Japan Times: Mark Schreiber gives Immigration the finger at Narita


Hi Blog. Mark Schreiber from the Japan Times gives us an amusing account on what happened to him when he took a junket to Saipan, just to test the Fingerprinting machines on the way back… Debito in Sapporo

Prints rejected, scribe accepted
Our writer attempts to give Immigration the finger at Narita
By Mark Schreiber
The Japan Times November 27, 2007


The center of the little monitor — I’d guess about 20 cm from the looks of it — flashed the word “Yokoso” (welcome). Its colored border was festooned with a collage of images near and dear to visiting tourists’ hearts: “torii” gates, the shinkansen, Zen gardens, Mount Fuji . . .

“Please place your fingers on the pad,” ordered the immigration officer from behind the counter.

Before I relate more sordid details, let’s begin at the beginning. Having heard much emotional debate on the new fingerprinting system, I decided that I would leave and re-enter Japan for the express purpose of subjecting myself to this supposed indignity, and then deal with it in the most exhibitionistic manner possible: the article you are now reading.

It seemed reasonable to give Narita Immigration five days to get its act together, so I flew down to Saipan and entertained myself with a visit to Banzai Cliff. My return flight, Northwest Airlines 75, touched down at Narita at 6:50 p.m. on Nov. 24.

First and foremost, let me make it crystal clear where I stand on this matter: I don’t particularly like to give my fingerprints. Nevertheless, my strongest objection to the new system relates less to my human rights than to my wanting to exit the airport as expeditiously as possible. Since 9/11, air travel has become a nightmare, and after undergoing security checks up the kazoo and being cooped up in a stuffy tourist-class cabin for 12 hours on a flight from Chicago or Detroit, I’m in no mood for further torment.

One more thing: For more than 20 years, holders of re-entry permits were permitted to use the same gates as Japanese nationals, with no questions asked. I’ve always appreciated this privilege and felt aggravated that, through no malfeasance on my part, this consideration — a great time-saver — was apparently being withdrawn.

That said, if I were to report that I was forced to cool my heels in a long queue last Saturday, it would be an outrageous lie. The fact was, it was the mostly Japanese passengers who did the slow shuffle. At that particular time few foreigners were in evidence and as a result, fingerprinting aside, I was probably one of the first ones out of the place.

As soon as I made my approach, a senior official pounced on me like he’d been waiting there all day just for my arrival.

“Have you filled out one of these E/D cards?” he asked with an encouraging smile, waving one of those familiar entry/departure cards with its incomprehensible questionnaire on the back.

Indeed I had, so I was sent straight to the nearest vacant counter.

The young inspector was all friendly and smiley. He took one look at my passport and knew I was going to be a piece of cake: a permanent resident, papers in order, and nobody named “Mark Schreiber” on Interpol’s terrorist watchlist. (Little did he know, nya-ha-haa . . .)

Then the moment of truth arrived, and he requested me to place my left and right index fingers on the little glass pads. I sighed, set down my six-pack of duty-free macadamia and chocolate chip cookies on the floor, and followed his instructions.

The green lights beside my fingers changed to red. Something was not working properly.

“Um, I can’t seem to get a clear reading off your fingers,” he said, popping open a container of premoistened finger wipes. “Please use this to clean them and try again.”

I gave both fingertips a quick but thorough rubdown and repeated the process.

After several clicks from his keyboard he shook his head again.

He stood up, reached over, and used the same wipe to polish the glass surface of the fingerprint reader.

“OK, uh, this time, let’s try your middle fingers,” he encouraged, holding up his digit in an unintentionally rude gesture some people refer to as “flipping the bird.”

Once again I complied. Click-click-click. Click-click. Click.

“Please, would you mind not pressing down so hard on the pad?”

“But I’m not pressing down hard,” I countered.

From his exasperated reaction I got the distinct impression my middle fingers were not providing usable prints either.

“Well, anyway, let’s take a picture,” he grimaced, standing up and tilting the camera angle upwards to accommodate my 189 cm height.

