Fingerprinting aliens in Japan

Historical roots run deeper than law

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Japan in the grip of alien-fingerprinting row" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 137(28), 9 July 1987 pages 48-50

Foreigners who have refused to be fingerprinted in defiance of a registration requirement have touched off a debate over what some have dubbed Japan's "passbook" law. They are being cheered on by some of Japan's major labour groups and local politicians as the government goes about strengthening its alien-control policies. The planned restructuring of the alien-registration system has been condemned as discriminatory and a threat to local autonomy.

The All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union (Jichiro), for example, is opposing a proposed bill which would revise the controversial Alien Registration Law (ARL). The bill was drafted by the Ministry of Justice and submitted to the Diet on 13 March.

The union, which has 1.3 million members and is a major affiliate of the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan, contends that the ARL bill would increase the authority of the national government at the expense of municipal governments. Further, it would give the national government immediate access to on-line computer information on resident aliens. Both amendments would enable the Ministry of Justice, and at its request the National Police Agency, to keep tabs on all foreign resident aliens. Both amendments would enable the Ministry of Justice, and at its request the National Police Agency, to keep tabs on all foreign residents in Japan. It also allows the government to prosecute those who refuse to register, give fingerprints or carry their alien registration certificates.

The present law requires that aliens over the age of 16 who have lived in Japan for more than 90 days register at municipal offices. When first registering, and when renewing their registration every five years, aliens must submit a recent photograph and let a clerk take a print of their left index finger. The office then issues an Alien Registration Certificate, a 16-page booklet with the photo, the fingerprint and other information. Foreigners are required to show the booklet to "competent authorities" when requested. Failure to carry it at all times could result in arrest, prosecution and a fine or imprisonment.

The revised ARL would require aliens to be fingerprinted only once, when first registered. The booklet would be replaced by a laminated plastic card showing the photo and the fingerprint, but the bearer would still have to carry the certificate at all times.

Municipal governments enforce the present ARL, which gives them the authority to register aliens and issue the registration booklet. There is some centralisation of alien registration records now, but the files are maintained in local offices and cannot be seen by the police without a subpoena.

Local officials have decided whether and how to comply with the fingerprint requirement. Many have declined to report those who refuse to be fingerprinted, agreeing that the requirement is discriminatory. Japanese are fingerprinted only when they become criminal suspects, and they do not have to carry any personal identification.

The ARL bill proposes that all alien registration authority, and key responsibilities, be transferred to regional immigration bureaux. Local governments would become intermediaries with no autonomous powers. Basic documents would be completed at local offices and sent, with photograph and fingerprint, to a regional immigration bureau. The regional bureau would process the documents, issue the laminated card, and up-date files on a recently installed computerised Alien Registration Information System.

Municipal governments could not prevent national government officials from getting immediate access to information on ARL violators. Through information obtained from the Immigration Bureau, the police would be able to identify and arrest all violators without interference from the municipalities.

Japan is usually thought of as a highly unified country, but prefectural and municipal governments covet their local powers and have often opposed the impulses of the national government to eliminate regional and ethnic diversity.

In 1983, the National Council of Mayors adopted a resolution calling for an end to the fingerprint system and the requirement to carry the registration booklet at all times. In June 1985, Kawasaki city was the first municipality to formally defy a May 1985 Justice Ministry memorandum to report fingerprint refusers to the police.

Kawasaki's stance inspired many other municipalities to declare their support for those refusing to be fingerprinted. The assemblies of about one-third of Japan's 3,300 cities, wards, towns and villages -- including many of the large municipalities where most aliens reside -- have expressed their opposition to the fingerprint requirement.

The local movements to oppose the proposed revision of the ARL have been led by Jichiro members who have enforced the ARL since its enactment in 1947. Jichiro regards fingerprinting as an infringement on the human rights of 675,000 Koreans, 75,000 Chinese, and 100,000 other aliens.

