When the Japanese government first issued alien registration cards (aka gaijin cards) in 1952, it had one basic aim in mind: to track "foreigners" (at that time, mostly Korean and Taiwanese stripped of Japanese colonial citizenship) who decided to stay in postwar Japan.
Gaijin cards put foreigners in their place: Registry is from age 16, so from a young age they were psychologically alienated from the rest of Japanese society. So what if they were born and acculturated here over many generations? Still foreigners, full stop.
Even today, when emigrant non-Japanese far outnumber the native-born, the government tends to see them all less as residents, more as something untrustworthy to police and control. Non-citizens are not properly listed on residency registries. Moreover, only foreigners must carry personal information (name and address, personal particulars, duration of visa status, photo, and — for a time — fingerprints) at all times. Gaijin cards must also be available for public inspection under threat of arrest, one year in jail and ¥200,000 in fines.
However, the Diet is considering a bill abolishing those gaijin cards.
Sounds great at first: Under the proposed revisions, non-Japanese would be registered properly with residency certificates (juminhyo). Maximum visa durations would increase from three years to five. ID cards would be revamped. Drafters claim this will "protect" (hogo) foreigners, making their access to social services more "convenient."
However, read the fine print. The government is in fact creating a system to police foreigners more tightly than ever.
Years ago, this column [see "The 'IC-you card," Nov. 22, 2005] examined this policy in its larval stage. Its expressed aims have always been to target non-Japanese in the name of forestalling crime, terrorism, infectious diseases and the scourge of illegal aliens. Foreigners, again, are trouble.
But now the policy has gone pupal. You might consider helping chloroform the bug before it hatches. Here's why:
The "new gaijin cards," or zairyu kado (ZRK), are fundamentally unchanged: The usual suspects of biometric data (name, address, date of birth, visa status, name and address of workplace, photograph etc. — i.e. everything on the cover of your card) will be stored digitally on an embedded computer chip. Still extant is the 24/7 carrying requirement, backed by the same severe criminal punishments.
What has changed is that punishments will now be even swifter and stricter. If you change any status recorded on your chip and don't report it to the authorities within 14 calendar days, you face a new ¥200,000 fine. If you don't comply within three months, you risk losing your visa entirely.
Reasonable parameters? Not after you consider some scenarios:
- Graduate high school and enroll in college? Congratulations. Now tell the government or else.
- Change your job or residence? Report it, even if your visa (say, permanent residency or spouse visa) allows you to work without restrictions anywhere.
- Get a divorce, or your spouse dies? Condolences. Dry your eyes, declare the death or marital mess right away, and give up your spouse visa.
- Suffering from domestic violence, so you flee to a shelter? Cue the violins: A Japanese husband can now rat on his battered foreign wife, say she's no longer at his address, and have her deported if she doesn't return to his clutches.
Foreigners are in a weaker position than ever.
Now add on another, Orwellian layer: bureaucratic central control (ichigen kanri). Alien registration is currently delegated to your local ward office. Under the new system, the Ministry of Justice will handle everything. You must visit your friendly Immigration Bureau (there are only 65 regional offices — not even two per prefecture) to stand in line, report your changes and be issued with your card.
Try to get there within what works out to be a maximum of 10 weekdays, especially if you live in a remote area of Japan (like, say, Hokkaido or an Okinawan island). Then try to explain away a lost workday in this corporate culture.
Now consider refugees. They don't even get an ID card anymore. They won't be able to open a bank account, register to attend schools, enter hospital, or qualify for social insurance anymore. No matter; this country accepts fewer than a few dozen refugees every year; they shouldn't have come here anyway, thinking they could impose upon our peaceful, developed country.
That's still not the worst of it. I mentioned that embedded computer chip. The ZRK is a "smart card." Most places worldwide issue smart cards for innocuous things like transportation and direct debit, and you have to swipe the card on a terminal to activate it. Carrying one is, at least, optional.
Not in Japan. Although the 2005 proposal suggested foreign "swiping stations" in public buildings, the technology already exists to read IC cards remotely. With Japan's love of cutting-edge gadgets, data processing will probably not stop at the swipe. The authorities will be able to remotely scan crowds for foreigners.
In other words, the IC chip is a transponder — a bug.
Now imagine these scenarios: Not only can police scan and detect illegal aliens, but they can also uncover aliens of any stripe. It also means that anyone with access to IC chip scanners (they're going cheap online) could possibly swipe your information. Happy to have your biometric information in the hands of thieves?
Moreover, this system will further encourage racial profiling. If police see somebody who looks alien yet doesn't show up on their scanner (such as your naturalized author, or Japan's thousands of international children), they will more likely target you for questioning — as in: "Hey, you! Stop! Why aren't you detectable?"
I called the Immigration Bureau last week to talk about these issues. Their resident experts on ZRK security said that data would be protected by PIN numbers. The bureau could not, however, answer questions about how police would enforce their next-generation gaijin card checkpoints. Those police are a different agency, they said, and there are no concrete guidelines yet.
Come again? Pass the law, and then we'll decide law enforcement procedures? This blind faith is precisely what leads to human rights abuses.
One question lingers: Why would the government scrap the current alien policing system? For nearly six decades, it effectively kept foreigners officially invisible as residents, yet open to interrogation and arrest due to a wallet-size card. What's broke?
Local government. It's too sympathetic to the needs of its non-Japanese residents.
Remember Noriko Calderon, whose recently deported parents came to Japan on false passports? Did you ever wonder how she could attend Japanese schools and receive social services while her parents were on expired visas?
Because local governments currently issue the gaijin cards. At their own discretion, they can even issue ID to visa overstayers. Rendered as zairyu shikaku nashi (no status of residence), the card can be used to access social services. They can live relatively normal lives, as long as they avoid police gaijin-card checkpoints.
Why are local governments so sweet? With high concentrations of non-Japanese residents, many see foreigners as human beings needing assistance. After all, they keep local factories humming, pay taxes and add life to local infrastructure. Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture and Yokkaichi, in Mie, have long petitioned the national government for improvements, such as facilitating foreign access to public services and education, and easing registry and visa applications.
After years of playing deaf, the central government took action. Under the rhetoric of "smoking out illegal aliens," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005 pledged to "make Japan the world's safest country again" by halving the number of visa overstayers by 2010.
Never mind that the overall trend in Japan is toward devolving power to the provinces (chiho bunken); Japan now wants to rein in local governments because they poke holes in their dike. It's still a shame the proposed plugs make life impossible for refugees, and harder for any law-abiding non-Japanese resident with a busy life.
Still, did you expect the leopard to change its spots? Put immigration policy in the hands of the police and they will do just that — police, under a far-removed centralized regime trained to see people as potential criminals.
This is counterproductive. As we've said in this column many times before, an aging Japan needs immigration. These new gaijin cards will make already perpetually targeted foreigners (and foreign-looking Japanese) even less comfortable, less integrated members of society.
Why stop at bugging the gaijin? Why not just sew gold stars on their lapels and be done with it?
Fortunately, a policy this egregious has fomented its own protest, even within a general public that usually cares little about the livelihoods of foreigners. Major newspapers are covering the issue, for a change. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan wants the bill watered down, vowing to block it until after the next general election.
The coalition group NGO Committee against the Resident Alien Card System (www.repacp.org/aacp) has as its banner "Less policing, more genuine immigration policy that promotes multiethnic co-existence."