Deluded Japan's intelligence failure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told the BBC that gathering intelligence is the key to defeating terrorists. He is right. Unfortunately, intelligence - in the sense of accurate information, and brain candle-power - has been sorely lacking in Japan this week.

Kunio Hatoyama, the justice minister and thus the anti-terrorism chief, claimed that a friend and fellow member of a butterfly collectors' club had advised him to stay away from Bali in 2002. He said the friend had a friend who was an al-Qaeda terrorist planning bomb attacks. Mr Hatoyama added that the alleged terrorist 'seems to have entered Japan so often, two or three years ago, by using various passports and wearing moustaches'. This had made him believe it was necessary to tighten immigration controls.

Subsequently, Mr Hatoyama called another press conference to claim that he had been warned not to go to Bali only after the bombing - not before (although a warning not to go after the attack seems somewhat irrelevant). Later, he issued a statement denying that he had any connection with al-Qaeda.

But Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda didn't sack Mr Hatoyama for doing nothing about potentially life-saving information - if it was true - or for spinning fairy stories. Instead, he said weakly that if there were a possibility that a suspicious person could enter the country, 'I would like [Mr Hatoyama] to deal firmly with immigration control and other issues as justice minister'.

This means that, from November 20, almost all foreigners will be fingerprinted and have their photos taken every time they enter Japan. That is going further than the United States, where so-called green card holders or permanent residents are exempt from such security measures.

In Japan, permanent residents, those holding work visas and spouses of Japanese will have to join the queues of the 7 million or so visitors each year. However, immigration is already struggling to cope with those numbers. Japanese, meanwhile, will not be fingerprinted - only criminals or criminal suspects have to endure that indignity.

In an arrogant statement that was either dishonest or dangerously deluded, Naoto Nikai, an Immigration Bureau official, said that the fingerprinting and photographing of foreigners 'will greatly contribute to preventing international terrorist activities on our soil'.

The main argument of supporters of fingerprinting is that it will make the world safer from terrorists, something that - like motherhood and apple pie - few people dare speak out against. If fingerprinting and photography would make us safe, then I'd be all for it: fingerprint the whole world, including Japanese. But there is no easy match between fingerprinting and catching terrorists. Fingerprints and photos only establish identity. Terrorists do not have marks of the devil on their fingers.

These days, terrorist kingpins do things through lieutenants and anonymous foot soldiers, whose prints are irrelevant as they will probably be dead by the time they have accomplished their fanatical mission.

Had the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, attacks been fingerprinted on arrival in the United States, they would not have been stopped: they entered legally.

The failures of 9/11 were sloppy intelligence by the various US agencies - which did not share highly relevant information - and lax security that allowed the terrorists to get on to the flights with deadly box cutters and force their way through flimsy doors to the flight decks.

It would be a one-in-a-billion chance if a real terrorist boss with a known record were to join the immigration queues in Japan.

In America's case, President George W. Bush's minions were able to get away with naive thinking about fingerprinting because the US had just been a victim of foreign terrorists.

Yes, Japan has had a terrorist problem, but the fingerprinting of foreigners would not have prevented the Aum Shinri Kyo sarin gas attacks or the growth of the infamous Red Army, because they were all-Japanese, home-grown terrorists.

Foreigners in Japan, on the other hand, have a legitimate fear about how their prints may be used. Take, for example, a case of the murder of, say, a European bar hostess or teacher of English, who may have had both Japanese clients and European friends.

The police comb her apartment - and the only prints they can match to those in their records are from one of her European friends, obtained via immigration.

Japan's police have an awesome reputation for obtaining confessions through forceful interrogation and claim an incredible 98 per cent success rate in solving crime. (Strangely, though, they have been unable to arrest a Japanese suspect in the death of a young female English teacher.) There are real issues here that go beyond immigration, or even terrorism, and relate to the poverty and xenophobia of Japan's political processes. One very astute Japanese friend expressed a 'great sadness about the decision to inflict fingerprinting on foreign friends. In the 19th century, Japan had a reputation for mimicking other countries, but we chose what was best to mimic and copy for Japan's benefit. Now we are mimicking only the control freaks of Washington. Our bureaucrats and politicians have thrown away their brains and can no longer think for themselves or for Japan'.

The decision to fingerprint foreigners points to failures of the Japanese system. Yes, there was a consultation period, but suggestions and comments had to be made in Japanese. The law was passed with hardly any rational debate, and was inspired by the justice minister's logic. It is a failure of clear thinking, of the political process - which should have embraced a wider community - and, yet again, a failure of Japan Inc to give a damn about what the rest of the world thinks.

Ironically, it is 'Welcome to Japan' year, which might be a sad joke if it were not for the queues of up to two hours, which will soon be even longer.

Kevin Rafferty was bureau chief in Japan for The Guardian from 1992 to 1996