It was a quarter of a century ago on an autumn day in 1982 that I decided to engage in a small act of civil disobedience by refusing to give my fingerprint. Little did I realize I was stepping into a decades-long controversy that would be both an education and a circus.

The Japanese government already had nine copies of my left index fingerprint on file from three previous registrations, more than enough to adequately identify me. The Alien Registration Law’s requirement that fingerprints be submitted every three years — in triplicate — seemed like overkill and a violation of the rights of long-term foreign residents under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Japan had signed in 1979.

But my refusal was really born of a simple sentiment: When would enough be enough? Married to a Japanese citizen, Japan and I had a lifelong relationship ahead. If I kept on regularly providing prints, I would still be doing it when I was an “obasan.”

Well, it was a long, hard slog but we finally got fingerprinting abolished. I am now of the “obasan” generation, and what do you know? My prints are in demand once again and down in Kanto the old, yellow index-finger balloon of the 1980s protests has been resurrected.

One would have to be utterly devoid of a sense of humor not to find something ridiculously ironic about all this. As an American, it is all the more ironic as the recent actions of my own government have created the atmosphere that has allowed Japan to so easily reintroduce mandatory fingerprinting.

What can we learn from the experiences of the past 25 years, aside from the fact that without constant vigilance the rights we fight so hard to win can be very easily lost?

Well, first, a little ancient history is in order. The first fingerprinting refuser was Han Jong Sok of Tokyo in 1980. In three months in 1982, the number doubled to 30 (25 Koreans, 3 Americans, 2 Europeans) and the Justice Ministry began to take notice.

I was No. 27 but ended up becoming the first person convicted on June 14, 1984. In those days, the penalty was one year in prison and/or a fine of up to ¥200,000, but Yokohama District Court fined me only ¥10,000 (to be paid or worked off during five days in prison). I chose the jail time but the government, unwilling to follow through on its oft-repeated threats, chose to deduct the fine from my salary. From the perspective of civil disobedience, I felt I had already won.

But that was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. The court’s decision had been preceded by police threats and interrogation, a trip to the Yokohama Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the court battle (sped up by the judge after the New York Times pronounced it “tortoise-like”).

At a post-verdict press conference, I looked out into a sea of over a hundred faces, all male. Women were still battling for a seat at the table in 1984. It was only in May of the same year that Japanese women in international marriages had finally won the right to pass their nationality on to their children.

Court cases like mine were under way all over the country and the refusers, mainly Koreans, were making news, drumming up support and attracting criticism. One Kanagawa refuser, Lee Sang Ho, created a whole book out of the hate mail he received. Arrests of Koreans, deportation threats for French priests, on and on it went. It wasn’t pretty but the refusers’ numbers continued to grow, at one point reaching well over 11,000. There were only about 800,000 foreigners in Japan in 1982 (compared with 2 million now) and 83 percent of them were Korean.

When the government eventually gave in, we felt we had improved things for the next generation, our children’s generation, the 21st century. No one back then could have imagined the next century might be worse for privacy and human rights, because even during the long fingerprinting battle things had improved: Renewal was changed from every three years to every five; apartheid South African-style passbooks became driver’s license-size cards; first registration age was raised from 14 to 16; black ink was replaced with the Justice Ministry’s clear ink “clean print system” in 1985; fingerprinting became a one-time event and then a non-event.

Civil disobedience had worked. That should have been the end of the story. But as we all know now, it was not. So what are the lessons for the future?

1. It’s not a level playing field. Things are considerably stacked against us. Mobilizing domestic and international public opinion is our chief hope for change.

Today, fingerprinting at point of entry has eliminated the option of refusal that existed in 1982 for those willing to accept the internal exile that went with it. In October of that year, the government instituted a policy to refuse re-entry permits to anyone who refused fingerprinting. We did not get re-entry permits again until 1989 when the government issued a blanket amnesty to all fingerprint refusers on the occasion of Emperor Hirohito’s death. (These amnesties were also a convenient means to sweep away the over 700 fingerprinting cases still remaining on the nation’s court dockets.)

