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Foreign voice



This is the fourth in a series on local elections to be held Sunday.

TAKATSUKI, Osaka Prefecture--Lee Kyung Jae has repeatedly urged Korean children in Japan to cherish their ethnic roots. He has arranged festivals that promote Korean culture and long battled discrimination directed at Korean communities.

But to take his efforts to the next level, Lee, a 53-year-old second-generation Korean resident of Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, did what had been considered unthinkable: He gave up his long-cherished Korean nationality.

Members of Korean communities have argued that one's nationality is essential to their identities. Yet when they seek voting rights for foreign residents in Japan, they are met with the legal provision that only Japanese citizens can cast ballots.

So Lee and others decided to take an ironic method. They obtained Japanese nationality to bring the voices of foreign residents to local and national politics.

"As I have spent all my life as a minority, I am keenly aware of the rights of the elderly, the disabled and others who are regarded as socially weak," he told passers-by at JR Settsu-Tonda Station recently.

"I would like to ask voters to sympathize with the sentiments of foreign residents and allow me to become the first Korean-Japanese assembly member in Osaka," he said.

Lee is running for a seat in the Osaka prefectural assembly election Sunday.

He is the first candidate of foreign origin who has run in a local or national election on a campaign to represent the interests of an ethnic group, according to the Korean Residents' Union in Japan (Mindan).

To become eligible to run, Lee, an operator of a nursing-care organization, obtained Japanese nationality in June last year.

He stands in front of train stations every morning, calling for the "conscience" of Japanese people to hear the voices of foreigners and other social minorities and to turn Japan, with its growing foreign population, into a truly multicultural society.

Lee's parents immigrated to Japan and worked at a military warehouse during World War II. After graduating from high school, Lee set up a citizens group to teach Korean children about their ethnic roots and to organize cultural festivals. He was also involved in human rights movements for non-Japanese, including the campaign aimed at abolishing the mandatory fingerprinting of foreigners for their alien registration.

In addition, he has joined the movement for foreign residents' suffrage in local elections since the early 1990s.

Although Lee has won praise for his work, his campaign faces a serious problem: Many members of his main support base are not allowed to vote.

At the end of 2005, Osaka had 142,712 people with Korean nationalities, or 24 percent of 598,687 Koreans nationwide.

Lee is now counting on Koreans who have obtained Japanese nationality, whose number may exceed those who have maintained their Korean nationalities.

"Many ethnic Koreans apparently opt to live as Japanese by hiding their ethnic origins, and I hope my campaign will be an opportunity for them to solidify their ethnic identity or to openly express it to their Japanese neighbors," Lee said.

A 61-year-old second-generation Korean resident of Takatsuki said she has been waiting for a long time for someone like Lee to take such action. However, she regrets that she is unable to vote.

"We no longer face overt discrimination, but we have yet to live completely free from concerns about our neighbors' potentially negative looks or words," said the woman, a supermarket worker.

The woman uses a Japanese name, but has asked her Japanese neighbors, including those who do not know her background, to vote for Lee.

Two of the woman's four children, who have obtained Japanese nationality to avoid discrimination, live in Takatsuki and are thrilled to have Lee as a voting option, she said. "By having a representative in local government, I may feel more attached to the local community," she said.

Lee estimates that his electoral district of Takatsuki and the town of Shimamoto have several thousand Korean-Japanese who are eligible to vote. He said he will need about 13,000 votes to win a seat on the prefectural assembly. That means he needs votes from the Japanese as well.

"I am still worried that Japanese society will again reject me in the form of scarce votes," Lee said. "But even if my campaign ends in failure, I hope it will encourage future generations to aspire to become political representatives of their ethnic group."

During a preliminary campaign for the Upper House election in July, Kim Jeong Ok, a second-generation Korean in Tokyo, recently visited local chapters of Mindan. He asked Mindan members to collect votes from Japanese members of their families, as well as neighbors and ethnic Koreans who have obtained Japanese nationality.

"I decided to run for the election because the relatively homogeneous composition of the Diet is the primary cause of the rapid nationalistic swing of politics today," Kim, 51, said.

Kim, who works at a nonprofit organization that supports disabled people, obtained Japanese nationality in December 2005 in a bid to campaign in the Upper House election. He will run on the ticket of opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) in the proportional representation part of the election.

But Kim said his campaign will not be easy. Even his relatives, including five siblings, who use Japanese names will not openly support him for fear of revealing their ethnicity.

"Representing these voices in national politics will be the way to achieve an equal partnership between the majority and minority residents, including foreigners of all ethnicities," he said.(IHT/Asahi: April 6,2007)

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