Local Foreign Suffrage in Kawasaki City

The Changing State of Voting Rights in Japan

David Green, Graduate School of Law, Nagoya University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 1 (Article 6 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 24 May 2013.


With an economy mired in recession since the 1990s and a near constant change in national leadership, Japan is a country in a state of flux, looking for new ways to reinvigorate its economy and revive its political system. This work argues that Japan is moving from a previously highly centralized governmental system to one more decentralized, with local actors taking on a greater role in initiating changes to policy. Such instances of local policy innovation would contradict the notion that unitary states like Japan continue to be dominated by their central governments. To consider the Japanese case, this study analyzes immigration at the national and local levels, looking at developments in local foreign suffrage in the city of Kawasaki, a notably progressive Japanese municipality.

Keywords: politics, public policy, immigration policy, decentralization.


At its height, Japan served as a model to the rest of the world of what state-led development was capable of achieving. Not only was the country able to rebuild and revamp its war-decimated economy, but it was able to achieve elusive milestones such as universal health coverage, relative economic egalitarianism, the world’s longest life expectancy and becoming the number one donor of international monetary aid. At the same time Japan was able to avoid the sort of military entanglements that have cost other advanced countries dearly in terms of both economic development and human lives. With the onset of the 1990s, however, Japan dramatically changed course. Speculation in real estate prices and questionable banking practices led to a swift reduction in the country’s economic performance, miring it in recession for two decades. In this instance the previously lauded state-led, centrally focused government system was largely ineffective in overcoming the ills Japanese society faced. Japan has since slowly groped along attempting to find its way while its Chinese neighbor, and other Asian countries, have experienced remarkable growth.

Japan has based its modern governmental structure on the European centralized bureaucratic model, first with passage of the Meiji Constitution in 1890 and revised under the “Peace Constitution” adopted following World War II. Europe has, for its part, been in the midst of fundamental change for a number of years, leading to decentralization in many countries on a host of political and social issues on the one hand, as well as re-centralization under the auspices of the European Union at the supra-national level on the other. Other traditionally unitary states in Asia such as China and South Korea have also made strides toward the decentralization of power. In an effort to better address problems at the local level and more efficiently use resources, these states have given local governments increasingly greater shares of responsibility. The central government plays a diminished role, while the localities have a larger say in the allocation and use of important resources.

Scholarship has said surprisingly little about whether Japan has made similar efforts at decentralizing its governmental powers. Japan has encountered a number of serious problems in recent years, including a lasting recession, unstable national leadership, a declining birthrate and an aging population. One way to overcome such difficulties is to change the way the government works, just as other unitary states have done. The state-led, bureaucratic model that has come to define Japanese government since the Meiji period has become increasingly ineffective at addressing the problems Japan currently faces.

This article is concerned with Japan’s movement away from the centralized, bureaucratic model that has characterized much of its modern history, toward a more decentralized system, giving increased power to local governments. To illustrate this idea, Japanese immigration policy will be the primary focus of attention, comparing voting rights at the municipal and national levels as an illustration of some of the changes affecting the Japanese system. While focusing on immigrant voting rights may limit the scope of discussion in this article, the overreaching aim is to illustrate an aspect of central-local relations in a unitary country like Japan. Ultimately, this article challenges the traditional notion of central government dominance in unitary states.

Japan and Immigration

Japan has traditionally been a closed country to immigration, with its historical isolation well noted. Foreigners are often met with suspicion and ethnic homogeneity is strongly promoted (Dale, 1986). Yet in addition to small, indigenous minority populations, there have been significant numbers of foreign nationals living within Japan’s borders since its colonial days. The majority of these foreign residents are the descendants of ethnic Korean and Chinese conscripted laborers (known as “zainichi”, literally meaning one who resides in Japan). While the numbers of these groups have always been a small fraction of the entire Japanese population, they have borne the brunt of historically discriminatory immigration policy in Japan, fighting hard against limited employment opportunities, forced assimilation, mandatory fingerprinting and identification checks (Douglass 2000; Takao 2003). Other groups of more short-term immigrants have periodically taken up residence in Japan as well, most recently with Latin Americans of Japanese descent being allowed to work in the country starting in the early 1990s.

Japan’s modern immigration system originates from the Immigration Control and Refugee Act of 1952, instituted during the postwar American occupation. It was based largely on the American immigration system of the time, but was not initially intended to permit immigrants to settle in the country permanently or to acquire Japanese nationality (Kashiwazaki and Akaha 2006). An alien registration system was also established with the law, which has been one of the primary means used by the Japanese government to track foreign residents. Both long-term and newer foreign residents have been required to sign up with the alien registration system since its inception, to notify the authorities if they change addresses, and to apply for re-entry if they leave the country (Kondo 2002).

Aside from the relatively small zainichi population, immigration from other countries did not become a salient political issue in Japan until the 1980s with the continued expansion of the economy (Asakawa and Hidenori 2007: 12). Up until this time, as Kondo points out, Japan was able to account for the increased demand for labor domestically through the combination of internal migration from the countryside to the cities, automation of production processes, utilizing part time workers like students, housewives and the elderly, and by keeping very long working hours. Another important means of addressing labor shortages has been available to business by working outside of Japan’s borders. Like other internationally competitive firms, many top Japanese companies as well as their smaller subcontractors have established an extensive network of factories throughout the world, providing access to cheap labor and avoiding the politically difficult questions of treatment that foreign workers in Japan would face (Phongpaichit 1988). The combination of these factors kept immigration into Japan low for the most part during this period.

