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Saturday, July 20, 2002

KANSAI BEAT

RULES VARY FROM PREFECTURE TO PREFECTURE

Foreigners find public housing off-limits


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Human rights groups have welcomed Shiga Gov. Yoshitsugu Kunimatsu's promise to review the prefecture's policy of barring foreign residents from living in public housing if they are unable to speak Japanese.

But they added that Shiga's Japanese speakers-only policy reflects a nationwide problem of vague and arbitrary rules regarding public housing that allows local officials to ignore national laws and international treaties banning discriminatory practices.

In early July, local media reports revealed that since 1994, Shiga Prefecture has had a policy of only accepting applications for prefectural public housing from foreigners who speak "sufficient" Japanese.

The decision on whether the applicant has sufficient Japanese conversation ability has been made by the bureaucrat handling the application. None were accepted from foreign residents who didn't speak Japanese, even if they were accompanied by an interpreter when making the application

Several days after this policy was revealed, Kunimatsu ordered an investigation, criticizing the policy as being "behind the times."

Hisanaga Maeda, a spokesman for the prefecture, said the policy is still in effect and no final decision on whether to change it is expected in the near future. Still, the governor's order to review the policy was welcomed by human-rights activists.

"This was a very positive step by the governor and one we applaud," said Tony Laszlo of the Japan-based group Issho (Together), which fights discrimination against foreign residents.

Many of the people whose applications have been rejected are from Brazil.

Of the nearly 21,000 foreign residents living in Shiga Prefecture, nearly 10,000 are from Latin America, mainly Brazil. They include families where the father works in a small factory for low wages -- low enough to qualify the family for prefectural public housing.

However, of the nearly 3,100 public apartment buildings in the prefecture, only about 150 have foreign residents, 80 of whom are Brazilian.

The national government issued general guidelines regarding the minimum requirements for public housing applicants and instructed local governments to give special consideration to certain segments, including the elderly, the disabled and foreign families.

But human rights groups say the government has fallen short of specifying rules against excluding certain groups of applicants.

"Shiga Prefecture's policy illustrates the larger problem of a lack of adequate guidance by the national government in matters of discrimination. In the absence of such guidance, local governments end up creating their own policies, which can be discriminatory," Laszlo said.

Foreigners seeking information on prefectural housing applications quickly find that each prefecture does things differently. For example, Shiga has no information in English, and in addition to requiring standard forms like financial documents, states "people whose family structures are considered unnatural by society" will not be allowed to apply.

What precisely that means -- and who determines whether an applicant's family structure is "unnatural" -- is not explained.

Meanwhile, foreign applicants have additional requirements, although they are not listed or explained in the official application guidelines.

Osaka Prefecture, in contrast, has extensive information in English on how to apply for prefectural housing and sets no special conditions on the applicant's family.

"There is no way we would ever discriminate against a foreign applicant based on ethnicity or language ability. Unlike Shiga, Osaka Prefecture has a lot of experience with foreign residents who apply for public housing," said Minoru Koki, of the Osaka Prefecture Housing Management Center.

Osaka Prefecture is home to a large number of Asian exchange students and Korean and Chinese residents. Many of those who have applied for public housing say the only problem is the long wait, as demand for public housing usually exceeds supply.

"Successful applicants are chosen by lottery. A foreigner might apply many times before getting in, but so would a Japanese. I have many Chinese friends who have been accepted into public housing and were never asked questions about their families or forced to undergo a language test," said Chong Feng, a Chinese student at Osaka University who is living in prefectural public housing with his wife and child.

Some prefectures that have few foreign residents, like Nara, still provide detailed explanations in English. Like Shiga and Osaka, applications are accepted only if the applicant's income is less than 200,000 yen per month.

Like Osaka and unlike Shiga, Nara's application rules contain no information about the kind of family that will be accepted, nor any mention that standards are different for foreign applicants.

However, unlike either Osaka or Shiga, Nara advises foreign applicants that if they are given public housing they will need a guarantor living in the prefecture. The guarantor can be a non-Japanese.

Other prefectures, while not denying foreign applicants the opportunity to move into public housing, have requirements that limit the kinds of eligible candidates.

On its English Web site for foreign applicants, Chiba's public housing division says permanent residency is required. However, prefectural officials said that policy is no longer in effect.

"Starting in April, we have required only that applicants live in the prefecture for at least a year," said Yukio Fujii of the prefecture's public housing department.

While officially there are no language requirements, Fujii said the application process might be difficult for applicants who don't have at least a minimal ability to speak Japanese.

"Some other Japanese in the housing units might complain about a resident who doesn't understand Japanese," Fujii said.

The result of the varying standards at the local level means that, whether by accident or by design, Japan's public housing application policies contain requirements that violate national and international law.

"Local governments don't understand that sometimes their policies are in violation of national laws and international treaties against discrimination that the Japanese government has signed," Laszlo said. "Unfortunately, not all local government heads are as sensible as the Shiga prefectural governor in recognizing discrimination."



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