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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

Prints rejected, scribe accepted

Our writer attempts to give Immigration the finger at Narita


T he center of the little monitor — I'd guess about 20 cm from the looks of it — flashed the word "Yokoso" (welcome). Its colored border was festooned with a collage of images near and dear to visiting tourists' hearts: "torii" gates, the shinkansen, Zen gardens, Mount Fuji . . .

Schreiber fingerprint
The Japan Times gets the print that the machines at Narita couldn't. MARK SCHREIBER PRINT

"Please place your fingers on the pad," ordered the immigration officer from behind the counter.

Before I relate more sordid details, let's begin at the beginning. Having heard much emotional debate on the new fingerprinting system, I decided that I would leave and re-enter Japan for the express purpose of subjecting myself to this supposed indignity, and then deal with it in the most exhibitionistic manner possible: the article you are now reading.

It seemed reasonable to give Narita Immigration five days to get its act together, so I flew down to Saipan and entertained myself with a visit to Banzai Cliff. My return flight, Northwest Airlines 75, touched down at Narita at 6:50 p.m. on Nov. 24.

First and foremost, let me make it crystal clear where I stand on this matter: I don't particularly like to give my fingerprints. Nevertheless, my strongest objection to the new system relates less to my human rights than to my wanting to exit the airport as expeditiously as possible. Since 9/11, air travel has become a nightmare, and after undergoing security checks up the kazoo and being cooped up in a stuffy tourist-class cabin for 12 hours on a flight from Chicago or Detroit, I'm in no mood for further torment.

One more thing: For more than 20 years, holders of re-entry permits were permitted to use the same gates as Japanese nationals, with no questions asked. I've always appreciated this privilege and felt aggravated that, through no malfeasance on my part, this consideration — a great time-saver — was apparently being withdrawn.

That said, if I were to report that I was forced to cool my heels in a long queue last Saturday, it would be an outrageous lie. The fact was, it was the mostly Japanese passengers who did the slow shuffle. At that particular time few foreigners were in evidence and as a result, fingerprinting aside, I was probably one of the first ones out of the place.

As soon as I made my approach, a senior official pounced on me like he'd been waiting there all day just for my arrival.

"Have you filled out one of these E/D cards?" he asked with an encouraging smile, waving one of those familiar entry/departure cards with its incomprehensible questionnaire on the back.

Indeed I had, so I was sent straight to the nearest vacant counter.

The young inspector was all friendly and smiley. He took one look at my passport and knew I was going to be a piece of cake: a permanent resident, papers in order, and nobody named "Mark Schreiber" on Interpol's terrorist watchlist. (Little did he know, nya-ha-haa . . .)

Then the moment of truth arrived, and he requested me to place my left and right index fingers on the little glass pads. I sighed, set down my six-pack of duty-free macadamia and chocolate chip cookies on the floor, and followed his instructions.

The green lights beside my fingers changed to red. Something was not working properly.

"Um, I can't seem to get a clear reading off your fingers," he said, popping open a container of premoistened finger wipes. "Please use this to clean them and try again."

I gave both fingertips a quick but thorough rubdown and repeated the process.

After several clicks from his keyboard he shook his head again.

He stood up, reached over, and used the same wipe to polish the glass surface of the fingerprint reader.

"OK, uh, this time, let's try your middle fingers," he encouraged, holding up his digit in an unintentionally rude gesture some people refer to as "flipping the bird."

Once again I complied. Click-click-click. Click-click. Click.

"Please, would you mind not pressing down so hard on the pad?"

"But I'm not pressing down hard," I countered.

From his exasperated reaction I got the distinct impression my middle fingers were not providing usable prints either.

"Well, anyway, let's take a picture," he grimaced, standing up and tilting the camera angle upwards to accommodate my 189 cm height.

And that was that. Confirming that I looked like the captured image, and that both resembled the mug shot in my passport, he waved me through.

"Gokuro-sama," I told him — by which I meant "Sorry to give you such a rough time" — and headed for the baggage carousel.

But wait a minute: My prints didn't take. Why wasn't I dragged off into a separate room and interrogated? Why, after all the fuss, was I simply admitted on the strength of my passport, status of residence and re-entry permit?

It would seem that human officials, at their discretion, are empowered to overrule the almighty fingerprint thingamajig.

After relating my experience to a friend on Sunday, he directed me to a BBC News item dated Oct. 17, 2005, in which a fingerprint expert is quoted as saying that "Work such as laboring and typing (italics mine) wears down those ridges and affects the smoothness of the skin. It can make fingerprints very hard to read."

So my first encounter left me chuckling that the government laid out ¥36 billion for something anyone can outwit by pounding a keyboard, as I do, for 14 hours a day.

Just think: four of my fingers, with no help from their owner, pulled off a courageous feat of passive resistance. In the ongoing struggle for foreigners' rights in Japan, let them henceforth be known as the "Narita Four."

On a separate note, there's been much talk about a system that permits residents to pre-register their biometric data prior to departure, either at the main Immigration office in Shinagawa or in the departure areas at Narita.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can't see any point to this, either in terms of time savings or exemption from the big, bad biometric bogeyman. Pre-registration or not, unless you're a Japanese national or a "special permanent resident" (and if you have to ask what that is, you're almost certainly not one), you will still be obliged to give your fingerprints every time you enter the country.

So unless Japan suffers a drastic dropoff of foreign visitors and operators of hotels with single-digit occupancy rates begin screaming bloody murder to their Diet representatives, I suppose we're stuck with this newfangled nuisance for the duration.

At least the government ought to consider a way to recover some of its outlays. Let's turn the immigration gates over to a private operator and put the system on a paying basis. For instance, they could program the fingerprint and face scanners to detect things like razor nicks and chipped nails that invite commercial exploitation.

Upon giving one's fingerprints, personalized messages would scroll across the monitor. "Yokoso to Japan, Mark Schreiber-sama. While here, check out our latest USB-portable multi-blade shaver." Or, "Yo, Schreiber-kun. Pamper your fingers, and give their ridges the nutrients they need with Mother-of-Pearl Cream — for typists, pianists and . . ."

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