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Ministry missive wrecks reception

MHLW asks hotels to enforce nonexistent law

by Debito Arudou

Between Oct. 7-11, the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT), Japan’s largest convocation of language educators, held its annual meeting in Shizuoka, a pleasant city between Tokyo and Osaka.

Having hosted JALT before, Shizuoka is quite accustomed to taking in thousands of English-speaking foreigners.

This time around, however, Shizuoka decided to accommodate their guests with another lovely service: ID checks before bedtime.

When those attending the meeting, including this writer, arrived at their hotel, they were served us with two laminated documents regarding new check-in procedures. Rendered in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean (but tellingly not Portuguese even though the majority of foreigners in Shizuoka Prefecture are Brazilian), one document read, quote:

“MAY WE SEE YOUR PASSPORT? Japanese law requires that we ask every foreign guest to present their passport, a photocopy of which we will keep on file during their stay.”

The clerks played Checkpoint Charlie with verve: “Show us your passports. Sorry, it’s the law. ‘Shikata wa gozaimasen.’ ”

They were asked with equal verve what law they were citing. Not to be thwarted, they brandished the second multilingual document, clearly designed for cocksure people like foreign guests.

Entitled (in Japanese) “For use in dealing with questions and complaints,” it read:

“Effective April 1, 2005, Japanese legislation makes it mandatory that you, as a ‘non-resident foreign guest,’ present your passport and have it photocopied.”

The original Japanese of the legal text was even clearer, stating that these passport checks apply to “foreigners without addresses in Japan,” not “every foreign guest.”

Admittedly, recording tourists’ passport numbers is not unreasonable. In fact, it’s standard practice at hotels in Europe, for example.

But foreign residents of Japan are not tourists. Neither are they legally obliged to carry their passports around (that’s why the gaijin card exists), nor to divulge their passport numbers upon request to anyone but police or Immigration.

When I read back the sections of the second document and asked the staff to resolve the discrepancies, we got bent necks and hissing teeth. “Well, anyway, um . . . please cooperate.”

We didn’t. “Shouldn’t we be asked whether we have domestic addresses first? Won’t we be writing them down on the sign-in form anyway, like everyone else who checks in? There are better ways of doing this than by just looking at our faces,” they were asked.

Undeterred, they still demanded my passport until I told them I am a citizen. I then called the manager to tell the hotel to kindly follow the law properly (which they did for future check-ins).

Still, I can’t fault the hotel staff too much.

They were just following orders. When I asked them who issued these directives, they said the government.

So I decided to track down what agency was responsible.

I first suspected police involvement, as their singling out of foreigners is nothing new or even unusual these days: random ID checks, signs in public places warning against foreign criminals, and cooked statistics to highlight and exaggerate foreign crime. These are well-established tactics that have long been discussed in this column.

Now police have another means at their disposal. The “Ryokan Gyouhou” (Hotel Management Law) amendment cited in the aforementioned directives now allows them to deputize hotels. They wasted no time.

As the Community Page reported on March 8, the police were asking hotels to checkpoint all foreign-looking guests months before the law even took effect.

Moreover, these are not just any police. The Shizuoka Prefectural Police have an egregious history of targeting foreigners, best embodied by one of their handbooks, “Rainichi Gaikokujin Hanzai no Tokuchou” (Characteristics of Crimes by Foreigners Coming to Japan).

Published in February 2000 (and available at www.debito.org/TheCommunity/shizuokakeisatsuhandbook.html ), it was distributed to shopkeepers and other private businesses with tips on dealing with “bad foreigner” crime.

It’s quite sensational. Not only do they depict Chinese as indolent and Brazilians as scary, they also gloss over inconvenient facts, such as how in some of the criminal cases they cite, Japanese crooks are in cahoots with the foreigners.

The handbook’s biggest gemstone of advice is “If a group of foreigners comes into your shop, write down their car license plate numbers and report them to the police.”

That’s a good way to ruin an evening’s beer run if you have the wrong skin color.

So I phoned the Shizuoka police. They denied any involvement. “We checked all our divisions. We didn’t write the thing.”

So then I called the Shizuoka Prefectural Government. They too have a pretty lousy record of treating foreigners, despite having one of the most internationalized labor forces in the country.

Shizuoka is one prefecture which denied National Health Insurance (“Kokumin Kenkou Hoken”) to its South American population because they were deemed technically not “kokumin” (citizens). Few things engender cynicism as effectively as watching a government refuse its taxpayers a safety net.

However, the prefecture said they were not responsible either. In fact, the Tourism Department told me they got the directive from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare in Tokyo.

That fit the profile nicely, given MHLW’s recent activities.

In March, they issued multilingual announcements regarding the change in hotel laws, justifying it in the name of, quote, “effective prevention of infectious diseases and terrorism.”

Then they said erroneously that all foreigners must have their passports copied upon check-in.

However, the American State Department, eagle-eyed readers of this column, called the MLHW in April for clarification. Yes, the MHLW admitted, this applied to infectious or terroristic tourists only. Corrections were promised.

So I phoned the MHLW, and got connected to the Environmental Health Division — an odd department to have “foreigner hotel matters” delegated to.

At first the EHD tried to pass the buck back down: “The local governments must have printed it.”

This didn’t ring true. It was clearly a very professional job, done by somebody with high-quality multilingual translation services at their disposal. Moreover, the contents of the directives were practically copies of old MHLW Web sites.

MHLW then admitted they created the documents, and yes, sent them to every hotel in Japan. But they had long since realized their error, and promulgated corrections to reflect the true letter of the law.

I strongly doubted that, given our treatment in Shizuoka. I demanded they redouble their efforts to resolve the confusion and repair the social damage they had wrought in every hotel nationwide.

They said they would take it under advisement. As if enforcing the law correctly was something needing further consideration.

Anyway, since the authorities are not properly enforcing their own laws, readers are advised to help themselves. Download your own personal copy of the pertinent sections of the hotel laws here:

www.debito.org/newhotelpassportlaw.html

Print it up and show the next hotel clerk who tries to treat you like a tourist. Or a terrorist. Or someone with infectious diseases.