And that was that. Confirming that I looked like the captured image, and that both resembled the mug shot in my passport, he waved me through.

“Gokuro-sama,” I told him — by which I meant “Sorry to give you such a rough time” — and headed for the baggage carousel.

But wait a minute: My prints didn’t take. Why wasn’t I dragged off into a separate room and interrogated? Why, after all the fuss, was I simply admitted on the strength of my passport, status of residence and re-entry permit?

It would seem that human officials, at their discretion, are empowered to overrule the almighty fingerprint thingamajig.

After relating my experience to a friend on Sunday, he directed me to a BBC News item dated Oct. 17, 2005, in which a fingerprint expert is quoted as saying that “Work such as laboring and typing (italics mine) wears down those ridges and affects the smoothness of the skin. It can make fingerprints very hard to read.”

So my first encounter left me chuckling that the government laid out ¥36 billion for something anyone can outwit by pounding a keyboard, as I do, for 14 hours a day.

Just think: four of my fingers, with no help from their owner, pulled off a courageous feat of passive resistance. In the ongoing struggle for foreigners’ rights in Japan, let them henceforth be known as the “Narita Four.”

On a separate note, there’s been much talk about a system that permits residents to pre-register their biometric data prior to departure, either at the main Immigration office in Shinagawa or in the departure areas at Narita.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t see any point to this, either in terms of time savings or exemption from the big, bad biometric bogeyman. Pre-registration or not, unless you’re a Japanese national or a “special permanent resident” (and if you have to ask what that is, you’re almost certainly not one), you will still be obliged to give your fingerprints every time you enter the country.

So unless Japan suffers a drastic dropoff of foreign visitors and operators of hotels with single-digit occupancy rates begin screaming bloody murder to their Diet representatives, I suppose we’re stuck with this newfangled nuisance for the duration.

At least the government ought to consider a way to recover some of its outlays. Let’s turn the immigration gates over to a private operator and put the system on a paying basis. For instance, they could program the fingerprint and face scanners to detect things like razor nicks and chipped nails that invite commercial exploitation.

Upon giving one’s fingerprints, personalized messages would scroll across the monitor. “Yokoso to Japan, Mark Schreiber-sama. While here, check out our latest USB-portable multi-blade shaver.” Or, “Yo, Schreiber-kun. Pamper your fingers, and give their ridges the nutrients they need with Mother-of-Pearl Cream — for typists, pianists and . . .”

Yokoso, anybody?

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp
The Japan Times: Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007


7 comments on “Japan Times: Mark Schreiber gives Immigration the finger at Narita

  • Since reading this I have been rubbing my fingers on the desk, and wearing down the tread!
    I wonder if Mark wore his “Yokoso Japan 11/20” T-shirt when he went through?

  • Lionel Dersot says:

    “On a separate note, there’s been much talk about a system that permits residents to pre-register their biometric data prior to departure, either at the main Immigration office in Shinagawa or in the departure areas at Narita.

    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t see any point to this, either in terms of time savings or exemption from the big, bad biometric bogeyman. Pre-registration or not, unless you’re a Japanese national or a “special permanent resident” (and if you have to ask what that is, you’re almost certainly not one), you will still be obliged to give your fingerprints every time you enter the country.”

    This goes against what has been reported so far. Could someone not in Japan Times payroll provide clear information on who is allowed to pre-register and use the automatic gate when coming back?

  • Mark says: Interestingly enough, about 4-5 years ago, I noticed a sign in the World Trade Center Bldg. in Hamamatsucho, in Japanese put up by the Police Dept. It warned, “Please be careful about your handbags, wallets, and valuables because there are many criminal GAIJIN in this area.”

    Adam says: They are sick. You know about old woman and two kds killed. They talk on JTV everyday about it. Morning special programs about it and…yeterday they got killer. Guess? YES, Japanese in law

    Mark says: I contact Schreiber, and he asked me to copy the exact wordage in Japanese and fax it to him, along with the exact location of the sign on the 14F of the WTC (which is the medical center floor where my nurse wife worked).