Thanks to two dedicated volunteer lawyers, Shunsuke Nomoto and Aizo Murakami, I was able to file a 1982 civil suit against the Justice Ministry arguing that the right to short-term travel abroad guaranteed to Japanese by Article 22 of the Constitution also applied to foreigners within their authorized period of stay. The government assigned 11 lawyers to the case. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in November 1992 that the re-entry of long-term foreign residents was not guaranteed and is at the discretion of the Justice Minister. The rights of our Japanese spouses were not considered.

2. Concerns over who gets access to the prints are valid. The fingerprinting trials of the 1980s attest to this. On May 22, 1984, in the Kang Pak trial in Okayama District Court, Justice Ministry official Nobuyoshi Kamei, reiterating testimony he had given in the Diet in 1982, admitted his office had received about 20 written requests to check prints in the past three years. These came from the police, courts and security police. We feared back then all this information might someday be computerized and now that day has come.

3. With all the horrors in the world, raising awareness of fingerprinting as a human rights issue is not an easy task.

Although 21st-century privacy concerns have helped increase consciousness considerably, back in the 1980s, as now, the letters-to-the-editor columns were full of messages from those who did not find the process upsetting. But back then — again, as now — it was never just about fingerprinting but whether long-term foreign residents could ever hope for equal treatment. Everything was case by case and one’s ethnicity, gender and legal knowledge were major factors in determining the path of one’s case. The government’s reaction to refusers revealed issues of gender and race as well as questionable court practices that affect both Japanese and foreigners to this day.

4. While the bureaucrats play with their high-tech gadgets, in the end it all comes down to people. Back then — as is the case today — there were all sorts of holes in the logic used to justify the system. However, there were no high-tech machines to do the dirty work. Real human beings were enlisted and, as the refusals grew, they began to balk at being stuck with the task. Some of the strongest support came from Jichiro, the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union, which represented Alien Registration desk workers. By March of 1984, 419 municipalities had also requested the government to reform the Alien Registration Law. Even Keidanren (then the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) eventually included the law’s provisions requiring fingerprinting and “joji keitai” (carrying the card at all times) on a list of non-tariff barriers to trade. There are many in this society who would like to see change and are willing to help make it happen.

5. Things can change. Anyone who doesn’t believe that need look no further than their TV sets. Even the most idealistic fingerprint refusers in the 1980s would never have predicted Japanese would one day be glued to their television sets watching Korean dramas in Korean! They would have been laughed off the stage.

With one in 20 Japanese marriages and one in 10 marriages in Tokyo now being international, the changes we will see in another 25 years will be just as unpredictable, most likely creating a society that will no longer so easily allow the bureaucrats’ xenophobic tendencies to thrive.

But how do we get there from here? Already it is encouraging to see a whole new younger generation of computer-savvy permanent residents raising new options and new ideas throughout the “blogosphere.”

6. The most powerful catalyst for change is a positive, persistent attitude. Back in 1982 (while reciting my rather bleak score card: court cases 2, visa extension/re-entry permit 0), I remember commenting to a friend that “one has to maintain a sense of humor.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but what if you ever stop laughing?”

The answer is that we can’t ever stop laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. The added inconvenience and invasion of privacy, the xenophobia, the willingness to lump long-term residents with potential terrorists — none of it is funny. Yet we shouldn’t stop finding creative and humorous ways to point out the ridiculousness of our situation and the silliness of the system.

We can’t stop reminding the powers-that-be that, as long-term residents of Japan in this global age, our fates are inextricably linked. While it may take another 25 years, we will remain dedicated to a long — and one day equal — relationship together. And many of us will be pounding our prints away at our keyboards to get to that future.

Kathleen Morikawa, a resident of Japan since 1973, is the author of “The Couch Potato’s Guide to Japan” and “Self-Publishing in Japan” (www.forestriverpress.com). Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

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