Starting on November 20th, 2007, Japan will begin the mandatory fingerprinting of all foreigners (non-Japanese citizens) every time they enter the country. This fingerprinting will be followed by a facial photograph and interrogation and will be required every time a non-Japanese citizen passes through immigration. Refusal to comply with any of these requirements will result in immediate deportation (regardless of visa status), presumably with the standard 5-year prohibition on return travel to Japan. This law affects all foreigners, including permanent residents and re-entry permit holders, with only extremely narrow exceptions (see below). Fingerprints and other biometric data (including the facial photograph) will be entered into a mysterious database where it will be kept for an “indeterminate” amount of time (read: forever) and may be shared with “appropriate governmental and international agencies” (read: it will be widely distributed to the Japanese police (see below) and possibly even merged into the incredibly bloated and completely ineffectual so called “US Terrorist Watch List”)
Why was this law passed? The Japanese company line.
“My friend’s friend is a member of al-Qaeda. I have never met him, but I heard that two or three years ago he came to Japan several times. This person was involved in the bombings of Bali. I know this may cause a lot of inconvenience, but [fingerprinting all non-Japanese] is very necessary to fight terror.”
-Hatoyama Kunio, Justice Minister of Japan
There is little doubt that this law has at least part of its roots in the deeply flawed and completely ineffective US-VISIT program enacted as a knee-jerk reaction by the US government to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The similarities are striking and the fact is that as of this writing, Japan and the United States are the only two modern nations who fingerprint all visitors to their country and record them in a perpetual database not beholden to oversight by any non-governmental (and some would say governmental) authority. While I do not often ascribe to Japan the “America’s lap dog” moniker many have in the past decade, in this case it seems painfully clear that the hawkish Bush administration has been very adamant in their push for Japan to share their philosophy in the so called “war on terror” – perhaps because Japan is the only ally the United States has left – in fact the US Secretary of Defense was just in Japan last week trying to get the Japanese to increase their participation in the Iraq war (despite clear prohibitions on such activity in the Japanese constitution)
However, the fingerprinting of foreigners in Japan has a history that precedes both the 9-11 attacks and the US-VISIT program by a long stretch. In fact, up until as recently as the year 2000, all foreigners living in Japan were required to be fingerprinted when registering for their mandatory Foreigner Registration Card (“Gaijin Card”) – the fingerprint was both recorded in their file (more on this later) and printed directly on the card which was (and still is) mandatory to carry at all times, upon pain of incarceration and deportation. More disturbingly, however, this fingerprinting applied not only to temporary foreign residents of Japan (including those with work, study and “regular” permanent resident visas) but also to so called “special” permanent residents – also known as zainichi Koreans.
Zainichi Japanese is a special label applied to Koreans who were kidnapped or otherwise brought to Japan during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula during World War II and continued to live in Japan after the end of the war. Several generations later, they are now Japanese in every way (mother tongue is Japanese, often take Japanese names, obviously are physically indistinguishable from “Japanese”, were born, raised and have never lived anywhere else but Japan) except the fact that their parents were originally from Korea. However, the Japanese government has always made a strong and racist distinction between them and so-called “ethnic” Japanese and thus zainichi Koreans were forced to be fingerprinted and registered the same as “other” foreigners in Japan, despite the fact that this was (and is) their home country. After several decades of protest, this requirement was finally abolished in the year 2000, along with the forcible fingerprinting of other foreigners (though we are still required to be registered and carry our ID cards with us at all times) and for a brief moment everyone allowed themselves a sigh of relief at the thought that perhaps, finally Japan was making strides towards modernity and human rights.
Unfortunately, Japan has never been comfortable with foreigners in its midst (some would term Japan “openly hostile” to foreigners, with top politicians openly stating they wish to restrict the number of foreigners in Japan to “less than 1% of the total population”) – and the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror” provided the perfect excuse to resurrect the mass-fingerprinting of all foreigners in Japan, less than 7 years after its original abolishment.
Besides the “war on terror” angle, the Japanese government has sold this as a way to cut down on illegal visa-overstayers (a much exaggerated problem that is a favourite of conservative politicians to win points with the voters) and to combat the complete fictional notion that Japan is currently awash in a crime wave perpetrated by foreigners. (see the section on the police below).
All of these reasons – from “protecting Japan against terrorism” to “reducing crime” are complete fabrications designed to hide the real and disturbing reason for this program: Japan is a racist and xenophobic place which wishes to track and obtain as much information on non-Japanese in its midst as possible with the ideal goal of getting rid of them completely (and using them as a scapegoat for its own governmental failings).
This post continues after the “Keep reading” link below.)
Who does this law target?
In order to see why the official explanations for this fingerprinting program are completely fallacious, it is necessary to examine who this law applies to in greater detail.
The law requires that all foreigners (“people who are not Japanese citizens”) submit to fingerprinting, interrogation and being photographed every time they enter the country, regardless of their visa status. There are only a few, narrow exemptions:
The reasons for these exemptions are easy to understand superficially, yet provide the basis for undermining the credibility of the Japanese government’s stated reasons for the fingerprinting program.
Why do the stated reasons for this law make no sense?
The first exemption, that of children under age 16, is clear: nobody wants the bad publicity associated with the mass fingerprinting of small infants, children and teenagers. If there was ever something that could cause blowback for the government amongst its normally docile population, it might very well be photos of small children standing in long lines with their fingers to scanners and faces in mugshot databases.
