Joe enrolls in the MOJ Gaijin Hanzai File

Tonight I returned to Japan from a personal/business trip to the US, and got to experience the new fingerprinting system for the first time.

My flight was United 883, one of the later inbound flights from the US (it arrives around 5:30 PM). I was in the mid-section of economy so there were quite a few people getting off the plane ahead of me. I phoned Curzon as I was walking down the concourse to immigration and told him I would give a postgame report in “maybe 30 minutes.”

But when I reached immigration, there was practically no line for anyone. The area was separated into four zones: citizens, special permanent residents, re-entrants and other foreigners. Those using the new “fast track” card (which I did not bother to get before leaving Japan) were lumped in with the random foreigner category. There were two dedicated re-entrant stations open, and only one was in use when I arrived, so I went straight to the waiting officer who took my passport.

The fingerprinting machine is surprisingly simple, consisting of two fingerprinting pads (made of some sort of metal), an LCD screen and a tiny camera not unlike the built-in webcams that come with laptops these days. The machine says INSERT FINGERS and you put your two forefingers in. Then the immigration officer points the little webcam at you and snaps your photo (which, thankfully, is not displayed on the screen: I don’t need to know what I look like after nearly 24 hours of traveling).

So I was done with immigration in about 30 seconds, which I think is close to a personal record. This didn’t keep United from losing my luggage, though…

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24 thoughts on “Joe enrolls in the MOJ Gaijin Hanzai File”

  1. Despite Joe’s report on his ease of entry, I am so not a fan of this policy. The main problems have to do with the technology (glitches that have confused users’ biometric data elsewhere) bundled with data storage practices.

    Another problem with the policy is some of the press Japan it generates. This issue is already being connected to “racist” Japan despite the fact that it is something that is happening largely at the behest of Japan’s “foreign” alliance partner. It’s all just grist for the mill, I suppose.

  2. “This issue is already being connected to “racist” Japan despite the fact that it is something that is happening largely at the behest of Japan’s “foreign” alliance partner.”

    But it is also a reinstatement (using superior and faster technology) of a policy that Japan had until just a few years ago. At that time there were plenty of politicians and bureaucrats who wanted to continue the fingerprinting, and the US security policies just gave them a cover for reinstating it. I would be a little more sympathetic to the idea that Japan has reinstated fingerprinting primarily due to the US if Japan were not the SOLE non-US country to implement such a program, while at the same time being just about the least likely target of Islamic terrorism out of all US military allies.

  3. “I would be a little more sympathetic to the idea that Japan has reinstated fingerprinting primarily due to the US if Japan were not the SOLE non-US country to implement such a program”

    Britain has instituted a similar policy, but not at the border. If you want a visa for the U.K. these days, you now (or will soon) have to go to your “local” embassy or consulate (which my be hundreds of miles away) to preregister your biometric data. The policy hasn’t garnered much attention as it is being phased in country by country.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/2/story.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10480588

    The Brits are also looking into border fingerprinting schemes. It’s sold as all very state-of-the-art “first line of defense against…” type of stuff.

    http://www.upi.com/International_Security/Emerging_Threats/Briefing/2007/10/10/uk_fingerprinting_foreign_arrivals/4811/

    Korea, meanwhile, has instituted a fingerprinting policy for foreign teachers, and have been far less circumspect about the “evil foreign element” than Japan – claiming that such a policy will help the authorities clamp down on child molesters. Then again, they have the recent shenannigans of one swirly-faced Canadian to provide popular cover for that. They have even obliquely requested foreign embassies provide criminal histories.

    http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2883449

    Although it by no means justifies it, Japan may just be riding the crest here.

