J Times debate on reinstating fingerprinting for NJ


Hi Blog. Sorry to have missed this debate on reinstating fingerprinting for NJ only in the Japan Times Community Page last June. Since cyberspace is quite incandescent with outrage at the moment over the November revisions to the laws, here are the pros and cons by two friends of mine, Scott and Matt. Which do you find more convincing?

More on the issue on Debito.org here, and Amnesty International/SMJ’s October 27 Tokyo Forum on it here. Comment from me and links to referential articles below the articles…


Japan Times Community Page Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Should Japan fingerprint foreigners?
Two views of a pressing issue

Immigration’s new system will make us safer


Over the protests of human-rights activists and groups like the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Japan recently amended its Immigration Control Law to require that all foreigners (except “special” permanent residents) be photographed and fingerprinted when entering the country beginning November 2007. The plan mimics the “U.S.-Visit” program in the United States, which has been in place since late 2003.

The most vigorous arguments against the plan attack its use of fingerprints.

Even Nichibenren suggests that if the plan must be adopted, it should drop fingerprinting. Why? Because in Japan, public authorities’ only use of fingerprints is in criminal investigations, they say, and therefore it violates one’s dignity.

Indeed, all criminals are fingerprinted, but that doesn’t mean all people fingerprinted are criminals. The “green cards” of permanent resident foreigners in the U.S. have shown their fingerprint for decades. People in high-security or sensitive jobs are fingerprinted, too.

Some countries require fingerprints for passports now, and many more are proposing such a measure. Fingerprints are being used for biometric ID on ATMs and even cell phones for online transactions.

Clearly their role has evolved far beyond just crime investigations. And as their use continues to diversify, public feelings are likely to evolve toward a neutral view, too.

Fingerprints are just one form of biometric identification. Ironically, they are not even the most widely-used form, even in law enforcement. That throne belongs to photographs, which are in many ways much more “personal” data than fingerprints.

Yet you don’t hear anyone complaining that being photographed is “degrading” or “makes them feel like a criminal.”

In the end, when public safety is at stake, worrying about hurting people’s feelings is just not good policy. Airline security, for example, with its body pat-downs and shoe removal almost seems designed to violate one’s dignity. It’s unpleasant, yes, but necessary.

Other criticism of the program has focused on suggestions that it won’t be effective in preventing terrorists from entering Japan, that it will be too costly, and that it violates the “dignity” of travelers. But are these convincing arguments for abandoning the plan at a time when the risks from terrorism are clear?

For starters, critics of Japan’s plan suggest it simply won’t work. After all, they point out, the 9/11 terrorists were in the U.S. legally. While true, keep in mind they traveled extensively around the world before coming to the U.S. Had such a program been in place years before, it may have stopped them.

Another hole seems to be the program’s inability to stop a terrorist who lacks a criminal record, since it relies on database lookups to identify people. That, too, is true, but no one is suggesting that this program will perfectly prevent all terror.

That’s impossible, especially when the terrorist is willing to sacrifice their own life. Still, even if an attack is carried out, the data provided by a program like this can be valuable after-the-fact in tracking down the organizations responsible, and thereby preventing future incidents.

What’s more, terrorists aren’t the only ones that may be snared. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS), since January 2004, over 1,000 visa violators and other criminals have been arrested through the U.S.-Visit program. And keeping people like that out is in the public’s interest.

For fiscal 2007, the U.S.-Visit program will spend roughly $ 400 million. Developing the program cost another $ 1.5 billion. Japan — which has far fewer ports of entry and international visitors than the U.S. — could probably get by on a third to a quarter of that amount.

Is it worth it? The direct costs from 9/11 in property destruction and rescue efforts have been estimated at a whopping $ 27 billion. Medium-term, the impact on the U.S. economy due to drops in travel and tourism, increased insurance premiums and other effects is said to have been about $ 500 billion. And of course, the “cost” of the thousands of lives lost can never be measured.

Indeed, 9/11 was an exceptional case. But given that U.S.-Visit’s budget is less than 1 percent of the total outlays of the USDHS, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expenditure in light of its antiterrorism goal.

A government’s primary responsibility is to protect its citizens. Fingerprinting all foreign travelers will help do just that by creating a database that will help keep terrorists and criminals out of the country.

What’s more, shared with law enforcement agencies globally, it can be a powerful tool to help reduce the very real threat posed by international terrorism.

Fingerprinting puts foreign residents at risk

Courtesy Matt Dioguardi’s blog at

Imagine you live in a small town. Every time a crime is committed the police come to your door and escort you to the police station, take your fingerprints, and compare them to those found at the crime scene.

As you are the only person so regularly singled out, you ask, “Hey, why always me?” The answer is, “if you’re innocent, why worry about it?”

