not have the right to vote even at the local level, countering policies in number of European countries, including Britain, Italy and France, that give suffrage to noncitizens under certain conditions.

Sinha said he was against giving the foreigners the right to vote in local elections, saying “Japan should be careful with regards to immigration and voting rights.”

Dr Imad Ajami, chairman of media and consulting firm Iris Globe, who has spent more than 10 years in Japan, said he does not believe the time is right to raise the sales tax.

“You cannot ask people to pay [more] tax when the economy is not growing [enough]. When the economy is not moving in a good way, people may stop spending if tax is high. If you know the right time to raise the tax, it is good for the economy because it will let the money flow inside the country, but at the same time, I think it is not the right time to raise the tax,” he said.

The 69-year-old, who is Lebanese and French, also supports granting foreigners the right to vote in local elections.

“Many countries in Europe and other regions are doing that. It would be a very good step for Japan because those foreigners can bring their knowledge and experiences they gained in their own countries and bring the new blood to the country,” Ajami said.

Canadian Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo who has been in Japan for 15 years. He said Japan needs to take an unambiguous stance on Article 9 of its pacifist constitution and the role of the Self-Defence Forces.

“It’s very ambiguous and I think that in some cases, it’s probably constitutionally illegal and in other cases, it’s probably constitutionally legal. So by clearly defining the role of the SDFs as a military, I think it takes away the constitutional issue, and it makes it a more transparent process of how Japan can be involved in cooperative self-defense, legally,” Nagy, 46, said.

Although he said amending the Constitution, especially for conservatives with legitimate security concerns about North Korea and China, was a move in the “correct direction,” Nagy recognised the historical context behind such a change.

“There’s some hesitancy in South Korea because of the historical experience with Japan,” he said.