Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Koreans in Japan may be granted suffrage

Koreans in Japan may be granted suffrage
DPJ administration begins to reveal gestures towards Asia-policy focus and possible “gift” towards Korea surfaces

» Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama listens to a question from a reporter during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo Sept. 17. (REUTERS)
An opening for one of the greatest aspirations of Korean permanent residents in Japan, local voting rights for foreign permanent residents, to become a reality may be appearing.
While attending a Korean-Japanese cultural festival in Japan on Saturday, Ozawa Ichiro, secretary-general for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, met with Grand National Party (GNP) Lawmaker and Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union Chair Lee Sang-deuk and told him “something must be done” about the issue of giving local voting rights to foreign permanent presidents. Ozawa said that he would settle the matter during the National Diet of Japan’s regular session. Japanese media reported that Ozawa apparently intends to present legislation as early as the regular session of the Diet convening in Jan. 2010.

However, opposition has been expressed not only by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but also by conservative DPJ representatives and the DPJ’s coalition government parter, the People’s New Party, who view the extension of local voting rights to permanent residents as “rocking the foundations of the country.” As a result of these sentiments, attention is focusing on whether core DPJ figures in favor of extending voting rights, including Ozawa, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya, will be able to break through the conservative opposition to pass the legislation.

Perhaps leery of creating friction early on, the DPJ simply distributed a one-page statement to reporters Sunday without explaining the content of the discussion.

At a debate among party heads last month, Hatoyama said that the DPJ was “integrating opinions for and against the extension of voting rights, but the time is coming when we must think about the future and act in the most forward-thinking way.”

In a Sept. 11 meeting with leaders of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, Ozawa said, “I have always been in favor of extending voting rights to permanent residents, and we will definitely decide on a plan at next year’s regular session of the Diet.” In Feb. 2008, during his time as DPJ president, Ozawa met with President Lee Myung-bak during a visit to South Korea and declared his intention to work toward the extension of voting rights.

Analysts are saying the future-oriented approach from core DPJ members comes from the determination that the administration could clearly show its position of Asia-focused foreign policy by offering a “gift” to the South Korean government, which has been calling for the extension of local voting rights to ethnic Koreans in Japan. Indeed, during his meeting with Rep. Lee, Ozawa showed a desire to resolve pending issues between South Korea and Japan, saying that the new DPJ administration would like “to make relations with South Korea into a relationship of real trust rather than a mere formality” and that it was “definitely possible to resolve fundamental issues” between the two countries.

The DPJ has presented legislation on local voting rights for permanent residents on several occasions in the past, together with the New Komeito Party and the Japanese Communist Party, but LDP opposition prevented them from coming to anything. If related legislation does pass the Diet, some 870,000 foreign permanent residents in Japan, among them 430,000 “special permanent residents,” including unnaturalized South Koreans and North Koreans living in Japan, will be able to exercise voting rights in local elections. However, the Federation of Korean Residents in Japan, which informally represents the North Korean position within the country, has been reluctant to campaign for local voting rights because of a perceived loss of ethnicity.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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