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Fingerprint all Japanese, for safety’s sake

Immigration's logic dictates that citizens should endure same biometric indignities

by Ronald Kessler

If you’re a noncitizen and have entered or re-entered Japan in the last couple of years, you’ve undoubtedly been invited to participate in the wonderful, fun-filled world of biometrics. It’s safe to say that many of you felt as though you were being treated like criminals — not to mention the humiliation of being discriminated against, knowing that your Japanese companions could quickly walk through immigration without having to endure the same indignities.

Worse still is the fact that the foreign community of Japan worked so long and hard to finally get fingerprinting abolished — only to see it reinstated just a few years later due to pressure from the U.S. government. And, let’s not forget the frosting that gives this cake its real zest: the added discomfort of knowing our fingerprints will be kept in a database indefinitely.

Then, along came the debate in the Diet about foreigners’ suffrage, and we actually started to get the impression that the Japanese government had some trust in us (that is, until our beloved former posts minister, Shizuka Kamei, torpedoed the idea). Around that time I began to think, “Well, if we can be trusted with the vote, perhaps we can be trusted not to be fingerprinted and photographed upon re-entry into the country.” So, in February of this year I submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Justice suggesting that “regular” permanent residents, like “special” permanent residents, be exempted from having their photos and fingerprints taken at ports of entry.

It took over four months, but at the end of June I received a reply from the ministry. Here it is for all to see (paraphrased from the original Japanese text):

“In the Action Plan for the Prevention of Terrorism (established by the Terrorism Headquarters for the Promotion of Measures Against Transnational Organized Crime, Other Related Issues and International Terrorism on Dec. 10, 2004), the extensive immigration examination procedure — including the taking of fingerprints at the time of the immigration examination, visa application, etc. — is prescribed for the purpose of preventing terrorists from entering this country. By taking fingerprints from an applicant at the time of the immigration examination, etc., the results can be used not only for identification purposes but also for determining whether the individual is already on a blacklist. We believe this to be completely effective in preventing terrorists from entering Japan.

“Based on this fact, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was established at the 164th Diet requiring foreigners applying for permission to enter Japan (excluding special permanent residents, etc.) to submit personal biometric data, such as fingerprints, etc. The act was promulgated in May 24, 2006 (Law No. 43 in 2006), and the provision concerning the requirement has been in effect since Nov. 20, 2007.

“As a result of the collection of this personal data, which began at the inception of this program, the number of foreigners who were issued deportation orders or became targets for the implementation of compulsory deportation orders exceeded 1,600 before the end of February 2010. These results, therefore, prove the program to be very effective in preventing those non-Japanese that have received compulsory deportation orders in the past from illegally re-entering Japan by using false/forged passports, etc.

“Furthermore, by clearly demonstrating that we are implementing strict immigration examinations both inside and outside of Japan, it can be expected that no terrorist will be able to enter.

“Due to an actual incident involving a non-Japanese attempting to enter Japan while pretending to be a permanent resident, even individuals with permanent-resident status should not be excluded from this program. Since Japan has more than 490,000 permanent residents, there is a strong need for measures to prevent terrorists or criminals from stealing or forging permanent-resident passports, or using them to gain illegal entrance into Japan. Accordingly, this program would be difficult to abolish.”

Hmm, did you catch that last paragraph? So, with 490,000 permanent residents there was only that “one case” in more than two years? Assuming each permanent resident travels abroad an average of once a year, that amounts to a risk of one in a million in the course of a year. A ratio like that sounds like something from a bureaucrats’ utopia! What more could any government possibly hope for? And 1,600 illegals in more than two years? Isn’t that about the same number that sneak across the Arizona border in one day?

But what really gets me is how all regular permanent residents have to be subjected to this arbitrary treatment just because one person — one in more than two years — pretended to be one of us. I won’t even mention the fact that permanent residents have an even lower crime rate than their Japanese counterparts (oh, I guess I just did). The majority of people the biometrics program is catching are not terrorists — or even criminals — at all; they’re people who have been previously deported and are just determined to come back in hope of a better life. The figures the MOJ is touting actually prove only one thing: that permanent residents are getting shafted!

Sure, one could argue that it only takes a single terrorist to kill or maim hundreds or even thousands of innocent people. OK then, let’s assume for a moment the Japanese government is right. If we need to be so concerned about criminals and terrorists stealing, forging or finding lost permanent-resident passports, how much more should we be concerned about the passports of Japanese citizens? If, as the government says, we need to demonstrate to the world that Japan is “implementing strict immigration examinations” (not exactly front-page “Yokoso! Japan” material), wouldn’t logic suggest that criminals and terrorists therefore turn their attention to pretending to be Japanese?

A few years ago, when the Japanese government opened the door to a large number of South Americans of Japanese ancestry, magazine ads started popping up in those countries offering eye surgery to people who were not really descendants. Individuals with absolutely no Japanese ancestry whatsoever had surgery to “look Japanese” so that they could fake their way into the country. In one particular case, a person who entered Japan using a false Japanese name ended up sexually assaulting and murdering a 7-year-old girl, sending shock waves across the nation. If people like that can gain entrance so readily, how much easier would it be for an experienced terrorist? How much would “Mr. Moneybags” bin Laden be willing to pay for a Japanese passport? Or perhaps a yakuza in hot water with his boss might decide to cash in on his passport rather than lose a pinkie. Certainly, I’m being flippant here, but the possibilities are nevertheless real — and endless.

The ministry has already attested to the fact that there has only been one case concerning a non-Japanese falsely claiming at immigration to be a permanent resident. The more pressing danger to Japan, therefore, is not its permanent residents, but its own citizenry. So many more Japanese than permanent residents are going overseas that the chances of a lost or stolen Japanese passport falling into the wrong hands could very well be several hundred times greater. It’s also not particularly uncommon to hear in the news about Japanese citizens being abducted by terrorists while traveling abroad. Since citizens are currently whisked through immigration gates upon re-entry so quickly (and, I suggest, naively), there is indeed a high possibility that a terrorist with an eye job, some hair dye, a little makeup and a lost or stolen Japanese passport may slip in. Who knows, it may have already taken place. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, it’s not a matter of if something may happen, but when.

Therefore, I have a new proposal to the MOJ that’s plain and simple: fingerprint Japanese travelers! For the country’s security, it’s imperative the Immigration Bureau starts collecting biometric data from its citizenry immediately — and not only when returning to Japan from abroad, but before departure as well. Why? The government must ensure the biometric details tagged to a Japanese passport number at departure are the same as those associated with that passport upon re-entry.

And one final thought: I’m sure that none of us is particularly thrilled with the prospect of having our private parts examined with the new body scanners presently being tested at Narita (well, unless you’re into that sort of thing). But, if they do force that on us, I can only hope they won’t discriminate like they do with biometrics. And if they do use it indiscriminately on everyone, perhaps that would be a good time to start fingerprinting citizens, too.

Ronald Kessler came to Japan in 1979 and has been a political activist since 1986. He presently chairs the Free Choice Foundation, a foreigners’ rights organization (www.FreeChoice.jp). Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp