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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

Watching them watching us

'Fingerprint Day' adds insult to injury for Japan's foreign community


By MICHAEL HASSETT
Special to The Japan Times

A s many non-Japanese are well aware, today is "G Day," or "F Day," or whatever cute name you'd like to assign to it: The day that the government begins fingerprinting virtually all foreigners — or "gaijin," or more appropriately "gaikokujin" — entering Japan. And those of us who will be subjected to this insult, this human rights abuse — particularly those of us with permanent resident status — are not happy. And Japanese should be ashamed that they have allowed their government to establish a law that will effectively lead to the bullying of a minority class — those without Japanese nationality.

CCTV
A security camera watches comings and goings between Tokyo Station and the Marunouchi Building. MICHAEL HASSETT PHOTO

However, should we non-Japanese really be all that upset that our fingerprints and faces are going to be digitized and freely shared with governments and law enforcement agencies around the world?

Certainly. But in context, it's like a victim of years of daily physical abuse being upset that the perpetrator yanked out a couple of hairs on one occasion as a keepsake.

Think about it. What information in this country is not already accessible to the National Police Agency? A record currently exists of where you usually begin your day, spend your day and end your day. And in between all that, virtually every step that you take is recorded on video. Skeptical? Follow along with me.

Shortly after moving into our neighborhood in western Tokyo a few years ago, a policeman visited and kindly asked that we fill out a colored card requesting information about those residing in the home: information such as name, date of birth, occupation/school, and nationality. We obliged. Compliance was not mandatory, but — let's face it — that information is also maintained at the city office, and wouldn't the elderly neighbors or my employer freely give up those facts if kindly requested to do so by the police? Moreover, we had no desire to make trouble for the police working the neighborhood beat.

When I step out of my home, I am immediately captured by a surveillance camera installed on a house about 25 meters down the road, a large camera that monitors the fairly tranquil street and surrounding homes. It's a 150-meter walk to the bus stop. As I leave the view of that first camera, a home that has nine — count 'em, nine! — newly installed high-tech surveillance cameras monitors me for part of the remainder of the stroll.

The low-tech bus doesn't have cameras inside it, so I have five to 10 minutes to race through any subversive literature smuggled in on my return from my last overseas trip. Oh I forgot — rule No. 1 about terrorism: Don't ever attempt to be funny!

Upon arriving at the JR station and stepping off the bus, I am picked up by a small camera mounted on the police box next to the station and then a larger camera located within the north-south passageway of the station. A camera films my back as I walk through the ticket wicket and another camera films my front. Further, the date, time, my name, age, address and telephone number are recorded when I use my Suica commuter pass to proceed through the wicket. A station camera then catches me as I walk to the base of the escalator, and a camera on the platform above records my head and body as they rise into view.

On the platform, a camera tapes me waiting a few minutes and then boarding the Chuo Line. As the Chuo Line pulls into its final stop, Tokyo Station, a camera on the platform films me stepping off the train. Again, there is one camera at the top of the escalator and one at the bottom. After descending this escalator, a camera tracks my 15-meter walk to another escalator. Again, there is a camera at the top and one at the bottom, and another camera tracks me the 25 meters between that escalator and the ticket wicket, where we have one camera filming my back as I walk through and another covering my front. My name, age, address, and telephone number — as well as the date and time — are recorded yet again when I use my Suica card to pass through the wicket.

I then have about 150 meters to cover before I reach the Marunouchi Building. I am aware of four cameras that track me. A camera then films me entering the Marunouchi Building, and cameras in each passageway — five for my walk — film me strolling to the office, where cameras in the office then pick me up.

Other than the time on the bus and train, almost every step of this entire journey — from the moment I open the door at my home — is captured on video.

Just in case my workplace could not be determined after all that monitoring, we can rest assured the government already knows. As reported here last week, all employers became legally bound on Oct. 1 to submit a report to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirming the name, date of birth, gender, nationality, status of residence, and visa duration of their full-time foreign laborers when they are hired or leave work.

Getting more personal, if law enforcement desires to read my e-mail, monitor my Internet surfing, telephone communications, or credit-card purchases, or simply haul me off for weeks of questioning, the "just cause" that is required often appears to be translated in Japan as "just because," as in "just because that foreigner lives in an area where a crime recently occurred."

This is exactly what happened not too long ago to a Canadian residing in Tokyo, when at 7:40 in the evening near the end of a pleasant summer weekend in 2002, five to eight policemen burst through his front door while he was watching TV. After conducting a complete search of him and his apartment, not to mention his neighbor's flat, the police hauled off our Canadian friend on suspicion of being a drug dealer and kept him in lockup for 19 days before deciding that no charges were warranted.

This typically bungled case involved police harassment of a non-Japanese resident just because he was a Canadian who lived in a neighborhood where a crime by a foreigner of Middle Eastern descent was suspected. Did I mention that our Canadian is a balding blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned gentleman? The arrest reached comic proportions when a translator was brought in to translate from Japanese to Farsi, a language the accused doesn't speak. In the end, he was released as he neared the 23-day limit that the police could legally detain him without officially charging him with an offense, but the police never released the "plenty of evidence" they claimed they had against him as they pressed him to confess. And there was never an apology for the near three-week disruption to his life.

And as reported in this column (Zeit Gist, Aug. 14), three weeks of humiliation is nothing compared to the injuries that Nigerian U.C. Valentine claims, and a witness corroborates, that he received as he was arrested by a few rogue police officers. Valentine will carry around the remnants of those injures for the rest of his life.

From July 3 to 11, 2005, U.N. special rapporteur Doudou Diene visited Japan to assess the factors of discrimination that affect a variety of minority groups in this country. In his final report, he recommended that the Japanese government should "avoid the adoption of any measure that would discriminate against foreigners, as well as in the exercise of all their rights and freedoms, in particular their right not to be persecuted and perceived as potentially more dangerous than the Japanese."

Unfortunately, the government, today, officially commences measures that are greatly contrary to those recommended by the U.N. special rapporteur. As the Japan National Tourist Organization approaches the midpoint of its five-year Yokoso Japan Campaign, visitors and most non-Japanese residents will now be "welcomed" to Japan by an unconscionable demand for their fingerprints and photos, followed by near constant surveillance of their activities, and possibly even the occasional detention for up to 23 days. Yokoso Nippon! Welcome to Japan!

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