However exempting children makes no sense if one is truly interested in preventing terrorism – while 50 years ago most terrorists fit the mold of the “loner, hyper-religious lone male”, these days anyone can and has been “a terrorist” – women and children soldiers and suicide bombers are so common as to no longer raise eyebrows. If you really wanted to prevent terrorism, you wouldn’t fail to acknowledge that a teenage “child” is as capable of setting off a sarin gas bomb as a fully grown adult.
The second and third exemptions make sense from the cynical point of view that holds that America is in part responsible for the initial gestation of this program – the American government certainly wouldn’t wish to be beholden to the same draconian laws they enforce upon the people (if they have no compunction about surveilling and wire tapping their own citizens in their own country, they certainly care even less if another country does it abroad). Particularly telling is the exemption for American military personnel – given the high media visibility of crimes allegedly committed by Armed Forces personnel stationed in Japan, one would think that the Japanese government would jump at a chance to score points with the voters by requiring American soldiers to register their fingerprints and mugshots just like everyone else. Yet they don’t, which leads one to believe there must have been some heavy handed wrangling behind the scenes by the American government to craft out this large exception.
Finally, and most telling, is the exemption for zainichi Japanese – which as explained above, are long term ethnic Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations since World War II. They also happen to comprise the largest numeric amount of foreigners in Japan by far – even if by simple numbers, if one is hoping to catch terrorists amongst non-Japanese citizens (as defined by ethnicity, which as I’ll show momentarily, is what the Japanese government is going by), then it makes no sense to exempt such a large number of foreigners from the screening program!
What makes this more nonsensical is that Japan’s primary adversary these days is North Korean. Besides having threatened Japan with “a thermonuclear sea of fire“, North Korea has also fired several missiles over Japan in recent years, made it very clear they are in possession of nuclear weapons and have repeatedly kidnapped dozens of Japanese over the years from their own country and held them hostage in Korea for purposes unknown.
And while stressing that I in no way support fingerprinting anybody, including zainichi Japanese, it is clear that support for North Korea runs somewhat higher in some parts of the ethnic Korean community (to the extent that there have been accusations of North Korea using sympathisers in the community to funnel money and spy on Japan) than in Japan than amongst Japanese in general (where it is generally regarded as a dangerous and hostile nation). If the government was truly concerned with preventing the influx of terrorism into Japan by foreigners, it makes no sense to exempt the community with the closest ties to its sworn enemy – who happens to be proven and aggressive terrorist threat.
So why would the Japanese government exempt such a large swath of the “foreign” population? Perhaps it is keenly aware of the decades of protest lodged by activists in the zainichi community that led to the abolishment of the original fingerprinting scheme seven years ago. Unlike most other foreigners and visitors to Japan, the zainichi community has lived in Japan all their lives and are not only fluent in Japanese, but as familiar with the structures of government as any “Japanese” citizen. Thus including such a capable and vocal group of foreigners would risk exposing the government to more protest than they would care to handle – not to mention that the average Japanese citizen might be more sympathetic to a “foreigner” that not only looks like them, has taken a Japanese name and speaks Japanese fluently than they would be to a black African male or a white Eastern European female.
Why this law was REALLY passed, Part I
Thus, from the bizarre mixture of racism and pragmatism that forms the basis for most Japanese government decisions came the decision to exclude the preceding groups for the reasons explained above, and instead focus their attentions on the most vulnerable populations – everyone else. It’s easy to oppress every other foreigner because most do not a) speak Japanese well enough to complain b) are easily distinguishable on physical appearance alone from Japanese c) have not lived in Japan (due to draconian immigration restrictions) long enough to be familiar with the appropriate avenues for lodging complaints and d) lack a voice or any advocates in the community which can stand up for them. In other words, the perfect, vulnerable and helpless minority group, perfect for exploitation and oppression.
Here is where the Japanese law goes further than the American US-VISIT program and enters racist (and ultimately human-rights violation) territory. The American system does not fingerprint visa holders or green card (permanent resident visa) holders (and rightfully so). The Japanese system, however, fingerprints everyone, including permanent residents. The deliberate decision by the Japanese government not to distinguish between foreigners with visas (who had to be thoroughly vetteed to receive them in the first place), especially those with permanent residency (which is extremely difficult to get and generally requires fluency in Japanese along with 8 years of continuous residency before you even have a shot) and “fresh off the boat” temporary foreign tourists reveals the fundamental and racist equation that underlies all Japanese thought on the subject.
(we’ll talk more about this equation in the police section below)
If we are really interested in preventing “terrorism” or “catching visa overstayers” as the Japanese government claims, then it is critical to make a distinction between foreigners with visas/permanent residents and those who are just visiting Japan for a few days. In all cases, it makes absolutely no sense to fingerprint permanent residents – they care incapable of “overstaying” their visas and it should be fairly certain clear that if they have put in the staggering amount of time required to obtain a permanent resident visa that they are then truly committed to living in Japan for the long term. You can’t just “accidentally” get PR status – you have to work your ass off for it for years (maybe even decades).
In other words, “catching terrorism” has to distinguish between those who “might” be terrorists (possibly, possibly temporary foreign visitors to Japan, though we’ll debunk that myth in a second) and those who live in Japan the same as its citizens, but just happen to be of a different ethnicity. The latter group, for obvious reasons, is as unlikely to commit an act of terrorism as the average Japanese citizen (and actually, less likely, which I’ll get to in a moment), chiefly because they have as much to lose by an attack on their home country – i.e. Japan.
