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We are more than just numbers, aren’t we?

by Philip Brasor

On Aug. 3, something interesting happened on the TBS newsmagazine “Broadcaster.” Following a report on the new computerized resident registry network, commonly referred to as Juki Net, which would go into effect the following Monday, the show’s presenter apologized for not covering the topic fully when the legislation was passed by the Diet in 1999.

“Often, we simply choose topics that we believe will guarantee higher ratings,” the presenter said before bowing to the camera.

It was a laudable gesture and clarified the notion that the media had arrived at the Juki Net controversy way too late. For the past week, it’s been a hot topic of conversation on the news shows and in the papers, but considering that the policy has now gone into effect the discussions seem a bit futile.

The media and, by extension, the Japanese public are now confronting a bureaucratic fact-of-life that should have been questioned long ago. George Field, the Australia-bred, America-based, Japanese-talking consultant who acts as “Broadcaster” ‘s conduit to international opinion, tried to tell the guests on the show that the Japanese people “vaguely” understand that Juki Net is a threat to their privacy, but they don’t really understand how it is a threat. As if to prove his point, the other panelists received this statement with puzzled expressions.

Many of the people who object to the system are uncomfortable with the idea that they will be assigned a number. That in itself, however, is less important than the fact that the numbers are entered into a national database connected to local governments, which administer the resident registration system (juminhyo) and the family registration system (koseki). Together, these two systems contain a great deal of personal data about individuals. Only the juminhyo is connected to Juki Net, and the federal government says the number system was enacted for the sake of “convenience,” since it makes it easier to manage social services. But both the juminhyo and koseki systems already contain the potential for privacy abuse, so a centralized national registry will only increase this potential.

Comparisons to other country’s identification systems, such as the United States’ social security numbers, are helpful, but only up to a point, since most governments don’t have bureaucratic instruments like the juminhyo and the koseki. The country that does provide a good comparison is the Republic of Korea, which has not only a resident and family registration system (courtesy of its Japanese colonial government), but also a 13-digit citizen’s registration number.

According to a Korean documentary called “Rip it Up,” which was shown by an anti-Juki Net group at Komae City Hall last weekend, Korean citizens receive the number at birth. When a person turns 17, he or she must apply for a card that contains a number, a photograph and a thumb print. During the registration process, in fact, all 10 fingerprints are taken.

The system was originally implemented for security purposes, since South Korea has officially been at war with its northern neighbor for 50 years. Most Koreans accept it as an everyday part of life, just as most Japanese accept the juminhyo and koseki systems as part of their lives. But there’s a growing number of Koreans who refuse to take part, as more and more abuses of the system are being revealed. Yet without a card, one cannot obtain public services or, for that matter, a passport.

In one incident, 13,000 people were requested by the Korean police to retake their driving tests after they had been identified through their numbers as “former mental health patients.” In another scandal, a satellite/cable TV company used ID numbers to sign up 15,000 “subscribers” without their knowledge.

Some of the Japanese municipalities who have refused to go along with the system say they may participate if, as was promised three years ago when Juki Net was approved, proper safeguards are enacted to protect citizens’ privacy. But a lot of people are now saying that the system is both unnecessary and inherently dangerous, even with safeguards.

The most vocal of this lot is Yoshiko Sakurai, a veteran independent journalist who is on a crusade to abolish the system. Because she is high-profile (she was once the anchor of Yomiuri TV’s late-night news) and well-spoken, she has the ear of both the print and broadcast media. Sakurai, in fact, formed a protest group of prominent people, because she recognized that the media was not doing what it should to alert people to the “undemocratic” nature of Juki Net.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the media didn’t cover Juki Net this year is that they were embroiled in their own antigovernment protest. The so-called human rights bill that the Diet tried to pass last spring was one of the safeguards that would supposedly protect citizens from privacy abuse when Juki Net went into effect. Part of that bill limited the media’s news-gathering activities. Obsessed with their own plight, the media neglected the bigger story.

In a year, the government plans to issue cards of their own. Japanese individuals who do not want to participate will essentially have to resort to civil disobedience. And while civil disobedience can be a noble thing, it would have been a lot easier if the public, informed by the media, had pressured lawmakers not to approve the system in the first place.