Back when I was a child watching old afternoon movies, I’d see a black and white World War II film where a Nazi soldier would say to the hero, “your papers, please.” This was used to promote tension as we waited to see if the fraudulent paperwork would allow the intrepid hero to pass the checkpoint and move on to freedom. The larger message, however, was that the times were such that people could not move freely without having their identity and purpose checked.
In Japan, foreigners are seeing a situation not unlike this unfold for them. In the past few months, there has been a surprising new sequence of rights violations targeted in an omnidirectional fashion at foreign residents. For decades, there have been targeted identification checks and scrutiny when it comes to bicycle theft leveled against foreign residents in Japan. If you are riding a bike in Tokyo, there’s a pretty good chance that you will be suspected of stealing your ride merely because of the look of your face and the color of your hair and eyes.
It is not the least bit unusual for the police to take down your bicycle’s serial number and check it against their list of stolen bikes. They do this to foreigners at whim. They only do it to Japanese people if their bicycles’ serial numbers have been removed or defaced so that they have reason to believe that someone is trying to cover up a theft.
The bicycle checks have been a long-standing part of the unwarranted scrutiny leveled at foreigners and are a minor nuisance. Though they are clearly racially motivated, they are non-invasive and brief. More troubling tides of change have been splashing about as of late. First, the Japanese parliament has recently voted changes in the foreign registration laws that require foreign residents to carry cards with a computer chip in them. If you do not have your card on you and it is requested by a person in authority, you will be fined up to $2,000 (200,000 yen). The cards will allow the Japanese government to encode a wide variety of biometric data and personal information about everything from tax payments to hair color in order to keep tabs on you.
These cards purportedly are being used to help ensure that foreigners in Japan integrate with the system. For instance, they want to be sure everyone is signed up for the socialized health insurance system and paying into the pension system. However, this is all smoke and mirrors for the truth. The truth is that the cards will allow the police to scan you and extract personal information at will. It’s also a way of getting more foreign residents to pay into systems from which they almost certainly will never be eligible to collect benefits. To collect from the Japanese pension system, you have to pay in for at least 25 years, or your government must have a reciprocal arrangement with the Japanese government. Very few countries have such arrangements and few foreigners remain in Japan for 25 years. Essentially, this is a way of having people pay into the struggling Japanese social services systems without collecting anything on the other end.
This new system had been proposed for Japanese citizens as well, but they roundly rejected being tracked in this manner. Many of them are currently avoiding payments into various social service systems (including the pension system) and they are no happier about biometric data being encoded into ID chips than we foreigners are. They don’t want their privacy compromised or to be opened up to identity theft. We don’t want it either, but we have no power to stop the Japanese government’s efforts to tighten the leash around our necks.