Civil servants oppose ARL bill

Revisions would reduce autonomy of municipal governments

By William Wetherall

Drafted 15 April 1987
Posted 1 Jaunary 2008

Article written for, and distributed at, anti-fingerprinting movement press conference

The last few months of 1986 were busy for me as a journalist and activist. At times I tried to wear both hats at the same time. Accuracy and truth inevitably suffered.

In the following article, my understanding of the relationship between local governments and their employee unions is superficial. "Japanese citizens" should be "Japanese nationals" and "ethnic majority Yamato Japanese" should be just "Japanese".

Press Conference
Document 3

Japan's Local civil servants opposed to Alien Registration Law bill

By William Wetherall
15 April 1987

The All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers' Union is opposing the Japanese government's bill to revise the controversial Alien Registration Law (ARL). The union contends that the bill does not just revise part of the ARL, but seeks to restructure the administration of the entire alien registration system, in ways that threaten local democracy in Japan.

The union, called Jichiro (Zen Nihon Jichi Dantai Rodo Kumiai), is a major affiliate of Sohyo (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan), Japan's largest labor union with 4.5 million members. Jichiro's 1.3 million members are civil servants in Japan's local governments.

A Jichiro position paper, issued on 30 January this year, stated that the ARL bill would increase the authority of the central government at the expense of the autonomy of municipal governments, and give the central government immediate access to on-line computer information on resident aliens. Both changes would enable the Ministry of Justice, and at its request the National Police Agency, to keep direct tabs on all foreigners in Japan, and to take immediate action against foreigners who refuse to give their fingerprints, carry their cards or register.

About one-third of Japan's 3,000 municipalities -- cities, wards, towns and villages -- have formally expressed their opposition to the fingerprint requirement. Many of these municipalities have openly supported resident aliens who have refused to give their fingerprints.

Over 1,000 foreigners of all nationalities have refused to give their fingerprints, and a few have refused to carry their alien registration certificates. Hundreds of refusers have been summoned by police for questioning, and many have been arrested. Some have taken their cause to court, although all judgments to date have supported the government's contention that fingerprints are required -- not to confirm the identify of 850,000 registered aliens, but to discourage rare cases of fraudulent use of registration certificates.

Under the present ARL, aliens over 16 years old who have lived in Japan for more than 90 days must register at municipal offices. When registering for the first time, and every five years when renewing their registration, aliens have to provide a recent photograph and permit a clerk to take a print of their left index finger. The office then issues an Alien Registration Certificate, actually a booklet, containing both the photo and the fingerprint, and other information. The alien is required to show the booklet to "competent authorities" whenever requested. Failure to carry it at all times may result in arrest, prosecution, and punishment by fine or imprisonment.

The bill to revise this law was submitted to the Diet on 13 March this year. Drafted by the Ministry of Justice, it requires alien residents to be fingerprinted only once, rather than every five years. The booklet would be replaced by a laminated plastic card that would show the photo and the fingerprint, but foreigners would still have to carry the card at all times.

Jichiro union members are also opposed to the present law, which they have administered for over three decades. Fingerprinting even once, they feel, is an infringement on the human rights of 700,000 Koreans, 50,000 Chinese, and 100,000 other foreigners in Japan.

Jichiro also has reasons of its own for objecting to the ARL bill. The bill would deprive Japan's municipalities of their traditional autonomy in the supervision of alien residents, and Jichiro fears what this implies for the future of local democracy in the control of Japanese citizens as well, recalling the "discretionary powers" of the police and judiciary before the end of World War II.

Japan is often thought of as a solidified state, but it is better described as the (sometimes) United Autonomous Bodies of Japan. Prefectural and municipal governments are trying to maintain local identities against strong trends toward centralization of authority in the national government, especially in matters concerning ethnic education and morals, regional culture, natural environment, and national defense.

More local governments also want to protect the human rights of people within their own jurisdictions. In 1985, the mayor of Kawasaki city, an anti-fingerprint stronghold next door to Tokyo, openly defied a Ministry of Justice order to report refusers, by arguing that human rights begin locally. If the national government would not protect the rights of Kawasaki's resident aliens, then the city had to.

Strong expressions of local autonomy like this have provoked the national government to try to strengthen its authority. The national government is now considering legislation that would force local governments to carry out orders from its ministries and agencies. The legislation would provide for direct national-government intervention and legal sanctions against municipalities that, for example, fail to report fingerprint refusers to the police or refuse to recruit for the Self-Defense Forces.

The present ARL allows municipal governments to carry out alien registration procedures and issue documents like the alien registration booklet. Until recently, local authorities customarily decided whether and how to comply with the fingerprint requirement, for example, whether to respect a refuser's view that fingerprinting only registered aliens is discriminatory or inhumane, and whether to report refusal cases to prosecutors. There is some centralization of alien registration records now, but the basic files are maintained in local offices and cannot be seen by the police without a subpoena.

The proposed ARL would transfer all alien registration authority, and important responsibilities, to regional immigration bureaus. Local governments would become intermediaries with no autonomous powers. The registration form would be completed at local offices and sent, with photograph and fingerprint, to a regional immigration bureau. The regional bureau would make and issue a laminated plastic alien registration card. It would also up-date files on an on-line nationwide computerized Alien Registration Information System (ARIS).

The ARIS would give the Ministry of Justice total control over all aliens. Local governments could not prevent information on fingerprint refusers, for example, from being immediately known to the regional immigration bureaus. Immigration Bureau and other Justice Ministry officials, and through them the police, would have immediate access to all information currently on file on all aliens.

Even those opposed to the present law and the bill agree that a laminated card would be physically easier to carry than the 16-page booklet. But Jichiro believes that the real aims of the card system are to give more power to the central government. The Ministry of Justice is arguing that primary control of the ARL has to be transferred to the Immigration Bureau, because the machines that would produce the plastic cards are too expensive to install in most local government offices.

The Ministry of Justice may also be thinking that the card's more convenient size may imply a greater obligation to carry it. Stories of long police interrogations, of foreigners caught outside their apartments without their registration booklet, have already made obsessive-compulsive neurotics of some aliens, who check and recheck their pockets to make sure they have not forgotten their "passbook".

Jichiro supports foreigners who are opposed to this possession requirement because it smacks of police-state control over minorities. Japanese do not have to carry any kind of personal identification, much less evidence that they are not foreigners.

In fact, it is rather difficult to prove that one is Japanese. Passports are issued on the basis of having a family register. But the register does not contain photographs or fingerprints, and the only physical characteristics noted are age and sex. So it is fairly easy to fraudulently obtain a certified copy of another person's family register, and assume that person's identity for purposes of obtaining a Japanese passport.

Seen from the standpoint of those affected, Japan's Alien Registration Law boils down to xenophobia and racial discrimination. Both can be very subtle in Japan, since most foreign minorities of Asian ancestry were born and raised in the country and can pass as ethnic majority Yamato Japanese, while contrary to stereotypes, some whites and blacks are Japanese.

Jichiro address: Jichiro Kaikan, Rokuban-cho 1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102
Telephone: 03-263-0261