But if your fundamental equation is like that of the Japanese government – i.e. that all foreigners are criminals and terrorists, well, simply because of the colour of their skin (i.e. they’re not Japanese), then that would go a long way towards explaining why a conscious decision was made not to craft an exclusion for visa holders or permanent resident visa holding foreigners.
And lest you think I’ve over-reacting, consider the following: a foreign man, like above having lived in Japan for 20 years as a permanent resident, is married to a Japanese woman, speaks Japanese fluently, has children (with Japanese nationality), pays taxes, works for a Japanese company and is participant in his local community decides to take a trip abroad with his family.
When they return to Japan – his country, mind you – he is forced to separate from his wife and children – they can go through the “Japanese only” queue, while he is forced to be segregated and stand in the hour-long “foreign visitors” queue just like any other fresh off the boat tourist, where he will be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated just to enter his own country! while his wife and children have to wait patiently.
Does this make any sense?
What do we tell his wife and children when they ask why “daddy has to stand in a separate (criminals only!) line?”
And this, my friends, is the reality of modern day Japan:
And that is why they’re fingerprinting us.
Why this law was REALLY passed, Part II
-Hatoyama Kunio, Justice Minister of Japan
In a rather bizarre (but sadly all too typical for a Japanese politician) press conference, the Justice Minister of Japan, Hatoyama Kunio “defended” the decision to include permanent residents and visa holders in the mandatory fingerprint, photograph and interrogation program with a rambling, illogical and completely fucking made-up story about how one of his “friend’s friends” was a member of Al-Queida, responsible for the Bali bombing (and told him about it ahead of time!), and repeatedly re-entered Japan with “a different passport and name each time”, and that that, somehow, meant Japan had to fingerprint permanent residents and visa holders each and every time they enter the country.
Needless to say, it caused a bit of a stir when the Justice Minister of Japan openly admitted that he hangs out with terrorists who tell him about terrorists attacks ahead of time but apparently decided not to tell anyone, nor do anything about them entering Japan under false passports. This is to say nothing of the complete illogic of his notion that this somehow equals the need to fingerprint permanent residents and visa holders (also unmentioned is the fact that the US-VISIT fingerprinting program, for example, would have failed to catch any of the 9-11 hijackers so why should Japan expect to fare any better?)
After much ridicule from the press, Hatoyama later attempted to backtrack from his statement, playing around with the time frame and just how “advance warning” he really had of the Bali bombings and so forth, in the end having to resort to pathetic assertions that despite all evidence to the contrary, he really didn’t just make the story up in the first place. (calling to mind a certain Attorney General in America recently fired for lying and just generally making shit up… what is it about the people in charge of the justice system that makes them such pathological liars?)
The damage, however, was done, and the Justice Minister’s incoherent ramblings clearly affirm the Japanese government’s point of view that all foreigners are automatically terrorists and criminals, and thus need to be fingerprinted, logged and controlled to protect Japan from “terrorist attacks.”
What Hatoyama conveniently did not mention was one unavoidable fact:
Specifically, the terrorist incidents that give most Japanese pause – the 2000 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum cult and the attacks carried out by the Japanese Red Army during the latter half of the 20th century have been entirely domestic incidents perpetrated by 100% ethnically pure Japanese citizens. And this is to say nothing of the fact that despite the government’s best attempts at cooking the figures to show otherwise, Japanese citizens are responsible for virtually all the crime in this country.
This leads us to only one inescapable conclusion: if the Japanese government is really interested in preventing terrorism and crime, then they shouldn’t be fingerprinting foreigners – they should be fingerprinting Japanese…!
Yet of course such an idea is so ridiculously unimaginable it almost makes one laugh to try and conceive of it. Fingerprinting in Japan is regarded as a particularly heinous act – even more so than back in the West (where it’s hardly viewed lightly). To be fingerprinted in Japan is to be permanently thought of as a criminal, and in a country where social status and face are of such incredible importance even the slightest suggestion of such is regarded as terribly insulting and reprehensible as to be completely intolerable (many Japanese would refer to this as a human rights violation, as well they should, to say nothing of the fact that it’s completely illegal as noted in article 13 of the Japanese constitutions). The government could never conceive of even floating the merest suggestion they were considering applying such a program to Japanese for fear of the overwhelming and all engulfing backlash that would ensue (the current administration is already incredibly and strikingly unpopular). Yet despite this profound cultural revulsion to fingerprinting and indelible association with criminality, the Japanese government has no compunction whatsoever about the fingerprinting all foreigners en masse and retaining their records in a mysterious database for all time.
(to come in a future post: a recent government survey that reveals a full third of Japanese believe “foreigners do not have similar human rights to that of Japanese” (see Q.12))
Why is this a human rights violation?
Throughout the course of this entry I have repeatedly termed the fingerprinting program a “human rights violation”, a term that in this day and age often gets thrown around loosely. So I’d like to take a moment to explain in greater detail why, exactly, this constitutes a Human Rights Violation.
As explained above, in the mind of the Japanese government (and many Japanese as well), being “foreign” means one is automatically “guilty until proven innocent (and even then still guilty).” Beyond foreigners are perpetually doomed to be regarded as criminals and terrorists, regardless of how long they live in the country or how integrated they are in the community.
-Ishihara Shintaro, Governor of Tokyo, addressing the Japanese military
(Note: In the modern vernacular “sangokujin” means “low-class foreigners” or literally “third world person.”)
