One year after Japan reinstitutes fingerprinting for NJ, a quick retrospective


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「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)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan

Hi Blog.  It’s already been a year since Japan reinstituted fingerprinting for most NJ (after abolishing it in 2000 due to what was deemed back then to be human rights concerns) on November 20, 2007.  

There are still concerns about its application (a friend of mine who lived in Kobe actually LEFT Japan for good after more than a decade here, because he was so browned off about the unfulfilled promise of automatic gates at airports other than Narita; more later), its efficacy (we still don’t know many people were caught through fingerprints per se, as opposed to passport irregularities), the sweetheart GOJ deal to quasi-American company Accenture to make these machines, the long lines at the border due to faulty machines, the lumping in of Permanent Residents with tourists, the official justifications in the name of preventing terrorism, infectious diseases, and foreign crime, you name it.  

The shockwaves and indignations were so palpable that people banded together to form FRANCA (Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association), a lobbying and interest group to represent the interests of the “Newcomer” immigrants to Japan (we are in the process of formally registering as an NPO with the GOJ).

There’s a whole heading on fingerprinting on this blog at
but see special issues of the DEBITO.ORG NEWSLETTER on the subject here: and

There’s also a special section on for people to add their personal experiences with Immigration upon entering or returning to Japan, with 57 responses as of today:

Anyway, time for a brief retrospective:

Here’s an article from Maclean’s Magazine (Canada) from last March which I think puts it all pretty well.  Courtesy of Jon Dujmovich:

As for how people are being treated now that it’s been open season on NJ in the name of security, here’s an excerpt from a friend about how his wife (a Japanese) is being treated by police just because she doesn’t “look Japanese”:

I would like to relate to you an anecdote related to me by my wife concerning passport checks at Nagoya’s Centrair airport (at least, she didn’t indicate if she’d had the same experience at Kansai international airport or not).  My wife has been an airline employee for quite some time, and started her current position as cabin crew for a major international carrier after a brief period of unemployment once the contract period for her previous position was completed.  Her current working conditions are far from ideal, but she’s going to stick with it for the time being.

You have posted a number of entries on your blog about how NJ are regularly subjected to passport checks in major airports even after passing through immigrations.  Apparently it also happens to my wife quite regularly.

As she works for an international carrier, there are crew members from various countries and regions (Philippines, Hong Kong, the U.S., etc.) in addition to the Japanese crew.  For short stays, they are provided with a shore pass that allows them to enter Japan.  My wife has told me that it is very common for the ever helpful security drones to accost her and demand “Shore pass!” in heavily accented English.  I don’t know if they approach her because they think she doesn’t look “Japanese enough” (much to her perpetual consternation, a large number of people apparently tell her she looks Korean, and she’s not Zainichi), or because they see that her name plate is written in katakana (I am grateful that she took my name when we married, but it has caused some difficulties that I am sure you are familiar with), but they apparently don’t accept her statement that she is Japanese and make her show her passport anyway.

Now, of course, because she IS Japanese, not to mention typically tired after a flight, she is not at all inclined to raise a fuss about this.  It’s certainly despicable, but nothing that I’m about to suggest filing a lawsuit over.  Of course, if I even suggested something as straightforward as writing a letter of complaint to her, she I am sure that she would flat-out reject the idea on the grounds that it would be a bother (面倒くさい) and would cause too much trouble (迷惑をかける).  But this makes it clear to me that it’s not just definitely foreign-looking people who are being targeted, it’s anyone that evinces even the slightest indication of the possibility of being a foreigner.  Unless it’s a new(er? she never mentioned this happening at KIX when she was employed as crew for her previous job) policy to screen all airline employees regardless of the fact that they go through immigration just like everyone else.

Sorry to have taken so much of your time, but if you’ve bothered to read this far, thank you kindly.  Feel free to use this anecdote on your blog and garner comments, although if so I’d appreciate it being scrubbed of any remotely personally identifying information.

As always, keep fighting the good fight, and I am always looking forward to reading the new entries and comments on your blog.

