DR on dealing with GOJ border fingerprinting: sandpaper down your fingers


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Hi Blog.  As this week leads into Xmas, I will be slowing down a bit on postings (who wants to read this kind of stuff during vacation time, anyway, right?), making them less frequent until the new year starts in earnest.  Meanwhile, DR sends me this post for blogging, food for thought.  Arudou Debito in snow-inundated Sapporo


Sanding Down Your Fingerprints.

Incensed by the Japanese government’s slavish following of the US fingerprinting program, I decided to take charge of my own biometrics.

(1)  The temptation to use harsh, large grit sanding paper was my first impulse, but I settled on a very fine black glass paper for the huge amount of 85 Yen at Jumbo Encho. Usually the packages have a window so the grade of paper can be felt without opening it.

(2)  I started sanding on my outbound journey. It was a Nagoya to Frankfurt trip, 12 hours and lots of time to gently sand all my finger and thumb prints lightly. The secret is lightly.

(3)  I was to be in the EU for almost three weeks, so about ten minutes per day I would sand a little, lightly. Even sanding lightly it’s easy to break the skin and to expose muscle fibres, causing bleeding. Any distinguishing mark makes a fingerprint more identifiable, and defeats the whole purpose. After about a week I felt like a safe-cracker. Everything I touched was more pronounced; heat, cold, textures. Everything. I couldn’t touch the strings on a guitar as my fingers were too sensitive. I could distinguish the dots on Braille texts much better than before! Eventually the fingers callous-over and, with time, the surfaces become harder.

(4)  Then I started to test what my fingerprints would leave behind using a simple, plain drinking glass. It’s almost impossible not to leave a print on a clean glass. So, one by one over the next two weeks of my stay, I systematically sanded down the spots on each finger individually until I was satisfied that I left only an indistinguishable smudge on the clean drinking glass. After that, I made a paste of white sugar and water and soaked all my fingers in the small dish of that paste for a few minutes a day. The carbonic acid in sugar puts a nice polish on fingerpads, almost “sealing in” the plain surfaces, and erasing any signs of visible alteration. (That trick I learned of a very old episode of Hawaii 5-O!)

(5)  On arrival in Chubu, Nagoya I handed in Debito’s tract protesting the fingerprinting, and the drone on the desk just sighed and went through the speech. I put my two index fingers on the pads, and he gave a “Hehhhhh!” He asked me to try all of my fingers in pairs. I did, also sighing and rolling my eyes. After they ALL came back smudges, he asked for the first set of indexes. “Sho-ga-nai!” he said, pushed the record button, snapped a very impatient looking face. With one swift motion he handed back my stamped passport, gaijin card and new in-out form, and I was on my way.

(6)  I’ve used this every time, but the last two they didn’t go through all the digits, just took the first and sent me on my way. I guess they figure I’m just a smudgy gaijin!


14 comments on “DR on dealing with GOJ border fingerprinting: sandpaper down your fingers

  • “who wants to read this kind of stuff during vacation time, anyway, right?”

    Well, I for one would have to put my hand up to this. A little angry ranting to no one in particular first thing in the morning and I’m fully motivated for the day.

    Maybe it should be “who wants to write this kind of stuff during vacation time, anyway, right?”, in which case I’m fully behind you taking a break to enjoy the end of the year and the start of the next (Oh, and that strange stuff on the 25th that I vaguely remember doing before I started my new job, whatever it was called…).

    As for fingerprints, I guess we have to be careful not to be treated as “suspicious persons” for having no fingerprints. While I understand what DR did and why, if I was working at border control then smudges for fingerprints could potentially ring alarm bells with me.

    Also, it reminds me of a story a policeman told when I was in middle school in my home town. There was a career burglar in the town who used to file down his fingerprints to avoid detection. However, the police got wise to it and whenever there was a case with finger smudges but no clear prints, they’d make a bee-line straight to him first to ask his alibi. I think their reasoning in court was that no one could think of a legitimate reason for filing fingerprints, making him a “person of interest” and so legal to challenge him etc. etc. etc. (I’ll cut it there before this tangent goes too far off topic.)

  • Ewww…What a painful way to protest!
    I have two questions, BTW.
    1. Ok, since many visitors from all over the world touch these sensors, isn’t this a way to spread some unpleasant skin disease?
    2. I’m coming back with my 6 months old baby in January. Will they take her fingerprints(she’s just a baby!)?Can the machine read such small fingerprints?
    Because for me, I can bear it somehow, but for a baby, this is traumatising and dangerous(see Q1), and I sure am going to give them hell, if they try to put my little one through this.

    — Your baby won’t have to. Kids under 15 are exempt.

  • While I can understand the desire to stick two proverbial fingers up at Japan’s fingerprinting policy, quite frankly I am surprised that this story did not end with the subject being detained for 21 days while Immigration asked him why he all of a sudden has a different imprint from what he had before.

    Odorikakeru put it quite nicely above: there is no way that filing your fingerprints will not be seen as mighty suspicious, and a vindictive prosecutor would presumably be only too happy to point to individuals with filed down fingers as the very “foreign offenders” that the fingerprinting policy is supposedly there to catch out.

    This is reckless, and I’d not encourage anyone to do it.

  • DR – Ghandi would be impressed!!! Peaceful protest, no blood spilled… good going.

    Interesting that you can get into the country with smudged fingerprints – so their security measures are really pointless after all.

  • DR:

    I assume that your fingers “heal” and reform their fingerprints. Roughly how long did this take?

    I’m glad that you submitted a complaint letter. However, the people manning immigrations are very low level. I fear that those letters never make it anywhere important enough for consideration. But it’s the thought that counts.

