New facial recognition systems at J border: Once again, testing out the next-gen loss of civil liberties on the “Gaijin Guinea Pigs”


eBooks, Books, and more from ARUDOU Debito (click on icon):
Guidebookcover.jpgjapaneseonlyebookcovertextHandbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)sourstrawberriesavatardebitopodcastthumb
UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito
DEBITO.ORG PODCASTS on iTunes, subscribe free
“LIKE” US on Facebook at
If you like what you read and discuss on, please consider helping us stop hackers and defray maintenance costs with a little donation via my webhoster:
Donate towards my web hosting bill!
All donations go towards website costs only. Thanks for your support!

Hi Blog.  First, take in this:


Face recognition system to be tested again at Japanese immigration
Kyodo News, April 19, 2014, courtesy of JK

The government plans to restart from August a test on a facial recognition system to speed up immigration checks at airports and prepare for an expected surge in visitors for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, officials said Saturday.

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau will reintroduce the system on a trial basis for Japanese passengers at Haneda and Narita airports for about five weeks, after a series of errors in the first test in 2012 led the ministry to forgo its plan to adopt the system.

Facial recognition systems check passenger photos taken during inspections against data in a chip in their passports. Britain and Australia have introduced such systems.

The bureau conducted the first test on roughly 29,000 people between August and September 2012, but the system failed to recognize about 17 percent of the passengers.

A panel of experts told the Justice Ministry in May last year it should introduce the facial recognition system to increase use of automated gates to leave and enter the country, quicker than conventional immigration inspections.

Automated gates at major airports equipped with fingerprint recognition technology are unpopular with passengers as they require prior registration. The facial recognition system will not need it.



COMMENT:  Now let’s survey the narratives of justification in this article.  We have the argument that it’s allegedly for a looming event (NJ swarm from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even though it’s more than six years away!), the convenience factor (faster processing of people, this time without even registering!), and the bandwagon argument that others are implementing it (Britain and Australia, whose civil societies have had more robust debates on the issues of privacy and civil liberties).  All of these arguments were made during the reinstitution of NJ fingerprinting in 2007, and that time it wasn’t for a specific event, but rather for anti-terrorism [sic] in general.  And as has argued many times before, once you get the public softened up on the idea of taking away civil liberties by testing it on one sector of the population (in this case, the Gaijin Guinea Pigs, since foreigners in every society have fewer civil and political rights), it gets expanded on the rest of the population.

Let’s enter the No-Brainer Zone:  I anticipate the facial recognition software will be implemented nationwide more seamlessly than any other intrusive technology yet, since it is so convenient and doesn’t require individual registry or even much hardware installation.  There’s even a profit motive.  Consider this:


Stores sharing shoppers’ faces
The Japan Times, APR 12, 2014, courtesy of JK

Over 100 supermarkets and convenience stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area have been recording images of shoppers’ faces as part of antishoplifting measures. Though the stores have posted signs stating cameras are in place, the stores have been sharing the biometric data of customers without their knowledge.

Such sharing should be considered an invasion of privacy and going against the intention of Japan’s Personal Information Protection Law.

After 115 stores of 50 separate companies installed a shoplifting prevention system, they obtained the power not only to record every customer’s face but also to share that record in a network.

If a person shoplifts or makes unreasonable complaints, camera footage of the person is turned into biometric data and classified into categories such as shoplifter or complainer. That data is then stored on the firm’s server and made available to other stores.

When the same face is recognized at another store, the staff is notified that the blacklisted person is in their store.

Because the accuracy rate of current recognition software has become extremely high — 99.9 percent accurate by some accounts — the data is more or less equivalent to the original image. That means that even when the original images of the faces are not made available, a nearly complete replication of that face, in data form, is being shared.

The problem is the lack of checks on the system. Seemingly whoever has access to the network could classify customers according to an arbitrary criterion. But what constitutes an “unreasonable” complaint is open to question. And whether an act of shoplifting is reported to the police and whether the suspect is convicted of the crime is a matter of the law. It should not be a matter of how an employee feels about it.

Unfortunately with this technology, stores are now able to put people on a blacklist for any reason whatsoever.

Rest of the article at


Comments at the JT to this article were very poignant regarding the probable treatment of Visible Minorities:

Steve Jackman
I suspect that this technology and sharing of data is also being used to target shoppers who are visible minorities for extra surveillance. If so, that would explain accounts I have heard from some foreign residents of Japan that security guards seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere when they are visiting shops (especially, certain large department stores in the Tokyo area).

While I’d stop short of absolutely connecting this to such accounts, it was also my first thought that the abuse of this system would immediately (or at least very promptly) swing to surveillance of minorities.

