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Sunday, July 1, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The importance of getting the vote out


Reality rarely bites my brain until I have downed my first cup of morning coffee, and sometimes not even several such cups are enough to juice me from dream mode out into open-eyed awareness.

In fact, when I creak off to catch my train to work, not much will register inside my foggy head. The whole populace of Tokyo could be buck naked and bouncing on pogo sticks and I would never notice.

OK . . . so maybe I would.

However, what I wish I wouldn't notice is the stream of would-be political candidates who regularly pummel weary commuters with campaign speeches -- their message almost always being a not-so-original version of "Hey you! Vote for me!"

To the regret of every person fond of peace and tranquillity, the Japanese have fiendishly twisted former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's axiom that "All politics is local" into "All politics is vocal."

Milking this thought, I pulled myself to the station one recent morning to the numbing sound of an unaccustomed voice. So unaccustomed that when I shuffled past the solitary man with the microphone, I looped him a glance.

Well, whaddya know. It was Naoto Kan, one of Japan's political heavyweights, out stumping for his party's neighborhood poster boy.

I looked at Kan, and Kan looked at me. Or, rather, he looked through me. And though I have no idea of what patter he was pitching, a different message suddenly pinged home.

That of: Wake up, dummy. An election's coming. And, one day, even a foreigner's vote might count.

That's the rumor anyway. Over the last few years, Japan has held high-level discussions on the idea of granting foreign permanent residents the right to vote in local elections.

Most importantly, this would mean enfranchisement for over one-half million "alien" residents from Korea and Taiwan, many of whose parents and grandparents were brought here forcibly by the Japanese government during the war. On a somewhat less significant note, it means I could vote as well.

"You're permanently alien, right?" pushes my wife. "So you better start paying attention! The issues! The parties! The candidates! You have to know!"

She herself votes dutifully whenever possible. "Though all I ever pick is losers!" she sighs, her eyes roving over my face like spotlights.

Yet, to me, following Japanese politics is yawningly akin to being wrapped in a rather dull soap opera. The difference being that a real soap would have more varied plots and better-looking performers.

"True," nods my wife. "But then soap-opera stars do not affect the real world!"

And I suppose Japanese politicians do!?

For since the pop of the economic bubble, Japan's top leaders haven't done much more than prove they're all wet. Except for a brief respite from 1993 to 1994, the same party in charge when the financial mess occurred -- the Liberal Democratic Party -- has managed to keep the exact same mess chiseled into daily headlines.

And altogether it's been a decade now. Show me any other country that would endure such prolonged ineptitude without selecting new leadership, and I'll show you a nation that doesn't bother with elections.

"So . . .," my wife starts.

But I cut her off, for now I'm on a roll.

"What does it say, for example, when more people throughout the world know who Ichiro Suzuki is than those who know the Japanese prime minister?! Any Japanese prime minister! Ever! Of course, if politicians had any real talent -- like Ichiro -- they probably wouldn't be politicians."

"So . . ."

"And do you know why Japanese politicians are always surrounded by so many guards?"

"So . . ."

"Because," I go on, echoing a saucy statement by a renowned but overcooked Japanese leader, "in a crisis, everyone knows that politicians are the first to riot and someone has to protect the public!"

"So that's why you have to keep up with things!" my wife retorts. "For if foreign residents get the vote, you have to make it count."

Part of me readily harkens to her words. Like anyone who has lived in a place for 22 years, there are things I would like to see change. And I wager the other half a million alien residents here feel pretty much the same.

Besides . . . I believe in democracy. It has been indigo-dyed into my upbringing. And -- Florida butterfly ballots aside -- I am proud to be from a land where any knucklehead can one day grow up to be president (as long as his father was president first).

So, sure, I would like to believe what my wife suggests is true.

Yet, another part of me thinks I have married a Japanese Pollyanna.

"OK, I'm awake now. And here's what I see.

"Foreigners tend to wash out a bit more liberal than the general population. Human-rights issues and international sensitivity strike sharp chords with them. Do you really feel the conservative powers-that-be will open the door for 500,000 such voters -- even if just in local elections?"

"Well . . . they're talking about it."

"Right. And that's what politicians do best -- talk. Taking action, however, will be a different matter."

"You're much too cynical. Where is your hope!?"

I squeeze my eyes at her. "Cynicism and lots of caffeine go hand in hand."

"As do," she retorts loudly, "hope and elections."

So I nibble back a smile and lift my coffee cup to my wise Pollyanna. For, ultimately, her sentiments ring true. Participation is the only means of effecting reasonable change. Thus, she gets my vote any day.

No matter how she pronounces "elections."



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