Now if this was merely restricted to thought or rhetoric-filled speeches by politicians looking to score points with the voting public, while it would still be undeniable reprehensible, it would merely reside in the “Racist and Xenophobic” category. And while racism and xenophobia are certainly things to be abhorred (especially in governments), they do not necessarily constitute a violation of Human Rights in and of themselves.
But when the Japanese government takes this racism, xenophobia and presumption of automatic guilt based exclusively on ethnicity and implements it as a program of fingerprinting, photographing, interrogating and recording foreigners in a database – well that takes it the extra step into Human Rights violation territory.
As previously established, “foreigner” in this case means “non-Japanese citizen”, which in a country as ethnically homogenous as Japan is identical to the term “ethnic minority”.* And with that terminology in place, the parallels to human rights violations in other parts of the world becomes much clearer.
*there are a few non-ethnically Japanese citizens, but their numbers are extremely limited
As stated, the ultimate purpose of this fingerprinting program is to restrict the movement of people into and out of Japan – the government claims this is just designed to catch criminals and terrorists, but we know from the much maligned US “terrorist database” that the reality is that it will catch zero terrorists and instead hamper the freedom of movement of tens of thousands of innocent individuals.
The problems with the US “terrorist database” are well documented (to say nothing of the US-VISIT program)- there is zero transparency – i.e. nobody knows how the database is actually compiled – in other words, how you get labeled a “terrorist” in the first place. In the case of mistaken identity, there is no way to get “taken off” the list – once you’re on, you’re doomed to being flagged a terrorist every time you fly. Furthermore, it is clear that the database operates on a simple shared-name basis: if your name has ever been used as an alias by a person that the United States government has ever suspected of even having a tenuous connection to “potential terrorists”, then you are fucked because you’re automatically in the database. Kind of sucks if your name is Bob Johnson or something generic like that.
The final and most flawed aspect of the US database is its sheer scope – at 500,000 plus entries, it contains more names than the total number of people ever even suspected of being remotely involved in terrorism. This alone should point out how utterly ridiculous it is – if you have more names than terrorists in the entire planet then you are clearly screwing up somewhere along the way. And common sense is no check to this system as well, as is evidenced when a US Congressman – a US congressman…! – was “flagged” as a terrorist suspect simply because he had the misfortune of having the wrong name.
There is absolutely no reason to suspect the Japanese system will be any better, and every reason to imagine it will be exponentially worse by degrees of magnitude unimaginable to anyone who has never witnessed first hand how incompetent the Japanese government is when it comes to keeping records or doing anything official. (for example, just last year it was revealed they had lost 50 million – yes, 50 million pension records for elderly Japanese over the past few years) Add the fundamental racist equation “foreigner = terrorist” to the mix and it is clear that hundreds of thousands of innocent people are about to be entered into a “terrorist database” entrusted to a fundamentally racist government with zero accountability. So what happens when you get falsely flagged as a “terrorist” by the Japanese database, just like with the US database? Well, the short answer is: you are fucked. In the best case scenario you are deported and banned from re-entry into Japan for the next 5 years. In the worst case scenario, you are incarcerated, tortured into a confession (more about this in the Police section below) and then subjected to the brutal non-mercies of the Japanese prison system (the same one that consistently gets railed upon by Amnesty International for human rights violations).
And this is the crux of the Human Rights violation right here. Looking at the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights we can see in Article 13 the following:
Uh oh. Anyone see any conflict between this and restrictions placed on innocent citizens mistakenly flagged as terrorists by the fingerprint database? Yeah… being falsely incarcerated or banned from Japan for 5 years is a pretty big violation of that particular article.
But wait, remember, this program only applies to foreigners in Japan – an ethnic minority group. Let’s look right up there at Article 2:
And so we have this law that applies only to a marginalized ethnic minority group with no voice or political representation and directly violates the fundamental human right of freedom of movement. You know there will be thousands of false positives – the American database has already shown that. Add in Japanese racism and it is certain to increase. Now imagine what happens when the two databases are combined – with Japan and America as two of the world’s major transit hubs, we are talking a massive impediment on an unprecedented scale of people’s freedom of movement – especially if you are unfortunate enough to share a name with an alias used by a terrorist.
But wait – there’s more.
When people hear the word “Human Rights Violation”, the image that usually comes to mind are things like the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Darfur, the slaughter of the Kurds by Iraqi forces, the Srebrenica Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Khmer Rouge, etc. It goes without saying that these terrible acts represent some of the worst crimes humanity has ever committed – however this does not in any way lessen the countless other human rights where governments have singled out ethnic minority groups for false arrest, torture and arbitrary incarceration.
I mean, no matter how bad the Japanese fingerprinting program might be, it can’t be that bad, could it? I mean, Japan is a first world country, right? I mean, they may deport you or restrict your freedom of movement, but they would never falsely arrest, torture and incarcerate you just because you’re foreign right?
Oh yes they will – and have.
And to find out how and why, we need to talk a little bit about the Japanese Police, in all their racist, brutal, torturous infamy.
The Japanese Police – Incompetence exemplified
If immigrations is the racist bouncer at the door of Japan determined to make every last filthy gaijin feel unwelcome in Japan (Japan, Yokoso anyone?), then the Japanese Police are the xenophobic, hate filled brutes determined to punish the few that do manage to slip into the country.