  4. Oh, and France started fingerprinting tourist visa applicants in 2003. The interior Minister in charge of the programme? One Nicholas Sarkozy. Whether or not that means the programme will be expanded in future is anyone’s guess, but given how close Sarkozy is to the U.S. I’d say it’s a fair bet.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2989637.stm

  5. I repeat myself from the last post:

    “Once you’re a reentry permit you can breeze through the lines in Narita, which are way better than anything in JFK, LAX, O’hare, or any major airport in the US. Problem for you Adamu is that you keep entering with all the other unshaved foreigners, whether it be as an “illegal” high school student or coming in from Thailand as an almost spouse.”

    “Regardless, there are still seperate lines for re-entry permit holders and foreigners entering for the first time, which the US does not do, and wait time for reentry permit holders hsa apparently not changed.”

    Thanks for the confirmation.

  6. Oh, of course more and more countries are going to start doing this. But is it coincidence that Japan, the only country to previously have a similar program in place, is also the first country to implement the current version? It’s also worth noting that Japan’s version is actually slightly more draconian than the US Visit program, which does not require green card holders to provide fingerprints, whereas Japan only exempts Special Permanent Residents, not residents who have obtained permanent residency status as adults.

    Fingerprinting for visa applications is hardly new, is it? I’m fairly sure the US has been doing that for at least a decade, although I must admit I’m not at all sure. I do know that the two countries whose tourist visas I have applied for in the past, China and Kazakhstan, did not even require me to show up in person to the Consulate though. No fingerprint, interview, or anything but sending in my form and passport.

    As for the Korean issue- as I think about it I’m a bit mixed. The part of the regulations that requires foreign teachers to return to their home country and apply for a new visa, instead of just making a quick visa run to Japan as they do now, is utterly absurd. On the other hand, it’s 100% reasonable to require that people who are being hired to work with children provide criminal records. After all, that is a requirement for obtaining a teaching license in every country that I’ve ever heard of, so why shouldn’t foreigners who work with children be subject to the same checks?

    I don’t see any real benefit from the fingerprint border checks, aside from it being yet another example of bullshit security theatre. So far, Japan has apparently caught a handful of Chinese workers who were deported in the past for overstaying their visa. Whoohoo- I’m sure that was worth the billions of yen.

  7. “Regardless, there are still seperate lines for re-entry permit holders and foreigners entering for the first time, which the US does not do, and wait time for reentry permit holders hsa apparently not changed.”

    Except in the US you get fingerprinted not at the immigration/emmigration line, but at the US Visit computer terminals. Resident aliens can skip those terminals entirely, and the lines to wait for them that have been reported at some airports, and proceed directly to the immigration line, while visitors who must be fingerprinted have to go through two stages, and possibly two queues. It’s hardly a brilliant system, but it’s still rather different.

  8. Roy: when I travelled through LAX two months ago, there was no separate fingerprinting booth, all was done at the immigration booth.

    Joe: no protest, no post-probe hyperbole about how you outwitted the immigration officer with your ninja Japanese language and legal skills, no oh-my-god-the-Japs-will-be-gassing-us-all-tomorrow line? Your name has been noted in the Book of Bastards as a government agent and any contribution you try to make to the fingerprinting discussion will herewith be sneered at by all of us who are correct and true gaijins and ex-gaijins.

  9. “Japan’s version is actually slightly more draconian than the US Visit program, which does not require green card holders to provide fingerprints, whereas Japan only exempts Special Permanent Residents, not residents who have obtained permanent residency status as adults.”

    This is true in form. And I agree. But in substance, Japan maintains a special line for all reentry permit holders, making the process MUCH quicker than essentially all other countries.

  10. Ken: I’ve never been to LAX, but I have seen the terminals in some airports. They may relocate them from time to time for all I know, just to confuse people.

  11. Korea’s Joongang Ilbo’s online Japanese version had op-ed article from Korean lecturer currently working in Tokai Univ on the matter on Dec 7. She was very harsh with the scheme and that ignites J-bloggers anger and hundreds of hate mails were posted to JI site.

    This is what happened on 11th on JI.

    <時事評論>名分のない日本の指紋採取

    このページは都合により削除いたしました。

    Now,why says J-bloggers are tame animals.