As of April, over 1,000 foreigners of all nationalities were refusing to give their fingerprints. Hundreds of fingerprint refusers have been summoned by police for questioning, and many have been arrested. Some have gone to court, and all judgments to date have supported the government's view that fingerprints are needed to prevent the fraudulent use of registration certificates.

Earlier this year, Japan Socialist Part (JSP) Diet member Tomio Sakagami said that the fingerprinting of aliens should be stopped, and also called for the elimination of the provision requiring aliens to carry their registration certificate. A lawyer by profession and a member of the lower house Judicial Affairs Committee, Sakagami said that JSP wants the ARL revised to protect foreigners, not treat them as enemies. ARL opponents feel that the law smacks of police-state control over minorities. While admitting that a laminated card would be physically easier to carry than the booklet, they believe that the card system is aimed at giving the national government more power.

The Ministry of Justice is arguing that responsibility to enforce the ARL must be transferred to the Immigration Bureau, because the machines that would produce the plastic cards are too expensive to install locally.

Foreign communities in Japan are full of stories of lengthy police interrogations of aliens caught outside their homes without their registration certificates. Foreigners pat their pockets to be sure that they have not forgotten or lost what Kawasaki Korean Christian Church minister Lee In Ha has compared with passbooks in South Africa which have become symbols of apartheid.

Japanese nationality is based solely on whether one has a family register. The family register also serves as a national register, and so only citizens of Japan can have one. A foreigner who becomes Japanese through naturalisation is given a family register and is no longer subject to alien registration. But family registers are kept at local offices, not carried for identification. Moreover, the only characteristics recorded in a family register are date of birth and sex. The register has no photo or fingerprint.

Discrimination against aliens can be very subtle in Japan, since most foreign and Japanese minorities of Asian descent were born and raised in the country and can pass as ethnic majority Yamato Japanese. And contrary to the stereotype of homogeneity promoted by the Japanese Government, Japanese come in all ethnicities and races.

Less than 15 percent of Japan's Koreans are foreign born. Most of the others are the second and third generation offspring of the one-million Koreans who freely immigrated to Japan from 1910 to 1939, while some are the offspring of the nearly one-million Korean labourers who were forcibly brought to Japan between 1939 and 1945.

Until the end of World War II, when Korea and Taiwan regained their independence from Japanese rule, Korean and Taiwanese colonial subjects were considered Japanese nationals though not full citizens. After 1945, the great majority of labour and military conscripts were repatriated. But the 600,000 Koreans and 40,000 Taiwanese who chose to remain in Japan were deprived of their Japanese nationality. They were made subjects of alien control laws passed to ensure that they and their future offspring would be denied citizenship.

"If we win [our struggle against the ARL]," said Lee, who is of Korean descent, "our sons and daughter will enjoy a fully human life."

Some Japan-born Koreans, such as 35-year-old coffee shop owner Kim Song Il, are adopting novel ways of expressing the frustration of native aliens who dislike being treated as though Japan was not their rightful home. Kim was arrested in November last year and fined 30,000 yen (US$200) for refusing to give his fingerprint. Kim mailed the Amagasaki city, Osaka prefecture prosecutor only 28,090 yen, and is refusing to pay the other 1,910 yen -- the figure representing the year that Japan began to colonise Korea. The prosecutor has threatened Kim with imprisonment and seizure of his property if he continues to withhold the balance of his fine.

Last October, Immigration Bureau Chief Shunji Kobayashi said the Japanese Government cannot permit civil disobedience as a means of expressing discontent with national laws. Then in March, Kobayashi told the Judicial Affairs Committee that the Justice Ministry is denying re-entry permits to those who refuse to give fingerprints and deporting those without permanent residence visas.

On 18 March, Chong Gyan Yong, who was born in Japan, refused to apply for a visa extension when his three-year visa was cut to one year after he refused to be fingerprinted. "Many foreign residents, myself included, live here not because we originally wanted to, but because we were forced by Japanese colonial policies," said Chong. "Our lives are inseparably tied to this country's history. Our roots in this society run deeper than the law."