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Tuesday, June 6, 2006


Should Japan fingerprint foreigners?

Two views of a pressing issue


Fingerprinting puts foreign residents at risk

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Imagine you live in a small town. Every time a crime is committed the police come to your door and escort you to the police station, take your fingerprints, and compare them to those found at the crime scene.

News photo

As you are the only person so regularly singled out, you ask, "Hey, why always me?" The answer is, "if you're innocent, why worry about it?"

Eventually after your visits to the police station become almost daily, you plead with the officers to leave you alone. One of them has a revelation: "Hey, instead of destroying your fingerprints each time, let's make a permanent record! Then, every time there's a crime we'll use that?"

Problem solved? Of course not. Having had enough, you spit in outrage, "why me? Why is it always my fingerprints and not anyone else's you compare to those found at crime scenes?" One officer smiles sheepishly and explains, "it's because you're a foreigner."

Sound unrealistic? Unfortunately, it's not. It's a reality. It's already happened in the U.S., and it will soon be happening here.

Do you wish to enter Japan? Then you are suspect. Before you can enter you must turn over your fingerprints and allow them to be cross checked against an international list of criminals and terrorists. And that's just the beginning.

The prints will remain on record for 70 years. According to the new procedures, if requested, the Justice Ministry will turn over the data to the police and other government agencies.

What's that mean? It means like our fictional character in the beginning of this story, that for any crime committed in Japan, there is a high probability that you will be treated as a de facto suspect.

While no citizens will have to submit fingerprints by default, yours will already be there. And you'd better believe you are a de facto suspect in each case. It'll be as easy as pushing a few buttons on a computer.

Is it fair for a foreigner to be a de facto suspect in potentially any crime in Japan where fingerprints are lifted? No.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associates has come out strongly against this measure. (See: www.nichibenren.or.jp/ja/publication/booklet/data/nyukanhou_qa.pdf)

Among the many useful arguments they make, they point out that the measure might well stigmatize foreigners as somehow being more inherently capable of crime than Japanese.

They also note that it is clearly unconstitutional under Article 13. And yes, the constitution does apply to people seeking entry into Japan. They may not be citizens, but they are people.

Ultimately, this policy puts foreigners at unfair risk. I typed in the phrase "how to fake fingerprints" on Google recently and got back over half a million hits. I checked the first 60, which told you how to do just that.

You leave your fingerprints everywhere you go. You leave them on trains, on vending machines, any place you lay your hands. Foreigners will have to take this in stride as they become de facto suspects in almost every crime committed.

There are respected scholars, former police officers, and journalists now questioning the entire science of fingerprinting. And whose to say how long it takes before collected prints are leaked through Winnie?

Putting all this aside, guess what? This policy just won't work. Does anyone really believe that all terrorists are foreigners? The Tokyo subway sarin attack comes to mind (6000 injured, 12 dead), so does the bombings of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Tokyo in 1974 (20 injured, 8 dead) and the Hokkaido Prefectural Government office in Sapporo in 1976 (80 injured, 2 dead). The obvious prejudice here is palpable.

Lest anyone forget, most of the 9/11 terrorists entered America legally. Terrorists often have clean records and are not on watch lists.

So if not terrorists, who is on the watch lists? Well as the Justice Ministry will rely on an international list, in many cases they have no way of knowing.

There have already been credible reports of activists in America being detained because their names turned up on terrorists watch lists (simply a mistake?).

Recently some British citizens were outraged when they found that their names had been put into a criminal database (more mistakes?).

Terrorists with clean records will be able to enter, ordinary people will be hindered and face rights abuses.

If none of this is enough, has anyone stopped to even fathom the cost involved here?

So what you have here is a ineffective policy that clearly discriminates against foreigners and costs a bundle of cash.

In short, the worst of all worlds.


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