The article uses the term “blacklist” without explicitly stating that the customers HAVE been blacklisted, as in disallowed from entering one of the stores in the network. In the absence of that actual claim, and based on what should be the illegality of this practice, I’m not convinced that’s actually happening: As presented, the whole thing seems more arbitrary than barring a convicted criminal from the premises of one store (which would be reasonable in some circumstances) and closer to cooperative discrimination, whether legally justified or not, and whether directed at minorities or at ethnic, resident Japanese.

Steve Jackman
The risk and a likely scenario of a system like this, which lacks proper checks-and-balances, is that the actions of a single shop employee at a store can result in a shopper getting forever blacklisted and tagged for extra surveillance at many other stores.

What if this employee is inherently suspicious of all foreigners in general, or harbors racist feelings towards anyone who does not appear Japanese? Such an employee can end up blacklisting and tagging a foreign shopper not for anything specific that the customer has done, but rather out of the employee’s own paranoia against non-Japanese shoppers.

Certainly. In places where minorities are either accepted or largely ignored, this would still be unacceptable (as you say, it puts too much power in arbitrary and unchecked hands, regardless of how it’s used), but Japan’s pronounced discrimination problem does make it hard to ignore the likelihood of abuse skewing towards minorities.


Food for thought as the dragnets draw ever tighter. Although the 2020 Olympics have been used as justification for positive pro-NJ rights issues (see for example here and here), here’s an example of where it’s doing the opposite. Japan’s policymakers get weird whenever the outside world is going to drop by for a visit. Not only when they’re being called over to stay awhile. ARUDOU Debito

10 comments on “New facial recognition systems at J border: Once again, testing out the next-gen loss of civil liberties on the “Gaijin Guinea Pigs”

  • Wait till the Olympics is used to justify complete loss of rights against stops and searches that go even further… This sort of article regarding the immigration checks worries me further after knowing the history of people “somehow dying” during deportation or while in police custody several times.

  • Baudrillard says:

    No complaining allowed? Well, that is Japan isnt it? Same with the Hague Convention foot dragging- a raised voice, a “complaint” equals domestic abuse.
    “the person is turned into biometric data and classified into categories such as shoplifter or complainer. That data is then stored on the firm’s server and made available to other stores.”

    So its like, oh, err watch out we have someone who complained in the alert! So what if a product is faulty or doesnt do what it is supposed to? Is this unreasonable? Who defines that?

    I have had numerous run ins with staff over faulty goods, sometimes it appears to “work” ie the power goes on but it doesnt do what it is supposed to, especially with complex goods like computers and phones. Or they got a batch of faulty ones. Or the Ram card is fake; looks genuine to the untrained eye- they absolutely refused to believe me.

    “shitsurei monku” really is seen as just shitsurei!

    This will accelerate store decline versus hikkikomori internet shopping, as the individualistic Japanese (ref. Hofstede) will feel their privacy threatened if they put their foot in a store.

    Caveat emptor taken to new extremes in a society already loathe to make a fuss. I predict an even further decline in consumer spending.

  • This is certainly an area in which no one should want Japan to follow in the footsteps of the rest of the westernised world, the level of CCTV surveillance, facial recognition and tracking in the UK, for example is breathtaking.

    As for the use in convenience stores and supermarkets, surely given the strict laws on photographing and videoing other people in Japan, it can’t be legal. I would certainly boycott such places on principle, we need a list of the businesses involved.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Just a few thoughts;

    Absolutely no doubt that since NJ finger prints and eye scans collected at immigration are shared with over 5000 different entities world-wide (read that waaaay back in the JT), you can be sure that facial recognition info will also be shared by immigration. I hope they can improve the failure rate from 17% before they let immigration murder someone (sorry, I meant ‘accidental death whilst resisting deportation’) by mistake.

    As for stores filming shoppers, then storing the data for facial recognition software that they will share; isn’t this a breach of Japanese privacy laws? You can be arrested in Japan for taking someone’s picture without their written consent, if they decide to pursue the matter. Will these stores have large signs to inform shoppers that they are now being scanned? Will stores have large signs to inform shoppers that they are part of a network that receives and uses such data collected at other stores?

    I would prefer not to use such stores, and where possible do my shopping on Rakuten or Amazon, if I were you.

    And finally, yes, it’s a no-brainer that some under-achiever with a chip on his shoulder in front of a monitor in a back room will get all uppity about the NJ who has the money to buy luxury items in Japan, and so wanders into the store, or the NJ ‘corrupting’ that ‘pure’ Japanese girl by dating or marrying her, and will speedily notify security that they should search that devious NJ for shoplifting. Happy days ahead!

  • I am transgender and have been undergoing hormone treatment for the past 18 months. My appearance (mainly fat distribution and skin tone) have changed significantly, and being fairly young it will continue to change in various ways for at least another 72-96 months. I already look like I should be my own little sister. My voice is passably female with help from elective surgery, and to further finalize things cosmetically I will also be undergoing facial feminization surgery in the US this summer.

