WASHINGTON – Japan is urging the United States to continue allowing visa-free entry for Japanese after the U.S. tightens passport rules next October as part of antiterrorism measures, Japanese officials said Tuesday.
The Foreign Ministry is holding talks with U.S. government agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, for the continued visa-waiver program, they said.
“If visa-free entry is discontinued, it would adversely affect Japan-U.S. economic relations and hit the U.S. tourism industry, as 5 million Japanese people annually visit the U.S. under the visa-waiver program,” one official said.
Twenty-seven countries are currently subject to the U.S. visa-waiver program. They include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and most Western European nations.
Under the program, Japanese citizens can travel to the U.S. for business or pleasure without a visa if they have a valid passport, a return or onward ticket and stay for no more than 90 days.
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted the U.S. to tighten the rules for allowing people to enter the country.
As part of such efforts, the U.S. plans to begin issuing passports with “biometric identifiers” by Oct. 26, 2004, and is urging other countries to follow suit.
The identifiers, which could be in the form of computer microchips, would include digitally coded information about the person’s facial features or fingerprints.
According to the Japanese officials, three problems will emerge for Japanese travelers to the U.S. from the planned tightening of the entry rules.
Since Aug. 1 this year, all visa applicants have been required to have interviews with U.S. Embassy officials. But from Oct. 26, 2004, U.S. officers will also collect fingerprints and information about facial features from visa applicants.
On this point, there is nothing the Japanese government can do because it is an issue related to U.S. sovereignty, the Japanese officials said.
The second problem is that the U.S. is requiring Japanese travelers with passports that cannot be read by machine to obtain U.S. visas beginning Oct. 26, 2004, they said.
Of the annual 5 million visa-free Japanese visitors to the U.S., about 200,000 currently hold passports that cannot be read by machine.
The Foreign Ministry will urge holders of these passports to replace them with a machine-readable version, the officials said.
Those who currently hold machine-readable passports will be allowed to enter the U.S. without visas after Oct. 26, 2004. But those who receive new machine-readable passports after that date will be required to obtain visas if the new passports do not include biometric identifiers.
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