Despite government claims it is necessary to counter terrorism, a new immigration procedure obliging most foreigners to be fingerprinted and photographed upon entry to Japan has come under fire as an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Critics also contend the new policy, which takes effect Nov. 20, will result in even longer waits at immigration control gates.
More to the point, experts doubt whether it will even stop potential terrorists from entering the country.
Under the procedure, visitors whose biometric data match those on confidential terrorist watch lists will be denied entry to Japan. The lists are believed to include one compiled by the U.S. government and contain the names of about 750,000 “terror suspects.”
Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama has said Japan will cooperate with U.S. authorities in exchanging immigration data.
But Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Technology and Liberty, said the U.S. watch list is “bloated and full of inaccuracy.”
“The U.S. immigration policy is a total failure,” Steinhardt warned, expressing concern that Japan’s version of biometric verification will likely be built on a flawed foundation.
Exempt from the new measure are “special permanent residents” of Korean and Taiwanese descent who had Japanese nationality before the end of the war and their descendants. Also exempt are diplomats, children under age 16 and those visiting at the invitation of the government. Foreigners with permanent residency status will be obliged to submit to fingerprinting every time they enter the country.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo last month, Steinhardt alleged that not only will the immigration system put all visitors to Japan into an antiterrorist database, it will also fail to provide the defenses against terrorism that it promises.
He questioned the credibility of the U.S. terrorist list, noting it remains unclear how it is compiled — and how people get onto or off of it.
Steinhardt pointed out that pop singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, was denied entry to the U.S. in 2004 apparently after being mistaken for another person with the same name (though spelled differently) on the watch list.
“It’s full of mistakes. That is the reality in the U.S. and it’s likely to become reality in Japan,” Steinhardt said. “Whether or not the loss of liberty is worth the security gained is not a question — because no security is gained.”
According to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, all foreigners ineligible for exemption will be directed to special equipment — similar in appearance to a small computer display — for taking fingerprints and photos upon arrival in Japan.
Questioning by an immigration inspector will follow. Those who refuse will be automatically deported.
Naoto Nikai, an Immigration Bureau official, said passengers who preregister their biometric data can use an automated gate system. But of all Japan’s international airports, such gates are scheduled to be installed only at Narita International Airport, while preregistration can only be accepted at an immigration office in Shinagawa Ward or at Narita’s departure area beginning on Nov. 20.
“This is an important tool against international terrorist activity,” Nikai repeated to reporters during a briefing last month.
Asked whether the new process will cause longer lines at immigration, Nikai only said the bureau will try to maintain its current goal of getting each passenger through immigration within 20 minutes.
He wouldn’t answer whether foreign mothers traveling with Japanese infants would be separated at immigration gates. “The immigration officer at the airport will (make the judgment),” Nikai said.
Japan has also not decided how long biometric information collected under the new procedure will be stored in the system.
Although Nikai gave assurances that only the minimum number of personnel would have access to the data, Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, called the procedure a “violation of human rights to privacy.”
During a recent news conference, Teranaka pointed out that the database will likely be shared by police and other government agencies — and possibly their counterparts in other countries as well.
“We can’t see any justification for introducing this system,” he said, adding that the group will ask the government to reconsider.
Stressing the need to fingerprint and photograph even Japan’s longtime foreign residents, however, Justice Minister Hatoyama claimed to know about a disguised al-Qaida member who repeatedly entered the country on fake passports.
“A friend of a friend of mine is a member of al-Qaida,” the minister said in a speech at the FCCJ last month — a remark that stirred up controversy for which Hatoyama was rebuked by his fellow Cabinet members. He also said he had been told that terrorists were sneaking across borders using fake IDs.
“I realize this is arduous, but (biometric verifications) must be carried out (even on permanent residents) to fight terrorism,” Hatoyama said.
Daisuke Arikado, a representative of Tokyo-based nonprofit group Foreign Criminal Expulsion Movement, welcomes the strict procedure in hopes that it will make Japan safer “not only for Japanese, but for foreigners living here as well.”
While acknowledging cases of human rights abuses overseas resulting from strict immigration procedures, Arikado argues that as a country that hosts many U.S. military bases, Japan is obliged to ensure that terrorists are stopped at its borders.
Arikado also says the system will help keep previous deportees from re-entering the country, which he claims will reduce the crime rate by foreigners in Japan.
“It wouldn’t bother me to provide fingerprints and photographs upon arriving in the U.S.,” Arikado said. “When visiting a foreign country, it’s obvious that one should abide by its rules.”
The United States has fingerprinted and photographed visitors since 2004. Japan will become only the second country in the world to introduce such a system.
Longtime permanent foreign residents in Japan have protested the new procedure.
Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, whose members include many foreign workers, claimed that the system would be ineffective because any determined terrorist would likely find a way through the biometric verifications.
“The union is against the system,” said Carlet, 41, who has lived in Japan for 12 years and holds a permanent resident visa.