Gov’t must think hard about fingerprinting foreigners

Japan has started a new system obligating foreigners entering the country to provide their fingerprints and face photos. The United States started a similar process following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the government has gone along with this, revising the immigration law to make it obligatory for foreigners to take these steps.

Data collected from foreigners entering the country will be matched with that assembled on about 18,000 fugitives on Interpol and Japanese law enforcers’ lists, as well another roughly 800,000 who have previously been deported from Japan with the aim of preventing entry into the country for those who match the data.

The Justice Ministry insists that the measures are an anti-terrorism step and Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama created controversy with his statements about an associate in Al-Qaeda, and there are doubts about how effective this process will be. The system still makes it very difficult to capture terrorists who have no prior convictions and it is not possible to say that the government can adequately cover every port of entry, especially when it comes to those entering by sea and particularly those smuggled in.

Where the system will show its teeth is combating those entering illegally using false passports. Of the roughly 56,000 people deported from Japan last year, about 7,300 had been expelled from the country at least once before, including some foreigners who should never have been allowed into the country in the first place, and immigration authorities were widely criticized for their lax control. Immigration and law enforcers also had to suffer a backlash after it was learned that fugitive members of the Japanese Red Army had been sneaking in and out of Japan using false passports. But the new system should make it impossible for repeated re-entry into the country using false passports. The new system should also prove effective in countering the crime gangs who leave the country following raids, come back in again once things have calmed down and then flee once more.

Surrounded by water on all sides, immigration authorities obviously saw implementation of the current system as a task of great importance, but there are many things that need to be taken into account when considering this first attempt at halting crime by foreigners coming to Japan. To ease the problems associated with taking people’s fingerprints and keep the system in process, naturally clear explanations of the system are necessary and it goes without saying that steps must be taken to make sure the data collection process is spread up so that it does not become a burden on those foreigners entering the country.

The ministry must also clearly state the standards by which collected data will be preserved and handled. Going by what the ministry has said so far, the data collected will not be necessary if the person who presented it is not on any of the lists used for comparing it with. Even considering keeping the fingerprints and photos on file in case of trouble while the presenter is in the country, this data should be destroyed when the person leaves the country, or at least after a set period of time. There should be a set limit for how long this data can be kept. Considering that there have been many criticisms of faults in the U.S. system, the government must, on the basis of controlling individuals’ private information, set clear steps of the processes involved in dealing with what happens when somebody’s details match those on the lists and what happens when somebody is mistakenly added to those lists. It is also essential that punishments be put in place for any misuse of the information obtained.

The ministry must also outline its long-term vision of how it plans to improve the working conditions of foreign laborers in Japan and unskilled foreign workers in the country. Japan has been widely criticized for the abuse and poor payment that foreign trainees coming to this country have received here and it is a fact that many of the foreign laborers here without visas are widely appreciated. When tightening immigration controls, the government must also make sure that this does not lead to unfair discrimination and also protects the rights of foreign laborers coming to work here.

If the government attaches too much importance to dealing with criminals at the expense of foreigners coming to Japan or gaining international trust, the new system will not receive widespread support.