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Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005

THE ZEIT GIST

The 'IC you' card

Computer-chip card proposals for foreigners has big potential for abuse,


People are still reeling from September's LDP landslide election, realizing that Koizumi can essentially legislate whatever he wants.

For foreigners, that brings some bad news.

One of Koizumi's platforms is economic recovery through tourism and increased contact with outsiders ("Yokoso Japan") yet his administration can't shake its preconception of foreigners as potential terrorists and criminals.

Koizumi's previous Cabinet bore no fewer than three ministers who mentioned, in their introductory speeches, the alleged foreign crime wave (even though the media, including this column on Oct. 7, 2003, has long debunked this).

In December 2004, the Cabinet released its "Action Plan for Pre-Empting Terrorism," explicitly stating the terrorists to be targeted are essentially foreigners (Community Page; May 24, 2005).

Now Koizumi the tour guide wants to institute high-tech tracking of every foreigner he invites.

On June 16, the LDP's Political Affairs Research Committee ("seimu chousakai") issued their "Proposal for a New Immigration Control Policy" ("arata na nyuukoku kanri shisaku e no teigen").

Their plan: Issue "IC Cards," or credit card-sized identification cards, containing computer chips to track people.

One form of IC card (the "shutsu nyuu koku" card) will be issued to anyone (Japanese or not) crossing the Japanese border, upon request and at their expense.

The other, the "zairyuu card," is obligatory and replaces the Gaijin Card. All resident aliens (except the generational "Zainichi" ethnic "foreigners," who remain unchipped) must still carry it 24/7 or face arrest.

This "Gaijin Chip" will contain data such as: "name, nationality, birthday, passport information, visa status, address, workplace, educational institution if student etc."

Fingerprints will also be encoded "if the person wants." But just in case, fingerprinting will be reinstated to imprint foreigners both entering and leaving the country.

The LDP sweet-talks the reader by insisting the system is for people's "protection" ("hogo") and "convenience" ("ribensei"). They mention benefits to both foreigners and society by tracking alien visits to, quote, "museums, consultative government bodies, national art museums . . ."

It still amounts to central control of untrustworthy elements, and treating foreigners like criminal suspects.

Some expressed goals of Gaijin Chipping are, "strengthening control of residency information," "ease and precision of collection, analysis, and practical use of data for Immigration," and, more colorfully, "smoking out the invisible ('aburi dasu') illegal aliens."

All data will be stored for a vague amount of time (perhaps indefinitely) in a bureau called (in katakana) the "Intelligence Center."

Through a joint Immigration/National Police Agency "task force" on foreigners, this data will be issued to cops and bureaucrats "so they can better service each individual foreigner as a resident without obstacle."

Orwellian overtones aside, consider the policy in practice: Workplaces, schools, hotels, etc. will be legally required to report any changes in foreigner employment, domicile, visa, etc., through swipes of IC Cards at strategically-positioned machines.

This means foreigners will now find it difficult to, say, make an anonymous inquiry at a ward office without having their data swiped.

Likewise if you frequent love hotels. The proposal specifically considers swiping stations for apartments, weekly mansions, and other categories of lodgings, essentially expanding Japanese prison conditions nationwide. If an inmate asks for, say, a pencil in a Japanese prison, he has to give a fingerprint. A roll of toilet paper? Fingerprint. Now, go see some Basho etchings in a museum as a foreigner? Swipe.

Not that I'm advising it, but why aren't they doing this for everyone in Japan? Japan still has no universal ID system.

Because they can't. Last time the government tried to pull a fast one on the public like this, through the Juki-Net system, there was nationwide protest and local governments refused to participate. Issues of privacy, especially since laws insufficiently protect people from government abuse of information, were of course brought up.

But non-Japanese, apparently, don't have the same right to privacy. Unlike Japanese, foreigners might commit crime, you see.

There is a pattern here. We already know the Foreign Registry Law was set up in 1947 specifically to track the alien in our midst.

But even the only law protecting foreigners from refusals at private-sector businesses, the Hotel Management Law, required all people (including Japanese) to write down names and addresses "for the control of infectious diseases."

But now, the government states, this law has become insufficient due to terrorism. So, naturally, they are targeting foreigners. As of April 1, regulations stemming from the Hotel Management Law were revised to empower clerks to demand and copy passports from all foreign tourists.

However, as this column discussed (Oct. 18), it is being applied to all foreigners. This is not only against the law, but also a breach of trust.

Whenever you give more powers to any government, you trust responsible enforcement. However, ministerial misinterpretation has in this case been a concerted effort.

On Feb. 9, the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare's Health Policy Bureau clarified the recent hotel regulation changes through internal directives issued to all prefectural governors, city leaders, and local MLHW branches.

After justifying the revision in the name of "securing the safety of guests" (i.e., being kept safe from foreign customers?), the second directive erroneously states "foreign lodgers" are to be targeted.

It also states that a foreigner not showing his passport should be reported to the police, because, quote, "there is a chance he isn't carrying it."

Hang on. This in itself is not illegal. Laws state that foreign residents do not have to carry passports if they have gaijin cards.

What an administrative mess. Plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings, arrests of innocents, even denial of the right to accommodation guaranteed by law.

Not to mention racial profiling and criminal treatment, by people legally unentitled to police powers, on the increasing number of multiethnic Japanese citizens. This will only increase as the IC Card swipers proliferate.

My point is that no matter how sweet the LDP may make its Gaijin Chip proposal sound, there is no telling what will happen when bureaucrats get their hands on it.

Their enforcement has been most unscrupulous this year, and given the urgency of the policy putsch (and the vulnerability of foreigners), I foresee great potential for further enforcement abuse.

Not to mention policy creep. Think IC Carding will be ultimately confined to foreigners?

Historically, unpalatable policies have been foisted on the foreigners first and then quietly introduced to the Japanese public.

For example, look what happened to Japan's lifetime employment system, where full-time work (especially in academia) meant lifetime work.

That was replaced, after a century of guinea-pigging the foreigners, with contract employment, in the form of laws like 1997's "Sentaku Ninkisei Hou."

Employers, realizing that they can hire and fire at will (simply by refusing to renew contracts), and enjoy weak labor law enforcement and a sympathetic judiciary (see www.debito.org/acadapartupdate05.html ), soon adopted the system.

And how. According to the National Union of General Workers, contract labor now makes up 20 percent of all Japanese men, 50 percent of all Japanese women, and 90 percent of foreign labor in the Japanese workforce.

I like to finish a column advising what readers can do about this, if only to offer psychological solace. But there isn't much to say this time. Foreign residents cannot vote and thus mean little to politicians. And these days with the opposition greatly weakened, there is a lack of balance of power.

All we can do is wait for the pendulum to swing back, which it will. Though probably not in time to save foreigners from constant digital fingerprinting, or foreign-looking Japanese from being hassled for not being controllably foreign enough.

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