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Japanese Immigration Web Site Fuels Anger Among Foreigners, Rights Groups - 2004-05-05

Japan's Justice Ministry, amid international protest, has again revised an Internet web site that encourages Japanese to send anonymous e-mails, reporting any foreigner they suspect of being illegally in the country. Despite the changes, the controversial web page is still prompting human rights concerns over Japan's immigration practices.

An array of Japanese groups - including local governments, human rights watchdogs, labor unions and church organizations - have blasted the Justice Ministry's new immigration web site. It was launched in mid-February and quickly nicknamed "Fink-on-a-Foreigner" by its detractors.

What initially set off the controversy was the ability for people to report anonymously, via electronic mail, their non-Japanese neighbors for such infractions as "creating anxiety" or "disturbing the neighborhood."

Those are actions that critics say have no connection to illegal behavior or relevance to the law.

The protests twice led the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau to tone down the contents of the site. The latest revision includes an online warning to potential informants that attempts to libel foreigners will not be tolerated.

But Immigration Bureau Assistant Director Hideharu Maruyama defends the basic aim of the web site. He says allowing Japanese to alert authorities anonymously about suspect foreigners is no different than what has been done traditionally by telephone or fax.

Mr. Maruyama says that because many of those making complaints live or work in proximity to suspected illegal aliens, in some cases they might be in danger if they were not able to provide information anonymously.

Andrew Horvat is with the Japanese office of the Asia Foundation - an independent policy and development organization focusing on the rule of law. He says he is not surprised at Japan's method of relying on tips from citizens.

"The tradition in this country for police-citizen cooperation is very, very long. And in fact, Japan doesn't really have a very large number of policemen. But it has a lot of people who think that law and order matters," he said.

But to some, the idea of spying and informing on foreigners harkens back to the early 20th Century special agents of the "Tokko" - the Japanese thought police - which used citizen cooperation to keep tabs on everyone in the country.

Photographer Kjeld Duits, head of the Netherlands Association of West Japan, is a 22-year resident in this country who is worried about the immigration website.

"It gives the impression that all foreigners are here illegally and that all foreigners somehow cannot be trusted and should be spied upon." he said.

Mr. Duits and representatives of the local Brazilian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese communities took their concerns to Toshizo Ido, governor of Hyogo Prefecture - which has 100,000 foreign residents.

Mr. Ido promised Mr. Duits and the others he would look into the matter.

"I was extremely surprised that he actually kept his word and he did something about it," he said. "And that shows that especially the prefecture of Hyogo is very concerned about all its people, not only the Japanese people who live here but the foreign people who live here. It's a very, very good feeling."

The prefecture is home to the Far East regional headquarters of U.S. consumer products giant Procter & Gamble and Governor Ido is aggressively courting additional foreign investment for the Kobe area.

The prefecture government is calling for the Justice Ministry to abolish the contentious web site.

The Asia Foundation's Mr. Horvat, who has resided in Japan for 30 years, says the disputed Internet site popped up amid a government campaign to rid the country of the estimated 250,000 workers living here illegally.

"When we talk about illegal workers, these are workers whose entry was overlooked, quite purposely, by the authorities," he said. "So, for the authorities now to go and say 'Oh, if you see someone who is behaving suspiciously, report him' - well, let's just put it this way: this is just a little bit too convenient. What this country needs is not a fink-on-a-foreigner site, what it needs is a regulatory environment that reflects the actual needs of the country."

Those needs - according to many in and out of government - include more foreign laborers, especially in the health care and service industries, as Japan ages and its population declines.

The Immigration Bureau's Assistant Director Maruyama says foreigners who are in Japan legally should be supportive of the campaign to reduce the number of illegals.

He says cutting the number of illegal aliens will help to increase the proportion of legal foreigners, improve the image of foreigners among Japanese, and thus eventually lead to a liberalization of regulations on immigration.

The Immigration Bureau says it has no plans to stop its informant system, pointing out that such tips lead annually to the apprehension of tens of thousands of illegals.

The web site reportedly generated more than a 1,000 e-mailed tips in its first 45 days online, but the authorities are not saying if it has actually resulted in any arrests.