Nationality and suffrage

Some Japanese, most aliens barred from political rights

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 August 2009
Last updated 24 August 2009


Since Japan's first election law of 1890, the basic qualification for national and local suffrage has been national affiliation with Japan.

National affiliation

In the 1890 law such affiliation was called {b (Nihon shinmin) or "Japan subject" -- meaning that one possessed a honseki ({) or "principle register [affiliation]" in Japan. This reflected the usage in the 1890 Constitution.

From the 1900 law the affiliation status was called 鍑b (Teikoku shinmin) or "Imperial subject". This reflected an expanded definition of Japan's sovereign dominion as an "empire" which then included Taiwan. Karafuto became part of the sovereign empire in 1905, and the Empire of Korea joined as Chosen in 1910.

Since the end of World War II in 1945, the term { (Nihon kokumin), meaning "Japan national", has been used. This term had been used along with {b (Nihon shinmin) and 鍑b (Teikoku shinmin). The two terms were not incompatible. Whereas b (shinmin) denoted subjecthood in relation to tennō ("emperor") as the sovereign, (kokumin) denotes civil affiliation with the state regardless of whether sovereignty is monarchical or popular.

Election districts

Karafuto became a prefecture in 1943, and some election districts were established in Taiwan and Chosen in 1945 shortly before the end of World War II. Most parts of the the prefectural Interior, however, had election districts. And all Japanese -- Interiorites, Taiwanese, Karafutoans, and Chosenese -- had equal rights of suffrage if they resided in an election district, and met the sex, age, residency, and tax status conditions stipulated in the election law.

Sex, age, residence, and tax status

In 1890, sex, age, residence, and tax status limited suffrage to only a fraction of the adult male population. From 1928 all males 25 years of age or older were able to vote regardless of their tax status.

Popular sovereignty formally began when the 1947 Constitution came into effect. However, a December 1946 revision in the election law permitted all nationals, male and female, who were 20 years of age or older, to participate in the first postwar election in 1946 -- if the Family Register Law applied to them, which excluded Interior residents with registers in Taiwan or Chosen, members of the Imperial Family, and Interiorites residing outside.

Rights of suffrage were recognized only for otherwise qualified nationals who were residing in parts of Occupied Japan, meaning "Japan" as defined by GHQ/SCAP. Since 1890, one year of continuous residence was required. The 1950 election law specified 6 months.

Since 1969 only 3 months continuous municipal residence has been required. Whether a municipal citizen (斯AsAA kumin, shimin, chōmin, sonmin) has fulfilled the "residence requirement" (Zv jūsho yōken) is based on the municipality's Basic Resident Register, which shows when the citizen was registered as a resident of the municipality. Municipalities orchestrate municipal, prefectural, and national elections through such registers.

Between 1998 and 2007, rights of suffrage were gradually extended to Japanese with overseas residences.

There are now movements in the government to drop the age at which one may vote, if not also the age of majority, to 18 years old.

Since the first election law, rights of suffrage have bee revoked or suspended for some Japanese adults. The list of causes for loss of rights of suffrage have somewhat changed over the years, but the list has always included legal incompetence, and conviction of certain crimes and certain degrees of punishment.

Alien suffrage

Courts have ruled that the Constitution guarantees rights of suffrage only to nationals, but does not prohibit aliens from voting or holding office nationally or locally.

Under the 1947 Local Autonomy Law, municipally registered aliens have been affiliates of municipal and prefectural polities. The law, however, limits rights of suffrage to nationals. The Diet is now considering some degree of local suffrage for permanently residing aliens.

See Elements of citizenship for numerous articles on past and current issues concerning nationality and suffrage in Japan.

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