Arriving outside Narita will be worse

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — As annoying as the new fingerprinting procedure will be for non-Japanese going through immigration at Narita International Airport, it is going to be much worse for foreign residents who don’t live in the Tokyo area.

Unlike at Narita International Airport, those passing through regional airports will have to go through the fingerprint registration process every time they re-enter Japan.

This is because only Narita, which handled half of all non-Japanese coming into the country in 2006, will introduce a new automated system that officials hope will speed up the new rules requiring most foreigners to have their fingerprints and photographs taken upon entry.

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau plans to introduce the automated gate system at Narita on Nov. 20.

Registration for the automated gate system is optional. Those who choose to do so must provide their passport information and have their fingerprints scanned and photographs taken. This has to be done first at select locations in and around Tokyo, including the immigration office at Narita airport.

Once registered, participants will go through the immigration line by having their passport electronically scanned and fingerprints confirmed.

They may still face questioning by immigration officials before being allowed to officially enter Japan. However, officials say people who are registered are likely to get through immigration quicker than those who aren’t.

While all of Japan’s international airports and ports will have the new equipment to take fingerprints and photos, Narita will be the only entry point where people will be able to register with the automatic gate system. There are no plans anytime soon to introduce it elsewhere.

Martin Issot, a Kobe-based British businessman, is calling on the Kansai region’s foreign residents, especially members of the business community, to lodge a protest to the Immigration Bureau over a policy he says is unfair and discriminatory.

“For foreign residents living in the Kansai, indeed, for all those living outside of the immediate Tokyo area, we will have no option but to be fingerprinted and photographed on each and every occasion we enter the country,” Issot said.

Kansai International Airport had little comment on Narita’s system, except to say it has no plan to introduce the automatic system.

Nor does the Immigration Bureau have the ability to preregister resident foreigners, Tokyo-based or not, before the system goes on line Nov. 20.

After Nov. 20, preregistration will be possible in Tokyo.

There are also questions on a separate matter. To date, airports have usually allowed foreigners with alien registration cards and re-entry permits to pass through immigration counters reserved for Japanese nationals.

At the moment, it remains unclear if fingerprinting and photographing machines will be set up at immigration counters reserved for Japanese citizens. During the initial period after Nov. 20, it could be the case that foreign residents will have to stay in the lines for foreign visitors only.

“That policy may change after Nov. 20, but it depends on the airport,” said Takumi Sato, an Immigration Bureau official in Tokyo.

In fact, the Justice Ministry has told the European Business Council in Japan that separate lines at immigration might be established for those foreign residents with re-entry permits who pass through certain regional airports. But the council warns this is merely an oral commitment.

On Oct. 26, the European Business Council and the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce sent a joint letter to Akira Tamura, director of the Immigration Bureau’s entry and status division, calling for a fingerprinting system that does not adversely affect foreign residents, businesspeople or companies in Japan.

“Foreign residents are currently allowed to line up together with Japanese citizens when re-entering Japan. Suddenly grouping long-term residents and taxpayers in Japan with occasional visitors risks creating excessive delays for frequent business travelers and imposing unacceptable costs on businesses that are heavily reliant on the efficient and rapid mobility of executives,” the letter states.

The letter calls on the ministry to notify regional airports in writing of the need to establish a separate line for foreign residents until the automatic gate system is introduced. As of early this week, the Justice Ministry had not formally responded to the letter, said Jakob Edberg, the European Business Council’s policy director.

According to the Immigration Bureau, about 8.1 million foreigners passed through the immigration centers at 10 airports and eight ports in 2006. About 50 percent arrived via Narita, while about another third entered via Kansai, Chubu, New Chitose and Fukuoka airports.

The remainder arrived at Haneda and smaller, international terminals at airports in Sendai, Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, Hiroshima, and Hakodate, Hokkaido, while a little more than 187,000 people, or 1.1 percent of the total, arrived by ship.