Fingerprinting and dignity

Nakasone Yasuhiro, Kobayashi Shunji, and Robert Ricketts

By William Wetherall

Drafted 19 December 1986 to 16 January 1987
Posted 1 Jaunary 2008

Article written for Asahi Evening News but not published.

The last few months of 1986 were busy for me as a journalist and activist. Inevitably I found myself wearing both hats at the same time.

The anti-fingerprint movement was at a critical juncture. And Nakasone Yasuhiro was voicing pride in Japan's fabled monoraciality. It made sense, then, to connect such dots.

The first draft of the following article was dated 19 December 1986. It ran 6 pages and bore the title "Miharayama, Fingerprinting, and Buddhist Dignity".

By 24 December it was called "Fingerprinting and Buddhist Dignity" and weighed 7 pages. A paper copy of this version was hand-edited into an undated third draft called just "Fingerprinting and Dignity".

By 16 January 1987 I had produced a fourth draft called "Fingerprinting or Multiethnicity: Nakasone's Moral Choice". This draft was slated for, but never sent to, the Asahi Evening News.

The following version is the fourth draft with the original title restored. This title, in hindsight, was the more poetic. Besides, I had already used the "moral choice" title in a Japan Times op-ed.

Note that this article reflects my state of mind at the time. Hence my usage of certain terms -- like citizen, Koreans, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, ethnic, Yamato, and even National Police Agency -- is generally inappropriate.

Miharayama, Fingerprinting, and Buddhist Dignity

By William Wetherall

Swim, scurry and squirm aside, all catfish, rats, worms and other scaly, furry and slimy prophets of doom! There are now better ways to predict earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, torrential rains, and thunder storms. Just watch the undulations of the uniformed and plainclothed, naked force of the Japanese police against fingerprint refusers.

Flash Dance is another new way of predictor things like Miharayama activity. Its 21 November 1986 TV showing was bumped by non-stop bulletins on the big Oshima bang that night. This was the lava flow that sparked the "great ethnic exodus" off the island, as one weekly magazine called the evacuation of even the residents who wanted to stay (but not their livestock or pets). A smaller burp was heard the evening before another Friday, 19 December, when the islanders planned to go home and watch a rescheduled Flash Dance.

What probably stirred Miharayama's bowels in the first place, though, was the well-orchestrated nationwide movement by the police in early November against hundreds of fingerprint refusers in the Kansai and Kanto areas, following Immigration Bureau Director General Shunji Kobayashi's press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in late October last year. Justice Ministry officials like Kobayashi seem content to leave the "cleanup operation" to the National Police Agency, administratively under the National Public Safety Commission, an external organ of the Prime Minister's Office, but able to arrest whoever it wants without indictments.

Divine Intervention

It may also have been the arrest of American fingerprint refuser Robert Ricketts, at about 1:10 PM on a cold and dreary 18 December 1986, which triggered Miharayama to clear its throat and spit anew just hours later. And presumably the same arrest then caused the tremors and electrical storm which kept vulcanologists, seismologists, police, fingerprint refusers, and journalists alike (in roughly this order) under shelter until dawn the next day.

The anti-fingerprint movement's tutelary gods delayed the downpour long enough for dozens of Ricketts' multi-national supporters, notified through a fast grapevine, to rally that very night in front of the Shibuya Police Station. They also intervened the next morning to allow the protests and appeals to resume without umbrellas in front of the Shibuya Ward Hall, and again at the police station.

On the morning of the 19th, Ricketts told his lawyer that he had refused to answer police questions or eat, and that it had taken half a dozen police an hour to forcibly restrain him long enough to take the print of his left index finger. Ricketts said that he thought the police had wanted to take prints from all ten of his fingers as part of their arrest and investigation of him as a criminal suspect. But when he kept his hands in his pockets and otherwise resisted, they gave up after forcibly taking only one print.

Ricketts spent another night in custody, and on the morning of the 20th he was brought to the Public Prosecutor's Office for further interrogation. He was charged with felony violation of the Alien Registration Law, and he was released that evening after telling the prosecutor that he would not contest the charge in court. Ricketts has refused to be fingerprinted since March 1985 when he renewed his alien registration booklet.

Shibuya Ward had not issued an indictment against Ricketts. The ward's Citizens Division, responsible for alien registration, had also resisted police pressure to show them its files on local fingerprint refusers. Only when the police threatened to obtain a search warrant did the division, on 12 December 1986, submit copies of the files.

Cat and Mouse

Police issued a warrant for Ricketts' arrest on 15 December. On the 18th, plainclothed police were well-enough informed of his probable whereabouts that day to be waiting for him en masse around 1:10 PM when he stepped off the elevator in the lobby of an Azabu, Tokyo office building. He was arrested without handcuffs.

Ricketts, 42, has lived many years in Japan. He graduated from International Christian University in 1969, and his present visa was issued in 1980 when he came to do socioanthropological field work on the protest movements by farmers against the construction of Narita airport, as a graduate researcher affiliated with the Faculty of Economics at the University of Tokyo. He is now writing a PhD dissertation for the Universite de Montreal in Quebec.

Ricketts' arrest ended a long game of hide and seek which began in early November with police attempts to question his wife in Tokyo. Getting no cooperation from her, they surprised Ricketts himself one morning at his Narita, Chiba home with a summons to "voluntarily" appear for police questioning.

An unmarked car full of police in business suits came to witness the event. One of the officers tried to snap Ricketts' picture as he sleepily reached for the document.

When Ricketts failed to appear on the appointed date, the police began staking out his residence and tailing him around the city. He recognized some of his followers, and he described their manner of surveillance as both loose and intermittent. The police delivered at least one more summons. And Ricketts received many phone calls which he thought were intended to determine his daily routine.

