Tough visitor rules to affect foreigners
Some say sweeping checks will hurt tourism, business
By Martin Fackler
New York Times
Article Launched: 11/18/2007 01:41:22 AM PST
TOKYO – Japan has tried hard in recent years to shake its image as an overly insular society and offer a warmer welcome to foreign investors and tourists. But the country is about to impose strict immigration controls that many fear could deter visitors and discourage businesses from locating here.
On Tuesday, Japan will put in place one of the toughest systems in the developed world for monitoring foreign visitors. Modeled on the United States’ controversial U.S.-Visit program, it will require foreign citizens to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned every time they enter Japan.
The screening will extend even to Japan’s 2.1 million foreign residents, many of whom fear they will soon face clogged immigration lines whenever they enter the country. People exempted from the checks include children under 16, diplomats and “special permanent residents,” a euphemism for Koreans and other Asians brought to Japan as slave laborers during World War II and their descendants.
The authorities say such thorough screening is needed to protect Japan from attacks by foreign terrorists, which many fear here because of Japan’s support for the United States in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the measures, part of an immigration law enacted last year, have been criticized by civil rights groups and foreign residents’ associations as too sweeping and unnecessarily burdensome to foreigners. They note that the only significant terrorist attack in Japan in recent decades was carried out by a domestic religious sect, which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people.
Some of the most vocal critics have been among foreign business leaders, who say the screening could hurt Japan’s standing as an Asian business center, especially if it is inefficiently carried out, leading to long waits at airports. Business groups here warn that such delays could make Japan less attractive than rival commercial hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, where entry procedures are much easier.
The business groups also contend that the screening runs counter to recent efforts by the government to attract more foreign investment and tourism.
“If businessmen based here have to line up for two hours every time they come back from traveling, it will be a disaster,” said Jakob Edberg, policy director in the Tokyo office of the European Business Council. “This will affect real business decisions, like whether to base here.”
Some civil rights groups worry that the government is using terrorism to mask a deeper, xenophobic motive behind the new measures. They say that within Japan, the government has justified the screening as an anticrime measure, playing to widely held fears that an influx of foreigners is threatening Japan’s safe streets.
These groups also note that fingerprinting of foreigners is not new here. Until fairly recently, all foreign residents were routinely fingerprinted. That practice was phased out after years of protest by foreign residents and civil rights groups.
“Terrorism looks like an excuse to revive to the old system for monitoring foreigners,” said Sonoko Kawakami at Amnesty International in Japan. “We worry that the real point of these measures is just to keep foreigners out of Japan.”
One request made by the European Business Council, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and other business groups is to add special lines at airports for foreign residents, and especially frequent business travelers.
Until now, foreign residents have been allowed to use the same lines at airport immigration as Japanese citizens, speeding their entry. But the new law will bar them from doing so.
Only the Tokyo area’s main international airport at Narita has agreed to set aside lines for foreign residents. Others, including the nation’s second-largest airport, Kansai International near Osaka, will force these residents to line up with other foreigners, who even before the new screening often waited an hour or more to pass through immigration.
That irks Martin Issott, 59, a Briton and the regional director for a British chemical company who has lived in Japan for 20 years. Issott said he used the Kansai airport two or three times a month for business trips. He uses the immigration line for Japanese citizens and never waits more than five minutes. He said he feared that the change in rules would result in long waits at the end of every trip.
“I have no problem complying with the letter of this law,” said Issott, who lives in the western city of Kobe. “But I am utterly disgusted that they haven’t found a way to make this quicker and more painless.”