If you are a long-term or permanent resident foreigner in Japan, from November 20th, you're going to be in for a shock at Immigration. Like many others, after a long trip back to Japan, I have always appreciated the right to be able to pass through the Japanese immigration lines with my re-entry permit. At the same time, I look at the long lines for the Foreigners immigration line, and thank my lucky stars that I don't have to get caught up in that for an hour or more.
Well, those foreigner lines are about to get very much longer, because from November 20th, a law passed back in 2006 will require ALL foreigners other than second and third generation Koreans (so-called "Special Permanent Residents") and those under 16 to only use the foreigner immigration lines. It doesn't matter if you're married to a Japanese, or have kids who are Japanese nationals with you, you will need to either separate from them at Immigration, or have them come with you over to the foreigner lines.
So the one hour wait to get into the country is about to become two hours thanks to biometric fingerprinting and retinal scans, and possibly even longer at peak times as families, permanent residents, and rumor has it even flight crews, overflow into lanes that are already woefully under-served. Furthermore, you'll have to do this every time you re-enter Japan.
This move by the Justice Ministry is ostensibly to protect Japan from terrorists and previous deportees, and as such as I suppose that I can understand the need (well, actually not) to process newly arrived people separately from others. But to force those who have in some cases lived decades in Japan, or who have even been born here, who have Japanese families, who pay taxes, own or manage companies, employ Japanese workers, etc., to have to go through the same meaningless process every time they travel overseas makes no sense at all.
The fact is that the Immigration Ministry in one foul swoop has made many people, myself included, who have positive feelings about living here, a little less welcome. It's not just the inconvenience of having to spend an extra hour or more for each return, but the fact that even after having made a significant contribution to society, the value of a permanent residency permit is in the long-run no greater than a 90-day visa-free tourist stamp.
And for those foreign multinationals who might be thinking to set up their Asian operations in Tokyo and who require frequent overseas travel for their staff, this new rule will be a black mark against Japan, and one more reason for them to choose Singapore or Hong Kong instead.
Then of course there are the 6 to 7 million visitors to Japan each year, who are about to experience what the USA has become infamous for - foreigner phobia. Every time a visitor to Japan experiences the feeling of being fingerprinted and the delays, it will compound dramatically the amount of ill-will Japan is earning for itself. Indeed, the new law will be viewed as a strong signal that Japan actually does NOT want foreigners here, not even long-term residents, and that everyone who is not Japanese is a suspect terrorist. This makes me want to remind the Justice Ministry, that there has never been a case of foreign terrorism here and that the Red Army was comprised of Japanese, not foreigners.
Some may justify Japan's move as a response to other Western nations, the USA in particular, which started biometric scanning of incoming tourists a while ago (one reason I don't go there so often any more). However, I would note that no other country makes its foreign permanent residents go through such a procedure. In the USA, green card holders get to move through US Citizen channels, just as if they had citizenship. This is only natural, since to get a green card, just as with permanent residence in Japan, one has to be thoroughly vetted and prove that you are a contributing member of the society you are living in.
I have not heard much from the various Chambers of Commerce at this point, however, once some of the top foreign managers in multinational firms, some of whom employ thousands of Japanese staff, are subject to this shabby level of treatment, I expect that the Justice Ministry will either have to change its policy or be excoriated in the foreign press. I also imagine that those countries who currently allow Japanese residents to move through their citizens' immigration lines will prevent them from doing so, in a tit-for-tat measure. Particularly in countries like Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, this would seriously inconvenience Japanese companies, who typically have tens of thousands of long-term and permanent residents living in those host countries.
So my personal message to the Justice Ministry is: please look at the situation logically and ask yourselves whether the anger of tens of thousands, if not millions of non-Japanese who like Japan enough to travel and live here, is worth it?