Biometric data carts to cut waiting times at Japanese airports


Staff Writer

The amount of time visitors to Japan spend waiting at airport passport control gates, believed to help form their first impressions of the country, may soon become noticeably shorter thanks to the introduction of special equipment carts.

The Justice Ministry said Tuesday it will debut a new passport control system this fall at the earliest that will allow foreign visitors to register their biometric data — a photo of their face and fingerprint information — with a mobile unit while they wait in line.

The move, part of the overall 2020 Tokyo Olympics effort, will be aimed at easing the burden on visitors who at times have had to wait in long, time-consuming lines for passport control.

The mobile unit, dubbed Bio Cart, will first be used at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Naha Airport in Okinawa and Takamatsu Airport in Kagawa Prefecture. The Justice Ministry plans to introduce the system to other airports in subsequent years.

The wheeled cart will be equipped with a camera and monitor as well as a fingerprint reader so people can enter their data into the system as they wait, thereby cutting down on the time each must spend at the counter.

The cart will either be used in passport examination areas or wheeled around by officials who ask people to register their personal information while waiting in line for examination.

The installation of such a system would be a global first, according to a Justice Ministry official.

The aim is to further entice foreign visitors to visit Japan by cutting down on waiting times, another Justice Ministry official said.

The ministry believes the current procedure, in which passport control officials ask visitors to register their biometric information one by one as they approach the counter, is a drag on the immigration checking process.

In 2015, it often took visitors as long as 38 minutes to complete the process at Kansai International. In the same year at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Aichi Prefecture, it took 26 minutes. The new system aims to cut down on those times, the official said.

The number of visitors to the country reached an annual record of 19.73 million in 2015, just shy of the government’s goal of 20 million a year by 2020. With that goal now within reach, the government renewed its plan last June to establish a “tourism-oriented country” that will receive 30 million visits annually for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and beyond.

As part of this push, the government called for shortening the waiting time at immigration gates to 20 minutes or less by 2016, believing that the wait, essentially the first thing visitors do upon arriving, will have a significant effect on their first impression of Japan.

In a related move, the ministry will allow foreign nationals who visit several times a year for business to use automated gates, through which only Japanese nationals and foreign residents of Japan are currently allowed to pass.

The unattended gates, already in use at four major international airports — Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai International — allow people entering or leaving Japan to complete examination by scanning their passport and fingerprints at the gates themselves.

Users of automated gates need to pre-register their personal information, including passport and fingerprint data, at registration counters located at the four airports and immigration bureaus in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, before departure.