‘Gaijin card’ checks spread as police deputize the nation

In the good old days, very few Japanese knew about Alien Registration Cards ? you know, those wallet-size documents all non-Japanese residents must carry 24/7 or face arrest and incarceration.

Back then, a “gaijin card” was only something you had to show a bored cop doing random racial profiling on the street.

Legally, in fact, it still is. According to the Foreign Registry Law (Article 13), only officials granted police powers by the Justice Ministry can demand to see one.

But in its quest to make Japan “the world’s safest country again” (without similarly targeting Japanese crime) and to stem hordes of “illegal foreigners” (even though figures for overstayers have been falling since 1993), the government has recently deputized the entire nation. From now on, foreigners must endure frequent “gaijin-carding” at work. Not to mention passport checks and copying of personal ID documents.

This open season on gaijin, as well as on terrorists and carriers of contagious diseases (which somehow also means the gaijin), has gone beyond fomenting the image that non-Japanese are merely untrustworthy. It has created policy creep. Gaijin-hunters in their zeal are stretching or breaking established laws.

Backtrack: After years of alleging heinous foreign crime and terror (Zeit Gist, Feb. 20, 2007), the government first deputized the public in 2005 (ZG, March 8, 2005). Laws regarding hotels were revised to require passport numbers and photocopies from all “foreign tourists” (i.e. people without addresses in Japan).

However, police immediately stretched the law, telling hotels to demand passports from all foreigners. Some hotels threaten refusals if the gaijin doesn’t cough up his card (www.debito.org/olafongaijincarding.html).

Now ? as of Oct. 1 ? the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has chipped in, deputizing workplaces. Under the Employment Policy Law (“Koyo Taisaku Ho” ? see the MHLW Web site ), all employers (“jigyo nushi”) hiring, firing, or currently employing non-Japanese (except Special Permanent Residents and diplomats) must check their visa status, verifying that they are neither overstaying nor working outside their visa parameters.

This means filing a report at Hello Work, the MHLW’s unemployment agency. Information on all foreign staff, including name, date of birth, gender, nationality, visa status and expiration date, confirmation that all work is permitted under the visa, and employer’s name and address, must be provided ? on pain of penalties up to ¥300,000.

Proponents of the law, claiming it will “support the rehiring and better administration of foreign workers,” might well deter employers exploiting overstayers under the table. But in practice, the policy stretch has already begun.

For example, Regular Permanent Resident immigrants ? who have no visa restrictions placed on their employment and cannot possibly “overstay” ? must also be reported.

Another issue is that the law merely requires employers “check” the visa status of their foreign staff. There is no requirement for foreigners to physically hand over any personal documents. Yet several people have contacted me to say employers have demanded both their gaijin card (which for ID purposes works the same as a passport) and their passport for photocopying.

Furthermore, these “checks” are already not limited to your main employer or visa sponsor. I have received reports that any gaijin payment requires photocopied visa verification. In one case for a sum as low as ¥500! Yet my legal counsel confirmed with the MHLW that checking isn’t required for part-time work.

Conclusion: If hunting foreigners means tracking every yen they earn, this new and improved “gaijin card checkpoint” system goes far beyond the cop on the corner. It even voids the gaijin card. What’s the point of its existence if “verification” necessitates passports too?

The justifications for this new system are these: You’ve got to make sure foreigners aren’t working outside of their official Status of Residence. As we have reported (ZG June 28, 2005), even taking a quick part-time job can be a visa violation in certain cases.

Photocopies are apparently necessary because employers need proof on file if they get nobbled by the cops. (As if the police won’t ask the foreign staff for their original documents if a raid actually happens.)

Moreover, sometimes gaijin cards and passports differ in detail, like when the visa status changes in the passport, but the bearer neglects to report it to the Ward Office.

But if all these loopholes needed closing, they should have been encoded in the law. They weren’t, so demanding anything beyond a visual display of your gaijin card is policy overreach.

Now the floodgates are open: Unrelated places, such as banks, cell phone companies, sports clubs and video stores now illegally require gaijin cards for any service, even when other forms of ID ? such as driver’s license or health insurance booklet ? would suffice for Japanese.

What’s next, fingerprinting?

Japan needs more lawyers, or at least more lawyerly types. Anyone who reads the actual laws will in fact find natural checks and balances. For example, even if the cops issue their classic demand for your gaijin card on the street, under the Foreign Registry Law (Article 13), you are not required to display it unless the officer shows you his ID first. Ask for it. And write it down.

And believe it or not, under the Police Execution of Duties Law (Article 2), cops aren’t allowed to ask anyone for ID without probable cause for suspicion of a crime. Just being a foreigner doesn’t count. Point that out.

As for gaijin-carding at hotels, all you have to do is say you have an address in Japan and you are in the clear. Neither foreign residents nor Japanese have to show any ID. The hotels cannot refuse you service, as legally they cannot deny anyone lodging under the Hotel Management Law (Article 5), without threat to public morals, possibility of contagion, or full rooms.

And as for gaijin-carding by employers, under the new law (Article 28) you are under no obligation to say anything more than what your visa status is, and that it is valid. Say you’ll present visual proof in the form of the gaijin card, since nothing more is required.

If your main employer forces you to have your IDs photocopied, point out that the Personal Information Protection Law (“Kojin Joho Hokan Ho”) governs any situation when private information is demanded. Under Article 16, you must be told the purpose of gathering this information, and under Article 26 you may make requests to correct or delete data that are no longer necessary. That means that once your visa status has been reported to Hello Work, your company no longer needs it, and you should request your info be returned for your disposal.

Those are the laws, and they exist for a reason: to protect everyone ? including non-Japanese ? from stretches of the law and abuses of power by state or society.

Even if the Foreign Registry Law has long made foreigners legally targetable in the eyes of the police, the rest of Japanese society still has to treat foreigners ? be they laborer, customer, neighbor or complete stranger ? with appropriate respect and dignity.

Sure, policymakers are treating non-Japanese residents as criminals, terrorists, and filth columnists of disease and disorder ? through fingerprinting on arrival, gaijin-house ID checkpoints, anonymous “snitch sites” (ZG, March 30, 2004), DNA databases (ZG, Jan. 13, 2004), IC chips in gaijin cards (ZG, Nov. 22, 2005) and now dragnets through hotels and paychecks.

But there are still vestiges of civil liberties guaranteed by law here. Know about them, and have them enforced. Or else non-Japanese will never be acknowledged or respected as real residents of Japan, almost always governed by the same laws as everyone else.