Published: JUN 21, 2021

This quote, usually attributed to former US Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, was made in the context of an overcrowded Japan in his day, used to explain the stark difference between public and private behaviors of Japanese (sneaking off, for example, to love hotels for a bit of private time).

But privacy is taken quite seriously in Japan, especially if it will damage a reputation. Television broadcasts of criminal suspects on perp walks often have their handcuffs blurred, since the person hasn’t been convicted yet. Media reporting on businesses accused of unsavory activities (such as food poisoning or putting up “Japanese Only” signs) often refuse to report their company names so it doesn’t adversely affect their sales. Even people who park their cars in those love hotels may find themselves in a parking garage with curtains, or with their license plates covered up by pieces of plywood provided by the establishment.

So why doesn’t this concern for privacy apply to foreign residents?

For example, consider Ministry of Justice requirements in 2007, where foreigners applying for longer-term visas had their Japanese spouses fill out an intrusive questionnaire. It included questions about the size of their abode and rent, their entire love life until they got married, contact details of who introduced them, what languages they speak at home, and how well they understand each other (if they use interpreters, add their contact details), who and how many attended their wedding, their entire family tree on both sides with contact details, and more.

That’s still not quite as bad as Japan’s Muslim residents, secretly infiltrated and spied upon by police for possible terrorist connections, who in 2010 were forced to flee their jobs and homes because cops lost control of their personal data. Or how about Japanese media that publicize photos of outdoor public demonstrations and only blur out the Japanese-looking faces?

My first encounter with this lax attitude towards foreigner privacy was in the early 1990s, when I was standing outside with some foreign friends at a bus stop. Little did we know we were being surreptitiously filmed by a local TV network as a “background image” for a news story about a “foreign-looking” crime suspect on the lam. My wife saw me on TV, asked me what crimes I was up to, and off we stormed to the network demanding restitution. (We got some phone cards. Ah, the good old days before I learned how to file lawsuits.)

But violations of foreigner privacy are routine. As readers probably are aware, foreigners at any time or place can be stopped for a random “Gaijin Card” check. I’m referring to the card with all sorts of personal information on it that registered foreign residents must carry 24/7 or face arrest, fines, and imprisonment.

This system has enabled bored cops since 1947 to racially profile anyone “foreign-looking” (including Visible Minorities who are citizens) with instant ID checks. There have even been cases of police conducting door-to-door searches within known “Gaijin Houses.”

But by 2005, the Japanese police weren’t satisfied with not being everywhere at once, so they told hotels to demand “foreign guests” produce their passport and/or Gajiin Card as a precondition for service.

This was in fact bending the law. The law explicitly said only people empowered by the Ministry of Justice (such as police or the Immigration Bureau) can demand to see Gaijin Cards. Even after some local ordinances were passed to permit extra policing, ID checks only applied to foreign tourists without addresses in Japan.

No matter. Police still told hotels (and later, after the 2018 Minpaku Law, Airbnbs) that Gaijin Card checks were required for ALL foreign guests, prompting clerks to racially profile their clients. Police also demanded that hotels photocopy all foreign IDs and retain it for display to the police later.

Again, none of that is actually in the law, and doing so violates Japan’s Act on the Protection of Personal Information. But who cares? Only foreigners are affected, right?

But you really should care. Foreign governments have rightly warned that this may lead to serious problems, such as identity theft.

The Canadian Embassy admonished its citizens in 2019, “Never give out personal information from your passport or your passport application unless you’re sure it is for a trusted organization or individual. This includes photocopies. You take all responsibility for giving information in your passport to a third party.” In other words, if anything goes wrong, that’s on you.

That too doesn’t matter: Now banks, tax agencies, DMVs, even private-sector businesses such as fitness centers and mobile phone companies (which do accept other forms of ID if the bearer is Japanese) have unlawfully made Gaijin Card checks routine at registration.

From 2007, even employers are being asked to police the visas of their employees, leading to a number of snafus by staff untrained in Immigration procedures (not to mention places deciding not to hire foreigners to avoid the rigmarole).

Since then, things have gotten even more intrusive thanks to technology.

First, the government decided that local governments couldn’t be trusted with issuing the older version of Gaijin Cards (which for a while even bore a fingerprint), so in 2012 they centralized the system in a national database. Then they issued a new and improved “Zairyu Card” with a remotely-readable RFID chip.

The Ministry of Justice claimed this new card was more secure. The IC chip would contain information that only people with the proper card readers would be able to access.

Well, guess what–now, nearly ten years later, there’s an app for that.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Justice issued its Residence Card Checker App, downloadable for free from all major platforms (Apple App Store, Google Play, and Microsoft). Anyone with a smartphone can now scan the contents of your Zairyu Card’s IC chip.

This is no accident. The ministry website explicitly asks the public to check if your card is a fake and your visa legal, and to report you to Immigration.

That means anyone, including the pimply part-time clerk with a foreigner fetish at your local entertainment outlet, can now feel empowered to play “Spot the Gaijin,” demand you hand over your Gaijin Card as a precondition of service, swipe it, and stash away your digital information for his own purposes.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, consider what went wrong with the Justice Ministry’s last intrusive wheeze in 2004, the Immigration Bureau “snitch sites.” These enabled anyone to anonymously report a foreigner to the authorities for any reason whatsoever. Predictably, it led to vigilantes and hate groups targeting and harassing Zainichi Korean residents.

Despite condemnation from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the “snitch sites” stayed up for more than a decade causing harm. This is because, again, foreigners’ privacy doesn’t matter.

Contrast this with how law protects privacy for Japanese.

First, unlike Gaijin Cards, there is no universal ID that Japanese must carry and display at any time under threat of criminal penalty. Second, remember the public outcry when the government tried to institute the Juki Net and MyNumber systems? Some major municipalities, such as Nagoya, even withdrew from the former in 2010 citing privacy concerns.

As for random stoppages and ID checks by police, the law explicitly requires that the police have probable cause in cases involving Japanese citizens.

Not so for foreigners, of course. The Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act overrules all those safeguards, given postwar government policy that foreigners are untrustworthy and must be policed at all times.

The problem is that enforcement of these laws is no longer in the hands of trained officials. Now anyone can target you with this handy-dandy app and collect your personal data digitally if you foolishly surrender your Gaijin Card.

According to a June 15 Tokyo Shinbun article (indicatively entitled “Mobilizing the public to surveil foreigners”), the Card Reader App as of May has been downloaded 40,000 times.

Opposition politicians and human rights groups have rightfully pointed out that the app “will lead to the promotion of prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives” and “a loss of mutual trust” in a society where people must coexist.

Asked to comment, the Ministry of Justice played dumb. They claimed they were trying to stamp out fake cards, citing a whopping 369 cases in 2015 and 620 in 2018.

They admitted that they had paid NTT ¥840 million (US$7.6 million) to develop the card reader, and anticipated it would be put to good use by employers and financial agencies. “We had absolutely no wish for human rights abuses to happen from misuse of the app.” But when pressed, they admitted that they “haven’t grasped how it’s possibly being used now.”

Now that’s thoughtful governance by police with more money than sense, who have really never considered what it’s like to live in Japan as a foreigner–and how the stalkers, foreign fetishizers, and hate groups out there would love to get their hands on their personal information.

There are about 2,580,000 Gaijin Card holders in Japan. If you’re one of them, don’t leave home without it, of course. But don’t display it to anyone but uniformed law enforcement who shows their ID first. Also, have another form of ID, such as a Japan driver license, handy. At least that requires a password.

Otherwise you could have your identity stolen and put on one of those fake cards. And it’ll be your responsibility for letting your data get out.