Starting November 20, 2007, all foreign nationals landing in Japan will be required to submit to fingerprinting and having their picture taken. Yōkoso! Smile! You’re a terrorist suspect!
This controversial new procedure snuck its way into existence on May 24, 2006 when the Japanese Diet passed a law requiring all foreign nationals (with a few exceptions, such as children under 16, diplomats, and special-status permanent residents such as Zainichi Koreans) to submit biometric data to prove they’re not Osama bin Laden or one of his cronies. I’ll spare you the details; if you have five minutes to waste, please check out the cheesy video put out by our friends at the Immigration Bureau.
Basically, the tatemae justification for this new law is that immigration officials will be able to capture any potential terrorists at the airport before they have a chance to commit their heinous crimes on Japanese soil. Sounds fair enough. After all, nobody likes terrorism; what’s the big deal about putting your fingers on a scanner and sucking it up for the camera if it could potentially save lives?
Therein lies the rub. Anyone who has followed the news for the past few decades is aware that the threat of domestic terrorism is much greater than that of foreign terrorism in Japan. Historically, the only terrorism Japan has faced has been from Japanese fringe groups like the Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo. Lest you should think that home-grown terrorism in Japan is ancient history, just this Tuesday news broke of a Japanese man who had explosive substances and was allegedly planning to blow up parts of the Tokyo subway system, having been inspired by the 2005 London attacks. Who presents a greater danger to the citizens of Japan, faraway fundamentalists, or Japanese nationals, disenfranchised with the current system and looking for somewhere to vent their anger?
The logical thing to do would be to fingerprint everyone in Japan who has fingers. Well, it’s not that simple. Japanese may not legally be fingerprinted in Japan unless they are officially charged with a crime. All the easier to get away with chikan! Foreigners, however, in spite of being officially welcome under the Visit Japan “Yokoso!” Campaign, are not offered the same protection under Japanese law.
My knee jerk reaction upon hearing this news was to assume that Japan was, once again, copying American foreign policy. Upon further inspection, however, it seems that Japan has taken the whole fingerprinting business a step further. Permanent residents of the United States are not required to submit biometric data when they return home – only tourists are. Japan, however, a country that probably ranks pretty low on Al Qaeda’s destruction priority scale, has taken a stronger stance than the U.S., requiring that all foreign permanent residents submit their foreign fingerprints as well. This means that us gaijin with permanent residence status, will be treated differently from our Japanese spouses and children when passing through customs. What an awkward situation, especially when with the little ones… “See you soon son, daddy has to go and line up over there to be fingerprinted with the lovely gaijin “dancers”..again”.
Personally, I would be for any measure that could prevent terrorism, even if it was a little bit flawed. The problem is that the fingerprinting methods used in the U.S., the same ones that are about to be introduced into Japan, would not have stopped any of the 9/11 hijackers from entering into the U.S. Is it possible that this new system is an uyoku (right wing) attempt to crack down on foreign crime (just kidding, George) and visa overstays?
The Immigration Bureau’s FAQ is rather unclear on how the biometric data will be used, except for that it follows the government guidelines on protection of personal information, in which, if you read close enough, you will notice get thrown out the window in criminal cases (Chapter 5, Article 45). None of this is an accident. The Democratic Party of Japan submitted an alternative version of the bill requiring that biometric data be deleted once an overseas national leaves Japan or is granted permanent residency, but this draft was voted down.
Indignant gaijin are not the only ones upset about this law. The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations has published a statement declaring this law to be a bad idea and a half. Amnesty International in Japan has put out a similar appeal against the new law.
It turns out that many Japanese government officials disagree with or haven’t even heard of the law! We’ll see how it all pans out soon enough.
As a side note, fingerprinting is not a new concept for those long term gaijin amongst us. All foreigners staying more than three months in Japan are required to get an infamous “Gaijin Card” (Alien registration card). Up until the late 1990′s, the fingerprint of your left index finger appeared on this card. And even though in actual fact, all ten fingers were squeezed against the ink-pad as part of registering one self as an alien, we still loved to joke that we could be safe committing a crime, as long as we only used nine fingers..
Anyway, it looks like mandatory fingerprinting is back, and this time not only for long-stay gaijin, but for every alien coming into the land of the taihen cloud. Will our re-entry permits still permit us to line up at the Nihonjin passport booth? I can’t help but think this is going to land us back into the long snaking gaijin lines, where we will have a frustrating wait for the jumbo full of Chinese tourists (that landed 5 minutes beforehand) to be fingerprinted. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, if any Stippy readers are planning a trip home this Christmas, just be prepared for a special O-kaeri from immigration officers. Remember to smile, and if you’re feeling particularly cheeky, why not throw up a peace sign? After a 10 hour flight, you deserve it.
So what do you think? Is this a heartfelt attempt from the government of Japan to protect us all from terrorism, or are they just using the current state of world affairs as an excuse to crack down on gaijin crime and illegal immigration? Let us know in the comments below.
Other stippy.com articles possibly of interest:
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