With the continued rapid development of its postwar economy, and in spite of outsourcing, internal migration and the utilization of part time workers, Japan began to experience an increasingly acute labor shortage. As a response, the government reduced enforcement of its immigration laws, for a brief time allowing relatively large numbers of primarily Iranian and Pakistani workers entry (Kingston 2011: 167). As the economy began to fall into decline due to the bursting of the speculative asset “bubble” in the early 1990s, Japan clamped down on immigration enforcement and again closed its door to unskilled foreign labor. However, with the need for cheap manual labor left unfulfilled, the Japanese administration decided to open up the country to Latin Americans of Japanese heritage and their families through a revision to the Immigration Control Act in 1990. It was believed their shared ethnic heritage would encourage greater assimilation and they could fill necessary holes in the labor market (Linger 2001; Suzuki 2009). Japan has also experienced an increase in its foreign resident population through intermarriage and issuing visas for skilled workers, students, trainees and the like. Many also enter the country illegally. In other words, in spite of a national policy that is officially quite strict regarding immigration, Japan’s immigrant population has steadily increased since its industrial boom and especially since the 1980s.

The current size of Japan’s immigrant population stands at approximately two million people, representing 1.25% of the entire Japanese population. Although the number of foreign residents in the country is still quite low compared to other developed countries, the proportion of the foreign-born population has doubled over the last twenty years (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications Statistics Bureau 2008) and concentrations of immigrants are especially conspicuous in particular regions and cities. While these relatively small numbers of foreign residents may not be particularly noteworthy in the international context, the levels of immigration are unprecedented in Japanese society. Over the last twenty years a fierce debate has been raging in Japan questioning the basic necessity of immigration and whether or not it can serve to help alleviate some of the problems the country faces. At the same time, the national government has passed contradictory policies amid periods of action and inaction, attempting to both promote and discourage immigration when convenient. Such lack of clear national leadership has ultimately left local governments to determine how to handle the question of immigrants on a day-to-day basis themselves.

The Japanese national government, run for many years by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has publicly taken the side of those discouraging immigration. It has consistently reiterated its priority to exclude the entrance of foreign manual labor in particular to the country, preferring to allow only “skilled” labor legal residence. Yet when the desire for foreign labor was at its strongest during the peak of the bubble era, the government willingly turned a blind eye to increasing numbers of immigrants working in the manufacturing sector. As the economy suddenly began to contract, the door was evidently closed to unskilled labor who were not of Japanese descent. However, lack of oversight on various visa categories like trainees, students and entertainers served as another poorly enforced means of importing cheap, unskilled labor (Tsuda 2006). The result has been an inherently inconsistent policy: one that appears strict on the surface, but in practice has shown the government ignoring its statues when convenient, then tightening enforcement when political conditions or economic realities require action.

Further compounding the problem is that the main thrust of national immigration policy revolves around entry and registration procedures for foreign nationals. The government has implemented a number of policies tracking immigrants, where foreign residents have been required to be fingerprinted at the airport, to register their address with the government, and to keep a “foreign resident” identification card with them at all times (Gurowitz 1999: 425). Aside from these procedures, little in the way of recognition or services for the immigrant population living in the country has been forthcoming at the national policy level. The national government has had no hand in administering curricula for non-native Japanese speakers in public schools, for example (Okano 2006). It has not offered any kind of cultural assimilation assistance to new foreign residents or even provided information on available government services to immigrants in any systematic fashion. Instead, the provision of basic government services has fallen upon local governments to deliver (Tsuda 2006).

Because the central government has taken little action with the immigrant population beyond manning the borders and ensuring compliance with registration policies, local governments have been providing basic services to immigrants for a number of years now. Some municipalities are more affected by immigration than others, and some provide a wider range of support. At the same time, particular areas have proven themselves more willing to challenge the national government over policy issues relating to foreign residents, the question of foreign resident suffrage being one of them, while others have been less apt to do so. In the face of an often disjointed, inconsistent and unresponsive national system, this article contends that it is these local governments and their motivated residents, willing to face off against the national government, that pioneer and ultimately help secure changes in national policy.

Looking at an issue like immigration in general, and foreign resident voting rights in particular, shows the degree to which local governments exercise autonomy on an issue that has been heretofore dominated by the central government. While not exhaustive in the sense that there are many other policies the local and national governments address in their daily business, it does serve as a good illustration of decentralization in action. If local governments are able to make inroads on a policy as controversial in Japan as immigration and foreign voting rights, it is reasonable to assume that localities are able to enact changes in other less controversial policy areas as well.

An emphasis on local government initiative may point to future developments in the Japanese state. With a revolving door of top-level leadership, not to mention the public’s growing lack of faith in national government initiatives and being better placed to address constituent concerns, local governments seem well poised to obtain greater decision making discretion. Such decentralization would show a fundamental shift in Japanese government: where the central government has been the dominating force for so many years, it now appears to be abdicating a significant share of power to the localities. It is quite possible that a gradual shift from the traditional unitary model will be an important step in the further evolution of Japanese government, just as it has been an important step in the evolution of other unitary states in the modern era.

Unitary States and Decentralization

Using local voting rights to determine the extent of local government policy innovation and its overall share of power compared with the national government will help to determine exactly where Japan fits in comparing central versus local dominance, the extent to which immigration policy is changing in Japan, as well as the ability of local governments to assert themselves in a unitary state. Japan is often regarded as a “unique” case in many instances: it has been historically isolated, it was the first Asian state to rapidly develop, and it remains a large degree of ethnic homogeneity. Examining local voting rights will help to clarify if Japan is an anomaly with regards to central-local relations, or if in fact it bears similarities to other unitary states in terms of an increasing decentralization of functions, decentralization of policy innovation, increased challenges to the center and the ultimate adoption of local innovation at the national level.

