The right not to be fingerprinted

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff writer

Choi Sun Ae feels she can finally take a step out of her deep despair, and not only because her legal rights are being restored.

“Of course I’m glad that my status as a permanent resident of Japan is being restored,” said Choi, 39, a pianist and third-generation Korean resident of Japan. “But what encouraged me most was that there were many Japanese people concerned about the case who made efforts to win my rights back.”

The Lower House started deliberations on a bill Friday to revise the Alien Registration Law that would finally abolish the compulsory fingerprinting of foreign residents of Japan each time they renew their alien registration.

The bill went to deliberation first in the Upper House and was approved May 21, making it likely that it will clear the Lower House and be enacted into law by the Aug. 13 close of the current Diet session.

The compulsory fingerprinting system, first introduced in 1955, was scrapped for foreigners with permanent resident status in 1993. The latest amendment will liberate an estimated 630,000 more foreigners from the system, which has been criticized as treating non-Japanese like criminals.

Just six months before the government announced its plan to entirely abolish the fingerprinting system last fall, the Supreme Court dismissed a 1986 lawsuit in which Choi demanded that the government repeal its rejection of her re-entry to Japan, reinstate her permanent resident status and pay her redress for losses resulting from her refusal to be fingerprinted.

Choi was among the very first group of Korean residents with permanent resident status to challenge the fingerprinting system in the 1980s, and has consistently rejected the practice since.

In response to an increase in the number of Korean residents who refused to be fingerprinted, the ministry in the mid-1980s started denying them re-entry permits when they wanted to travel abroad.

Choi was no exception. She was denied a re-entry permit when she decided to study music in the United States in 1986.

Born in Osaka and raised in Kitakyushu, Choi said she was never sure if any country would issue a visa to someone lacking a re-entry permit.

With fear, hope and her admission permit from the University of Indiana in hand, Choi went to the U.S. Consulate in Fukuoka.

To her surprise and relief, a student visa was issued.

“The consul told me, ‘You were born and raised in Japan and your family lives here, so there is no way you can’t come back (as a permanent resident).’ His words were very simple, but what seemed simple was too difficult to accomplish,” she said.

Because she lacked a re-
entry permit at the point of her 1986 departure, Choi was stripped of the permanent resident status that descendents of Koreans who came here during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula are entitled to by law.

Choi returned to Japan from the U.S. in 1988 on a 180-day visa and was officially registered as a so-called new alien. Since then, she has lived here on a three-year visa and has refused to be fingerprinted upon its renewal.

In its ruling on Choi’s suit in April 1998, the Supreme Court supported an earlier high court decision that said the fingerprinting system was a legitimate way to identify foreigners without family registers.

Only six months later, however, the government announced it would submit to the Diet a bill to entirely scrap the fingerprinting system — just before Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean President, visited Japan.

Choi said she had mixed feelings. While she hailed the government’s move as the fruit of all the efforts and sacrifices made by people who refused to be fingerprinted, she suspected the timing of the decision may have come from political considerations — a diplomatic gift for Kim.

After she lost the suit before the Supreme Court, Choi was advised by her supporters to take her case to the United Nations, but instead decided to talk to opposition party lawmakers involved in the deliberation of amendments to the Alien Registration Law.

“Changing the situation from the outside didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I wanted to do something about the case, and I wanted it to happen here inside this country.”

Yoriko Madoka, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan and a board member of the Upper House Judicial Affairs Committee, said she thought Choi should be invited to the Diet hearing as a witness when she heard her story.

“I couldn’t have this bill approved when I knew someone who suffered from the system was going to be left out from the process,” Madoka said.

At first, board members of the ruling parties hesitated to have Choi, having lost her suit at the top court, speak at the Diet hearing. Madoka was told that people directly involved with deliberated issues are generally not invited as witnesses to Diet hearings.

But after heated debate and negotiations at the board meetings, Madoka and other opposition party board members successfully invited Choi to state her views at a hearing of the Upper House committee at the end of April.

Moved by Choi’s story, many lawmakers, both from the ruling and the opposition camps, contacted her, saying they had to do something about her situation, Choi said.

With further discussions, the revised Alien Registration Law cleared the Upper House, together with a set of resolutions, including one to restore permanent resident status to those who had lost it in the fingerprinting dispute.

Madoka said the resolutions would not have been adopted if Choi didn’t speak at the hearing.

According to other resolutions adopted by the Upper House along with the legislation, measures to help those who have received penalties and suffered losses for not complying with the fingerprinting requirement will be considered.

Under the revised law, permanent foreign residents who are found not carrying their alien registration cards will no longer be punished criminally but only subject to administrative penalties.

And this requirement itself may be abolished for permanent resident status holders in the future, because the resolutions call for a thorough examination of its necessity, Madoka said.

“I was very happy to see that the lawmakers worked on the issue like it was their own problem, and not out of pity. The fact that issues pertaining to foreign residents were seriously discussed is major progress,” said Choi, who will likely regain her permanent resident status as early as next year.