Monday, February 04, 2008

A Reluctant Reference to My Least Favorite Institutions and, "Should I Pre-Register My Photo and Fingerprints the Next Time I Travel Outside Japan?"

I am a child of the Cold War, and if there was one thing I really thought was foul about the Reds when I was a kid (besides their perceived habits of throwing Christians into gulags and controlling the lives of their citizens), it was their maniacal border controls. Well, like old soldiers, the commies just faded away during my teens, but as a well-traveled third culture kid (TCK) I quickly learned that all border and immigration agencies of all countries were my enemy--especially after I turned eighteen. It has always been my desire, though, to keep my own little cold war with the world's border agencies from turning hot. After all, I am just one bug among many bugs, and they are a legion of stomping jackboots. They gave me a lot of grief, but I tried not to let them change my travel habits.

However, the day came (on my Honeymoon Part II) when U.S. immigration photographed and fingerprinted my wife during a changeover on our flight to Canada (I had been unaware of the new U.S. policy that required all non-Canadian foreigners to be subject to biometric identification). I decided then and there that I would never again fly with an American airline and that I would never again take my family through an American airport . . . and I haven't. It's not that I think that being fingerprinted is the end of the world; I had to be fingerprinted as a registered alien in Japan when I turned sixteen, and also when I applied to join the auxiliary police in Ontario, Canada. It is just that the once exotic world of airports and air travel has gradually been morphing into a venue for personally degrading probings by the executive branches of governments. Frankly, I am much more afraid of earthquakes, governments and war than I am of terrorists. I'm not saying that terrorists aren't terrible or that I'm not afraid of them . . . I'm just more afraid of the other things, and I believe that I am perfectly justified in being so.

All of the above is merely an intro to the fact that I am extremely unhappy that Japan has opted for its own (and less sophisticated) application of biometrics to border control. I have generally tried to avoid discussing the issue because in the ex-pat community it usually degenerates into a flame war between the "Japan is a Den of Incompetent Xenophobes" camp and the "Japan is Uniquely Transcendent and, Besides, America Did It First" camp. But this affects my life, and while boycotting the United States is painful yet possible for me, boycotting Japan is utterly impossible in the context of my life.

So, rather than wading into the debate (if you can even call it a "debate" when the bad guys aren't listening anyway), I will make my contribution in the form of some received practical advice. The following is an exert from an email I received through a mailing list:

For your information, our family has all done the optional pre-registration for entry/departure from Japan. I think this is available only in the Tokyo area for right now. Here are the details in case you are interested. You will probably find it is more trouble than it is worth. Anyway, I have composed what I learned in a question & answer format so you will know in advance:

QUESTION: Why on earth would anyone want to pre-register their fingerprints with immigration??
ANSWER: It may save you time standing in line upon re-entry, because you can use the automatic gate. And they are getting your fingerprints no matter what.

QUESTION: Automatic gate? That sounds cool! So I don't have to give my passport to an immigration inspector or be fingerprinted?
ANSWER: On the contrary. If you are a foreigner, your "automatic gate" will still be manned by an inspector, and you still have to be fingerprinted and photographed.

QUESTION: But just once, right?
ANSWER: No, every time you enter Japan you have to be photographed and fingerprinted if you are a foreigner.

QUESTION: So what, if anything, is different about this "automatic gate"? It sounds the same as a regular immigration gate.
ANSWER: You get to scan your passport page yourself. Otherwise, it is almost the same. Except that the line should be shorter.

QUESTION: Well, a shorter line sounds good...
ANSWER: Yes, but you still have to wait for your luggage...

QUESTION: Who gets to use the automatic gates?
ANSWER: Only Japanese or foreigners who have pre-registered their photos and fingerprints before leaving Japan.

QUESTION: So foreigners can go through the same gate as the Japanese?
ANSWER: No. There are separate automatic gates for Japanese and foreigners. But right now they only have a couple of gates installed.

QUESTION: What do you do when you get to the automatic gate for foreigners?
ANSWER: Use the scanner to scan the photo page of your passport, then hand your passport to the inspector, allow him to take your photo, and fingerprints.

QUESTION: That actually sounds like more steps than the regular line...
ANSWER: Is that a question?

QUESTION: Well then why would anyone want to use the automatic gates?
ANSWER: It doesn't matter. There probably won't even be one in your arrival wing. When my wife got back from China they did not have one in her wing.

QUESTION: Well where are they?!
ANSWER: Right now there is only 1 in Narita Terminal 1 South Wing (Lufthansa, Singapore, United, Asiana, and ANA) and Terminal 2 (JAL, Quantas, Air NZ).

QUESTION: If there is not an automatic gate in my wing, what should I do?
ANSWER: There is now a special line for foreigners who have a re-entry permit. If you have one you can go there instead of the regular foreigner line.

QUESTION: But I went through the Japanese line before. Can't I go through the Japanese line since I live here and have a gaijin card?
ANSWER: No. No more. Move away from the window please.

QUESTION: But my wife is Japanese...
ANSWER: Move away from the window please.

QUESTION: Well are there any disadvantages to using the automatic gate?
ANSWER: You need to know that they will NOT stamp your passport unless asked (arrival / departure info is recorded electronically for them, not you).

QUESTION: Well why would I need my passport stamped?
ANSWER: You might need proof of being out of your home country or in Japan for taxes, etc. It is up to you to keep a record. [. . .].

QUESTION: Well do I still have to fill out that stupid card? I always get confused about whether I am "embarking" or "disembarking."
ANSWER: Of course. You still have to fill out the card if you are a foreigner. Everything has to be done chanto.

QUESTION: So you still have to be fingerprinted if you use the automatic gate?
ANSWER: Of course. In fact, you have to be fingerprinted an extra time just to pre-register.

QUESTION: I am afraid to ask, but what kind of flaming hoops do I need to jump through to get "pre-registered for the automatic gate"??
ANSWER: If you have time, you can actually do it at Narita Airport on your day of departure. Otherwise you have to do it at the main immigration building in Shinagawa.

QUESTION: NOT Shinagawa!
ANSWER: See? I am helping you to make informed decisions already.

QUESTION: What do I need to take?
ANSWER: A valid re-entry permit in your passport. You fill out a form, give your fingerprints, and let them take your photo. They stamp your passport.

QUESTION: Is it quick? Do I have to take a number?
ANSWER: There were very few people registering when we went. We did not have to wait long. For some reason, people are not flocking to this.

QUESTION: Do I only have to do this registration once? And from then on I can use this high-tech automatic gate?
ANSWER: Are you joking? [. . .]. Your permission to use the automatic gate expires whenever your re-entry visa does.

QUESTION: Do the people who work in immigration at Shinagawa who only work with foreigners all day long every day speak any English at all?
ANSWER: No. Of course not. I saw a Middle Eastern family trying in vain to talk to them. But they do have the application forms in English.

QUESTION: Can I walk to Tokyo Immigration in Shinagawa from JR Shinagawa station?
ANSWER: No. Take a taxi. It is actually located on a kind of island so foreign detainees cannot escape. I am not making this up.

QUESTION: Do I have to give my fingerprints every time even if I have already pre-registered them?
ANSWER: Yes. And let them take your photograph. Actually they have to do both several times it seems, until they get it right.

QUESTION: If I change my mind and decide that I don't want to be "pre-registered" any more, can I cancel it?
ANSWER: Yes. You have to fill out some forms and it takes time. They will send you a letter when your registration is cancelled.

QUESTION: Will they erase the electronic record of my fingerprints then?
ANSWER: If you believe them. But note that they also warn:
"Please understand that if we discover that you have broken any laws, we will not notify you, we will arrest you."

QUESTION: Do they have to make it sound like those of us who bend over backwards to obey the law are practically criminal suspects?
ANSWER: You are. Enjoy your trip.

For those of you who have actually read this far, perhaps a comparison and contrast of these two government sponsored information videos will prove entertaining. This earlier one didn't go over so well.

So, they started from scratch again, and this time wisely left out the cameos of stupid, but suspicious, but compliant, but sometimes incorrigible foreigners. They also latched on to the public relations doctrine that if you want people to grudgingly submit to an idea they don't like, present it in a suave male voice with a BBC English accent (most other kinds of British accents won't do at all).

In practical terms, my biggest complaint with immigration procedures is that it requires international families to split up. We have been addressing, and will continue to address this issue by all lining up together in the lines for foreigners, whether we are entering Canada or Japan. Notice that the possibility of citizens attempting to go through the foreigners' lines is never addressed in any of the videos or literature. If we ever hit a brick wall when doing this, then we will become the t-word at heart, even though we would never do anything ungodly like hurt people. (An observation here--I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the war on terror is the single biggest catalyst for turning non-terrorists into terrorists . . . but that is getting political and this is a family-oriented blog, not a political one).