Expecting to be arrested at any time, Ricketts consulted attorneys associated with the Tokyo Fingerprint Refusers Counselling Center. He also stopped carrying around his address book, so that friends would not be bothered by calls or visitations from police who might think that they were "guilty by association" of involvement in the nationwide campaign against the alien registration system.

Neo Police State?

The police spent a conservatively estimated one million yen to keep tabs on Ricketts. But what did all this, and his equally costly arrest and detainment, buy the taxpayer?

Apparently the government wishes to end the nearly four-decade movement against the postwar alien registration system, before next spring, when the Justice Ministry hopes that the Diet will pass its recommended revisions in the Alien Registration Law.

The new law would require fingerprinting only once, at the time of initial registration; authorize plastic ID cards instead of booklets for permanent residents; and permit on-the-spot arrests of foreigners who refuse to give the required fingerprint.

Japanese citizens are not required to carry any kind of personal identification to prove who they are on demand by authorities. And they are not fingerprinted except as criminal suspects.

The government seems to believe that the use of police to enforce the inequities of the Alien Registration Law will silence the growing opposition, not only to the present law but also to the proposed revisions. The proposed revisions would allow registration information to be computerized, increase the criminality of the act of refusal to be fingerprinted, and give the police more authority in refusal cases.

Apparently hoping to intimidate the holdouts, the police have been arresting the dozens of refusers who have not voluntarily responded to a summons. The dedicated refusers officially number about 1,300. But some sources claim that this figure does not include several hundred cases which have not been acknowledged by some of the local offices responsible for alien registration.

Most of the refusers are Koreans who were born and raised in Japan as the offspring of former colonial subjects. Some are Chinese in the same ex-colonial boat. Others are Euro-American human rightists like Ricketts, who contends that Japan treats the descendants of resident former colonials as badly as it did their ancestors.

Taiwanese were colonial subjects for half a century, Koreans for 35 years. During the colonial period they were made Japanese citizens and forced to assimilate into the Yamato ethnic fold. Many were allowed to move to and settle in the main islands, where they could vote and were not fingerprinted, though some required pass books.

After the war, they were given no say in the determination of their future status. One day they were, in some sense, members of Japanese society. The next day they were deprived of their Japanese citizenship and their right to vote. As aliens, they were subjected to registration and fingerprinting as a means of controlling their lives, much as they had been controlled during the colonial period, though the forms of control were new.

Today, even the children of these post-colonial resident aliens are being harassed by police. Five junior-high-school Korean boys were arrested in October last year, reportedly for fishing in an off-limits pond owned by a municipal government. They youngsters were interrogated and forcibly fingerprinted before either their parents or school officials were notified. And when their parents appeared at the police station, even they were fingerprinted.

A Japan Socialist Party diet member has launched an investigation into the use which police have begun to make of two different kinds of mechanical devices to forcibly obtain prints from the fingers of the aliens they are rushing around to arrest for the "criminal offense" of refusing to be fingerprinted. Critics have called the devices instruments of torture which should have no place in a civilized country. The police defend them as necessary to protect suspects from injury when they resist the authorities.

Press Censorship?

People who read only Japanese-language papers probably know less about such developments in the fingerprint refusal movement than readers of the English-language press in Japan. The Japan Times has carried more news in terms of the number, length, and diversity of articles than any other generally circulated paper.

The Japanese-language Asahi Shimbun, which heavily reported fingerprint-refuser news in 1985, resumed token coverage in late 1986 after a long dry spell which led some readers to suspect that the prestigious paper was intentionally suppressing the news as a means of cooperating with the government.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, invited to Japan late last year in the wake of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's remarks about minorities in the United States and Japan, charged the Japanese press with ignoring much of what he had to say about human rights in Japan. "They were more interested in focusing on blacks, Puerto Ricans and women, in some measure, in America, but [they] ignore the plight of buraku people, Ainu, and Koreans at home [in Japan]," Jackson said.

Whatever the government's open hunt on especially the leaders and organizers of the anti-fingerprint movement spells for the future of the alien registration system, both the aims and methods of the police raise serious questions about the ability of Metropolitan Tokyo, much less Japan as a whole, to create a "foreigner friendly" environment.

What possibly can be "friendly" about more street signs in English, when the vast majority of Japan's nearly one-million alien residents are Koreans and Chinese who were born in Japan and educated in Japanese, and have no need for English guides? And what can be "friendly" about a country where the Japanese press provides less information about fingerprint refusers than the English press? Nakasone's Heart

And what possibly can be "friendly" about even one fingerprint for native-born alien minorities who are Japanese in all but nationality, and whose taxes help pay the salary of a prime minister who they cannot vote for? Moreover, a prime minister who has extolled in all of his major speeches, at home and abroad, and before the United Nations, the dignity that Buddhism holds to be innate in every human being? But a prime minister who cannot put his heart where his mouth is when it comes to the dignities of Japan's minorities, ethnic and social, Japanese and foreign?

If Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone really wants to get his "international state" started off on a commendable foot, he might consider calling off his police. And at a press conference attended by Japanese and foreign journalists alike, he might apply his "Supernak" oratory to the human rights of those he uncharitably excludes from Japanese society when he calls Japan a monoethnic state.

Nakasone might consider such things the next time he reflects on life while meditating at his favorite Zen temple. How can he refuse to extend to Japan's non-Yamato minorities the esteem of recognition and understanding that he would like Japan to have from other countries?

"We [Japanese] have a great task to be completed with half a century's time," Nakasone told General MacArthur in 1951. He has one more year in office to officially declare that Japan is a multiethnic state. What better way to gain Japan the respect it will need to become "a nation at one with the world" and, as such, inspire other countries to co-exist in the accommodating spirit of Buddhism?