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Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006

Kawasaki foreign residents' panel has significant impact on city policy


Staff writer

In the nearly 10 years since its establishment, the Kawasaki City Representatives Assembly for Foreign Residents, an advisory body to the mayor made up of non-Japanese residents, has been largely successful.

As the country's only foreign residents' panel established by ordinance, residents and those involved in the assembly alike say it has helped reflect foreigners' needs in local administration, for example by taking on the issue of housing discrimination.

But the problems facing foreign residents continue to multiply and the assembly's work is far from over, they added.

Kawasaki set up the panel in December 1996 amid a growing movement across the country to demand suffrage at the local government level for foreigners, modeled after similar municipal assemblies in Germany, said Nobuki Yamazaki of the city's Human Rights and Gender Equality Office.

The assembly consists of 26 members who serve two-year terms. They are selected from foreign residents who volunteer to serve. The current body has people from 15 countries and is chaired by Mohammad Anwer, a Pakistani who runs a computer-related business and has lived in Kawasaki for 15 years.

"An increasing number of foreigners in the city do not return to their homelands and continue living here," Anwer said. "So I want them to participate in local communities, and the assembly should keep on working on their problems."

More than 100 foreigners have so far served as assembly members, and the panel has submitted a total of 24 proposals to the mayor.

In 2000, the city enacted an ordinance stipulating that no individual should be denied the opportunity to rent housing based on nationality, age or disability. The ordinance was drafted in response to an assembly proposal calling on the city to ban housing discrimination against foreigners.

While there are no statistics to indicate how effective the ordinance has been, many foreign residents say discrimination by landlords and real estate firms has declined in recent years, according to Anwer.

The city also established a system whereby it becomes the renter's guarantor if residents pay 35 percent of one month's rent to a guarantor firm for a two-year contract.

"The system is helpful for foreigners because it is hard for them to look for guarantors" as landlords require, Anwer said.

According to the city, 33 households headed by foreigners used the system in fiscal 2004.

But Anwer said many foreign residents are still unaware that the system exists, and the city should do more to get the word out.

The number of foreign residents in Kawasaki has more than doubled over the past two decades. The number of registered foreign residents was 26,508 in 2004, compared with 10,246 in 1982.

Koreans have long made up the largest share of foreign residents in Kawasaki, accounting for 89 percent of the total in 1982. But their share had fallen to 35 percent by 2004. On the other hand, the number of Chinese is growing, making up 25 percent of foreign residents in 2004. Filipinos are the next largest group of foreign nationals at 12 percent, followed by Brazilians at 5 percent.

Many children of longtime foreign residents have reached school age and are now facing problems, which are among the issues currently being discussed at the assembly, Anwer said.

The city dispatches bilingual citizens who can teach basic Japanese to foreign children after school. The service is limited to one year per child.

"But there are some children who cannot acquire Japanese (language skills) within a year," Anwer said, adding the assembly members are seeking an extension of the training period.

Even children who have mastered daily Japanese conversation have difficulty understanding terms used in their lessons, he added.

Assembly members are also discussing the possibility of sending teachers to provide supplementary lessons for such children, he said.

Another issue being addressed is suffrage. Anwer said if foreign residents had the right to vote in local elections, it would help solve many of the problems they encounter.

"If a foreigner is admitted as a resident and has the right to vote, the consciousness of local assembly members, companies and communities will change and their discrimination against foreigners will decline," he said.

Takashi Miyajima, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and an adviser to the Kawasaki city government on policies related to foreign residents, said the city was probably the first local government to set up a panel composed solely of foreign residents.

At least 15 local governments around Japan now have panels composed of foreigners or that have a mix of Japanese and non-Japanese members, according to city officials.

But the status of Kawasaki's panel is more secure "because the assembly is stipulated by ordinance, which is (essentially) a law, so it is impossible to abolish it without a decision by the city assembly," Miyajima said.

In fact, a similar panel set up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was abolished in 2001.

Some local governments have mixed panels of foreigners and Japanese, but members are often intellectuals chosen by the municipality, and they are given topics to discuss by authorities.

In Kawasaki's assembly, members come from the general public and they decide the issues they want to discuss, Miyajima said.

"Since foreign residents in Japan do not have the right to vote, we need more assemblies where not the elite but common foreigners can voice their opinions," he said.

The Kawasaki Municipal Government is looking for city residents willing to sit on the sixth foreigners' assembly that starts in April. Selected members will be asked to serve a two-year term, attending about eight meetings a year and participating in other activities, including field trips.
Candidates must have been born on or before April 2, 1988, and be able to read hiragana and hold discussions in Japanese. The deadline to apply is Jan. 13.
For more information, call the Kawasaki municipal office at (044) 200-2359 or e-mail 25gaikok@city.kawasaki.jp


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