Municipalities v. Justice Ministry

Maverick mayors defy alien fingerprint directives

By William Wetherall

Drafted October 1986
Posted 31 Jaunary 2006

Article written for Far Eastern Economic Review but not published.

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 characterization of the rivalry between defiant local governments and the Ministry of Justice was good-guy / bad-guy superficial, and my assessment of refuser power is pep-rally rosy. "Citizen/s" and "citizenship" should be "national/s" and "nationality".

Hundreds of Japan's cities, towns, and villages are openly rebelling against the Justice Ministry's Alien Registration Law, which requires that they fingerprint resident foreigners. Kawasaki, an industrial city wedged between Tokyo and Yokohama, has led the insurrection by flatly refusing to comply with several ministry memoranda directing local governments to tighten their reins on the rapidly growing number of resident aliens who are refusing to be fingerprinted.

Over 20 percent of Japan's nearly 700 other cities are also going their own liberal ways concerning the treatment of fingerprint refusers in their jurisdictions. The National Council of Mayors, which adopted a resolution in 1983 calling for the discontinuation of both the fingerprinting system and the requirement to carry Alien Registration Certificates at all times, are now demanding a wholesale revision of the Alien Registration Law.

The ministry views the willful noncompliance of the municipalities as tantamount to the civil disobedience that their (non) actions both permit and encourage, and it has threatened to take corrective measures against maverick mayors and other insubordinate public officials. But the autonomy that local governments have traditionally claimed, especially when they have been led by reformists who disagree with the conservative social policies of the central government, makes it highly unlikely that the Justice Ministry's warnings will be more than barks to maintain its pose that Japan's legal house is in order.

The Alien Registration Law requires that all foreign residents over 16 years old be fingerprinted when registering, and be re-fingerprinted every five years when their registration is renewed. Conviction for failure to comply carries a possible sentence of up to one year imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 200,000 yen (US$800).

Over 80 percent of Japan's nearly 900,000 resident aliens are Koreans, most of whom were born and raised in Japan. The majority of the fingerprint dissidents are also Koreans.

Many of the Korean refusers feel that the colonial circumstances which brought their parents or grandparents to Japan should exempt them from being treated like other foreigners. Treaties between the Republic of Korea and Japan already accord special residence status to former colonials and offspring in Japan who are now ROK citizens.

The ROK government, which fingerprints aliens in Korea, has often demanded that Japan stop fingerprinting its special-status citizens because of the historical reasons for their presence in the archipelago; Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. But the Justice Ministry has repeatedly informed ROK that Japan is unable to comply with its requests.

Other fingerprint refusers, even those from countries like the United States where fingerprinting is widely practiced, object to the "criminal treatment" that fingerprinting implies in Japan. Japanese citizens are involuntarily fingerprinted only when they are arrested as criminal suspects, or are screened by the police as part of an application for a visa from another country (like a U.S. immigrant visa).

The United Nations International Covenant on Human Rights, which Japan ratified in 1979, requires that countries treat their foreign residents essentially the same as their own nationals. Kawasaki mayor Saburo Ito said at a recent press conference that, no matter what a resident's nationality, it is the duty of the local government to protect the resident's human rights.

The practice of fingerprinting aliens in Japan originated after the war, when former Chosen (Korea) and Formosa (Taiwan) colonials who had stayed in Japan were deprived of the Japanese citizenship they had been given long before the war. Fingerprinting as a means of identifying the "new" minorities seems to have been recommended by the American occupation forces to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which then suggested that the Ministry of Justice require fingerprinting by law.

Ironically, the Justice Ministry at first balked at the idea because it thought that fingerprinting foreigners (mainly Koreans) but not Japanese would invite unwanted political if not social problems. Today it is the Foreign Ministry that sees fingerprinting as a barrier to improving Japan-Korea relations, while the Justice Ministry defends the practice as the surest and simplest way to determine if someone is really a foreigner, and is the foreigner one claims to be. The Justice Ministry has never explained why fingerprinting is not necessary to keep Japanese citizens from passing as foreigners -- as not a few do, especially con artists and prostitutes.

To take some of the bitterness out of the medicine it requires that aliens swallow to relieve its own domestic headaches, the Justice Ministry recently removed the carbon from the ink. But decoloring the medication has only exacerbated the ministry's pains, for fingerprint opponents regard the "improvement" as merely a "candy" intended to anesthetize the potential refuser against the verbal "whip" that began to snap this July.

The ministry ordered all municipal offices to grant the refuser a three-month period of grace, during which the refuser is not to be given an Alien Registration Certificate (a small passport-like booklet, not a thin card), but also is not to be reported to the prosecutor. If the refuser does not comply in three months, the certificate is to be issued with a notation that the bearer refused to be fingerprinted, and a formal accusation is to be made.

As many as 700 of Japan's 3,000 cities, towns, and villages are simply ignoring the directive by immediately issuing the refuser a certificate and not filing charges. But Kawasaki and some other progressive cities have also rejected the directives in writing and have publicly declared their opposition to the way the central government wants to treat Japan's national minorities.

The Ministry of Justice, of course, is incensed. It naturally feels that its very authority is being challenged. It claims that the law is the law and so must be obeyed, disobedience being the anathema of the civil order it stands for.

At the end of August this year [1986], the Justice Ministry was admitting that over 2,000 foreigners had so far refused to give their fingerprints. About half of these were still in the 3-month "persuasion" period. But the Association of ROK Residents in Japan put the figure at nearly 5,000, while a survey conducted by Asahi Shimbun (the national daily which has shown the strongest editorial support for the anti-fingerprinters) found over 6,000 refusal cases.

Some refusers have been prosecuted in the courts. Judgments so far have favored the government. But one court had to put a lien on the salary of American university lecturer Kathleen Morikawa to collect the 10,000 yen (US$40) fine she said she would work off in jail when she dropped her appeal this spring after claiming an unfair trial.

The last thing the Justice Ministry needs is a martyr. It is obviously worried by the prospects of mass refusals by the nearly 300,000 foreigners who are due to renew their alien registration before the end of this year. The number of refusers could soar into the tens of thousands, hence the carrot-and-stick measures adopted this summer.

Whether Japan will be able to quell with such mass discontent is doubtful. The battle lines have been clearly drawn for several years, and it seems only a matter of time before pressure from all fronts will force the Japanese government to accommodate social realities at home and political expectations abroad.