As Japan braces for a surge in foreign visitors in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, pressure is mounting to expedite how visitors are processed at airports.
The nation is already witnessing a deluge of incoming tourists who are taking advantage of the weak yen. The number of foreign arrivals between January and November this year topped 12 million for the first time ever, according to statistics released last week by the Japan National Tourist Organization.
The figure brings the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a step closer to its much-hyped goal of drawing 20 million annual foreign tourists by 2020.
Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that the Justice Ministry has been talking about installing automated gates with facial recognition systems at major airports in an effort to speed up the screening process.
Japan already has automated gates at major airports, but they are fingerprint-based and require prior registration — thus they are not in widespread use.
We take a look at the automated gates currently in use, and what equipping them with facial recognition technology would change.
Where are automated gates currently located and who can use them?
Introduced in 2007, they are presently in use at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, Haneda airport in Tokyo, Chubu Centrair International Airport in Aichi Prefecture and Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture.
Both Japanese and foreign passport-holders living in Japan can make use of the automated gates.
To be eligible, foreign residents must qualify for a re-entry permit, which allows departing foreigners to come back to Japan within five years of their departure (or six years, in the case of special permanent residents) without having to forfeit their visa status.
Foreigners entitled to a “special re-entry permit,” a shorter-term version that was introduced in the July 2012 overhaul of immigration laws, also qualify to pass through the gates.
How many travelers use the automated gates?
Despite a recent uptick, public demand for such gates remains minimal. This is presumably because passengers interested in the fast-track system need to have their fingerprints registered on a government database in advance at any of the four airports or at a regional immigration bureau.
The Justice Ministry acknowledges that many people see the fingerprinting process as a hassle — although the registration only takes an average of five minutes, or so the ministry claims online.
Ministry statistics show that a combined 1.3 million passengers, of whom 92.6 percent were Japanese, used the automated gates nationwide in 2013. The figure is about seven times higher than it was in 2008, the year after the system was introduced. Still, only 4 percent of all passengers passed through automated gates at the four airports in 2013.
What facial recognition system is currently being considered?
The Justice Ministry is contemplating installing new automated gates equipped with facial recognition technology that would cater exclusively to Japanese passengers. Card readers attached to the gates would scan photo data encrypted on a microchip in a passport, which the passenger waves as he or she passes through. That image would then be compared to a photograph of the passenger taken near the gates to see if the two faces match.
Unlike with the current fingerprint-based checks, the facial recognition system would require no prior registration.
That would hopefully make the new gates more popular among Japanese travelers, the ministry says.
By steering as many Japanese as possible through automated gates, immigration officials hope to devote more staff to processing foreign visitors, helping to shorten waiting times.
Similar systems are already in use in Britain and Australia.
Why will it only be available for Japanese?
Japanese need less rigorous scrutiny than foreigners at immigration checks. The immigration law stipulates that “as a citizen of Japan, a Japanese individual has an inherent right to return” to their home country.
This means Japanese citizens are allowed to clear immigration even though they are unable to present a valid passport, in the event it was lost, provided they can prove they are of Japanese nationality using some other documentation. Foreigners have no such rights and therefore need official “permission” to enter Japan.
Immigration officials face mounting pressure to both streamline operations amid tight budgets and to bolster scrutiny of foreign visitors, whose numbers are increasing.
“So we’ve naturally reached the conclusion that screening Japanese is where we can best save our labor,” said immigration official Aiko Omi.
How feasible is the system under consideration?
Japan has the technological prowess to introduce the facial recognition system at airports, according to a report submitted by a panel of security experts to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa last month.
The report was based on the results of 25 days of experiments conducted at Narita and Haneda airports last summer, in which about 23,000 Japanese volunteers had their faces photographed to test the machines’ ability to identify them. Five information technology-related and electronics firms vied to offer the best facial identification technology.
One of the companies performed poorly, yielding error rates as high as 22.56 percent. Two firms, however, managed to keep their machines’ misidentification rates to 0.26 percent and 0.54 percent — an outcome the experts called successful enough to implement their technologies at airports.
After receiving the report, Kamikawa said the ministry will give positive consideration to introducing the system.
Although the media have speculated that a facial identification system will be installed as soon as fiscal 2017, Omi said the ministry has yet to decide whether the system will be installed at all.
“But if we’re going to introduce the system, it will definitely be before the Olympics,” she said. “That’s the whole point of it.”
Are there hurdles that need to be overcome?
There appears to be at least one major challenge standing in the way of improving the accuracy of facial recognition systems.
The equipment tended to misidentify subjects if they had their faces partially obscured by hair or if their faces had aged significantly since their passport was issued, the report said.
Immigration authorities also need to be wary of imposters who, for example, may try to trick the system by using the passports of people who they resemble.
As a precaution, Omi said immigration staff could be posted near arrival gates to watch for suspicious behavior.