Morikawa talk Report
By Dave Aldwinckle

(Sent in different contexts to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, Friends, and HIBA Mon, 28 Dec 1998. Adapted from article printed in HIBA NEWS December, 1998)

This is a summary of our last Hokkaido International Business Association (HIBA, for short) meeting, where I am the Secretary. If you can't get enough of my writings, you are welcome to check out old monthly HIBA NEWSes at our home page. Anyway, I invited Asahi Evening News columnist Kathy Morikawa, one of my personal heroes, to give a talk on her dealings with the Japanese government . In the 1980's, she became a major voice against the mandatory fingerprinting of foreigners, and nearly went to prison for it.

Contents of this URL as follows:



PREVIOUS HIBA MEETING (NOVEMBER) was on Thursday, November 5, 1998, where Kathy Morikawa gave a speech on FINGERPRINTING: TAKING JAPAN TO COURT. Kathy spoke at length on the old system (old meaning mid-1980's) of personal identification, where taking fingerprints of registered foreigners over the age of fourteen (later 16) was pro forma. In the bad old days, instead of the credit-card size Gaijin Cards we have today, foreigners had to carry at all times 10-page Gaijin Passbooks, with the left index finger imprinted inside. Every time a Ward registration or renewal of the Passbook took place (generally once every three years, later five), fingerprints were taken--in triplicate (one set for the Ward Office, one for the Justice Ministry, one stuck in the passbook itself.

Although the fingerprinting of foreigners indeed happens in other countries, this frequency and thoroughness was much higher than in the rest of the OECD, and a surprisingly recent development--inaugurated in 1952 once SCAP left these fine shores.

Moreover, fingerprinting was culturally offensive to those it generally applied to: the ethnic Korean and Chinese minorities. They felt that 1) it was an official expression of mistrust of things foreign--a way for suspicious police to keep track of aliens and invade their privacy (effectively, they have complete access to the prints at any Ward Office), 2) it was an unnecessary humiliation and literal alienation of people born, raised, and fully assimilated in Japan (ethnic children--and their schoolmates--often did not know they were actually "foreigners" until the government called them from junior high to ink their fingers), and 3) it was associating anyone non-Japanese with criminal activity, since by law no Japanese may legally get fingerprinted unless *officially charged* with a crime. So people started refusing--the first refuser was an ethnic Korean in 1980, and the first arrested and charged with a felony in 1981.

Kathy was among the first Whites to refuse, and her reason was more rational than cultural--she simply no longer saw the need for it. She had been here 9 years, was married to a Japanese, and would be staying here permanently. The government had already taken three sets of prints, so at occasion number four in September 1982 she just said no. Two months later she underwent police interrogations (where cops shoved her into a small room to shout and pound on the table while threatening her husband outside with all sorts of legal action). Then they used the ultimate sanction at their disposal: denial of her Reentry Permit (Sainyuukoku Kyoka)--which meant that she could leave the country but risk not getting back in again--unless she cooperated and got printed. She still refused. In December 1982, she became the first White to go public, announcing that she would be suing the Japanese Government to get her Reentry Permit rights back. She would thus have to remain in Japan for the duration of her litigation, no matter how many years it would eventually take.

The details of the legal labyrinth I will not get into here, but several things stand out in your Secretary's memory even a month after the event: 1) How interminable a court case can be, where either hours are spent just reprising what went on at previous hearings (thanks to the frequent shuffling of judges), or else a few minutes are taken to file the papers and recess is granted for several months. Unless (in Kathy's case) a New York Times reporter is present at one of the hearings--then justice is summary. 2) How slipshod the judicial process is, with three judges present but often snoozing, moreover deferring to the senior judge. Particularly diabolical is the fact that often the verdict is something cobbled together from the Prosecution's statements, without any analysis or interpretation. 3) How judges, with no jury to answer to, make the law even more case-by-case and whimsical. One judge even denied Kathy her right to an interpreter out of spite. 4) How with all the cartelization of the legal system here and the dearth of lawyers achieving the Bar in Japan, there are still some Japanese lawyers so concerned about issues of human rights that they will spend years defending you for very little remuneration.