Unitary states are the most centralized of government systems, with power concentrated in one location. They are traditionally characterized by the predominance of the central government, displaying one “supreme, ultimate and unified center of authority”, along with clearly subordinate local governments (King 1982). France is typically considered a “classic” unitary state, as its government is primarily concentrated in the central Parisian bureaucracy and the President’s office, giving a select group of elites a comparatively large degree of influence over policy. Local government does, of course, exist in France, but it has traditionally been subservient to the capital (Meny 1987). A perhaps extreme example of French centralization exists in the system of “departments”, which are administrative divisions that include overseas colonies like Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. These overseas departments are run in much the same way as the other departments in mainland France: they are directly overseen by the government in Paris despite their considerable distance from the capital. Their educational and social policies are similar to those of the rest of France, as are their administrative and budgeting functions (Shineberg 1986). Aside from the physical distance, these overseas departments work in the same manner as the rest of the “French” country.

This system of centralization in France has received both praise and criticism. The main advantage is that the government can enact policy initiatives quickly, efficiently and in a uniform manner throughout the country and its colonies. Like Japan, France’s modernization following World War II is largely attributed to the efforts of the central government (Hall 1983). On the other hand, criticism has also been levied at the French system for being inhospitable to local concerns and excessively bureaucratic (Duclaud-Williams 1983). Centralized government has brought about many of the same benefits and costs for Japan: the state was the major driving force in postwar development, but strong government involvement in the economy and a high level of bureaucratization has acted as more of a burden since the end of the bubble era.

During the Meiji era, Japan, in fact, modeled many of its institutions on the Western European state system of the time, primarily those of France and Germany. Along with Japan, France was considered the archetypal state-led economy for many years, where the state dictated the major economic decisions. After 1983, however, the French government began adopting more market-oriented reforms. The state began to play less of a role in the economy, focusing instead on social welfare policies (Levy 2005). The result is that France devolved a considerable degree of economic control to other actors, leading to more international competitiveness. In the case of Japan, many critics point to the staunchly statist system as one of the major reasons for its current economic stagnation (Song 2010).

China also provides an interesting comparison, as it is a major East Asian unitary state but fosters increased decentralization and policy innovation at the local level, as we have seen in Western Europe. The state remains supreme, but it is forced to take measures promoting greater empowerment of local officials in order to maintain its overall dominance. This creates the curious case of more autonomous local governments on the one hand, yet they are still subservient to the national government on the other (Landry 2008). With the move toward a more open form of capitalism, the tolerance of limited open dissent and the introduction of limited competitive local elections, some have argued that China is currently in the midst of fundamental governmental reform. Changes have been slow and often deliberate, and any fundamental reforms China ultimately undergoes will likely look very different from the present-day western governmental systems (Ogden 2002). However, it is clear that China is relinquishing a significant amount of state power to local actors.

China is not the only unitary Asian state to experience significant decentralization in recent years. South Korea has also made major strides toward increasing local autonomy. Much of South Korea’s post World War II history has been forged as a highly centralized nation. Although decentralization had been nominally introduced in South Korean politics as early as the 1950s, it was quickly reversed with the onset of military control of the state (Kang 2006). Like Japan, South Korea experienced considerable economic development under a centralized bureaucratic system in the 1970s and 80s (Kang 2006). Some have gone so far as to argue that South Korea’s political and economic power was more concentrated at its peak than Japan’s (Choi and Wright 2004). No local elections were held, and all high-ranking government officials were appointed from the central government (Kang 2006: 96). Also, like Japan, South Korea experienced widespread economic hardship with the onset of the Asian financial crisis in the mid 1990s. As a way to address inefficiencies in both the political and economic realms, the government reintroduced local autonomy in 1995 (Choi 2007). With the implementation of local autonomy, South Korea has experienced increased citizen participation in government, greater competition among localities and an emphasis on innovative reform (Choi and Wright 2004). The central government still plays an important role in local affairs, but the overall trend has been toward increased power for local governments. Although European states, China and South Korea differ greatly from Japan in many aspects, it is worth noting the apparent decentralization of these other unitary states.

A distinction should also be made between formal and informal institutions when considering the formulation, implementation and the changing of policy. Formal institutions are representatives of government created to address a particular policy area. Policies approved by the government directly affect the formal institution, which is required to enact those policies. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are the “creative responses to formal institutions that local actors find too constraining” (Tsai 2007: 19). In other words, informal institutions are the ways actors work together, most accurately reflecting the conditions on the ground. Where there is a disparity between official government policy and influential actors with a different agenda, informal institutions are likely to exist.

In Tsai’s example of China (Tsai 2007), local governments and businesspeople in many cases had little choice but to create informal institutions in order to improve their respective economic situations. Everyone benefitted from the development of private business in China: people had jobs, often receiving better wages than positions in state-run industries, and more money went to taxes. Business owners were initially trying to cope with restrictive government policy, finding ways around it by labeling their businesses as “collectives”, for example, when they were clearly privately-run and capitalist in nature. Tsai notes that with diffusion and repetition over time these coping strategies take on a life of their own, as “adaptive informal institutions” (Tsai 2007: 15). These informal strategies for dealing with regulations become more commonplace and institutionalized in their own right. As the popularity of these informal institutions grows, governments may then be motivated to change the original formal institution. In China, as informal businesses expanded, the government was able to see the benefit of less restrictive policy, and ultimately made moves to liberalize its economic and financial regulations.

In order to see what sort of changes the formal institutions will ultimately make, it is necessary to look first to the informal institutions of the country. When considering immigration policy, the formal institutional setting established by the central government exists on the one hand, but the more informal reality set up by local government administrators and elected officials, NGOs, and the public at large must also be examined.

Immigration and Kawasaki

It is now appropriate to consider Kawasaki’s immigration-related policies. This will show if Kawasaki’s informal immigration policies have in fact worked to demonstrate the systemic changes in the local/national government relationship that I have hypothesized, or if the status quo of central domination over the periphery remains.

Looking first at its governmental structure, Kawasaki is an “ordinance-designated city”. That is, it has a population of over 500,000 residents and is able to retain a number of functions that would otherwise be performed by prefectural governments. The Revised Local Autonomy Law of 1999 stipulates that functions of ordinance-designated cities include issues such as “affairs related to the relief of the impoverished”, “affairs related to the welfare of the aged”, and “affairs related to food sanitation” (Nippon Foundation 1999). In practice, this means that ordinance-designated cities have a somewhat larger degree of discretion in their actions than other municipalities.

Prefectures, state-like entities in Japanese government, can often play an important role in high-level decisions for municipal governments, although they tend to be less directly involved in the affairs of the ordinance-designated cities. Basically, due to their large populations the largest cities in the country are given more decision making powers, but can still be constrained by the prefecture to some degree, as well as the central governments. Kanagawa, the prefecture that houses Kawasaki, is noted for giving its municipalities comparatively more autonomy than other areas and for having a high degree of cooperation between the prefectural and municipal governments (Izushi 2010: 247).

Kawasaki has an elected mayor, Abe Takao, an independent re-elected to his third term in 2009 and endorsed by the center-leaning Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) (Nippon Television 2009). Kawasaki also has a city council made up of 63 elected representatives. An election in April 2011 gave the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party the largest number of seats at 16 and their coalition partners, the Komeito Party, 13 seats. The DPJ holds 14 seats, the Communist Party holds 10, the independent, libertarian Your Party holds 6 seats, with the rest covered by independents (Kanagawa Shimbun, 2011). Ideologically speaking, the City Assembly seems relatively evenly split between conservative and liberal factions, without a clear majority on either side.

In addition to these more typical representative bodies, Kawasaki also maintains a Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, a group of 26 members of the foreign community established by city ordinance in 1996 in order to “promote mutual understanding and create better local communities” (Kawasaki City Representative Assembly 2011). Initially founded as a means of promoting foreign resident participation in local government in lieu of actual voting rights, the Representative Assembly has continued its existence beyond the implementation of local foreign suffrage.

Potential Representative Assembly members are foreign residents, age 18 and older, who have lived in the city for at least one year. They can be nominated by community members or submit an application themselves. Nominees are screened by a Representatives Selection Committee and then formally commissioned by the mayor. All 26 members are selected for two-year terms, with the possibility of members serving repeated terms, although this is not especially common in practice. A chair and vice-chair are elected each term. Members are designated as civil service employees, receiving remuneration of 12,500 yen (approx. US $162) per meeting in 2010. The assembly typically holds eight to nine meetings per year (Kawasaki City Representative Assembly 2011; “Call for Representatives”, Interview with Representative Assembly Member, August 2011). Like the mayor and City Assembly, the Representative Assembly also has the power to consider policy and make recommendations, although it is systemically weaker than the other two offices. As is typical of Japanese politics, the mayor’s office is the most powerful local actor.

The Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents deliberates on issues of its choice that affect the city’s foreign community and has the ability to launch formal investigations using city resources. It can call in government officials to testify when necessary and make official proposals which are given to the mayor’s office and made available to the public (Kawasaki Resident’s Bureau 2008). The Representative Assembly does not have the ability to implement policy, but the mayor’s office is required to report back to it annually on any proposals that affect foreign residents. The mayor’s office can choose whether or not to accept the Representative Assembly’s recommendations and the extent to which it decides to implement any policies the Resident Assembly proposes. In practice, the mayor’s office usually takes Resident Assembly recommendations seriously and has made efforts to implement a variety of its proposals. Developments regarding proposals are reported annually by the Resident Assembly to the public until they are implemented to the Assembly’s satisfaction (Interview with Assembly member, August 2011).

Perhaps one of the most important entities in the city for originating immigrant-related policies, the Representative Assembly is somewhat unusual in Japanese government, given the degree of suspicion often cast on immigrants in the country. As the members are by definition immigrants themselves, and they are entrusted with the job of improving conditions for foreign residents, it is only natural that they would be pursuing an agenda actively aiming to integrate the resident foreign community more actively into city life.

Before considering immigrant suffrage in more detail, some possible explanations as to why Kawasaki is active in immigration policy are warranted. For one, Kawasaki has been home to a significant number of zainichi residents since World War II. Kawasaki, along with other enclaves of zainichi residents in Yokohama and Tokyo, was and is at the forefront of the movement to gain greater equality for foreign residents. These efforts became especially strong during the 1970s’ progressive movement. Kawasaki’s government passed policies aiming to benefit its foreign residents as early as 1972 when the city enabled foreign residents to participate in the national, or “kokumin”, health insurance system (Kawasaki Resident’s Bureau 2008). Since that time Kawasaki has maintained a comparatively large immigrant population, bolstered by influxes of newcomer immigrants after the 1990 revision to the Immigration Control Act and has actively tried to address their needs. With the greater degree of discretion afforded by being an ordinance-designated city, Kawasaki is ideally placed to make changes in policy with a greater level of ease compared to other municipalities.

