Protesters ‘flip the bird’ at Justice Ministry over forced fingerprinting

Protestors inflated a 3-meter-high yellow hand with an extended forefinger and thrust it toward the Justice Ministry’s offices in Tokyo on Tuesday to demonstrate against a controversial fingerprinting policy beginning at ports of entry across the country the same day.

About 80 protestors turned toward the ministry building and shouted in unison their opposition to the new policy, which requires all but a handful of foreigners to have their fingerprints and face photos taken to gain entry into Japan.

Representatives of human rights groups, labor unions, foreigners’ groups and individuals spoke out against the system — similar to the US-VISIT policy operating in the United States since 2004, but also targeting residents and not just tourists — calling it, among other things, “racist,” “xenophobic,” “retrogressive” and “an invasion of human rights and privacy.”

“It’s an expression of Japanese xenophobia. Japan is using this system as a tool to control foreigners. For the past few years, the government has been associating foreigners with things like crime and terrorism,” said Sonoko Kawakami, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Japan, which organized Tuesday’s demonstration.

Lim Young-Ki, a representative of the Korean Youth Association in Japan, pointed out how ethnic Koreans had fought for decades until the 2000 abolition of fingerprinting on Alien Registration Certificates only to see the process revived through the back door now.

“This system is ostensibly an anti-terrorism measure, but it is extremely harmful to individuals and only applying the system to foreigners shows a lack of consideration for foreigners’ human rights. Even though the system of fingerprinting foreigners was completely abolished in April 2000, it’s infuriating that the Japanese government has reinstated this practice and this entry inspection system,” Lim said, reading a statement issued by his organization. “We want to use this demonstration to call on the Japanese government to promptly redress this system obligating foreigners to provide their fingerprints and face photos whenever they enter the country.”

Catherine Campbell of the National Union of General Workers [Tokyo Nambu], whose ranks contain many foreigners, echoed a similar line.

“This is a big step backward and I really think it’s sad,” she said.

Another foreign woman who identified herself only as Jennifer said she is a permanent resident, having lived in Japan for 38 years and with a Japanese husband and Japanese national children. She spoke about having previously provided authorities with her fingerprint and face photo while taking out and updating her Alien Registration Certificate.

“They already have my photo and my fingerprint…many times over,” she said. “This step is quite unnecessary.”

But an official from the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau dismissed the protestors’ claims.

“This system was introduced to protect the lives and safety of citizens by preventing terrorism. There were rational reasons and necessities in introducing the system, which was approved by the Diet,” Yasuhiro Togo of the Immigration Bureau said, adding that the methods of fingerprinting differ from the abolished Alien Registration Certificate system. “The aim of taking fingerprints is different — we’re fighting against terrorism — and we will not be forcing people to put their fingers into ink as used to be the case. The fingerprints will all be taken and stored electronically.”

Changes to the immigration law in May last year allowed for the collection of biometric data. Now, except for special permanent residents — who are largely people born and bred in Japan — diplomats, children under 16 and others the government deems can be excluded, any non-Japanese entering the country must provide the fingerprints from the index fingers on both hands and a photo of their face before they can be permitted to enter the country.

The government says the new system is aimed at combating terrorism, but has also said it will provide data to crime-fighting authorities upon request. The Immigration Bureau’s Togo said such information would be handled in accordance with the Private Information Protection Law. He added that information collected by immigration authorities would not be handed over to foreign governments.