Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

Creating laws out of thin air

Revisions to hotel laws stretched by police to target foreigners


With terrorists striking fear into governments worldwide, Japan too is currently considering its own version of America's Patriot Act, to be passed in a year or two.

It makes for interesting reading, particularly in terms of Japan's internationalization and legal treatment of foreign residents.

Approved by the prime minister's Cabinet ("Kantei") last December, the "Action Plan for Pre-empting of Terrorism" ("Tero no Mizen Boshi ni Kansuru Kodo Kikaku," available at www.kantei.go.jp/jp/singi/sosikihanzai/kettei/041210kettei.pdf ) essentially depicts terrorism as a phenomenon imported by foreigners. Never mind, of course, that Japanese have a history of domestic terrorism themselves (Aum Shinrikyo and the Red Army easily spring to mind).

News photo
This notice, pasted on a wall outside a Tokyo hote, reads (from top) "No Entrance (for) foreigners, drunks, and gang members/thugs." However, while the hotel's policy is clear, it's also illegal.
PHOTO: www.debito.org

Already debris from this approaching asteroid of a law is falling to earth.

This week's column will focus on one hunk as a cautionary example: where a recent legal amendment, specifically designed to target foreigners, stretches existing laws to the breaking point.

On Jan. 24, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued "Shorei (ministerial ordinance) 4018," to "clarify" a passage within the Hotel Management Law ("Ryokan Gyoho").

The section that requires all hotel lodgers to note contact details in guest books, has now appended (author's translation): "If the lodger is a foreigner without an address in Japan, (hotels must record) passport number and nationality."

As such, this isn't any problem, as it conforms to standards in developed countries regarding tourists. After all, management must be able to contact all lodgers and those lodgers must be kept accountable for their stays, and the best way to do that with tourists is through passport numbers.

However, as written, this revision is not being implemented.

Hotels are now asking all foreigners, including non-tourists (i.e. foreign residents with addresses in Japan), for their passports.

Registered foreign residents of Japan, as readers know, do not have to carry passports. That's what the "gaijin card" is for.

So in lieu, hotel clerks are demanding to see, even photocopy, gaijin cards. Even though, under the Foreign Registry Law, only officials endowed with police powers may do so.

Foreigners who refuse to comply, as happened to a friend at the Sapporo Toyoko Inn last November, are being refused rooms.

This is, however, illegal. The same Hotel Management Law Article 5 states that hotels may only refuse lodging if: the person in question is sick with a certifiably contagious disease; there is a threat to "public morals" (i.e. engaging in acts with minors, filming pornographic movies, etc.); or there are no empty rooms.

Thus a registered foreign resident merely unwilling to reveal a passport number cannot be refused.

Japanese guests, I might add, are not required to display any verifiable ID whatsoever. Why not?

Enforceability problems, for one. There is no universal ID card in Japan, save perhaps a drivers license. But of course not everyone drives. Or gets a passport. And with the failure of 2002's Juki Net system, this situation will not change anytime soon.

This means hotels will not apply extra checkpoints if you have an honest face -- i.e. one that looks Japanese.

So what happens to the residents, moreover citizens, with foreign features (such as this writer) who show up to claim their room?

Rigmarole. I have stayed in hotels as a Japan resident for over 15 years. Yet this winter for the first time (and several times at that), I have been asked for my passport number, even after signing in with a Japanese name and a domestic address in kanji -- and mentioning that I am a Japanese citizen. This is happening to foreign faces nationwide.

When managers were asked why all this third degree, they have said the local police have ordered them to record and report all "foreign guests" in their midst. This is even though reporting, or even photocopying, "foreign guests" is not part of the original above mentioned MHLW ordinance.

Moreover, the ordinance states that it will not take effect until April 1, 2005. Clearly the cops are not wasting any time.

Nor is the press. Kyodo News erroneously reported nationwide on Jan. 21 that the MHLW will require all hotels to retain photocopies of "foreign travelers" ("gaikokujin ryokosha") passports, neglecting to mention the exception for those with domestic residences.

Noncomplying hotels allegedly face possible loss of their operating licenses.

Yet this push for extra tracking for foreigners is on shaky legal footing. This MHLW shorei ministerial ordinance is not a law. It is merely a bureaucratic clarification of a law -- not something passed by the legislative branch. According to lawyer friends, it has no legal status or enforceability, meaning neither you nor the hotel can at this time incur any specific penalty if not enforced. "Laws" are thus being created out of thin air.

SO WHAT DO YOU DO IF...

Even though you are a registered foreign resident of Japan (as opposed to a tourist), a hotel threatens to refuse you service for not divulging your passport number?

* Say you have a domestic Japan address. Write it on the guest card. Just being foreign is not grounds for suspicion or scrutiny, regardless of what the police say.

* Tell them you are not legally required to provide either a passport or gaijin card to a hotel. Ask to show the same ID (if any) being demanded of Japanese guests.

* Tell them that under Japanese laws governing hotels, you cannot be refused entry unless customers are sick or rooms are full.

Just remember that laws are different for hotels than for any other private business in Japan (as opposed to, say, onsen). All customers, regardless of nationality, are clearly protected against refusal, for a change.

If you're worried, print up the hotel law in Japanese from the Web link at the bottom of the story and carry it with you.

Caveat time.

One does not expect readers to become activists overnight. It certainly would be an unpleasant start to any stay to stand at the Front Desk, waving laws at a clerk playing with newfound police powers.

But people should also know their rights and not let themselves be pushed around, because things are going to get a lot worse for foreigners in Japan if they do.

If this new treatment of hosteling foreigners is any guide, the antiterrorist asteroid currently in orbit will soon wreak havoc on Japan's civil liberties. This is why the Japan Federation of Bar Associations is gearing up for a critical stance in a couple of months.

More on that later, but for foreigners, there will no doubt once again be targeting and unsophisticated enforcement by the police: A lumping together and scrutinizing of anyone who looks foreign regardless of status, acculturation, or citizenship. Perhaps some more laws created out of thin air.

So, it may seem a small thing, but demanding improvements on everyday things does make a difference. At least let your hotel know that as long as you have a domestic residence, they must treat you like any other paying customer. It's still the law. Abide.

For more information, see www.debito.org/whattodoif.html Send comments to: community@japantimes.co.jp


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.