Local Foreign Suffrage

Suffrage has been an important right for many long-term residents of Japan. For much of Japan’s history foreign residents have been denied any formal voice in government, be it in local or national politics. As of 2012, foreign residents are still not permitted to vote in national elections. However, voting rights have been slowly expanding at the local level for foreign residents. After a brief discussion of the qualifications for gaining Japanese citizenship and eligibility to vote, we will examine in this section how local voting policies have developed, first in Kawasaki and then nationally.

An important initial distinction to make is between foreign residents and foreigners who have acquired Japanese citizenship through naturalization. Basically, any category of non-naturalized foreign resident, including a permanent resident, is considered a resident alien and not entitled to vote in national elections, hold national civil service positions, run for public office or serve in the police and self-defense forces (Ito 2011). Foreign-born individuals who are naturalized citizens can vote and hold these positions just like any Japanese citizen by birth. In order to be naturalized, the foreign resident must apply formally to the Minister of Justice, demonstrating that they are at least 20 years old, have lived in the country for at least five years, have not belonged to any organizations plotting the overthrow of the Japanese government, have maintained “upright conduct”, typically meaning that they have no criminal record, have the ability to make a living in the country, and be willing to renounce citizenship of any other countries (Ministry of Justice 2008).

Relinquishing one’s citizenship in another country in order to become a naturalized citizen in Japan has been somewhat problematic for some foreign residents who would prefer to keep citizenship to their home country. Japan does not permit dual citizenship. Still, for those individuals who meet the eligibility criteria for naturalization and are willing to forego citizenship anywhere else, the rate of approval for naturalization applications is quite high: in 2010, 13,157 applicants out of 13,391 (or 98%) were granted citizenship. The numbers hold up consistently for other years as well: 14,676 out of 14,878 applicants (98%) were given citizenship in 2009, 15,171 out of 15,440 applicants (98%) in 2008 and 15,847 out of 16,107 (98%) in 2007 (Ministry of Justice 2011). Table 1 compares the total number of naturalization applicants to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statistics on annual visa issuance. Although using annual visa numbers is an admittedly rough approximation of the number of foreign residents, it is a somewhat more reasonable number to compare than the total immigrant population of approximately two million people, because it makes annual changes more apparent. Furthermore, even these slightly less conservative numbers illustrate the small proportion of residents actually applying for naturalization. The proportion would look much smaller compared to the total national immigrant population. The important point to note here is that the vast majority of foreign residents lack the privileges of Japanese citizens, including voting rights.

Table 1: Long-term Residents Compared to Naturalization Applicants, 2001 - 2010
Year Long-term Residential Visas Issued Naturalization Applicants % of LT Foreign Residents Applying for Naturalization
2010 283,426 13,391 4.72%
2009 295,250 14,878 5.04%
2008 341,701 15,440 4.52%
2007 346,668 16,107 4.65%
2006 331,338 15,340 4.63%
2005 380,274 14,666 3.86%
2004 391,925 16,790 4.28%
2003 386,719 15,666 4.05%
2002 354,128 13,344 3.77%
2001 362,916 13,442 3.70%

Source: Compiled from Ministry of Justice Statistics on Naturalization Applications and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Statistics on Visa Issuance, 2011

Obtaining citizenship through naturalization can be contrasted with the permanent resident visa category, another means which foreigners can use to apply for long-term residency. The application procedures are quite similar, although prospective permanent residents are required to have lived in the country at least ten years, with a reduced requirement of three years of residency if the applicant is married to a Japanese spouse (Ministry of Justice 2006). The primary difference is that permanent residents are not required to renounce their citizenship in any other country (Arudou 2006). Some may elect not to renounce citizenship in their home country for reasons of personal identification, not wanting to change their name to a more Japanese-sounding one, preferring to visit their home country as a resident, rather than entering as a foreign alien with a visa, or hoping to avoid the potentially intrusive process that naturalization can entail.

Another important distinction is with the resident zainichi population, who are afforded the status of “special permanent residency”. The category is “special” in that they do not have to apply directly for permanent residency in Japan, as it is ascribed at birth, but they are not afforded the same rights as Japanese citizens. Birth in Japan does not automatically bestow Japanese nationality if the parents of the child are not Japanese nationals themselves (Goodman 2008: 251). Like permanent residents and other categories of foreign residents, special permanent residents are prohibited from voting nationally and holding government positions (Shipper 2010: 61).

Table 2 shows the breakdown of permanent residents and special permanent residents at the national level, drawing comparisons between the two groups as well as the larger, long-term foreign resident population. What should be apparent here is that the zainichi special permanent resident population has been gradually decreasing, while the numbers of other permanent residents have made large gains. Additionally, the combination of permanent residents and special permanent residents make up an increasingly significant portion of the long-term foreign resident population of Japan, the single largest category in fact. In other words, the vast majority of foreign residents in Japan lack the basic ability to directly influence their government, even if they plan on residing in the country permanently.