Thanks.  Let’s get some more from readers about their experiences and feelings of being fingerprinted.  Comment away.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

21 comments on “One year after Japan reinstitutes fingerprinting for NJ, a quick retrospective

  • Debito,
    You may count me among those who left Japan permanently, never to return, even for a visit, because of this fingerprinting process. When I got through Japanese passport exit-control at the airport in September I took off my shoes and shook the dust off the soles, as a literal and symbolic gesture of disgust. My business I have relocated to Europe, and financial crisis or not, I’m glad I did. Sayonara Japan. Your loss, not mine.

  • Being fingerprinted every time one enters Japan seems like a dreadful waste of resources when the government already knows very well who I am.

    I certainly let immigration know my feelings each time I enter the country. I notice that a lot of the officers in the re-entry line can be a bit edgy, maybe I’m not the only one who lets their opinion be known.

  • when I arrived the special entrance for visa holders it wasn’t open (not enough Business they said) the place was empty and I let the guy behind the desk have it , yup he definetly looked liked many people have done the same thing. I could see him visibly take a deep breath , then his shoulder sank .
    I Just said this is a waste of money, im not a criminal, I pay my taxes and left the guy with a sarcastic “yokoso Japan”,
    The J-policeman came up to the immigration officer after I left and I can imagine the conversation ” yup another complainer”

    Everbody should make their job as miserable as possible maybe word will get back , if not , I felt a helluva lot better after venting my gripes…

    I make a point of taking my pay out the bank the minute I receive it , I transfer as much money as I can to our account in my own country (higher interest) , I pay every local tax bill as late as possible and wrote a letter to the council saying that I will not pay my taxes on time until I stop getting hassled by Japanese police or being treated like a criminal , I advise my friends not to come to japan, and told the jto office I would do this . When my folks visited me, I paid for them to come .

    I have never broken the law in my life and aint putting up with being treated like a criminal here .I came to this country with my Japanese wife and like Japan, but the folks at the top …
    Every time I re-enter japan I will let the Japanese immigration authorities know my feelings..nag them to submission lol

    bend the laws not break them!!

  • when I arrived the special entrance for visa holders it wasn’t open (not enough Business they said) the place was empty

    Did you try just walking in to the Japanese line?

    The second time I got fingerprinted, I got called over to the Japanese line because that desk was empty and the re-entry permit line was full. When I asked the girl about it (side note — I got the pretty girl who was in all those propaganda posters about the friendly immigration agents fingerprinting you), she said “Oh, we’re not really that strict about who goes in which line”

    Next time I went, the tourist and re-entry lines were both pretty backed-up, so I just stood in the Japanese line and was processed without a single strange look.

    I think the old ladies who do the “line control” at the airport care more about maintaining the separation than the actual immigration officers do.

  • Great post Gary! What bad feeling this gives us permanent residents towards this country. I guess we just have to carry on berating officials each and everytime. And keep on filing down the index fingerprints.

  • Heh. I do the same (file fingerprints to confuse the machine -it seems to work, I always get asked to repeat the process two or three times), and make an informal verbal protest every time.

    However, I make the protest politely. So far the official behind the desk has always commiserated/agreed with me. I’m sure it doesn’t count for much, but it does make me feel better.

  • > file fingerprints to confuse the machine -it seems to work, I always
    > get asked to repeat the process two or three time

    Not that I have not considered it, but I do not file my fingerprints and I consistently need to repeat the process 2-3 times. The machines do not seem to be very reliable. On one occasion it just would not work after numerous attempts and I was just waved through.

    Speaking of the automated gate, I can only recall going through once: it seems to be closed more often than not whenever I fly…

  • > You may count me among those who left Japan permanently, never to return, even for a visit, because of this fingerprinting process.

    This really does seem over the top. However much you object to the fingerprinting, couldn’t you just grin and bear it, and afterwards forget about those few seconds of your life?

    > I have never broken the law in my life and aint putting up with being treated like a criminal here

    Never having broken the law in your life is very impressive! I would say almost everyone has broken road laws at some time.

    More importantly, having to give fingerprints is not “being treated like a criminal”. “Being treated like a criminal” is being handcuffed, or put in a cell, or ordered about by guards all the time, etc.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    More importantly, having to give fingerprints is not “being treated like a criminal”. “Being treated like a criminal” is being handcuffed, or put in a cell, or ordered about by guards all the time, etc.

