Only two weeks after it was sent to the chamber’s floor and with little debate, the Lower House has passed a bill that will allow the fingerprinting and photographing of foreigners as they enter Japan. The legislation is now in the Upper House. The Justice Ministry says that the bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law is aimed at preventing the entry of terrorists into the country. Since the measures contained in the bill are drastic, the Upper House needs to conduct thorough deliberations on it. At present, the United States is the only country that photographs and fingerprints entrants, although a few European countries fingerprint foreigners when they apply for visas at overseas diplomatic missions.

Under the bill, foreigners entering or re-entering Japan would be required to be digitally fingerprinted and photographed at their port of entry. Foreigners in the following categories would be exempted from the requirements: children under the age of 16, diplomats and others who have been officially invited to Japan and people with a special permanent residency status — mostly Koreans who began residing in Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony, and their offspring. But foreigners with ordinary permanent-residency status and even those from visa-exempted countries would be subjected to the requirements. The government reportedly intends to keep the biometric data for more than 70 years.

The biometric data collected from entrants would be checked against a list of those whom Japanese immigration authorities deported in the past and those who are on an international wanted list. The justice minister would be able to deport a person who is recognized as “having enough reason to be suspected of being likely to engage in preparatory activities” for terrorist activities or to carry out terrorist activities themselves. The definition of people who may be deported is so broad that the government should clarify in the Diet debate what kind of people would fall under the definition and what kind would not. In the worst case, people with certain opinions on politically sensitive issues might be denied entry into Japan.

The bill would also require airlines to provide police and immigration authorities in advance with lists of passengers bound for Japan. More than 20 of some 60 airlines concerned have been offering such information on a voluntary basis since January 2005.

Japan used to fingerprint foreign residents for residency-registration purposes. But facing strong opposition, especially from the country’s Korean residents, the Justice Ministry abolished the system in 1999. Even when it was taking fingerprints of foreign residents, the ministry’s official position was that the fingerprint records held by the ministry would never be used in criminal investigations. The Criminal Procedure Law also states that the authorities may fingerprint a person without a warrant only when the person is being held in custody as a criminal suspect.

It is true that the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, has changed the international situation and some stricter security measures at ports of entry are warranted. But the proposed collection of biometric data is a vast departure from present practice. Foreigners may protest that the new law constitutes a form of discrimination against them. Some may shun Japan as a sightseeing destination. The Upper House needs to fully debate the merits and demerits of the proposal.

If the bill is enacted, it means that the Justice Ministry will store in its data base the photographs and fingerprints of more than 7 million foreigners entering Japan every year. The bill says that the ministry would offer the data to police and other government agencies if so requested. Thus the data could be used for purposes other than the prevention of terrorism. This would infringe even more on the privacy of the vast majority of people who have nothing to do with terrorism. Another possible problem is inadvertent leakage of the data from the Justice Ministry’s data base. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations proposes that the fingerprints and photographs collected be deleted immediately after they are checked against black lists. The Democratic Party of Japan proposes that the collected data should be deleted as soon as the person leaves Japan.

Sterner measures to combat terrorism are unavoidable. But in deliberating on the bill, the Upper House needs to take into consideration such factors as protection of foreigners’ human rights, making Japan a more attractive tourist destination and turning our society into one in which Japanese and foreigners can live harmoniously.

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