Table 2: Comparisons Between Permanent Residents, Special Permanent Residents and the Total Foreign Population, 2001 – 2010
Year Permanent Resident (PR) Special Permanent Resident (SPR) Total % PR % SPR Total Foreign Population % Foreign Population PR & SPR
2010 565,089 399,106 964,195 56.61% 41.39% 2,134,151 45.18%
2009 533,472 409,565 943,037 56.57% 43.43% 2,186,121 43.14%
2008 492,056 420,305 912,361 53.93% 46.07% 2,217,426 41.15%
2007 439,757 430,229 869,986 50.55% 49.45% 2,152,973 40.41%
2006 394,477 443,044 837,521 47.10% 52.90% 2,084,919 40.17%
2005 349,804 451,909 801,713 43.63% 56.37% 2,011,515 39.86%
2004 312,964 465,619 778,583 40.20% 59.80% 1,973,747 39.45%
2003 267,011 475,952 742,963 35.94% 64.06% 1,915,030 38.80%
2002 223,875 489,900 713,775 31.36% 68.64% 1,851,758 38.55%
2001 184,071 500,782 684,853 26.88% 73.12% 1,778,462 38.51%

Source: Compiled from Ministry of Justice statistics on the Status of Registered Foreign Residents, 2005, 2011

Putting the issue of foreign suffrage in an international context, many countries also do not permit foreign residents to vote, particularly at the national level. However, a number of states, particularly the more liberal democracies of the world, do allow some form of representation for foreign residents in government. The United States, for example, does not allow permanent residents to vote in federal elections, although they may vote locally in the “few jurisdictions” that permit permanent residents to do so (US Citizenship & Immigration Services 2010). A number of countries allow all resident aliens, not just permanent residents, to vote in local elections. Such is the case with many of the progressive northern European countries, including Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, which allow all foreign residents to vote locally. New Zealand appears to have the most liberal of rules regarding foreign suffrage, where all types of resident aliens are able to vote locally as well as nationally. Other countries offer more limited voting rights to permanent residents: the United Kingdom, Portugal and Ireland let permanent residents vote both locally and nationally, while Israel, Iceland and South Korea allow permanent residents to vote in local elections. On the other hand, prominent democracies like Germany and France do not extend local voting rights to foreign residents (Bae and Kwon 2010; Earnest 2006; Waldrauch 2003).

Why would some countries be more willing to permit foreign residents to vote, either at the local or national level, than others? Money (1997: 688-690) notes that scholars often point to conceptions of ethnicity and nationality in a state, the economic interests of the host country, and the tension between the economic benefits that immigrants bring and the cultural costs an increased foreign population would have, when considering the degree of openness and level of accommodation countries are willing to extend to their immigrant populations. A comparatively liberal country like New Zealand has, for much of its modern history, been made up of immigrants. It was the first state to enact universal suffrage in 1893 (Fairburn and Haslett 2005), and was an early pioneer of giving foreign residents the right to vote locally and nationally in 1975 (Noorhbakhsh 2010). The conception of nationality in New Zealand is perhaps more fluid and loosely defined than the more restrictive countries, and the government likely sees an economic benefit in providing such accommodations to its foreign population.

In contrast, a country such as Germany, lacking the same experience of colonization that New Zealand had, and with a much more strict concept of nationality, may be hesitant to extend a similar degree of participation to foreign residents. Yet even in Germany a system of foreign representation exists. In this case, some 400 cities with large immigrant populations permit foreign residents to stand for election to local foreign advisory councils. Advisory council powers are typically limited to issuing opinions and making recommendations, yet the councils do represent an institutional means of addressing and enfranchising the immigrant population, at least to some degree. To take another example, Switzerland does not permit national-level voting for its foreign residents, but allows the cantons to determine whether or not to permit immigrant voting locally (Koopmans et al. 2005). While participation in local and national elections may be prohibited or avoided in some countries, there are other means available in giving the interests of foreign populations some representation.

Clearly, a country like Japan would not be unique in either permitting or prohibiting its resident foreigners from voting locally, although it does appear that a number of democracies are willing to extend some degree of suffrage to their foreign residents. Japan’s national government, prohibiting non-naturalized foreign residents from voting in national elections, has not made a definitive ruling on local participation. This leaves the window open for municipalities in Japan to make their own policies regarding local elections.

Kawasaki’s focus on voting rights for foreign residents dates back to the early 1990s. With the change in the Immigration Control Act of 1990, the city began to notice a sizable increase in its foreign population. In order to better address their needs, Kawasaki commissioned a survey of foreign residents in 1993, attempting to see what kinds of problems they were encountering and what needs were and were not being met. One of the things the city realized as a result of this survey was the need to have some kind of formal representation of foreign residents in city government. The city soon began encouraging foreign residents to take part in already established service monitoring programs, consultation meetings, and councils attached to city departments (Takao 2003: 544-545).

Beyond this informal recognition, Kawasaki took further concrete steps toward promoting foreign resident participation in local government. In 1993, the city made its first petition to the national government to allow foreign residents to vote locally. At this time the central government had no rules in place permitting foreign nationals to vote in local elections. Fifteen other local governments passed similar resolutions that year, urging the national government to grant foreign residents local voting rights (Takao 2003).

The city also continued surveying foreign residents in order to see exactly what needed improvement and how to go about it. By 1996, Kawasaki established its Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents, the first of its kind in the country. In order for the Representative Assembly to come into being, in 1996, Kawasaki also eliminated the nationality clause for hiring city employees, with the exception of firefighters. As the members of the representative assembly are not Japanese, yet would be working for the city, this was a necessary step. This was the first time a city formally eliminated its rules against hiring non-Japanese citizens in municipal government (Kawasaki Resident’s Bureau 2008). Although there is no national law stipulating that local government employees must be Japanese citizens, this is, in fact, the practice for the vast majority of cities.

While Kawasaki implemented its Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents and appealed to the national government to grant foreign residents local voting rights, other municipalities were taking similar actions. Although Kawasaki was the first city to establish a representative assembly for foreign residents, Tokyo started an assembly of “foreigner-citizens” in 1997, Kyoto in 1998, Mitaka in 1999, Atsugi in 2002, Sagamihara in 2003, Yamato and Okayama City in 2005 (Takao 2003: 547; Kawasaki Representative Assembly 2007).