The first thing you need to understand about the Japanese police is that they are utterly incompetent. Sure they love to measure things , stand around and ask stupid questions , chat uselessly with their friends instead of investigating accidents, snap photos of school girl’s panties, steal shaving supplies and engage in other lovable Keystone Kop like antics, but when it actually comes to fighting crime…? Well… let’s just say that’s not their strong point.
Whether the police are running scared from the Yakuza, unable to catch a deranged murderer clad in a bright red sweater and no shoes, despite showing up nine-strong at the sole entrance to his apartment , or engaging in any other number of less than police-person worthy antics, if you ever actually find yourself a victim of a crime, you would have better luck going to the local shrine and praying for divine retribution than to expect anything useful from the Japanese police. Their fundamental approach to “policing” consists primarily of standing around in front of their police boxes with big sticks trying to look macho and self-important to impress the passing women, and filling out lots and lots of paperwork which will promptly be filed and never looked at again.
As with all modernising nations, however, Japan has found itself recently in the midst of a slight increase in crime. Just to put it into perspective, Japan is still pretty much the safest country to be in in the world – I’d take the most dangerous part of Japan over any “normal” suburban neighborhood in America any day of the week, for example. But to the Japanese, this slight increase in crime might as well be tantamount to the coming of the apocalypse itself, and the media has responded with extensive coverage of the average citizen’s dissatisfaction, (perhaps afraid of any cracks this might make in the myth that all Japanese are peaceful, middle class and completely satisfied with the society the government has forced upon them), a move which in turn has placed the pressure on the Japanese police to do some explaining.
And so, what do the police do? Get off their lazy asses and actually engage in some real police work for once?
Nah, that would require too much effort. And why do that when there’s a much better option out there?
And that’s just what the Japanese police do.
The Japanese Police – Racism and the myth of the violent foreigner
In absolute numerical terms, foreigners commit a very tiny portion of the crime in Japan – after all, this makes sense – there are so few of us to begin with. But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story – breaking down the crime statistics by nationality reveal that not only do foreigners commit few crimes, they are also less likely to commit crimes on a person-by-person basis than the Japanese themselves…! In other words, in almost every case, Japanese are more likely to commit a criminal offense than a foreigner – it turns out foreigners in Japan are an extraordinarily well behaved group of people – much better than their host country citizens, in fact.
But this simply won’t do when you’re trying to use foreigners as a scape goat for police and political incompetence, and so the Japanese police resort to that time honoured tool of oppressive states everywhere – they cook the numbers.
To summarise it roughly, it goes something like this. The Japanese police lump “real” crimes (like robbery, murder, etc.) which anyone can commit, with “statute” crimes (which are almost exclusively related to visas, so like overstaying your visa or teaching english for some extra cash if you’re on a student visa, etc.), which by definition, only foreigners can commit. Of course, common sense tells you that there is a big difference a murderer (the former) and a poor chinese immigrant who overstays his visa to work a below-minimum wage job as a dishwasher in Yokohama to make some money to send back to his family in China (the latter). The majority of crimes committed by foreigners fall into the latter category, yet the Japanese police purposely lump both under a single category “Crimes committed by Foreigners” in order to artificially inflate the numbers.
Even after this bit of underhanded trickery, the total number of crimes allegedly committed by foreigners in Japan is completely overshadowed by the number of crimes committed by Japanese citizens. How to deal with this?
Simple. Remove the figures on crimes committed by Japanese citizens from the statistics.
So now the Japanese police have artificially inflated crime statistics for foreigners, and have conveniently removed them from any frame of reference by deliberately omitting the (damning) statistics for crimes committed by Japanese. The only thing left to do is create panic in the general populace which they do by citing an “increase” in the number of crimes committed by foreigners, painted as evidence of a “wave of foreigner crime sweeping Japan”.
Of course, in order to conjure up this supposed “increase” (which is quite small), the Japanese police have to conveniently fail to account for the increase in the number of foreigners actually living in Japan over the years.
(In other words, as with any population, when the absolute number of people increase, so too will the number of crimes they commit, but this does not equal either a crime rate, or more importantly, an increase in the likelihood any given member of this population is going to commit a crime.)
And with that bit of gross fudging*, suddenly the Japanese police have constructed the perfect scapegoats – a disenfranchised ethnic minority with no political representation, who are easily distinguishable on the basis of appearance alone from the already xenophobic native population, who are only too happy to participate in the fiction of the “violent foreigner” if it absolves them from taking responsibility for their own actions.
*(if you want to read more about how the police
cook the crime stats, head over to here)
A case and point can be found in the infamous “Gaijin Hanzai Ura File” (“Hidden Foreigner Crime File“) incident last year. Without going into too much detail (more information can be found on this site), this was a high quality glossy magazine which was sold openly on the shelves of convenience stores and book shops nationwide which featured incredibly racist and disturbing imagery portraying foreigners as mindless criminal brutes which deserved to be arrested and deported en masse.
Some choice excerpts include:
Oi Nigger!! Get your fuckin’ hands off that Japanese lady’s ass!!
City of Violent Degenerate Foreigners!!
Myth number 7: “Is it true that Korean whore’s vaginas smell of
This is discussed at length, the basic conclusions being that no,
Korean whore’s vaginas do not especially smell of kimchii but you can expect
a general aroma of kimchii on the body of a Korean whore.