    The third item is exactly what happens with this new fingerprinting scheme, and if you resist, expect the first two as well.

  • Jon Dujmovich says:

    Glad to see you posted the MacLean’s article! I was worried you had lost it!

    BTW PLENTY of protest “Yokoso Japan 11/20 Commemorative T-shirts” left! To order see

    Cool to wear anywhere, anytime, especially through Japanese airports…I wear mine every time I travel!
    When ordering quote Debito’s blog and receive 500 yen off!

  • I think everyone is seriously over-reacting to this fingerprinting situation. Personally, whether in Japan or the US, I really don’t care. I have nothing to hide, no fear and no qualms about the system. These are their rules and if anyone doesn’t like it, no one is telling you to stay. Do I like it, NO. Are they going to listen if you complain, NO.
    So I am just taking it all in stride. I have more important things to worry about than confusing some idiotic machine. On this one, they will never change. I just go with the flow. Usually, I would have strong objections, but this is something that no matter how hard you try to run up against it. This is a system that will not go away anytime soon.

  • I left, too, in protest of the fingerprinting, and because of the scary developing climate of authoritarianism and the apathy of the populace to human rights abuses.

    Since I lay a lot of the blame squarely on bully tactics of the American government (of old), I’m hoping for better days ahead with the change in leadership.

    And gambatte to you immigration protestors.

  • Charles, maybe you are right but I think that it is correct to, at least, make people’s voice heard. Things can change or maybe not but, if nobody ever demonstrated about anything, women could not vote and black people would be still slaves. And to go to the extreme, just think about the French Revolution. Things can change, it depends on what we do or do not.

  • I agree. I am just stating that given Japan’s track record, it is unlikely that they will change anytime soon. That is why I was stating that in my opinion (usually, I have been correct in these areas) Japanese rarely budge, especially in this situation being overly-xenophobic, I don’t see them changing this system anytime soon. Yes, you need to start somewhere, but if you think I have high hopes for the Japanese or faith….it’s rather slim. That is why, I just go with the flow.

  • From Charles B.:
    “These are their rules and if anyone doesn’t like it, no one is telling you to stay. ”

    Sounds like Bush. Lame response to a serious situation, Charles.

    Some of us are here to stay despite not being forced to.

  • @Ed, @Charles B.

    Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated and more disturbing once you know the facts to just grin and forget about it.

    The idea behind a lot of fingerprints is based on the twin myths that fingerprints are both unique and foolproof in matching. Neither is the case.

    Fingerprints are ridiculously easy to forge. Already in 2002, a team from Yokohama National University successfully fooled fingerprint scanners with copies made from gummy (as in gummy bears), a material easy to find in supermarkets ( Last year, the German Chaos Computer Club and several journalists did the same thing using nothing more outlandish than wood glue (, along with a publication of the covertly obtained fingerprint of their interior minister, Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble.

    Fingerprint matching by machines also causes false matches, sometimes called false acceptance or false positives. Recent test results are difficult to get, but older ones by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and other organisations indicate the false positive rate stabilised at about 1 in 10000. This doesn’t sound like much, until you do the math. If you have 5 million people you want to match in a year, you get 500 false positives for every person you’re looking for… Checking by hand is more reliable, which is probably why it takes five days to check. But a false positive can still really ruin your stay.

    And it’s important to realise that fingerprints stay with you. If your passport is copied and abused, that’s inconvenient to have it revoked and issued a new one. If your fingerprint is copied and abused, just how exactly do you revoke and get a new fingerprint…? Or will that episode stay with you for the rest of your life…?

    Now the answer to that is that surely the Immigration Department will know about these problems and be duly careful…? Well, don’t take my word for it that it’s likely they don’t. Ask them, if you can get a hold of them… And on their own website ( they state: “we will properly store and protect your data, according to the basic law for the protection of personal data, the Act for the Protection of Personal Information Retained by Administrative Institutions.” Read the articles for yourself (, and check what you can…

  • Well, just had my 10th trip through KIX this year.

    And yup..finger printed AGAIN. If my face matches the passport, my numbers match, my Visa is valid etc etc, why keep on finger printing me, am i going to constantly change my prints??? Do they not trust their own system on “keeping tabs” on those criminals, or do they believe i would do something like James above has suggested?…if that is the case, a pot of acetone would cure than prior to finger printing. If they have my records once, fine. But repeating it endlessly does not thing but irritate me further…and highlights a pathetically-weak system that does nothing, save to “calm the masses”.