Granting foreign residents some degree of representation in city assemblies is one way of ensuring some minimal level of participation in local affairs. Another, perhaps more controversial way of doing so is granting direct voting rights. While representative assemblies are still dependent on the municipal structures in place to implement their recommendations, voting would give foreign residents the ability to directly influence government. Kawasaki was among the first sixteen cities appealing to the central government to allow foreign residents to vote locally in 1993. In 1994, 172 local governments passed similar resolutions. By 2001, 1,439 municipalities, representing 73% of the total Japanese population, had passed such resolutions (Takao 2003: 534). According to Mindan, an association of ethnic Koreans promoting zainichi voting rights, by 2005 a total of 1,531 municipalities had adopted resolutions encouraging local foreign voting rights, a total of 46% of the cities in Japan encompassing the vast majority of the population (Mindan 2005). By 2011, almost half of the country’s cities had chosen to circumvent or ignore the central government on the foreign suffrage issue.

Moreover, local governments who chose to ignore central government policy on foreign resident suffrage found some support in the deliberations of the Japanese Supreme Court. In response to appeals made by local governments, the Supreme Court took up the foreigner voting question in 1993. The court issued its ruling in 1995, holding that the constitution does not prohibit foreign residents from voting at the local level. Constitutional constraints had previously been used as justification by the central government and some municipalities to prohibit foreign residents from voting locally. With the ruling, the Supreme Court declared that decisions of foreign resident suffrage should be left to the national government to legislate (Supreme Court of Japan 1995). What this decision did was to effectively rule out the constitution as an excuse for prohibiting foreign residents from voting. Yet the decision did not definitively answer the question of foreign suffrage one way or the other. Instead, the issue was left once again to the central government to determine. With the conservative LDP still in power at this time, however, little progress was made nationally on the issue following the Supreme Court’s ruling. In spite of a change in government leadership to the DPJ in 2009, as of 2012 the national government has not yet passed a definitive policy either permitting or prohibiting foreign residents from voting locally.

Kawasaki’s Representative Assembly first took up the voting issue in 2003, deliberating and recommending the city government investigate the possibility of local suffrage. The Kawasaki government subsequently began investigatory committees in 2004 and 2006, looking at the possibility of incorporating foreign residents and the types of rules that should be in place regarding their voting eligibility. The final report from the committee, issued in 2006, recommended that foreign residents be able to vote locally. To be eligible to vote as a resident alien, the committee recommended that the resident’s visa be good for at least three years, and they should have resided in the city for at least three months before the election. Like Japanese residents, those foreign residents over the age of 18 would be eligible. There was also concern about the registration process for voting. The committee recommended that the process be a simple one, as an overly complicated or bureaucratic process can discourage participation: they recommended that foreign residents could use the receipt of their foreign alien registration as proof of eligibility (Kawasaki Representative Assembly, 2003-2006).

The committee’s recommendations were presented to the Representative Assembly, and additional forums were held on the policy at three different locations in the city in order to give the public a chance to comment. A draft policy was created in 2008, officially proposed at a city council meeting and subsequently adopted. On April 1, 2009, Kawasaki implemented its new system allowing foreign residents to vote on referenda and in local elections. At the same time, the city noted that in order to continue promoting and expanding the rights of foreign residents, it will need the cooperation of other cities in securing local voting rights for all people. In 2007 Kawasaki began investigating the positions of other large cities to determine their policies regarding foreign suffrage and employment. The following year Kawasaki began actively promoting the suffrage and municipal employment of foreign residents in other cities (Kawasaki City 2008; Representative Assembly, 2003-08).

Kawasaki is not the only, or even the first, municipality to allow its foreign residents to vote on local issues. The first city to grant local alien suffrage was Maibaracho in Shiga Prefecture in 2002, which initially extended the right to vote in a local referendum on a town merger. From there, policies enabling local foreign resident suffrage have expanded. As of 2005, there were approximately 200 municipalities that authorize foreign residents to vote (Tanaka and Kin 2006).

Nationally, the Diet first added the issue of foreign resident suffrage to its agenda in 1998. The proposal was initiated by the DPJ and timed to coincide with a visit to Japan from then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. As voting rights are important to the zainichi Korean community in Japan and, as a result, important to Korean-Japanese relations, the proposal seemed like a positive development at the time. Soon after the visit, however, the bill was tied up by the ruling LDP with little chance of advancing further (Kim 2006: 70).

With the LDP sliding in public opinion polls and the DPJ on the ascent following Japan’s poor economic performance, a string of scandals and Prime Ministerial resignations after Koizumi Junichiro, the DPJ advocated a new proposal in conjunction with the Komeito, that foreign residents be given the right to vote in local elections (DPJ 2008). When the DPJ was able to take control of the government after the elections of 2009, it was widely expected that the party would implement its proposal on local foreign voting rights. However, under the DPJ, Japan continued to suffer from poor economic performance, and the DPJ itself was plagued by a number of its own scandals and prime ministerial resignations, rendering it largely ineffective on a host of topics, including immigration and voting issues. The question of foreign suffrage, in particular, met with strong opposition from right-wing parties on the grounds of protecting national security interests, but often motivated by traditional xenophobic tendencies. By the time of the Upper House election in July 2010, the DPJ had abandoned local foreign suffrage as a part of its legislative agenda (Yamaguchi 2010; Asahi Shimbun 2010), effectively taking the issue off the national agenda at that time.

