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OCTOBER 13, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 40 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Defining Identity
Japan should grant its 'Koreans' full citizenship

ALSO:
Who's in Charge Here?:
In the quest for lasting peace, civilian control of the military is key

Someone browsing news headlines might think Japan has taken a surprisingly liberal turn. A bill now before the Diet would grant foreigners with permanent residency the right to vote in local elections. Japan would then join a small group of countries, mostly those bastions of democratic enlightenment such as Sweden, the Netherlands and some cantons of Switzerland, in granting the franchise to outsiders. Yet Tokyo's initiative is not quite what it seems. It is simply another sop thrown at a group of people who are often the subject of social and official discrimination.

From time to time, one hears that the Japanese government is planning to grant a favor to "foreigners." That usually means Tokyo is prepared to toss a few crumbs of recognition and civil rights to ethnic Koreans, who make up 90% of the country's 620,000 permanent foreign residents. These are not typical expatriates. They are mostly third-generation descendants of Korean laborers brought to the "home islands" before and during World War II. They are, for all practical purposes, Japanese.

It is not even certain that the new bill will pass. Several attempts to extend voting rights to foreign residents have died in previous parliaments. The current measure is being pushed by the New Komeito, an urban-based party that sees ethnic Koreans as potential supporters. Leaders of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party grudgingly back the bill. In part, they want to appease their coalition partner, the Komeito. And Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro promised South Korean President Kim Dae Jung recently that he would support the move.

But many conservatives in the LDP are strongly opposed to the bill. So is Tokyo's ultra-nationalistic governor, Ishihara Shintaro. In some ways, their argument makes sense. Why should foreigners have the vote? After all, the franchise is a fundamental criterion of citizenship. And it is true, as some conservatives argue, that ethnic Koreans who want to become Japanese can apply for citizenship.

Yet it seems wrong to require that people born in Japan, well into the third or fourth generation, must still apply like much more recent migrants. The problem is rooted in the government's longstanding habit of regarding this bloc of Japanese as foreigners. Over the years, under pressure from abroad or at home or simply because it was shamed into it, Tokyo has slowly allowed Japan-born Koreans greater participation in public life. They can now teach in government schools and obtain housing loans and national health insurance. They no longer have to provide fingerprints while applying for permanent residency. So why not end this piecemeal approach — and cut the Gordian knot by granting citizenship to all Japan-born Koreans?

Perhaps it would be too un-Japanese to adopt the U.S. practice of conferring citizenship automatically to anyone born within national borders. But the Japanese could do what former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos did. In the 1970s, he declared that all ethnic Chinese in his country who wanted to become citizens could do so. Marcos reasoned: They were settled, they were legal and they were productive (and grateful) people who have made the Philippines their home. It worked. The Chinese, and their children, became loyal Filipinos. It could happen in Japan too.

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