Japan's Bad New Policy of Fingerprinting Foreigners
Wednesday, October 31, 2007 Posted: 10:51 PM JST
(Arudou Debito) - If you haven't heard about the new immigration procedure coming into effect next month, it's time you did. It will affect not only tourists and frequently traveling businesspeople, but also long-term residents. You will be targeted by a useless and xenophobic system, treated as fresh off the boat no matter how long you've lived here.
From November 20, 2007, all foreigners crossing the border into Japan will have their fingerprints and mug shots taken. Their biometric data will be stored for 70 years, and shared with other governments just in case of... well, just in case.
Unfortunately, entry won't be smooth. The law requires an automated gate system at all ports of entry, to allow those who already filed their fingerprints to pass through quickly. However, Kobe Immigration recently acknowledged that only Narita will have an express gate. Everyone else coming in anyplace else must stand in the Gaijin Line like any other tourist, separated from their Japanese families and giving fingerprints the old-fashioned way. Every time they enter Japan. For however long it takes. Welcome home.
This new law doesn't apply to all foreigners. The exceptions are people under age 16, those with "diplomat" or "official government business" visas, and "Special Status Permanent Residents" (i.e., the "Zainichi" Japan-born ethnic Koreans, Chinese, etc.). But it does apply to Regular Permanent Residents, those who moved here and got a permanent visa.
The policy is retrogressive. From 1952 through the 1990's, Zainichi (and many other non-Japanese) led sustained protests against fingerprinted Gaijin Cards because, culturally speaking, the feeling is that only criminals get systematically fingerprinted. In 1998, the practice was abolished. Immigration officials admitted it was "ineffective," and the contemporary Justice Minister mentioned violations of human rights.
Despite all that, fingerprinting is back--and how. Why now? The Foreign and Health Ministries say that gathering biometric data from foreigners is necessary for "the effective prevention of contagious diseases and terrorism." It's unclear why that justifies fingerprinting foreigners only. All terrorism in Japan thus far, from Aum Shinrikyo to political extremism, has been homegrown. And contagion knows no nationality.
If you really want to smoke out terrorists, you fingerprint everybody. But you can't. The Japanese public would be in uproar. Witness what happened a few years ago when the government introduced a universal ID system. It was made moribund due to privacy concerns, and even ruled unconstitutional in 2006.
So you target the gaijin because you can. Unlike the Zainichi, "Newcomer" foreigners aren't well organized, and have become a criminal bogeyman for policy-makers. Witness the roots of this law: issued December 2004, the seminal "Action Plan for Pre-Empting Terrorism" treated threats to Japan as imported--foreign terrorists and international organized crime. Its very rubric was "defending our country and our people against the international threat." "International" included foreign residents of Japan, naturally.
Theory met practice: after advocating that the general public (including hotels, banks, realtors, accountants, notary publics, even lawyers) be legally bound to report "suspicious" elements, the plan spawned its first law in 2005. Hotels must now report all their "foreign tourists" to the police. The police, however, told them to report all "foreign guests," and refused to correct this "accidental" misinterpretation.
Add the "let's make Japan the World's Safest Country again" mantra (even though the increase in Japanese crime is more dramatic), and it's clear that fingerprinting is merely part of a multi-pronged policy putsch.
The irony is this new law will not work. Google "how to fake fingerprints" and see how easy it is. Couple that with Japan's porous seaports, and it's clear that the only effect will be to show how xenophobic and reactionary Japan can get. For example, of all the 17 countries accepting the APEC Business Travel Card for international traders, only Japan has thus rendered it useless.
What can you do? Not a lot, since this law has been pipelined for years. Moreover, if you refuse your prints, you can't resort to Zainichi-style civil disobedience. You just get turned away at the border.
But don't do nothing. Voice your opinion wherever you can. Target people administering the program, as well as those being economically affected by it. Hand over a short letter of protest as you clear Customs. Send feedback online to groups like JETRO, the Japan National Tourist Organization and the Japan Hotel Association. Contact merchant groups in Tokyo or Akihabara that want foreign currency. Cite how copycatting the US-Visit Program will likewise hurt tourism and foreign direct investment. Nuts to "Yokoso Japan."
If you're the silent type: when you're at the border, wait patiently together with your whole family, citizens and all, in the Gaijin Line. Let huge crowds demonstrate just how half-baked and callous this policy is.
Given the exceptional treatment given the Zainichi, policy-makers assumed the "gaijin" would not fight back. Show them that's not true.
After all, if you live here, you are not a "guest." You are a taxpaying resident, helping Japan face its future demographic demons. Demand the commensurate respect.
Amnesty International and Solidarity for Migrants Japan held a public meeting on the biometric data laws on Oct 27 in Chiyoda-ku. Read their joint appeal Oct 27, 2007 and the Oct 29 Press Conference at the FCCJ.
Arudou Debito runs www.debito.org and is author of Japanese Only (Akashi Shoten).
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