NARITA, Chiba Pref. — Japan began fingerprinting and photographing foreigners arriving in the country Tuesday under a revised immigration law to keep terrorists out, drawing criticism from rights groups and foreign residents that their data might be abused.
The process at Narita airport, on the first day at least, saw few problems or delays.
The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which cleared the Diet in May 2006, requires all non-Japanese aged 16 and older entering the country, including those with permanent resident status, to provide their biometric data.
The data are checked for matches on the Justice Ministry’s no-entry list of foreigners with past criminal records and known international terrorists. Those with matching data are denied entry and face immediate deportation.
Only “special permanent residents,” including ethnic Koreans, and those arriving on diplomatic duties and as government guests are exempt. Statistics for 2006 show that some 8 million foreigners may go through the process in a year.
Le Nam, who arrived at Narita airport in the morning on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Ho Chi Minh City, said he was given details about the procedure before boarding his plane in Vietnam.
Upon arrival at Narita, Nam had his passport checked by an immigration official, and was instructed to scan his index fingers and have his photograph taken. Some 30 people were in line, he said, but he only waited 10 minutes before being scanned.
Speaking fluent Japanese, Nam, who has worked at an architectural design company in Japan for more than seven years, called the process “tiresome.”
Although the Immigration Bureau has only revealed that collected data will be “kept for an extended time” and access will be limited to a minimum number of personnel, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and human rights groups allege the system opens the door for misuse.
The Immigration Bureau said no significant troubles occurred during the first day of biometric data scanning, except for some computer glitches and difficulties of scanning fingers due to “dry skin.”
Non-Japanese at Narita, however, questioned whether the system will truly enhance security.
Roshidan Binti Abdul Rahman, a Malaysian visiting Japan for the first time through an exchange student program, questioned the effectiveness of scanning just two index fingers and having a photograph taken. The 39-year-old said she “did not feel offended” by having her fingerprints scanned but doubted that the process, which lasted a couple of minutes, will be effective in keeping out terrorists.
Others at Narita appeared more irritated by the long lines than by having to provide their personal data.
A British businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, did not hide his annoyance with the process. His flight from Kuala Lumpur had arrived before 7 a.m but he didn’t emerge outside the arrival gate until 8:10. “I had to wait in line for 50 minutes,” he said as he put on his jacket and rushed to a nearby exit. “This is a joke.”
Elan Yaniv, an American from Dallas flying in from Ho Chi Minh City, said there was a “really long line” at the immigration gate. Fortunately the 36-year-old business consultant was allowed to jump ahead of others after telling an immigration official he had a broken ankle from a recent accident.
A businessman in his 40s from Houston said he can tolerate the long procedure, especially since the U.S. is the only other country with a biometric immigration process.
“We do it to the foreigners in the U.S., so it doesn’t bother me much,” said the man, who also asked to remain anonymous.