James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly on NJ Fingerprinting


Hi Blog. They fingerprinted the wrong guy already… Given how critical Jim Fallows was when he lived in Japan more than a decade ago (famously writing “Containing Japan” for The Atlantic in 1989–something I read in grad school!), this was not long in coming… And as always he produces angles we never thought of–such as how if China instead had instituted this, the Western Media would be talking about “Big Brother in Beijing”. Touche. Arudou Debito in Hirosaki.


Not so thankful for this at Thanksgiving (Japan Big Brother dept)
The Atlantic Magazine online 24 Nov 2007 09:39 am
By James Fallows, courtesy of Yanpa

Flying from Beijing to Tokyo this morning — generally an invigorating experience! Japan looks startlingly neat and organized even if you’re arriving from Switzerland. And when you’re coming not from Switzerland but from China…. Anyhow I arrived excited at the prospect of a few days here.

Unfortunately Japan’s way of ushering in the Thanksgiving holidays has been to institute mandatory fingerprinting and photographing of all foreigners entering the country. Let me put this bluntly: this is an incredibly degrading, offputting, and hostility-generating process. The comment is not anti-Japanese: when the U.S. does this to foreigners, it’s wrong and degrading too (as many people, including me, have pointed out over the years). But Japan has just ushered in this procedure, and they deserve to take some heat for it.

Partly this is a nuisance because of the sheer time drag. Today’s flight time Beijing->Tokyo: 2 hours, 50 minutes. Today’s time spent in the passport clearance line for foreigners at Narita: 1 hour, 30 minutes. But mainly there is no getting around the insult factor of having entry to the country be like getting booked into County Jail.

In specific this means: you have to stick your left and right index fingers simultaneously into a scanner, and press them down until a signal shows that the system has captured both prints. A sign that flashes up in a variety of languages — Korean, English, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, etc — tells people that if “for whatever reason” they are “unable” to offer prints, then they can ask to see the supervisor. I assume that they’re talking about people who have no hands etc. (Or Japanese gangsters, yakuza, who often get fingers cut off as part of their careers? Oh, wait: they’re not foreigners.) I was considering saying that my “whatever reason” is that I objected to the policy. Then I realized how much good that would do, and stuck my fingers into the contraption.

Five seconds after the prints, a camera snaps a picture. As a long time admirer of Nick Nolte, and in a state of mind enhanced by the forced-fingerprinting, I made sure my photo looked very much like this:

Does this requirement make any practical difference to me? No. I’ll only be here a few days, and if I’m going to rob a bank in that time, I’ll put tape over my two index fingers so they’ll never catch me. Presumably most of the several million foreigners who are long-time permanent residents of Japan, and who will be required to go get prints and photos too, will avoid the practical consequences as well.

But it’s worth saying this is a bad policy, because:

– The reasoning is predictably fatuous. A video explains the change as an important anti-terrorist tool. Puh-leeze.

– It’s one thing, and wrong enough, for the U.S. to apply similar measures in the panicky, immediate, “we’re for anything that is called ‘anti-terrorist’ ” mood of the 9/11 aftermath, which is when the U.S. began discussing similar “biometric” measures. It’s even worse to do it six years later, after a chance for cold deliberation about the prices society is and is not willing to pay to keep itself “secure.”

– Fewer tourists are visiting the U.S. because we’ve made it such a nightmare for foreigners to get in. That is just deserts for a misguided policy on America’s side. Japan is repeating the same mistake — with eyes wide open.

– Think how the alarm bells would go off if China tried to impose a scheme like this! The editorials about “Big Brother in Beijing” practically write themselves. But now the two countries that apply the most intrusively big-brotherish surveiliance over those trying to visit are two liberal societies: the United States and Japan.

C’mon Japan, set a good example for America rather than imitating something stupid we do now. The people around me in the passport line — and, in 90 minutes, we had time to talk – were from a dozen different countries and many walks of life. But they were united in one sentiment as they moved toward the fingerprint machine, and it’s not one that Japan’s diplomacy is designed to foster.

7 comments on “James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly on NJ Fingerprinting

  • I personally do not have a problem with getting fingerprinted upon entry. Nations should have some way of knowing who is entering their country. I agree with the fact that this fingerprinting gives the impression of the evil foreigner or NJ. It is stupid to only fingerprint foreigners. My recollection is that the only terrorist acts ever committed in Japan were committed by who? They were committed by JAPANESE. Aum Shinriko cult gassing the Tokyo subways and the Japanese Red Army terrorist organization of the 70s.

  • Finally, a good article in the media on the issue. Thanks for this!

    Debito, I wonder if you could put a link to the ipetetion against fingerprinting at the top of your blog and highlight it somehow? (If there’s one there I couldn’t find it.)You may well be getting a lot of traffic now due to people’s interest in this issue, and it would be good to offer the option of signing it without people searching around and maybe missing it.

    On a positive note, Blogger named Vegetable Japan “a blog of note” this week and I have a link and articles in the lead the posts. I’m leaving them up for the week so as many people as possible can see it, and I’ll replace it with a permanent link at the top of the sidebar when I add more posts.

    If anyone else is blogging in Japan or anywhere in the world, because the petition is for anyone with an interest in Japan, please do the same. Right now we don’t have enough names to make a difference. Please sign and get your voice heard!


  • 90 Mins to get through immigration…..

    Great way to start your dream holiday, or business trip eh?


    Steve Koya

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    I personally do not have a problem with getting fingerprinted upon entry. Nations should have some way of knowing who is entering their country.

    Jon, the second sentence doesn’t follow from the first. Nations do have ‘some way of knowing’; that’s what the worldwide passport system is.

    I’m not looking forward to being photographed after 16+ hours travelling. And you know that this is the photo that will find its way into the papers if you’re ever accused of a crime or something like that.

  • Mark, Passports are not the hardest things to fake. Please. Adding some additional requirements to enter a country above just a passport is not entirely wrong.


  • Jon: Fine, passports are easy to fake, so the country should have the right to verify the passport’s validity. I can agree with that. But as Japanese passports are no more or less difficult to fake than others, so all entrants to Japan should be treated equally…


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