    After this, “welcome back”, no where else in the world have i been stopped, save for Japan. I’ve been travelling around the world, all 5 continents for more than 20 years. However, every time i enter Japan, I’m stopped at immigration, and not just questioned either. This time i was taken away to a room, i was searched thoroughly (more than usual), my bags completely emptied searching inside the linings etc etc, all the gifts given to me by my clients taken apart…and then after this 45min “ordeal”…the man ran up to me as i walked away, he couldn’t walk as fast as me, to say “thank you”. It seemed important for him to say thank you to me as if ordered to do so, for what??!!!…humiliating me yet again…after a 24 hour flight/trip (I cant sleep flying) i was not in the mood for this at all.

    However every time i have been through immigration with my wife…just a smile and welcome back!

    I concur with Gary…i quiet like Japan, the Japanese are lovely people, but, those in the “establishment”…you can fill in the blanks!

  • Well, John, I’m sure they don’t suspect you of having duplicate prints. But if there would be some kind of false positive about you (information that belongs to another person but that pops up on some information about you that looks the same), that would very much fit the bill.

    This would under normal circumstances be something where the Privacy Law (of which I’m sorry to say I gave you an incorrect link in my previous message, the correct one is would come into their own. Article 25 would allow you to see the information that exists about you. And if there would be an error such as that, article 26 would allow you to request to have it corrected. On paper, it looks much better than in the US, where no such legislation exists.

    But that’s on paper. The reality? Article 24 says that the procedures to make those requests should be made readily available, and also sent back on request. If anyone were to stumble apon those procedures and the mentioning of the price in the article as well, please tell me, I have never been able to find them. And requests? Mine at least went completely unanswered…

  • James

    You said “..Fingerprints are ridiculously easy to forge. Already in 2002, a team from Yokohama National University successfully fooled fingerprint scanners with copies made from gummy (as in gummy bears), a material easy to find in supermarkets..”

    My point is, if that is their concern, which I clearly doubt, then a simple pot of acetone, for those to “clean” their fingers would prevent this occurance.

    The point is some 99.99% (ie almost everyone)of ppl passing through would not go to such lengths of copying or forging their fingerprints (Japan is not high on the list of must settle places because it is such a welcoming country with a social system that helps all for nowt). Ergo, what is wrong with my original prints?…i don’t have to get a new photo for my passport every time i go away, yet my facial features will alter slightly in the period of 10 years.

  • Well, John, I believe we’re on different wavelengths…;-)

    The most likely explanation for your question why they want the prints every time is that they would be using them to determine if you are really you. A ‘common’ way of getting through passport control is to use the passport of someone looking a lot like you (also known as look-alike fraud).

    If anyone needs more confirmation that fingerprinting doesn’t work either, I would like to refer to The cat’s out of the bag.

    But that’s not my concern. As long as no one is unfairly bothered any organisation can have all the useless information about me they want.

    But am I?

    Where did those fake fingerprints come from? Perhaps stolen? Those people, innocent victims in their own right, would now be on the list of unwelcome persons…

    And what about false positives? Even without any faking these kind of machines make mistakes. They’ve been tested and the test results show that.

    I wish that I could trust the Immigration Bureau to care about those things, and to make absolutely sure that such things simply do not affect innocent people. But I’m sorry to say, I’ve tried to convince myself that I can, but the results of my investigation show otherwise…

    The newspapers like to comment heavily on the 846 people who were refused entry, based on fingerprints. How many of those people were guilty of no other crime than being born with fingerprints that happen to look too much like someone on the ‘unwelcome’ list? And how many of those have not been able to contact the GOJ to get the problem fixed?

    And even if it would be only one, what is the response of the Immigration Bureau? Is that: “Sorry, tough luck…?” It’s not like you can just go to the Coop and buy yourself a new set of fingerprints…

    I don’t care about the 0.01% (probably far less) who may use fake fingerprints. I do care though about the 0.01% (probably slightly more) who are the innocent victims of this system and the myths around it…


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>