(these pictures were scanned by and were taken from Ultraneo’s flickr stream.
as this is a non-commercial blog, I believe the usage of these images is permissible under your posted terms – if not, please contact me and I’ll take them down ASAP
The most disturbing part of this book however, was not that it was openly sold in stores nationwide (where children could easily see/purchase it), and not that it was sadly only too typical of many kinds of literature in a similar vein, but rather that given the high quality of the publication itself, and the kind and quality of the statistics and photography inside, it seems very likely that the magazine was produced with extensive support and cooperation from the Japanese police department (the magazine itself notes it is based on “extensive interviews” with the police, but in all likelihood the connection runs much deeper, and it is even possible it was funded in part by the Japanese police). This makes it some of the more repugnant and abhorrently racist pieces of xenophobic propaganda published by a first world nation in some time.
And unfortunately, this outright state-sponsored police racism and hostility to foreigners is only the catalyst to a frightening scenario which the Japanese fingerprinting system is about to make very, very plausible.
The Japanese Police – Disregard for Human Rights or investigative accuracy
Before this, however, there is one final aspect of the Japanese police system which needs to be briefly explained, primarily their disregard for justice, investigative procedure or human rights in general.
In Japan, a disturbing 99.8% (yes, that’s almost 100%…!) of all cases that are brought to trial result in a conviction. Even for the most efficient of judicial systems in the world that number should raise a tremendous amount of alarm simply due to the incredibly high possibility of falsely convicting an innocent person. But how does a police force as utterly inept and incompetent as the Japanese police (and “judicial” system) manage such a staggering figure? The short answer is virtually every one of the suspects has confessed.
And how do they get the suspects to confess?
They torture them.
In Japan, once you are arrested by the police, you are essentially fucked, regardless of whatever evidence you can bring to your defense (or even if there is a lack of evidence to arrest you with). There are virtually no checks or balances on the power the police are allowed to bring to bear on anyone suspected of a crime. Suspects can be held without access to a lawyer, for up to a month without even being indicted!!
In addition, the usage of lawyers is highly restricted. The Japanese courts will not provide counsel to those unable to afford it until after they have been indicted, at which point, of course, most suspects will have been tortured into confession. Even if a suspect can afford a lawyer out of pocket before indictment, the lawyer is prohibited from being present during interrogation, which pretty much defeats the purpose of counsel in the first place. At even then, most lawyers, intimately aware of how much the odds are stacked against the accused, often encourage their clients to confess – even if falsely – in order to “get it over with”.
Confessions in Japan are regarded as “the king of evidence” and as such the police spare no effort to try and extract one from suspects, regardless of whether it is true or not, and without consideration for factors such as a lack of corroborating evidence (though they’re supposed to have other evidence, this requirement is routinely ignored). A large part of the problem comes from the Japanese policy of holding suspects in police-operated detention centers – as 2004, more than 98% of all people arrested by the Japanese police were held in such centers. The practice of remanding detainees into the custody of their interrogators has been widely criticised by NGOs, human rights organisations and even other states, as such a policy invites the usage of illegal interrogation technique and torture, which is, of course, exactly what happens in Japan.
Once arrested and held without access to counsel in a facility run by the same people who will interrogate them, suspects are completely isolated from the rest of the world. Then police begin the process of “interrogating” them, which is a another way to say “torturing confession out of them”. There are no limits on how long in a day police can interrogate suspects – marathon sessions of 18, 20, even 24 hours of constant interrogation for weeks on end are the norm, and this practice has been explicitly labeled as psychological torture by Amnesty International, various human rights NGOs, and other international observers.
In one high profile case recently, the Japanese police were found to have falsely tortured confessions out of an elderly couple – who were completely innocent – in a vote-buying scheme (in which 2 of the suspects attempted suicide from the interrogation and another actually died due to the stress of the trial) – by interrogating them non-stop for 3 days straight and forcing them to stop on the names of his relatives, an incredibly insulting thing to do in Japan. (not to mention something which was done to Christians in Japan a couple of centuries ago – being forced to stomp images of jesus).
After the three days of constant interrogation and torture, the old couple finally signed a false confession, but were fortunate that in a rare moment of judiciary independence, the courts found it inadmissible due to coercion and freed them.
Others, however, have not been so fortunate, and one needn’t look far to find cases such as the man who was tortured – after 17 days straight of constant interrogation – into falsely confessing to the murder of three women in Saga prefecture (despite the lack of any other evidence), or a taxi driver who was forced into affixing his thumb print to a false confession and served three years in prison for a rape in which the police later found the actual criminal.
It is important to understand that as with most Japanese governmental organisations, the Police department in Japan is not concerned with the actual worth or quality of their end product (in this case, whether the accused is actually guilty or innocent), but rather with making a show of going “through the motions” and filing the appropriate paperwork. In the case of a city clerk of records, this behaviour is merely annoying. In the case of the police, this results in the false arrest, torture and incarceration of innocent people.
In the west there are supposed to be checks on the power of the police – independent civilian oversight boards, competent defense attorneys, prosecutors who are mindful of the law (that little fuck up in Carolina not withstanding), and above all, the presumption that people are innocent until proven guilty and have a right to a fair trial.
In Japan, however, the civilian oversight boards are understaffed and completely impotent to enforce any changes. Defense attorneys, as we have seen, are not allowed to be present during interrogations nor even have access to their clients most times. Trials are heavily stacked in favour of the prosecution, and most disturbingly, there is no full disclosure requirement in Japanese courts – in other words, the prosecution is not required to share any evidence they have uncovered with the defense, even if such evidence proves the suspect is innocent. In fact, evidence that may hurt the prosecution’s case, or which is not used in court may be explicitly suppressed and critics have often claimed that defense attorneys are often not even given full access to the relevant police files necessary for their case.
