Giving you the finger

A controversy over fingerprinting foreigners

IN 1641 Japan’s shogunate designated an artificial island in Nagasaki harbour as the only place foreigners could live. Japan has of late been more welcoming to gaijin. Yet this week it began to photograph and take digital fingerprints of all foreigners entering the country?residents as well as tourists and visiting businessmen. Privacy advocates deplore the emergence of a surveillance state. Pundits say it panders to anti-foreign sentiment in Japan, and undermines the country’s ambitions to increase tourism and make Tokyo a global financial centre. Angry expats expect long waits at immigration.

In defence, the government says the measures are simply to keep terrorists out. As an example, Japan’s justice minister, Kunio Hatoyama, a butterfly enthusiast, explained that a friend of a lepidopterist friend was an al-Qaeda operative, who for years travelled in and out of Japan on fake passports; the new measures would block the chap. Mr Hatoyama was quickly forced to backtrack lest it appear that ministers run around netting butterflies with terrorists. Yet the truth remains: terrorism in Japan has only ever been home-grown, most recently in 1995, when a sarin gas attack by a religious cult killed 12 in Tokyo’s subway.

The system mirrors America’s equally controversial US-VISIT programme. In principle, it should not cause such a fuss. All countries are moving towards the collection of biometric information: from next year, Britain will collect such data from visa-holders. The problem comes with implementation. America’s US-VISIT system is fraught with flaws and cost overruns. Technical problems have delayed Europe’s introduction of digital passports. For all Japan’s prowess in designing computers, the government is peculiarly inept at running them. This year, it admitted it had lost 50m electronic-pensions records.

Exempt from the new screening are diplomats, children under 16 and certain permanent residents (ethnic Korean and Taiwanese who have lived in the country for generations). Why only gaijin? Japan already has all sorts of ways to keep watch on its own people, such as ?neighbourhood associations?. Foreigners are outside these social controls. Yet fingerprinting foreigners is just a first step to securing the biometric details of everyone entering and leaving: as it is, frequent travellers, Japanese as well as foreign residents, may save time by pre-registering to use an unmanned automatic gate at airports that takes photographs and fingerprints.

Mr Hatoyama says people should not be delayed more than the 20 minutes it already takes immigration officers to process visitors. This week some of the machines played up, but most travellers fell into line. Officials even claimed to have caught a handful of people who had already been deported at least once. They did not reveal whether they were butterfly collectors.