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Japan greets visitors, sort of

In crackdown, request for photo and fingerprints.

TOKYO - The Japanese government has created new immigration procedures for foreign visitors that critics say are all too revealing about official attitudes toward foreigners.

In November, Japan began fingerprinting and photographing non-Japanese travelers as they passed through immigration at air and sea ports. The government says the controls are a necessary security measure aimed at preventing a terrorist attack in Japan.

The system is modeled on the U.S. program instituted in 2003 that requires most travelers coming to the United States to provide fingerprints and facial photos when they apply for visas. But the Japanese system goes further by requiring foreigners - visitors and residents of Japan - to be photographed and fingerprinted upon arrival.

There are exceptions: diplomats, children under 16, U.S. military personnel serving in Japan and long-term residents of Korean and Chinese descent whose presence here largely is owed to Imperial Japan's overseas conquests. But all other foreigners will be scanned each time upon entry.

'A long history'

Critics say the data collection is a dubious terrorism-fighting measure, instead reflecting the government's desire for closer surveillance of foreigners.

"The Japanese government has a long history of not wanting long-term foreign residents, and they really feel they need more control over foreigners," said Sonoko Kawakami of the Japanese chapter of Amnesty International. "The government just wants to gather as much information as possible on people."

The only terrorist spectaculars in Japanese history have come from homegrown groups: Japanese Red Army radical leftists in the 1970s and '80s, and the Aum Shinrikyo religious fringe, which carried out the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

But officials say Tokyo's support for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan makes Japan a target, and taking "biometric data" such as fingerprints and digital facial photos is the only way to nab terrorists traveling on fake passports.

Stoking fires

At least that was the contention of Japan's justice minister, who has long been among those senior public officials who believe Japan is too open to overseas workers. When he became justice minister in August, Kunio Hatoyama made clear he had no intention of proceeding with earlier plans to open the doors to more unskilled workers.

That, he warned, could lead to an increase in crime.

Statistics, however, show that crimes committed by foreign visitors are falling. And despite alarm about particularly sensational crimes that attract media attention, Japan's overall crime rate is declining or flat.

That hasn't stopped some senior Japanese politicians from stoking anti-immigrant fires by claiming that foreigners living in Japan are committing a higher proportion of crimes, sending bureaucrats in search of ways to weed out the "good" foreigners, presumably those with money to invest, from "bad" ones, such as the Chinese pickpocket gangs that get so much media attention here.

The new immigration system appears to be one answer. Fingerprinting is actually a resumption of a system that was abandoned in 2000 after strong protests by long-term Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese residents who resented being fingerprinted in their own country. A jittery, post-Sept. 11 America provided the initiative for the Japanese to revive it.