Eventually with all the trials and appeals came critical mass. Once a White was arrested it was no longer just a low-key, "domestic problem", and Kathy became both a beacon and a lightning rod. Overseas media, including Time Magazine and the New York Times, picked up on the issue, while the domestic media featured her in the news for as long as can be expected in a human-rights scandal. The number of fingerprint refusers reached 13,000--the largest level of civil disobedience in Japan since the 1960's. Cases clogged the courts and people realized that something had to give. It did in 1989, when the Emperor Showa died. An Imperial Amnesty was declared and the fingerprint laws amended from every-renewal to once-only. Your HIBA Secretary, as a Permanent Resident, has no fingerprint on his Card (only his signature), and that is thanks to people like Kathy standing up for both their rights and their principles.

There is a happy ending. Japan is considering abolishing the fingerprinting system entirely. Read the retyped article following this one.

The conclusion and message to HIBA Members? If you as a businessperson, not a human-rights firebrand, want to take on the State in the courts system, watch out. Expect to lose in the local courts and have to reappeal to the higher, which might mean years in litigation for improbable compensation. In your HIBA Secretary's view, the recurrent themes I have seen in court cases (mostly dealing with labor law issues for non-Japanese academics. See http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#ninkisei) is: the individual sense of justice will probably lose out to the judges' need to preserve the status quo, since this is not a "trial by a jury of your peers", but rather "you and your lawyers taking on judges who see themselves as representatives of the State". In any case, if you break the law you are at the mercy of the judicial system (which can revoke at will your ability to get a Reentry Permit, and thus keep you a prisoner in effectively Japan's biggest prison), not to mention the police (since there is no law of Habeas Corpus in Japan, they can and often will hold suspects in an interrogation room for several weeks until they crack). So unless you have lots of time, pots of money, and knots of intergrity within you, avoid the courts. It is possible to win the smaller claims, such as wage disputes, but not the larger. In any case, find out the letter of the law, then tread lightly ever after.


"The Justice Minister says his office is preparing a bill that would abolish manadatory fingerprinting of foreign residents"
(Asahi Evening News, October 7, 1998, Front page)

Foreign residents could soon be spared submitting a fingerprint to live in Japan, Justice Minister Shozaburo Nakamura said Tuesday.

Nakamura told the Lower House Committee on Judicial Affairs that he has instructed ministry officials to prepare a bill that would abolish the controversial fingerprinting requirement for foreign residents. The bill to revise the Alien Registration Law will be submitted at the next ordinary Diet session, he said.

Under the proposed revision, foreign residents aged 16 and older will be required to submit only their photos and signatures when filling out registration applications, the ministry said.

Nakamura said officials in this ministry recently reached an agreeement to do away with the fingerprinting practice after determining the practice could be construed as a violation of human rights.

Currently, an estimated 600,000 non-Japanese residents are required to submit fingerprints. The contentious law was revised in 1992 to exempt "special" permanent residents--mainly long-term ethnic Korean residents--from the fingerprinitng requirement. That revision became effective in January 1993.

After the 1992 revision, fingerprinting was still required for non-Japanese workers and students staying in Japan for one year or longer as well as foreigners married to Japanese nationals and other foreign permanent residents.

The National Police Agency and some others are expected to oppose the proposed revision, arguing that it will threaten public security. It was strong opposition by the police agency that blocked the abolition of fingerprinting foreigners in 1992.

The fingerprinting system has been controversial since it was adopted in 1952. It was introduced in the confusion that followed World War II to prevent the false registration of foreigners. At that time, fingerprinting was required for ethnic Koreans even if they had lived in Japan for a long time.

Vocal opposition to the law grew--especially among ethnic Koreans in the 1980's--until it was first revised in 1987 to end a renewal requirement that demanded a new set of prints every five years. In 1992, when the second revision of the requirement was being considered by the Diet, lawmakers adopted a resolution to review the fingerprinting system within five years.

The Justice Ministry considers the next Diet session as the deadline set out in that Diet resolution. The ministry's decision to abolish fingerprinting comes after foreign residents and citizens' groups expressed their strong opposition to the requirement at hearings held by the ministry's Immigration Bureau since last year.

The Immigration Bureau said the 1992 revision has not had a negative impact and that fingerprinting should not be considered the only trustworthy means of identification. Bureau officials also said the fingerprinting system appears to be ineffective in stopping or reducing the growing number of illegal immigrants and visa overstays in Japan.


Dave Aldwinckle

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Portions Copyright 1998-2003, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan