Multiethnicity or fingerprinting

Japan's moral choice

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times, 27 July 1986, page 6 (Guest Forum)

This was my first op-ed on fingerprinting published during my own period of refusal. See the Postscript at the end for my afterthoughts on the eve of the port-of-entry fingerprinting measures two decades.

While blacks are battling an unregenerate apartheid regime in South Africa, foreigners in Japan are not being given reentry permits, and are even being threatened with deportation, for refusing to give their fingerprints.

People who know Japan as a relatively free and civil society may think a comparison with South Africa unfair. Though obviously exaggerated, the apartheid analogy is being made by a growing number of human rightists who have come to realize that governmental discrimination in Japan's multiethnic society is not as benign as the stereotypes would have them believe.

Refusers increase

The number of fingerprint refusers has constantly grown since the anti-fingerprint movement began anew in the early 1980s. The movement dates to the inception of the fingerprint law in the early 1950s.

About 2,000 foreigners in Japan are now refusing to give their fingerprints. This "dedicated refuser" count is up from around 500 last year at this time and roughly 50 two years ago.

Practically all of the refusers have been Koreans who were born and raised in Japan and have permanent residence visas. Nearly 10,000 foreigners temporarily refused to give their fingerprints last fall at the peak of an organized drive to refuse during the three-month period that the Justice Ministry was then allowing objectors for changing their minds. The "think it over" period is now one month.

The Alien Registration Law requires that all aliens 16 years old or older, who are granted a period of stay of one year or more, have their fingerprints taken "on the registration card, registration certificate, etc." when making an application for "initial registration, exchange issuance or reissuance of registration certificate, or confirmation."

Japan is not the only country in the world to fingerprint aliens, but it seems to be the only one that fingerprints them more than once. Aliens in Japan are fingerprinted every five years when their registration records are updated, and a new certificate is issued, with a recent photograph and a fresh fingerprint.

Japanese are not required by law to submit their fingerprints for purposes of personal identification. Only as a suspect, in the course of a criminal investigation, is a Japanese citizen likely to be fingerprinted, but at police discretion, not by law.

Movement objectives

Since fingerprinting hardly seems like a form of persecution, many people, foreigners and Japanese alike, have wondered what all the fuss is about. Most refusers themselves are quick to admit that the issue is not fingerprinting itself, but rather what fingerprinting symbolizes in Japan's multiethnic society past and present.

Refusers are resorting to civil disobedience as a way to dramatize their resentment against the "Yamato race" (Yamato minzoku) ideology which the Japanese government promotes. The government is reluctant to replace long-standing discriminatory laws and policies with new statutes and guidelines which reflect the letter and spirit of the various United Nations human rights covenants and conventions that Japan has signed and ratified.

The fingerprint refusers are simply told: "The law is the law. Obey it or go home."

But most of Japan's nearly one million resident foreigners were born in Japan to former Korean or Taiwanese colonials who settled in the islands during the several decades that Korea and Taiwan were part of the Japanese Empire. Their home is Japan, and they want to be recognized as bona fide members of Japan's multiethnic society.

Official discrimination

The Education Ministry, however, does not welcome Koreans (or other foreign nationals) as teachers in prefectural public schools. The ministry is afraid that non-Japanese teachers would make poor advocates of the "monoethnic state" (tan'itsu minzoku kokka) ideology which has been the basis of Japan's compulsory education since the Meiji period.

The Justice Ministry is willing enough to confer Japanese citizenship on foreigners who wish to naturalize. There is no quota limiting the number of foreigners who could become Japanese in a year. Procedurally, also, naturalization in Japan can be easier than in countries like the United States with higher naturalization rates.

The extra-legal catch is that, the Justice Ministry uses its discretionary powers to "administratively guide" especially Korean and Chinese applicants to adopt Yamato names as proof of their willingness to completely assimilate and pass as ethnic majorities. Japanese citizen or not, the consummate passer has reason to fear being treated as a second-class citizen the moment one's ethnic closet is opened.

The new Japanese citizen is given a family register in lieu of the pocket-size Alien Registration Certificate. The "certificate" is actually a booklet which includes the bearer's picture and one fingerprint. Only Japanese have family registers, but these records contain neither photographs nor fingerprints.

Also as a Japanese citizen, the ex-foreigner no longer has to carry any personal identification. Copies of the family register are sometimes required for employment or matriculation. But Japanese cannot be arrested for not carrying personal identification, much less proof (like a register copy, or passport) that they are Japanese.

All resident aliens (the majority of whom "look" and "sound" like Yamato Japanese) are required by law to have their Alien Registration Certificate on their persons at all times, reminiscent of South Africa's Pass Law. Aliens are subject to have their documents inspected by immigration inspectors, immigration control officers, police officials, and other "competent authorities" at any time.

This poses a problem for citizens who do not "look" or "sound" Japanese to the authority who stops them and wants to see their Alien Registration Certificate. In theory, not having a "pass book" should be proof enough that one is Japanese. In practice, the minority citizen needs more tangible proof that one is not an alien.

Ethnic genocide

Most foreigners in Japan could become Japanese. That so many remain aliens reflects how "nationality" continues to be equated with "ethnicity" in the minds of minorities and majorities alike. However unpleasant the alien registration system, it is ethnically more bearable than meeting the assimilation conditions that the government extra-legally attaches to naturalization.