And into this vicious, unchecked maw that chews up, tears apart and spits out even its own citizens – old men, women, children, innocent and guilty alike, what chance does a foreigner – already maligned and scapegoated by an incompetent police force and government eager to deflect attention from their own failings – stand?
The answer is absolutely none at all.
If you are a foreigner, the situation is even bleaker. Not only are you fully subject to all the cruelties and inhumanities the system can throw at you, you have to do so without the aid of a translator. There is no requirement to provide a competent translator (or even one at all) to the accused and there are countless stories of foreign suspects being provided with “translators” who could not speak their languages, or who would even give incorrect or utterly false translations to interrogators instead of what the suspects actually said. In addition, it is not uncommon for foreign suspects to be forced to sign Japanese documents they could not read and for which no translation had been provided.
One needn’t go far to find horror stories of what happens when one is unfortunate enough to be both foreign and falsely arrested for a crime in Japan. One of the more famous ones to date include the infamous Nick Baker saga, a chilling story which serves to underscore how frighteningly vulnerable foreigners are to the predations of the deeply flawed Japanese “justice” system.
The Japanese Police – The Frighteningly Plausible Scenario
And with that, we have all the pieces in place for an incredibly frightening, but completely plausible scenario. I first saw this scenario proposed on the reader feedback for an article entry on one of the english-language Japanese newspapers, and it hasn’t left my mind since. It goes something like this:
Imagine you are a foreigner riding the train somewhere in Tokyo. It doesn’t matter if you are a tourist, a permanent resident, rich, poor, from a western country or a third world country, whatever – as long as you are foreign. Unbeknownst to you, at standing next to you is a member of one of Japan’s various religious/terrorist cults. This individual places a bomb on the luggage rack that run over the seats on either side of the train cars. S/he then gets off at the next stop, leaving the bomb on the rack, which goes unnoticed due to the extreme number of people riding any given train in Tokyo at any given time. Also due to this crush of people and the natural swaying motion of the train, you naturally grab hold of either one of the stabilising bars or grab handles that hang from the racks in order to steady yourself as you ride to your destination, where you disembark.
A little while later, the bomb planted on the train goes off, killing everyone on board. Recalling the 1995 Sarin gas attack, as well as the more recent bombings in Spain and England, the Japanese media and public naturally go into a full blown panic. This exerts tremendous pressure on the police department, who rush to the scene and immediately start dusting for fingerprints, which they then start running for any matches.
Here’s where it gets sticky. Of course this being a public train car, there are going to tens of thousands of fingerprints all over the place. However, the Japanese police don’t have a database of Japanese fingerprints – they only have a database of fingerprints belonging to foreigners.
And of course, since you are a foreigner, your fingerprints are in that database. And since you happen to have had the misfortune of standing next to the real terrorist, you have the double misfortune of not only being foreign but also having your fingerprints be found on a grab handle right next to the bomb itself.
To logical thinkers, there is of course one tremendously huge flaw with this scenario – since the police only have a database of fingerprints belonging to foreigners, they can be definition only find matches for fingerprints belonging to foreigners…! But of course, this doesn’t mean that a foreigner actually did it…!!
But to the racist Japanese police department as we have seen, being foreign equals being a criminal, and guilty by definition. And so unencumbered by things like logic or justice, and feeling the pressure from the public to serve up a culprit, they haul you in. And as we have seen, once you’re in the system, you’re completely fucked – it’s only a matter of time until they torture you into a false confession, then parade you out for a show trial before locking you away or executing you (as an aside: in Japan, prisoners on death row are not informed of the date of their executions and so must spend every day wondering if it’s their last, until, in fact, it is their last. And families are not informed their relative is executed until after the excution…!)
Does this sound unlikely? Unfortunately it is not unlikely – in fact, quite the opposite, it is extremely plausible. Considering how heavily the odds are stacked against foreigners in Japan, the hatred possessed by the police and the state itself against those who are not ethnically Japanese, the absolute lack of concern for human rights, the integrity of the judicial process, the issue of actual innocence or guilt, the in the absence of any method of check or restraint on the powers of the police or state, to be foreign and arrested in Japan is to be doomed to conviction, regardless of your innocence or evidence to the contrary.
The police and state do not need any more evidence other than the fact that you are foreign and that they have your fingerprint at the scene. They do not need more evidence because they will torture a confession out of you, no matter how false, and use it to hang you. This is the reality of life as member of a disenfranchised, voiceless and utterly helpless ethnic minority group in Japan. And now the last defense we as foreigners had shielding us from the full brunt of the hateful state – the fact that they had to do some work if they wanted to falsely detain us – has been stripped from us. Now there’s a fingerprint and photographic record of every single foreigner in Japan. All the police have to do from now on is run any fingerprints they find anywhere even close to any crime scene, and if you had the misfortune of even passing close by to that scene at some point, you are automatically fucked.
What’s a foreigner to do? Wear gloves anytime they go outside? There are already files on every single foreigner maintained at the local city halls which follow them for their entire lives. All foreigners are already required to register for and receive an identification card which must be carried with them at all times upon pain of incarceration and deportation. The Japanese army has been specifically instructed to target foreigners in cases of natural disasters such as earthquakes because “they are likely to riot” (comment by everyone’s favourite bigot, the mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro) Now they want to photograph, fingerprint and interrogate us and enter all our information into a secret eternal database for all time to make it easier for the racist police system to identify, arbitrarily detain and torture us at any time?