In the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergencies that stunned Japan in March 2011, the government had more than its fair share of issues to contend with. In addition to the logistical problems a triple disaster creates, the Kan Naoto government met with ever-increasing levels of unpopularity, both due to the administration’s handling of the crises as well as its overall poorly perceived performance. The levels of dissatisfaction were such that Kan was forced to step down from the premiership in August 2011, making him the sixth prime minister to serve in five years and calling into question the overall effectiveness of the DPJ (Hoshi 2011). Regardless with the level of problems the DPJ faced, questions of foreign suffrage were all but ignored following the 2009 elections.

These instances of municipalities passing more progressive immigration voting rights policies for immigrants, in the absence of central government action are clearly an example of local policy innovation. What began as a few municipalities trying to incorporate the opinions of their foreign community members into the decision making process has spread throughout the country, ultimately reaching the national agenda. Kawasaki has played a major role in this process. With the central government unable to develop any coherent policy on the issue, local governments have instead taken it upon themselves to extend these basic privileges to their residents.


Kawasaki has made a number of important efforts to incorporate its foreign population in local government. It was the first city in Japan to institute a representative assembly for its foreign residents, where they could discuss topics relevant to them and make formal recommendations to the city government. Although this was not direct voting on the part of foreign residents, it was an important initial step to enfranchise residents who previously did not have a formal voice in city government. The city was later able to extend formal local voting rights to all foreign residents over 18, who have resided in the city for more than three months (Kawasaki City 2008).

Kawasaki has made a strong overall effort to incorporate all residents into the local government system, including resident immigrants. Other cities have followed Kawasaki’s lead, where deliberative assemblies of foreign residents have been established and local voting rights have been gradually extended to foreign residents in a number of municipalities. At this point, almost half of Japan’s municipal governments have authorized some system of representation for their legal immigrant communities, by allowing their participation in local elections, implementing representative assemblies, and petitioning the national government to grant local voting rights for their foreign residents. As we can see, Kawasaki’s inclusion of foreign residents in government through representative bodies and voting rights has proven influential and gradually become more common throughout Japanese local government. This idea that started in Kawasaki is gradually spreading throughout the country.

The national government has attempted to take up the issue of foreign residents voting locally in recent years. The DPJ went so far as to put the issue on its agenda, yet for a variety of reasons including internal scandals, conservative opposition and the disasters of March 2011, the local voting rights of resident immigrants has been effectively taken off of the national agenda for the time being. Despite the lack of concrete reforms to national policy, local governments have made substantive inroads in giving voting rights to foreign residents. Still, the fact that action was even considered at the national level does show progress.

Where does this leave the issue of foreign residents participating in local politics? We can see that Kawasaki was a pioneer in adopting representative measures for its foreign residents, and similar policies have slowly expanded out to other cities. Policy at the national level formalizing foreign suffrage in municipal elections has proven elusive thus far, yet almost half of the cities in the country offer some means of foreign representation. It is safe to say there is fairly strong informal institutionalization taking place in this case, where local governments have found it to their advantage to incorporate foreign residents into their decision making processes. The lack of national directives either condoning or prohibiting the participation of resident immigrants in local elections has allowed these informal practices to continue and expand. There have been some attempts by the DPJ to introduce legislation allowing foreign residents to participate in local elections, although they have yet to meet with a successful resolution.

Put in the context of the underlying theory of this research, local voting rights in Japan clearly demonstrate the diffusion of an adaptive informal institution. Despite a lack of national leadership, some local governments, like Kawasaki, have established ad hoc coping mechanisms to address their foreign residents. The national government was not adequately doing so, and these cities found it in their interest to try and incorporate their immigrant populations into the decision making process. What began as a means of dialog with foreign residents in Kawasaki gradually spread throughout the country, eventually turning into codified local voting rights for a variety of cities. These policies are still informal in the sense that they are not sanctioned by the national government, but with continued iteration and the successful incorporation of foreign residents into municipal governments throughout the country, it could ultimately become a reality.

While this discussion does not ultimately prove causality, meaning the preceding analysis does not illustrate definitively that Kawasaki’s liberalizations led directly to changes in national policy, there does appear to be a strong connection. Kawasaki is just one local government out of many in Japan, and as mentioned throughout this analysis, it has often not acted alone. Other progressive local governments have been working to make their own policies addressing their foreign populations, as well as a host of other issues.

Kawasaki may be regarded by some as uniquely progressive in its immigration policies. In fact, the city is more active in addressing its immigrant population compared to many other municipalities. Kawasaki is consequently an extreme example of policy innovation, but part of what I believe to be a larger picture of local government innovation. As Japan has moved further away from the centralized, top-down system of the bubble years, local governments have taken on an increasingly larger decision making role, with the national government acting more as a facilitator. Such a system is of course not unique to Japan, and can be found to varying degrees in the other developed unitary states.

While Japan has not suddenly or miraculously turned into a decentralized, federal state, as we have seen through the lens of local foreign suffrage, it does appear to be slowly and incrementally changing into something quite different from a traditionally “unitary” state. Governments ultimately have to react to the circumstances and challenges they face as best they can. It would seem Japan currently finds that the best way to do so is to give local governments greater freedom to experiment with and innovate the policies that work the best for their own situations. We shall see whether or not such a trend ultimately continues.


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About the Author

David Green received his PhD in Political Science from Northeastern University in Boston, having conducted dissertation research in conjunction with Meiji University in Tokyo. Professor Green currently teaches at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Law and is a member of the University’s Leading Graduate Schools program. His research interests include Japanese political parties, Japanese economic policy and comparative immigration policy.

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