    I did so. Then Schreiber called the WTC Admin office, introduced himself as a journalist who was going to do an article on this sign, since so many foreign companies and professional “gaijin” were tenants and worked in the building. He was therefore calling for a comment from the Head of WTC Admin. ]:)

    Mark says: Well, the guy nearly wet his pants in worry, couldn’t answer, claimed he didn’t know about the sign, etc. When Schreiber asked specifically if the WTC AUTHORIZED the sign either verbally or as normal, in WRITING, the WTC said no. NO?, Schreiber asked. Does that mean I can go into the WTC, plaster up any sign I want, without permission, and it is ok? It will not be removed by the WTC personnel?

    Adam says: unbelievable !!! You know I understand that we have to follow some rules in host country but Japan is far away from any rules

    Adam Japan says: except their own xenophobic one

    Mark says: My nurse wife called me within 5 minutes of Schreiber’s call to inform me that a very nervous-looking guy from the WTC was on the 14F at that very moment removing the sign. She boldly asked him what he was doing? Had the police caught all of the GAIJIN criminals in the building so now WTC deemed us safe?

    Adam says: hehe

    Adam says:


    Adam says: I read everyday. They had speech at JALT conference about avoiding to get job here. Hehehe

    Mark says: You can write to Schreiber about his article if you like. His email address is chan@gol.com

    Mark says: Thanks for the debito update

  • As for fingerprinting systems most people believe that the system makes a definite match when fingerprints are compared. WRONG! Software system makes a “probability of identification”. Does the word “probability” mean accurate to you? Little something from the U.S. NIST report on systems.

    “Problems due to Controlled Collection of Data

    Controlled collection of fingerprints results in better-than-operational quality data, which result in inflated measures of accuracy. Quality problems in operational data result from factors such as uncooperative subjects, time constraints, poor training, poor maintenance, poor facilities, stress, and overwork. In non-operational controlled data collection, these are not generally issues. Even in the collection of test data in operational environments, using operational staff and equipment, the data quality will often improve due to a Hawthorn Effect: the knowledge that they are being tested will affect operators’ behavior. The inflated measures of accuracy that result from controlled collection of fingerprints may lead to unreasonably high expectations of real-world accuracy. In addition, such a test does not evaluate the ability of a matcher to process fingerprints of varying quality; such an evaluation is necessary for any system that might be implemented in an operational system. For that reason, exclusive use of non-operational fingerprints in system evaluation can bias results: systems that can only process good, non-operational fingerprints would not be differentiated from systems with broader capabilities.”

    Yes these test by the NIST included the NEC system.Below shows that face-recognition was basically useless.

    “A study by the government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), for example, found false-negative rates for face-recognition verification of 43 percent using photos of subjects taken just 18 months earlier, for example. And those photos were taken in perfect conditions, significant because facial recognition software is terrible at handling changes in lighting or camera angle or images with busy backgrounds. The NIST study also found that a change of 45 degrees in the camera angle rendered the software useless. The technology works best under tightly controlled conditions, when the subject is starting directly into the camera under bright lights – although another study by the Department of Defense found high error rates even in those ideal conditions. Grainy, dated video surveillance photographs of the type likely to be on file for suspected terrorists would be of very little use.”

    Both systems used together you have a pretty good non-accurate system that still relies on the robot behind the desk to make a determination. Did I say robot? I meant Immigration person but both have the same expression with the same decision making capacity. Just a plug for Singapore whose immigration staff actually seems to be real people with smiles and kind welcomes. You even get a piece of candy to “thank you” for the wait. “Singapore, You Rock!”

    Sorry little long winded today…

  • A man in Japan says:

    If using a keyboard wears down your fingers and makes it difficult to get them scanned then surely practicing on a bass guitar practicing slides and tapping will do the job just fine! I dont tap with of ALL of my fingers, but hey, I can sure as hell try!


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