    Anyone know what happened to the automatic gates? I have registered my fingerprints twice (once right before my passport expired and again after renewing) but seem to only recall using the gate once so far. Several times I tried to use it but was told use the regular lines as it was closed. I’ve sort of forgotten about it lately. Are other people using it?


    The major difference in your story is that the was a known “career burglar”. Being a NJ is not a crime, contrary to some opinion. A law-abiding resident should not need to worry about raising suspicion. Automatically being treated like a criminal is much more offensive.

  • Now that’s what I call direct action! I raise my hat or should I say my fingers, to you sir! What are they going to do if everybody does the same as a form of protest against this insulting criminal fingerprinting?? Now, where did I put my fine black glass paper??

    Hope you have a great Christmas and a successful 2010 Debito. Thanks for all your good work!

    — Thanks!

  • Impressive, I wouldn’t have thought of filing down my fingers just because of tighter security getting into Japan.

    But, what if everyone circumvented the finger print scanner and they turned to rental identification, or DNA sampling?

    I’d hate to think how you’d get around that kind of security…

  • To all, a very Merry Christmas, and a well deserved break to Debito for his indefatigable efforts.

    To answer the questions above: I only and always offered smudges, so my prints were never different. The callouses on the fingerpads develop quite quickly, and some semblance of prints return but I have the habit now of sanding them down a month before traveling to any place I might be asked for the. It’s not painful, just sensitive, less than post-sunburn hot water.

    They’re MY biometrics, and my understanding is that the drones at the desks only hit the “Help Required” button when someone refuses, or a database match is found for someone sought for some offence. So far I’ve not refused, just offered my version of what I think they should have. And that’s as little as possible. Remember, less is more and nothing is everything in this instance!

  • Having already been fingerprinted, they have my biometrics for the next 80 years. Instead, after I naturalize next year, I’m going to have cosmetic surgery to change my dabs. I only need to do the index fingers, after all.

    — But what if the surgeons rat on you? 🙂

  • Michael Weidner says:

    “– But what if the surgeons rat on you? ”

    Well, if the hubub Ichihashi has proven anything, they surgeons won’t say anything.

    Also, a Korean lady tried the same thing recently; she replaced the fingerprints on her thum, index, and middle fingers by switching the hands that they wre on. They still caught her. If you’re going to go to the expense of having your fingerprints surgically replaced, it might be better to do them with someone who isn’t illegal. As well, as a naturalized citizen, why would you need to be fingerprinted afterwards?

  • Steve VonMaas says:

    Tom R. has identified the key concern: DNA

    None of this fingerprinting is being done for identification /investigatory purposes now. It started in the States as one of those “feel-good” measures calculated to impress the nervous old ladies with how secure they were making the Fatherland…er…Homeland. The Japanese and others retaliated out of understandable national pride.

    The truth is, it takes a LONG time to get fingerprint results back to investigators, so they generally only collect them to impress crime victims with the thorough job they’re doing. Their actual preoccupation, at even the lowest investigatory level, is with finding DNA. Those results come back fast, and anywhere we leave a fingerprint, or a finger-smudge, we generally leave DNA. (If no crime victim is watching, they’ll often just swab right through a fingerprint, effectively destroying the pretty pattern, but collecting much better evidence.)

    DNA is good for actual identification, and it is correspondingly dangerous to our freedom: Your DNA reveals infinitely more about your physicality than how pretty your fingertips are. Moreover, the risk of your DNA blowing into a crime scene by coincidence is much greater than that of your innocently leaving a fingerprint at one. If the authorities stop fingerprinting and start swabbing us, not only will they achieve the desired humiliation, but they’ll have far more useful, and mis-usable, information about us.

    — And just imagine the DNA soup that is that border fingerprint scanner every day!

  • Hi All,

    It may be good to tell what little I know about these verification systems.

    Basically, the readers work by projecting small amounts of light at a diagonal angle toward your fingertips and bounce back differently depending on the angle it impacts on. This creates the pattern of ridges and valleys. Anything that has the effect of either destroying the pattern altogether (sanding off) or breaking the light pattern triggers what is technically known as a ‘Failure to Acquire’ error. For instance, rubbing your hands in enough simple hand cream scatters the light in all directions, causing a failure to acquire. Incidentally, the earlier ‘requests’ to press harder probably change the patterns.

    Regarding the taking of prints, I hear a lot of stories about this. But personally, I have a tendency not to believe stories of having the prints out in the open on the screen unless someone can tell me they actually saw that happening on the screen itself. By default, NEC fingerprint readers are set to encrypt (for the those who wish to be precise: a kind of hashing algorithm) the images in the readers themselves. The hashes are then compared and/or stored. That setting would have to be switched off using a firmware upgrade, though it can be done. A failure to acquire will of course present an error message to the operator.

    The same goes for the ‘monster databases’. From what I understand (though I can’t prove it), the print hashes are compared to a ‘blacklist’ of unwanted people, but there’s no whitelist. That explains why people get away with presenting prints of different fingers every time, and why the Korean woman mentioned by mr. Weidner was only discovered after being reported by the people living in the town where she went to, weeks after she went through customs with flying colours…

    What I’m most concerned about is the following: If my suspicion about the Immigration Bureau turning away all positives without proper checks to see if it’s a false positive is correct, what would keep them from responding to this sanding down (or other invoked failures to acquire) by also turning away everyone having a failure to acquire error with the accusation that they’re trying to circumvent the system and want to enter Japan illegally? Certain articles I reacted to in the past already made for a basis for such a ‘witch hunting’ response…

    Just some food for thought…


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