What’s next? Special badges to wear on our jackets at all times?
My personal reaction
At this point, it seems almost pointless to write my feelings on the subject. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that by coming to Japan I would one day have to choose between giving up my human rights and surrendering to be treated like an animal simply because of my skin color, or else going home, never to return to Japan.
I never had entertained the delusion that I would be treated as “equal” in Japanese society. I knew this was a racist, xenophobic place before I came here, but I have always found that the people themselves (as opposed to the government/system) were quite nice one on one and I thought – thought – that if I worked hard, spoke Japanese fluently and one day got permanent residency status, it might come close enough to equal that I could shut my eyes to the injustices that still persisted and survive well enough. After all, no place is perfect, right?
But now this fingerprinting fiasco comes along and lays bare once and for all the ugly truth that I had long tried to shut my eyes to – that in this country, simply being non-Japanese will forever and ever make you thought of as a criminal, terrorist and ultimately, a danger to be tracked, blamed, recorded and incarcerated by the state. The fact that this law applies even to permanent residents makes it clear it’s not about merit – it’s only about skin color, Japanese or foreigner, and nothing else. The brutal, ugly reality of Japanese state racism, laid out for all to see.
Why should I even bother try to get my permanent residency any more? I have 5 years down, and I thought, only a few more to go before I could apply. But now, what good is it? I still will get treated like a dog, fingerprinted, photographed, recorded and tracked every time I leave, every motion I make, every thing I do. I could live in this country for the next 20 years, get married to a Japanese woman and settle down to have a nice “japanese” life, and yet as far as Japan is concerned I will never be any different than any fresh off the boat tourist – a short term visitor basically one step removed from a potential criminal and terrorist.
I have a choice to make, and it’s a hard one. On the one hand, my heart loves Japan and says to me “C’mon, it’s only a fingerprint. What’s the big deal?” But my mind cannot permit this transgression of human rights, and believes that to tolerate this is to legitimise Japan’s state sponsored racism. A slippery slope that leads to nowhere good exceedingly fast.
Sometimes standing up for your convictions means giving up things that you love – we can’t just talk the talk “oh this sucks! oh this fingerprinting program is racist!” – at some point we need to stand up and act with our feet. Japan has made it exceedingly clear that it doesn’t want foreigners and as I have written before, it takes a special kind of stupid to keep getting kicked in the teeth, yet come back for more time and time again. If Japan doesn’t want us, then maybe we shouldn’t stay here – in the end, we have to believe that we will gain more for standing up for our dignity and human rights by “walking the walk” than by any short term platitudes Japan could offer us with one hand while it oppresses and deprives us of our fundamental liberties with the other.
When I was young, I used to think of human rights – and their abuses – as something that happened “over there” – in Africa, in South America, in China. You used to hear about it on the news and you’d say to yourself “well, that sucks. glad I’m not them.”, then go on with whatever it was that you were doing in your nice comfortable suburban middle class lifestyle. After all, one of the advantages of being an American citizen is that honestly, you are never going to want for certain fundamental quality of life issues in your day to day existence. And while I am a little ashamed to admit it, part of the reason that I came to Japan after graduating – and not, say, Africa or India – is that I was accustomed to a certain level of “modernity” and “liberty” and wasn’t looking to give it up – after all, as an American citizen living in Japan, you don’t expect that your life will be hard in the same way that it might be if you were to go to Sudan or Somalia.
But when this whole fingerprinting thing dropped, and suddenly I found myself being fingerprinted, interrogated, photographed, tracked and and possibly detained just for having the wrong skin colour, a lot of things suddenly snapped into sharp focus for me, starting with just how easily those very liberties we take for granted can snatched from us in the blink of an eye. And the fact that no one here really seems to care, that there is no representation at the political or social level for Japan’s oppressed ethnic minorities, suddenly made me aware of just how frighteningly vulnerable any of us can be to the unchecked power and brutality of the state and the police. Being a citizen, I never thought about this so much when I was in America, but now I realise how frightening and scary things can be if you happen to be a member of an ethnic group (say muslim, mexican or black) scapegoated by the government and society and with no protections from the police or the state. In other words, I suddenly realised that human rights abuses weren’t just something that happen to an amorphous, anonymous “them” but rather a very real and frightening oppression that can happen – and does happen to any of “us“.
This winter, I was thinking of flying to New York to meet a good friend of mine, but then realised that if I did that, I would be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated upon re-entering Japan, despite having a perfectly legitimate visa and staus of residency. As it is obvious I have strenous objections to this, I decided to cancel the trip (“walking the walk”, despite how much it costs me to stay true to my convictions), at which point my friend said “well, I’ll just come visit you instead”. Only then we realise that she would be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated instead.
There is something exquisitely and excruciatingly fucked up with this world when I cannot meet one of my close friends without one or both of us having both a record of our meeting and our personal biometric and fingerprint data permanently recorded into a government database to be kept for all time. This is not the kind of world I want to live in and it frightens the hell out of me that this is the world I live in.
As I sat down to write this post, two quotes came to my mind that I had learned many many years ago somewhere in a middle school social studies class:
Then they came for the Socialists and the trade unionist
but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews
but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me
but there was no one left to speak out for me.
What a world. What a fucking world.
Now listening to: “Wyclef Jean – Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)”