    Yet I haven’t been out of Japan in the last 4 years. My passport still has the old male picture of me, and is clearly stamped SEX/SEXE/SEXO M. Not much I can do to change that unless I move back to my country of birth to live as openly female for at least 24 months (which isn’t going to happen), after which ‘things will be considered’. Pretty archaic, so, no. I live here now. It’s my home.

    While being transgender doesn’t qualify as particularly unique nor particularly Earth-shatteringly common these days (at least in Europe, the US, and some other parts of Asia), I’m especially interested in what kind of effect these ‘new facial recognition systems’ have in store for people like myself whose appearance continues to change, transgender or otherwise, and especially when coming back from the abroad bruised, battered, and swollen. Carrying paperwork such as hormone prescriptions and contacts for my therapist and doctors is fair enough.

    But things always tend to get a little nerve-wracking when dealing with out-of-touch Japanese authorities. At least, that has been my experience on the prefectural level lately. And I do understand where they’re coming from. As a city hall drone, a girl walks in with a guy’s ID and things might look a bit odd. I get it. OK. Long story not-so-short, I guess my main concern is going to be that ultimately, with no qualified professionals on hand (doctors, professional counselors, legal experts, etc), I’ll have to pull down my pants and perform the helicopter in order to prove the M marker on my passport to a bunch of random airport dudes just to get back into the country and go home.

    Will it all boil down to dealing with qualified experts with certificates or rote-trained bullies with batons? 🙁

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Bob,

    Rakuten put up a statement 2 weeks ago that whale and ivory products would be withdrawn (bizarrely) because of the ICJ ruling re: whaling.

  • John (Yokohama) says:

    On a related note…

    “I can understand that security cameras have a certain effect on crime deterrence, but they’re being installed without thorough discussion on privacy issues. Perhaps we should also be thinking about other ways to prevent crimes.”

    Koji Ishimura, a professor at Hakuoh University and an expert on the information law, expressing concerns over the lack of debate on the proliferation of security cameras in public spaces. (Mainichi Shimbun)

  • Private people in public places have no privacy.
    Public people in public places have no privacy.

    Private people have the right to film whoever comes into their Private Places.
    Private people have the right to film whoever comes into everyone Public Places.

    The real campaign here should not be “Stop filming us private people in public places and private places!”
    The real campaign here should be “START filming public people, anytime they are on the public clock, receiving public money.”

    Cameras need to be on every public police officer’s chest facing outward the entire time he or she is on the clock.
    Cameras need to be on every bureaucrat’s and city worker’s chest facing outward the entire time he or she is on the clock.

    Police officers and bureaucrats and city workers can’t hide even a moment of what they do, when on the public clock. No privacy for public workers.

    I think the “film all public workers” statement is much more logical than the “stop filming us private people when we walk in public and into private stores” statement.

    I think that we can all agree that PUBLIC WORKERS need to start having their public work hours filmed and that video be available as public information online, easily viewable by the public who pay for that work to be done according to the law.

  • Some thoughts on biometrics in general and facial recognition in particular, just from a person in the profession.

    Biometrics are nice technical marvels, they look good on television, and they have their uses for convenience: In small-scale, private, relatively harmless situations.

    They are, however, not, repeat not a good idea in large scale deployments to help making decisions on serious quality of life issues. While they are generally getting more reliable, the reliability (with the possible exception of the very expensive iris scans) is nowhere near what you need when it comes to millions. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that no biometric is particularly secret, so they can be faked relatively easily. This in fact breaks the first fundamental rule of authenticators: No one in their right mind would make it easy to make copies of their home or car keys, their bank card or any other one.

    But far more important is that biometrics are, and always will be, terrible when it comes to fail-safe. No security or safety system is complete without fail-safe, as failure is always an option. Again, with other authenticators, this is always built in. Keys, passports, credit cards, all are made safer for the simple reason that if something goes wrong, you throw them away and get a new one. Not with this. If something goes wrong and you wrongfully are denied access to Japan, the problem is there for life.

    And as far as fail-safe goes, the common attitude of the Immigration Bureau that they can do no wrong and are allergic to any indication to the contrary makes it more of a problem than it should be or in the hands of comparable organizations in other western countries. A case in point is readily available in the fingerprinting debacle. According to their own Immigration Control Reports, the percentage of people denied access to Japan in relation to the total visitors over 2008, 2009 AND 2010 (after that the reports were no longer published) show a remarkable consistency of hovering around 0.01%. And it’s a suspicious coincidence that 0.01% happens to be the tested false alarm rate of NEC’s fingerprint readers (the brand in use at that time) in a 2004 comparative vendor test. Given how unlikely it is that the Immigration Bureau of all organizations would accept that their machines or staff could be wrong, there is a good chance we have a massive fail-safe issue here.

    Facial recognition sounds nice, but I wouldn’t trust it for this purpose, not in my life.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>