Eventually after your visits to the police station become almost daily, you plead with the officers to leave you alone. One of them has a revelation: “Hey, instead of destroying your fingerprints each time, let’s make a permanent record! Then, every time there’s a crime we’ll use that?”

Problem solved? Of course not. Having had enough, you spit in outrage, “why me? Why is it always my fingerprints and not anyone else’s you compare to those found at crime scenes?” One officer smiles sheepishly and explains, “it’s because you’re a foreigner.”

Sound unrealistic? Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s a reality. It’s already happened in the U.S., and it will soon be happening here.

Do you wish to enter Japan? Then you are suspect. Before you can enter you must turn over your fingerprints and allow them to be cross checked against an international list of criminals and terrorists. And that’s just the beginning.

The prints will remain on record for 70 years. According to the new procedures, if requested, the Justice Ministry will turn over the data to the police and other government agencies.

What’s that mean? It means like our fictional character in the beginning of this story, that for any crime committed in Japan, there is a high probability that you will be treated as a de facto suspect.

While no citizens will have to submit fingerprints by default, yours will already be there. And you’d better believe you are a de facto suspect in each case. It’ll be as easy as pushing a few buttons on a computer.

Is it fair for a foreigner to be a de facto suspect in potentially any crime in Japan where fingerprints are lifted? No.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associates has come out strongly against this measure. (See: http://www.nichibenren.or.jp/ja/publication/booklet/data/nyukanhou_qa.pdf)

Among the many useful arguments they make, they point out that the measure might well stigmatize foreigners as somehow being more inherently capable of crime than Japanese.

They also note that it is clearly unconstitutional under Article 13. And yes, the constitution does apply to people seeking entry into Japan. They may not be citizens, but they are people.

Ultimately, this policy puts foreigners at unfair risk. I typed in the phrase “how to fake fingerprints” on Google recently and got back over half a million hits. I checked the first 60, which told you how to do just that.

You leave your fingerprints everywhere you go. You leave them on trains, on vending machines, any place you lay your hands. Foreigners will have to take this in stride as they become de facto suspects in almost every crime committed.

There are respected scholars, former police officers, and journalists now questioning the entire science of fingerprinting. And whose to say how long it takes before collected prints are leaked through Winnie?

Putting all this aside, guess what? This policy just won’t work. Does anyone really believe that all terrorists are foreigners? The Tokyo subway sarin attack comes to mind (6000 injured, 12 dead), so does the bombings of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Tokyo in 1974 (20 injured, 8 dead) and the Hokkaido Prefectural Government office in Sapporo in 1976 (80 injured, 2 dead). The obvious prejudice here is palpable.

Lest anyone forget, most of the 9/11 terrorists entered America legally. Terrorists often have clean records and are not on watch lists.

So if not terrorists, who is on the watch lists? Well as the Justice Ministry will rely on an international list, in many cases they have no way of knowing.

There have already been credible reports of activists in America being detained because their names turned up on terrorists watch lists (simply a mistake?).

Recently some British citizens were outraged when they found that their names had been put into a criminal database (more mistakes?).

Terrorists with clean records will be able to enter, ordinary people will be hindered and face rights abuses.

If none of this is enough, has anyone stopped to even fathom the cost involved here?

So what you have here is a ineffective policy that clearly discriminates against foreigners and costs a bundle of cash.

In short, the worst of all worlds.


The biggest problem I see with this new copycat biometric system (aside from the fact that it’s not even being instituted nationwide–only at Narita, which means elsewhere everyone foreign goes through the Gaijin Line regardless of whether or not they are actually a resident of Japan) was not really alluded to in Scott’s argument–that if you really want to take care of terrorists, you fingerprint everybody. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear, even if you’re Japanese, right?

I’ve said this before, but there is no reason to target NJ only like this, except for the fact that you can. Given the cultural disfavor with fingerprinting in Japan (essentially, only criminals or suspected criminals get systematically fingerprinted in Japan–this association is one of the reasons why the Zainichi generational foreigners successfully protested for decades to get it abolished in the 1990’s), if you included Japanese in the fingerprinting there would be outrage, and the policy would fail. Look what happened when they tried to institute the Juki Net universal ID card system earlier this decade (it was even ruled unconstitutional in 2006).

I been watching this come down the pipeline for years now, and have of course been writing about it. See the roots of this policy and what sorts of discriminatory logic it is founded upon (i.e. clear and systematic racial profiling, both in essence, and in an enforcement which bends existing laws) in a 2006 Mainichi article and a 2005 Japan Times column. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Here comes the fear
Antiterrorist law creates legal conundrums for foreign residents
By Arudou Debito, Japan Times, May 24, 2005

Japan to fingerprint foreigners under proposed immigration bill
Mainichi Shinbun, February 8, 2006

Both at