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In an effort to check an increase in crimes committed by foreigners, the government is moving toward introducing compulsory fingerprinting for foreigners entering and leaving Japan — a move that is expected to draw fire from foreign residents in Japan and possibly lead to conflicts with some foreign governments. The government plans to submit a revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to an ordinary Diet session next year with the aim of implementing the new measure in fiscal 2007.

A foreigner would not only be photographed but also have his or her fingerprint taken electronically at the time of entry. Photographing and fingerprinting foreigners at the time of departure is also under consideration, according to the Justice Ministry. Foreigners classified as “permanent residents” would be exempted from the new measure.

The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) believe that fingerprinting foreigners at departure will help to prevent those suspected of involvement in crimes in Japan from fleeing to other countries under false identities. Learning lessons from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States in January 2004 started taking fingerprints of foreigners with visas who enter the country at U.S. international airports and other major ports. The fingerprints are checked against those taken when the foreigner applied for a visa.

The Japanese government has noted an increase in crimes committed by foreigners. The number of such crimes registered in 2004 was 47,124, an increase of 16 percent from 2003 and more than twice the number 10 years before. Meanwhile, the number of total crimes in 2004, standing at 2,562,767, marked an 8.1 percent decrease from 2003.

The number of foreigners questioned as suspects or taken into custody in 2004 in connection with crimes totaled 21,842, a 9.2 percent increase from 2003. Both this number and the number of crimes committed by foreigners are the highest since the compilation of statistics on foreign crime began in 1980.

The government thinks that comparing fingerprints taken at the time of entry with fingerprints on blacklists held by the Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency will help prevent criminals or would-be criminals from entering the nation. But at a time when only the U.S. requires fingerprinting of foreigners at the time of entry, the government should take a cautious approach. Japan used to take fingerprints of foreign residents for residency-registration purposes. Many foreign residents, mostly Koreans, viewed it as humiliating. Regarding it also as a symbol of discrimination against foreigners, they called for equal treatment of Japanese citizens and foreigners. Following a campaign against fingerprinting, the system was abolished in 1999.

Even when fingerprinting was practiced, the Justice Ministry’s official position was that fingerprint records held by the ministry would never be used in a criminal investigation. The Criminal Procedure Law states that authorities may fingerprint a person without a warrant only when the person is in custody as a criminal suspect. Thus obligatory fingerprinting of foreigners when they enter Japan, and possibly when they leave, could provoke protests that a new wave of discrimination is rising against foreigners.

The question is whether the government can present a persuasive reason for introducing the new measure to foreign residents as well as to foreign governments. There are other ways of reducing crimes by foreigners. One area the government should explore is bilateral treaties on criminal investigations that would enable direct cooperation between Japanese law enforcement officers and those of another country. This would quicken the pace of investigations.

The Justice Ministry is considering unifying its databases on foreign residents, including information on nationality, names and addresses, entry and departure records, photographs and fingerprints of those deported, and passport information supplied by airlines and hotels.

The LDP proposes that the information possessed by the ministry and that collected by other government agencies be integrated into one intelligence center. If, however, specific information ostensibly collected for the purposes of ascertaining identity is used in a criminal investigation, it could cause a problem from the standpoint of privacy protection.

The LDP is also considering introducing chip-embedded registration cards for foreign residents. Under this measure, foreign residents might feel that they were under constant surveillance. The least that the government and LDP should do is make public the details of their plans well in advance of the time that their crime-fighting proposals are due to take effect.

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