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Koike's opposition to foreign residents' right to vote clashes with her call for diversity

After giving a regularly scheduled press conference as the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike speaks to the press in the capacity of the head of the newly established Party of Hope at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building on Sept. 29, 2017. (Mainichi)

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike claimed her newly established national political party, the Party of Hope, would take a "tolerant conservative" stance that places value on "diversity."

And yet, the party has required those from the moribund opposition Democratic Party (DP) hoping to run in the upcoming general election on the ticket of the new party to sign a policy agreement that includes a provision that they will stand against giving foreign nationals living in Japan the right to vote in local elections.

In her first stump speech for the July 2016 Tokyo gubernatorial election, Koike said she was against giving foreigners the right to vote in local polls. "What would happen if people with certain intentions came in droves to (Okinawa Prefecture's) Yonaguni Island, located on our national border?" she asked.

Since her days as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Koike was a known opponent of permitting foreigners with permanent residency voting rights in local elections. Under the administration of the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), then DPJ Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa and others revealed that they were considering submitting a bill to allow foreign residents the right to vote in local elections. Subsequently, at a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee in January 2010, Koike criticized the plan, saying, "Which country is the Democratic Party of Japan serving?"

There are few countries, such as Brazil, that give foreign residents the right to participate in national elections. Meanwhile Japan is one of the few countries in the world that do not allow foreign residents to vote in local elections. In 1995, the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Zainichi Korean residents of Japan seeking registration as voters, with the court arguing that the "inalienable right" mentioned in Article 15 of the Constitution, which stipulates that "the people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them," did not extend to foreign residents. At the same time, however, the Supreme Court urged politicians to make a decision regarding permanent foreign residents' voting rights in local elections, stating that creating laws allowing it would not violate the Constitution.

"It's characteristic of Japanese conservatives to be able to implement domestic policies that are liberal, but take a hard line when it comes to policies toward other countries," Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies and an expert in Korean Peninsula regional studies, points out. "As the population declines, it will be economically necessary to accept more foreigners into Japanese society. Koike's position shows that she's not looking at the issue from a long-term perspective."

Sophia University professor of political science, Mari Miura, questions Koike's claim that her new party advocates "tolerant conservatism." "I was surprised by Koike's method of using her own beliefs to pare down those who would be permitted to join her party," Miura says. "Despite her claim of 'tolerant conservatism,' her words and actions reek of anti-foreign rhetoric."

"Diversity" refers to a state in which people, regardless of their gender, nationality, disabilities, or other characteristics, are able to perform to their fullest potential. In the campaign promises made by Koike's regional Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoite First) party in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, foreign nationals fell through the cracks.

Koike was not always this way, however. At a meeting of the lower house Special Committee on Political Ethics and Election Law in August 1999, when she was a member of the then Liberal Party, she stated, "There are many foreign nationals with permanent residency living, working, and paying taxes in the Kansai region. I would like to express my respect toward the proposal (to give permanent residents the right to vote in local elections)."

The bill for foreign residents' voting rights that was being deliberated at the time limited eligibility to foreign nationals with permanent residency and Zainichi Koreans with special residency. As of the end of 2016, the number of such residents nationwide stood at around 1.07 million.

"The right to vote in local elections is one way to communicate residents' opinions on how their lives can be improved on a local level," Kiyoe Ito, the head of Torcida, a nonprofit organization in Aichi Prefecture that offers support to children with foreign citizenship, says. "To continue treating foreign residents as 'outsiders' is bewildering."

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