- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

TOKYO — The Internet site of Japan’s Immigration Bureau has never been particularly foreigner-friendly: Information about almost everything from getting a visa to getting deported is available only in Japanese.

But foreigners say the site’s newest feature is downright nasty.

The bureau this year began soliciting tips over the Internet about suspected illegal aliens, enlisting the public in a high-profile deportation campaign.

“What’s next — paid informers?” asked Osvaldo Yamamoto, 30, a welder from Brazil. “Nobody wants to overstay their visa, but everybody wants a chance to work. Reporting on these people is a worse crime.”

Japan isn’t alone in cracking down — the United States and many European nations are taking tougher lines on illegal immigrants, too — but the organized solicitation of tips is unusual.

The online tip-off system, which started in February, is part of a government campaign to halve the estimated 250,000 illegal aliens in Japan in the next five years.

Raids and roundups of illegals have multiplied, and visa requirements are being revised. Employers and even language schools that sponsor foreigners are under heightened surveillance. About 50,000 foreigners were deported last year for visa violations.

Authorities say they are just keeping the streets safe, echoing a theme of police, conservative politicians and the press that blames foreigners for an upsurge in crime.

“It’s shaken people’s belief they are living in the safest country in the world,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, Tokyo’s top immigration official. “We can’t ignore this situation.”

Authorities cite some scary-sounding statistics: Arrests of foreigners increased 23 percent in 2003, hitting a record high for a third straight year. More than half of those arrested were illegal aliens, and almost two-thirds of crimes by foreigners involved groups of two or more.

The figures got a chilling and widely publicized illustration last year when several Chinese students were arrested for murdering a Japanese family, ransacking their house and throwing their handcuffed bodies into a bay.

Rights groups, however, see something different — a disturbing trend toward scapegoating in a country where foreigners make up less than 2 percent of the population of 127 million.

“The overwhelming majority of people who break the law in this country are Japanese, but nobody would dream of asking for tips about suspicious Japanese,” said Shinichiro Nakashima, a member of Kumustaka, a support group for foreign workers in southern Japan.

Although the total of crimes reported in Japan has risen to record highs for seven of the past eight years, the number committed by foreigners remains as tiny as their population.

Last year’s headline-making figure of 40,615 offenses by foreigners amounted to just 1.45 percent of all crimes. Most illegal aliens arrested were detained on a charge with no effect on public safety — overstaying their visas.

The online tip system has become a flash point for foreign anger. Groups ranging from Amnesty International to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan blasted the system, saying it encourages the public to look at all foreigners as potential criminals. They urged a general amnesty for illegal aliens.

Ismail, 43, an electrician from Pakistan who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, said he was invited to Japan in 1992 as a trainee for an electronics company. He stayed after his visa expired, moving from job to job. Now he fears deportation may be a mouse click away.

“We are not criminals; we are not losers,” Ismail said. “We are working all day, but there is no peace for us.”

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