When American students Angela Luna and Richard Nishizawa tried to board a plane bound for San Francisco in March, airport authorities threw them in a small holding cell and held them incommunicado for several days before banishing them from Japan for five years.

Luna and Nishizawa, who had studied Japanese for a year at Reitaku University, northeast of Tokyo, were not arrested for committing a serious crime. They had merely stayed in the country two weeks longer than their visas permitted.

“We had valid 5-year visas, so we didn’t bother to look at our immigration stamps,” Luna, 27, said. “The guards made me change my clothes because they had drawstrings. They thought I might use it as a weapon, or strangle someone. We were treated like criminals.”

Nishizawa, 31, says he was handcuffed, strip-searched, placed in a 6-meter- by 6-meter cell with four other foreigners and given a mat to sleep on.

Washington student Christopher Mockford was handcuffed and detained for three days after finishing a year-long scholarship program at Shimane University in western Japan. He, too, was banished from Japan for five years, for staying one day longer than his visa allowed.

“My major is Japanese, and now I will have to probably change it,” Mockford said.

Luna, Nishizawa and Mockford were victims of an intense crackdown in the past year that punishes foreigners who stay in Japan longer than they are legally allowed. The campaign has been harshly criticized by human rights groups, who say politicians and the government are cynically blaming foreigners for Japan’s depressed economy and rising crime rate even if tourists and students get caught up in the dragnet.

“There is racial profiling going on, and no one is questioning it,” said Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International in Japan. “The police are using foreigners as scapegoats for an increase in crime.”

Overstayers are subject to being jailed for three to four days, fined up to 300,000 and banned from Japan for five years for staying a single day longer than their visa permits. Some are even charged 60,000 for each day in detention and denied the right to call their family or embassy unless they appeal their cases, a 3-5-week process that few overstayers opt for, and which ends in a denial 99.99 percent of the time, says Yoko Kitazawa, president of the Japan Poverty and Debt Network.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael Boyle says he does not know how many Americans have been detained in recent months because most detainees choose to leave Japan after paying fines and accepting the 5-year banishment. “The anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been an uptick in the number detained,” he says.

The Justice Ministry argues that the crackdown is warranted because some 220,000 foreigners violated their visas last year mostly Koreans, Filipinos and Chinese. An additional 30,000 foreigners were smuggled illegally into Japan, mainly from China.

Tatsuro Kitazono, an immigration officer in Tokyo, says the crackdown is linked to an alleged 17 percent jump in crime by foreigners in the past year. In 2003, police say foreigners committed 40,615 criminal acts.

Earl Kinmonth, a professor of sociology at Tokyo’s Taisho University who has lived in Japan for some 30 years, also sees a historical tie to the campaign against overstayers.

“The crackdown is probably a combination of things: an increase in crime by Chinese, 9/11, unthinking officials and fear of foreigners,” he said. “And certainly there is xenophobia here, based on history.”

Japan was closed to the world for 250 years until U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry forced the shogunate to open Japan’s borders in 1854. The nation remains homogeneous, with only 0.2 percent of its population foreign-born. Sociologists say many Japanese remain deeply distrustful of foreigners, and this sentiment has increased in recent years because of a decade-long recession and rising unemployment.

And the Immigration Bureau has jumped on the nationalist bandwagon, creating a Web site ( www. immi-moj. go. jp/ zyouhou/ index. html ) in February that Amnesty International described as “cyber xenophobia.” The site asked Japanese to turn in suspicious foreigners who are “taking your jobs” and “causing anxiety” among other things, and received more than 780 tips in the first month, according to bureau spokesman Mamoru Fukudaki.

An aging population and a low birth rate Japan’s population is expected to drop from 125 million in 2004 to 100 million by 2056, in a projection by the National Institute of Population and Social Security have caused the government to grudgingly open its doors to foreign workers, who often take jobs shunned by most Japanese.

Tony Laszlo, director of Issho Kikaku (“Together Project”), a nonprofit organization formed by Tokyo-based foreigners to support multicultural issues, says foreigners previously avoided punishment for expired visas by writing a letter of apology. Kinmonth says immigration officials “bent over backward to handle it.”

Meanwhile, a special commission has been set up to review the nation’s immigration laws.

But Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and the only foreigner on the panel, says his colleagues are “impervious to bad publicity” and are unlikely to ease up on overstayers.

And the Justice Ministry, which launched a special 200-member unit to find illegal residents last month, may yet increase the maximum fine from and up the banishment from 5 to 10 years.

Luna and Nishizawa say they plan on returning to Japan after their five-year banishment ends. But both are still fuming about being caught up in Japanese politics.

“I am upset about the way it was handled, especially since a lot of it is political and not a glitch in the bureaucratic system,” said Luna. “The punishment certainly didn’t fit the crime.”

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