On May 18, 2006, a little discussed and little debated law passed the Diet.
With changes modeled on the “U.S. Visit” system set up in 2003, the Immigration Control Law was amended to require that, from November 2007, all foreigners (except “special” permanent residents) be photographed and fingerprinted upon entering the country.
The law has sparked concern among the international community in Japan, as well as with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which believes the amendments to the law are unconstitutional.
While the Justice Ministry does appear to be adopting a flexible, open approach to the terms of implementation, some government officials have described the law as “dumb” and “poorly thought-out.”
Others admit they’ve never even heard of it.
And despite plans to implement the changes to law from November 2007 some Japanese officials spoken to by The Japan Times suggest awareness of the law in government circles is limited.
One Foreign Ministry official admitted: “We have not heard of that law yet. Are you sure it applies to permanent and long-term residents?”
Yukio Okamoto, foreign policy adviser to the prime minister, expressed surprise that the law would be applied to long-term residents, saying: “I haven’t heard of it. It sounds poorly written to me.”
However, the Justice Ministry says that it is keeping its options open.
“The law passed in May, but the details of how it is to be enforced, the technology and other practical aspects of the law etc., are still being put together. It will be at least a year before it goes through and the various aspects of how it is applied, including to what degree it will be applied to permanent residents and long-term residents is still being discussed,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are a number of things being considered. For example we are considering a special ‘smart card’ for permanent and long-term residents that could be used every time they re-enter the country.”
When informed that other countries do have such a system for businessmen and other short-term visitors, but never for permanent and long-term residents, the official acknowledged that the implementation of the law “has a long way to go.”
In the meantime, the American Chamber Commerce in Japan has now formed an Immigration Task Force to tackle the issue.
The ACCJ’s Living in Japan Committee annual Immigration Seminar, which will take place this year on Sept. 26, will involve a presentation by Justice Ministry officials on the recent changes to the law.
The ACCJ has a track record of lobbying successfully for changes in Japanese law. The group’s 1998 Immigration Seminar was the beginning of the process, also involving the Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Japan, whereby foreign residents could apply for multiple re-entry permits.
What particularly jars for many long-term residents of Japan is that the fingerprinting of foreigners has long been an issue here, and was only abolished in its last incarnation in 2000.
It is also being argued that, with the addition of biometric data to passports throughout the world within the next couple of years, the point of fingerprinting and photographing at airports will be moot.
Human rights advocates have been more forthright.
According to Masashi Ichikawa, of the Committee On Human Rights of the Bar Association, “the proposal says the information will be used for criminal investigations as well so the authorities can match footage from CCTV cameras to digitized pictures to work out exactly where an individual has been on a particular day.
“We don’t think that should happen to people just because they are foreign — Japanese people do bad things too.”
The Justice Ministry is now seeking input from the foreign community on how the law might be implemented, and seems sensitive to the idea of “reciprocity,” whereby Japanese who live overseas are treated the same as foreign residents here.
The United States, while it does have a policy on fingerprinting at airports, does not apply it to permanent and long-term residents.
Meanwhile, Joanna Roper of the British Embassy said: “No Japanese nationals are fingerprinted before or upon arrival at entry clearance stage at the Embassy. Japanese nationals are not routinely fingerprinted on arrival in the United Kingdom.”
And Sylvia Koffler of the European Commission confirms that there are no fingerprinting or photographing systems in place for Japanese entering the EU and no plans to do so.
The new law does not cover “special” permanent residents, ie. Koreans and Chinese, which for some throws into question the whole basis of the fingerprinting requirement — preventing terrorist attacks — since Japan’s nearest threat is neighboring North Korea.
Exempting the very large North Korean community in Japan is an area of the law that some legal experts see as problematic.
One lawyer, who asked not to be identified, said: “While there is a limited move in the U.S. to fingerprint some visitors to the country, there is no country that fingerprints and photographs permanent residents and long-term residents.
“With the way the law would be applied here, with nearly 90 percent of the foreign community exempted, it does not make much sense. The right thing to do would be to not apply the law to anyone with a visa over one year.”
‘Lawmakers prefer 1% cap on foreigners in Japan’
LDP ruling party members prefer a 1 percent cap on Japan’s foreign population, according to Senior Vice Justice Minister Taro Kono, whose recommendation last month that Japan set a 3 percent target for its foreign population drew criticism from immigration advocates.
Drawn up in LDP committee, Kono’s action plan for immigration, entitled “Regarding Future Acceptance of Foreigners,” and publicized in June, suggested limiting foreigners to 3 percent of the population, excluding “zainichi” Japan-born generational foreigners.
“The 3 percent cap was actually a positive,” he says. “My fellow Liberal Democratic Party Diet members think 1 percent is too much — the 3 percent was a way to assure them that this could be a goal and would in fact be good for Japan.
“It is too bad that it was taken the other way to say I was in favor of limiting the foreign population of Japan when in fact I am in favor of the exact opposite — the expanding of Japan to invite as many foreigners as possible,” he says.
However, Kono, 42, the son of former LDP stalwart Yohei, believes that foreign residents and visitors to Japan should be fingerprinted upon arrival — unless they become citizens. “If people want to live in Japan for a long time they should become Japanese citizens,” he argues.
He does believe in the principle of reciprocity, though is yet to be convinced that Japanese overseas are not fingerprinted and photographed when entering the countries of their residence.
“They should become Japanese. Even permanent residency is not permanent. It can be withdrawn. Unless somebody can demonstrate to me that Japanese are not treated the same way overseas we will go forward with fingerprinting.”
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