  12. “Fingerprinting for visa applications is hardly new, is it?”

    As far as I know it is.

    Anyway, perhaps you’re right in terms of the motives of the Japanese government. And perhaps I am. There isn’t really much “proof” either way. But as I noted before, what I object to is the assertion that this “is” a product of “Japanese racism”. So far the foreign press has been pretty reasonable, pointing the finger squarely at the government for a stupid policy. But I have seen one or two silly pieces that have dragged out the usual “evidence” (like Ishihara Shintaro’s amazing arsehole act and racist police posters that were reported on in 2002) to demonstrate Japanese racism.

  13. Well, it may not be indicative of any widespread racism, but I think it’s pretty clearly representative of xenophobia and paranoia on the part of government officials in Japan, much like our own ballooning security apparati are representative of xenophobia and paranoia in our government here in the USA.

    I think it’s worth noting that the new fingerprinting rules in Japan have an exception for special permanent residents, since these are the same people whose protests got the previous system canned, as well as the only group of aliens in Japan who have any real collective political clout. If the foreign community in Japan wants to get the current system removed (unlikely at this point, unless the global security fetish starts to recede in a few years) their chances are probably even further diminished without the help of the Zainichi population, which is explicitly not affected by the new fingerprinting system.

  14. Well, I’ll be flying to the US next fortnight, and then coming back to Japan, so, as a non-citizen of both countries, I’ll get to experience them both and can compare. I’ll be using Narita though, so should get in smoothly through the re-entrants line. But aside from that, I’ll be most interested in which side works better and provides a more pleasant experience. I have a fair few ideas already, frankly….

  15. Jade, which airport will you be using in the US? I’ll definitely be interested to hear your comparison when you’re done with the trip.

  16. I’ll be using DTW (Detroit) and DCA (Washington National). Been reading stuff about the wonderful welcome TSA gives you and frankly am not looking forward to it. Especially as I only want to transit to another international flight at DTW and understand that US airports make *everyone* go through entry procedures even when you don’t want to actually enter. I’ll certainly post my experiences here if you like.

  17. As promised, here is my short report on the fingerprinting-immigration process in the US and Japan from the POV of a non-citizen of either (though a resident of Japan).

    First big complaint. I never wanted to go to the US at all, at least not the first time. But you cannot bloody transit in the US – there’s no such thing as a transit lounge. Everyone who enters a US airport from outside the country, even if, like me, you are just taking a flight to Canada in about 90 minutes, needs to go through Immigration and Customs. This is seriously Fucked Up.

    So I arrived at DTW and the queues were so long that they actually allowed us aliens to line up in the US Citizens queue. The immigration check was surprisingly thorough considering I wasn’t staying (I can get an I-94W Visa Waiver at least….). I was flying on to Canada, and the guy asked how long I would be in Canada. “None of your goddamn business, you’re not Canadian Immigration,” I so wanted to reply, but alas – I am a wimp. But he wasn’t too harsh – had a quick convo about the importance of visiting NZ over Australia, at least. The fingerprinting worked well, one finger at a time, and didn’t seem nearly as intrusive as I expected – almost sci-fi, in fact.

    I had to go through Customs, pretty much pro-forma, and recheck my bag, which wasn’t too much of a hassle, then go through the infamous TSA (Totalitarian Sadists Authority) security check. I was prepared for it, wearing shoes easy to get on and off. It was a stupid process, but aside from the shoes thing, no worse than any other x-ray check thing. The agents were professional and efficient. I also kept my mouth shut, which helped. There is also no discrimination between Domestic and International flights, at least at DTW: they can all be accessed equally. BTW, getting through the x-ray at Narita was much the same sans the shoe thing, and I was definitely able to take an empty bottle through to fill up airside.

    I do have to say that Canadian Immigration/Customs was one of the most pleasant I have ever been through – friendly and chatty, and the place was just about deserted.