The association of ethnicity with nationality is encouraged by the manner in which the government administers the Nationality Law and the Family Registration Law. Neither law places ethnic restrictions on the names of either naturalized or natural citizens. But the government's administrative guidelines are tantamount to demanding that aliens commit ethnic suicide if they want to become Japanese.

These guidelines are a vestige of the assimilation policies that were enforced with great spiritual and physical trauma during the first half of this century. Tens of millions of colonial minorities (who were then Japanese nationals) were denied the right to use their ethnic names and languages.

Undigested past

Yamato racists, unlike their Nazi allies, did not physically liquidate the empire's minorities in gas chambers. They did, however, try to kill them ethnically by destroying their names and cultures.

The Koreans and Taiwanese who survived this "ethnic holocaust" and stayed in Japan after 1945 are now despised as living reminders of a policy of territorial expansion and assimilation that failed. Forcing these colonial immigrants and their descendants into the Yamato fold is part of the government's continuing bid to achieve the "one race, one language, one culture" polity which Japan had become in myth, and was supposed to have become in reality but did not.

The present assimilation policy is thus a kind of gastric juice to speed the digestion of the recent past. Rendering former colonials and their descendants ethnically "invisible" would help some people forget the imperialistic chapter of Japan's modern history, and even aid their effort to revise it.

Koreans and Taiwanese are not the only minorities who have had to contend with concerted government efforts to deprive them of their rights as non-Yamato members of Japanese society. Okinawan and Ainu Japanese can also tell horror stories about the assimilation policies of the Yamato government, as can black and white Japanese and aliens, and other ethnic and racial minorities in Japan.

Moral bankruptcy

As the government is anything but a foe of discrimination, alien and citizen minorities fight prejudice as best they can. How the government responds to the the attempts of minorities to defend their dignity from the government itself is a sign of its moral bankruptcy.

The Justice Ministry's call for "law and order" might be heeded by the fingerprint refusers if the ministry were to use its discretionary powers to rectify the errors of the colonial past rather than repeat them, to protect minority rights rather than usurp them.

Instead, the Immigration Bureau denies most refusers reentry permits, while renewing the visas of some and threatening others with deportation. Such inhumane treatment, and an arbitrariness which borders on racism and sexism, can only deepen the conviction of alien residents that the Japanese government is determined to place petty ethnocentric laws and policies above human rights.

The government will argue that Japan is a sovereign democratic nation which cannot tolerate civil disobedience as a means of expressing opposition to its laws; that fingerprinting does not violate the constitution or any national laws or international agreements; and that fingerprinting is necessary to control aliens in Japan but not Japanese.

But how can such logic assuage the feelings of people in Japan for whom fingerprinting has come to be the most visible tip of an iceberg of ethnocentric attitudes which have sunk the spirits of millions of minorities, foreigners and citizens alike?

Global concern

American pediatrician Clifford Uyeda, an official of the Japanese American Citizens League headquartered in San Francisco, has devoted much of his life to the cause of human rights for Japanese immigrants and their descendants in the United States as well as minorities like Navajo Indians. Dr. Uyeda has appealed most cogently on behalf of fingerprint refusers from Ronald Fujiyoshi who refused in 1981, to Kim Myong Shik who became an illegal alien in June this year.

"Social justice is no longer a local issue but of world wide concern," Uyeda observed in a recent letter to the Justice Minister. "Witness the world reaction to the Pretoria government of South Africa. It is upon human rights that a nation's justice system and its reputation will be judged."

William Wetherall is a free-lance writer who specializes in mental health, ethnic minorities, early history and popular culture. He has a Ph.D. in Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and he did his dissertation research at the Nationality Institute of Mental Health in Japan as a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Fellow. He refused to give his fingerprints on July 4 this year. -- Editor

Postscript on eve of new fingerprinting measures

As the editor pointed out, I was, when I wrote this op-ed, a fingerprint refuser. Reading it twenty years later, I get the impression that I must have been very angry at the time and even a bit delusional, chasing the Yamatoist dragon and a number of other imaginary beasts.

Looking back, I think I would still have refused to submit the single un-rolled print of the tip of my left index finter, as was then required by the Alien Registration Law of all resident foreigners. But I would have refused for different reasons.

I would also have said kinder things about the authorities. And I would have questioned some of the victimhood thinking of certain other fingerprint refusers.

There were really no grounds for charging the Immigration Bureau, or any other government agency, with "racism" or "sexism". The term "Yamatoist", which Ian Buruma claims I coined, may be valid in certain streams of social criticism, but it is not warranted here.

Nor should anything that some Japanese did to some Koreans or Chinese be likened to what some Nazis did to some Jews. Even as metaphor, there has never been an "ethnic holocaust" in Japan.

The anti-fingerprinting movement, despite it's deep divisions, worked in the sense that the Alien Registration Law was revised so as to eliminate fingerprinting. But revisions also eliminated local control of alien registration. Now the Immigration Bureau has jurisdiction over alien registration and the disposition of aliens who fail to to comply with registration laws.

The government of Japan is about to revise the law again to require that foreigners entering Japan be fingerprinted. Permanent residents might be excluded from the requirement.

This time the rationale would be the need to screen new entrants for possible known terrorists. Japan would simply be reciprocating similar practices already instituted in the United States and other countries that have followed the US in its "war on terrorism".

What do I think of all this?

I think, if you are going to fingerprint one person, you fingerprint all -- regardless of nationality, and regardless of residence status.

And if you print one finger, then you print all -- or all that you still have, in the case of a few yakuza, mill workers, and others who have fewer digits than I do.

28 January 2006