Fingerprinting in Japan
By William Wetherall

Law enforcement, alien registration, and border control

The history of fingerprinting is closely connected with Japan, where the idea of fingerprints as a personal trait was partly discovered, and where the computerization of fingerprint records and matching first developed.

Fingerprinting and law enforcement

Fingerprinting was introduced into law enforcement in the Empire of Japan during the first two decades of the 20th century. From the mid 1920s to the end of World War II, fingerprinting was also used to control labor migration in Manchuria when this territory was under Japanese control, both before and after it became Manchoukuo.

Fingerprinting aliens in Japan, as a matter of resident registration, began in 1955 and ended in 2000. Fingerprinting aliens in connection with gaining permission to enter Japan began in 2007. The two systems are entirely different in terms of both purpose and intended population.

Fingerprinting and alien registration

There is some evidence that fingerprinting was used in the late 1930s in Manchoukuo, the Manchurian state created by the Empire of Japan in 1932, to identify registered immigrants, particularly Chosenese.

Fingerprinting in Japan for purposes other than criminal investigation, however, did not begin until after World War II, when Japan was governed under the authority of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Fingerprinting, introduced by Osaka prefecture in 1946 in connection with registering Chosenese ("Koreans" in SCAP speak), met with considerable resistance and was not mandated by the national Alien Registration Order of 1947.

The 1952 Alien Registration Law provided for universal fingerprinting of aliens as a matter of resident registration. On the day the law came into effect, Chosenese, Taiwanese, and a few others with family registers outside the prefectures lost their Japanese nationality and became "aliens" de jure as well as de facto. Fingerprinting, however, was not implemented until 1955.

Over the decades, fingerprinting met with sporadic resistance, and by the early 1980s a nationwide, multinational anti-fingerprinting movement had emerged. The movement, supported by many local municipalities, which had jurisdiction over the registration and fingerprinting of their alien residents, was a major factor in the government's decision to change and phase out fingerprinting.

The first changes came in 1988, and first serious phasing out came in 1993. All fingerprinting as a matter of alien registration ended in 2000. In the end, however, the government increased its authority over alien registration -- including, now, mandatory signatures in lieu of mandatory fingerprinting, and punishment for refusal.

Fingerprinting and border control

Fingerprinting in connection with procedures at ports of entry began for most aliens entering Japan in 2007. The ostensible purpose of the 2007 system -- which requires digital scans of both index fingers and a digital photograph -- is to prevent terrorism.

The population most targeted when fingerprinting was introduced into alien registration in the late 1940s and early 1950s were then Japanese nationals -- now former Japanese nationals and their descendants in Japan who qualify as Special Permanent Residents, representing about fifty nationalities but mostly nationals of the Republic of Korea. This population is expressly exempt from the 2007 fingerprinting obligation.

The targets of the 2007 system are criminals and terrorists whose profiles and biometrics are in a database supplied by information from various overseas and domestic agencies. Since the database includes the fingerprints and photographs of aliens who have been deported, its most obvious utility will be to prevent the re-entry to Japan of such aliens who attempt to come back on different passports with different identities.