    Getting from Canada to the US was interesting, in that the US is obviously so paranoid about those Canadian terrorists that you aren’t even allowed on the plane until you have gone through Immigration. US border inspection while not in the US. The fingerprinting here took a bit more to ‘take’ – I had to rub my right finger in what looked like a small square petri dish, and was probably just as good at growing bacteria. The lady there also pressed my fingertips down, and it took a bit longer to read. Again, the US asks more questions of people coming in than any country I can think of – it’s easier to get into the People’s Democratic Republic of China.

    Leaving the US is always very simple – too simple, really – there are no exit formalities at all, which is stupid. If they want to make sure people leave the country before they are supposed to, then they should at least check that they have left.

    Getting back to Japan was very easy. For one thing, almost everyone on the flight was connecting to other flights, mostly going on to Beijing (same flight). And it must have been the time of day (3:00 pm) but the place was practically deserted. There were indeed lines for re-entrants, and there was literally no one else lining up – I could walk straight up to the guy and hand him my passport and gaijin card. The prints were done simultaneously, as Joe noted, but the guy (a ‘trainee’) didn’t even shift the camera, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t looking directly at me. Both prints took immediately, and whether or not I had been conditioned by the US experience, it didn’t really seem that intrusive.

    What was intrusive was when I arrived at Narita on the Keisei Express (not the Skyliner) to leave the country: got through the passport check that everyone goes through, only to have a cop come up and demand to see my passport again. While he is copying basically everything in it down in longhand on paper, which has similar notes for various other terrorist suspects – I mean gaijin – I asked him what this was about. Some lame excuse about the upcoming summit. I asked him if he checks Japanese, and he said they get checked ‘above’, presumably meaning the vehicle entry check. Dodgy in the extreme. And pointless – by the time he had finished his shift and ran my data to determine that no, I was not likely to bomb the place (especially as I am not a local farmer), I could have gone anywhere. Very annoying, and I was only able to keep my temper as he was both very polite and well armed, and I make it a rule never to argue with people with guns.

    So that’s it really. The fingerprinting on either side was not a serious hassle, though the second time into the US did take a bit longer than ideal. US Immigration authorities hate everyone. The TSA checks (and I got SSSS leaving WDC) were polite and professional, though their system was insane (the guy ahead of me in the SSSS line was a 70-yr old white guy, about the least likely terrorist you could imagine). The fingerprinting on returning ‘home’ is annoying but on a more intellectual level – it’s possible giving returnees their own line could make it the fastest of the lot. Certainly the actual processing was very quick – scan passport, scan visa/re-entry 2D barcodes, and stamp. So given that, the US system needs to be able to do both fingers at the same time, and the grilling doesn’t need to be as long or rude (one Chinese guy coming in on a new student visa was getting the hard word), but the actual fingerprinting itself didn’t really bother me as much as I expected, on either side.

  18. There is also no discrimination between Domestic and International flights, at least at DTW: they can all be accessed equally.

    This is the main reason why you have to go through customs/immigration in the US even if you’re only transiting. If they just let you out into the concourse to catch your connecting flight, you would be able to exit the airport without going through an immigration checkpoint. Contrast this with Japan, Korea and other countries, where international flights are only accessed after receiving an exit stamp, and where you can’t leave the restricted area without going through immigration.

  19. “I do have to say that Canadian Immigration/Customs was one of the most pleasant I have ever been through – friendly and chatty, and the place was just about deserted.”

    That was not my experience of driving with my family from New York to Quebec back in 1982.
    Warlus moustached Quebecois immigration officer greeted us like “I-speak-French-language,You-too-speak-FrenchlLanguage-no-matter-where-you-from”attitude.

  20. “If they just let you out into the concourse to catch your connecting flight, you would be able to exit the airport without going through an immigration checkpoint.”

    Yes, I gather that, but it doesn’t make sense in the wider aspect – why ARE domestic and international mixed? Every other country seems to manage the division, after all….

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