Tuesday, 22 June 2010

On the cards

All foreigners in Japan know him. The 62-year-old isn’t particularly loved—he’s a bit of a square—but we’ve all had to live with him and even take him out with us every day. Like many of his generation, he could keep on working, but he’s recently learned that he may have to settle for his pipe and slippers sooner rather than later.
The Baby Boomer in question is the Certificate of Alien Registration, or gaijin card, a form of ID that non-Japanese residents have been required to carry since the enactment of the Alien Registration Order in May 1947.
It may come as a surprise to learn that, if the government gets its way, the card will be consigned to the bureaucratic scrapheap. The Diet is currently debating bills to replace gaikokujin torokusho with a new residency (zairyu) card, which would shift administration of alien registration from municipal offices to the Immigration Bureau.
So what are the government’s plans? And, more importantly, what are the implications for foreigners?
If enacted, the bills submitted by the Cabinet in March would revise three laws—the Basic Resident Registration Law, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, and the Special Law on Immigration Control—with the government looking to pass them before the end of the current ordinary Diet session on June 3. Once passed, the revisions would become effective in less than three years.
According to the immigration bureau, the government’s main aims are to simplify the administration of foreigners by having the bureau handle nearly all paperwork related to immigration and residency; reduce the burden on foreigners living legally in Japan by extending visa periods and relaxing re-entry rules; ensure all legal aliens join social insurance and state pension schemes; track the movement of foreigners more closely; and clampdown on illegal aliens such as visa overstayers by denying them the right to carry the new card.
However, opposition parties, legal organizations and migrant activists have slammed the revisions. They claim the changes could impose excessive fines for failure to carry the card, make notification of status changes less convenient, and lead to undue dissemination of personal information and excessive monitoring of foreigners.
One aspect of the revisions few would bemoan is the extension of the three-year visa to five years, and the removal of the need to obtain a re-entry permit for residents who leave the country for less than a year. The revisions would also give foreigners some parity with locals by placing them on the same Basic Residents’ Registration Network, or Jumin Kihon Daicho Netowaku, a system the government created to enable easy exchange of information between municipal offices. There is, however, one significant difference.
The Juki-net cards distributed to Japanese do not have numbers printed on them, and the law strictly protects information on the IC chip imbedded in the cards. But as the revisions stand, numbers would be printed on foreigners’ cards, and a greater amount of data could be kept on the chip. While this would ostensibly enable smoother administration, critics have conjured up an image of a regulatory Big Brother tracking foreigners more rigorously than their Japanese neighbors.
Immigration bureau documents state that, in addition to a photograph, the following information would be printed on the cards: name; date of birth; sex; nationality; address; visa status, type and expiry date; card number, issue; date; expiration date; working restrictions; and other necessary information stipulated in justice ministry ordinances. But with the documentation also stating that some or all of this data may be recorded on the chips, opponents fear what may be held in this “other information.”
Masashi Ichikawa, an attorney involved with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, is concerned about unwarranted access to such personal details.
“The card could be used as identification at places such as banks and libraries, where the chip could be read and the card number recorded,” he tells Metropolis. “I fear that people reading the card would be able to tell how much money is in a person’s account or what books they are borrowing. Authorities such as the police and immigration would be able make inquires to banks and other places to ask for information on a person’s number.”
Ichikawa also sees disparities between the treatment of foreigners and Japanese. “The law on resident registration for Japanese permits only the card number to be recorded on the IC chip—not the card—and does not make available information from private establishments such as banks. We want foreigners to be protected in the same way as Japanese.”
However, Kazuyuki Motohari of the immigration bureau’s general affairs division tells Metropolis that the IC chip has only been put on the cards to make it easier to share information between government ministries, agencies and local authorities. He also fends off fears of an Orwellian nightmare.
“Only the minimum amount of information would be put on the cards,” he says. “We’ll only perform data matching when absolutely necessary, such as to check whether a person works where they say they do—no more. The IC chip has not been put in for other people to read.”
Opponents point out that the revisions contradict the government’s objective of keeping closer tabs on foreigners. Under the current system, undocumented residents, overstayers and asylum seekers can obtain a gaijin card and access to basic education and health services. But the changes would prevent the issue of zairyu cards to such people—effectively rendering these individuals invisible.
It would still be a crime, however, for foreigners to not always carry the new card. The current law, which the immigration bureau says would not change in the revisions, specifies that aliens must present certification (i.e. the gaijin card) to officials such as immigration inspectors and officers, police officers and maritime safety officers, but mentions nothing about having to show the card as identification to private organizations such as cellphone companies and banks.
The maximum fine for failing to carry the new card would remain at ¥200,000. Yet the immigration bureau’s Motohari says he cannot recall a case in which a fine has been levied on a legal card-carrying alien who pops out of his house for a short time without it. Even so, opponents are hammering the government to drop this obligation.
“Making all foreigners carry cards is excessive regulation,” Ichikawa says. “There are bad foreigners and also bad Japanese. We don’t think it’s necessary to oblige foreigners, especially permanent residents, to show their card on request. Even the United Nations says it’s wrong to make people with permanent residency in a country carry such a card.”
Azuma Konno, an upper house Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker, says: “The DPJ is considering amending the revisions so people are cautioned rather than fined for failing to carry the cards.”
Notifying authorities of changes in status, such as when you start a new job or get married, is currently relatively straightforward—you just head down to your local municipal office and do the necessary paperwork. The proposed changes, though, could make things more troublesome, as notifications would have to be made at your local immigration office. That means Tokyoites would have to squeeze onto the No. 99 bus at Shinagawa with the rest of humanity to the dreary office in Konan.
Failing or forgetting to notify authorities of a change in status could also come at a heavy price. It would still be possible to change your address at your municipal office, but you must report it within 14 days, and failure to do so within 90 days could mean annulment of your visa—and deportation. Foreigners on spouse visas would have to report to the immigration bureau within 14 days in cases of divorce, or the death of a spouse. A contentious element is that a visa could be nullified if a person, in cases such as separation or living apart, is not engaged in “marital activities” for three months or more (something many Japanese couples do when one partner is “asked” by his or her company to relocate). The 14-day notification period and 90-day potential cancellation would also apply when foreigners on common visas switch jobs.
The immigration bureau stresses it has considered the plight of foreigners and would take personal circumstances into account when making decisions on visa annulment. “We are considering other more convenient ways to make notifications, such as online or by mail,” Motohari says. “We hope to lessen the burden on foreigners as much as possible.”
The bureau says it has held meetings to gather views from both Japanese and aliens. It also claims it has not widely publicized the content of the revisions because it wants to focus its efforts on getting them passed into law before it provides information to the foreign community.
Opponents, however, insist the government hasn’t really listened to non-Japanese viewpoints and that the insubstantial press coverage has meant few foreigners are aware of the government’s plans, denying them the opportunity to protest.
But with groups such as the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan organizing rallies and hearings in which opposition lawmakers, Korean groups and legal organizations put counterarguements to the government, the revisions could wind up significantly amended.
Moreover, should the government fall and a DPJ-led administration take office—a distinct possibility this year—before the bills are passed, one 60-something gent could find he has to put his retirement plans on hold for a while.
Metropolis - May 2009

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