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Airports struggle to balance speed, safety as Narita immigration waits hit peak of 3 hrs

Shorter waiting times for immigration procedures are in high demand, as foreign visitors crowd in front of immigration and passport control in Narita Airport's Terminal 1, in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on July 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

NARITA, Chiba -- Narita Airport here and other gateways into Japan are struggling to achieve both smoother immigration procedures and stricter countermeasures against security threats, as long lines have become problematic with the rapid increase of foreign visitors.

Japan attracted some 28.69 million foreign visitors in 2017, hitting a record high for the fifth consecutive year, with less than two years left to go until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The wait time in passport control queues at Narita Airport, which welcomes the greatest number of foreign visitors among Japanese airports due to its size and location near Tokyo, reached 3 hours and 5 minutes around 3 p.m. on March 25, 2018. This was the longest waiting period for the 2017 fiscal year, which ran to the end of March 2018. The line of travelers was about 250 meters long, crowding passport control in Narita's Terminal 1, and countless items of luggage waited for owners to show up, left unclaimed in the baggage claim areas.

The chaotic situation was caused by a wave of visitors coming to view the cherry blossoms, along with international students arriving before school started in April and jobseekers before the start of the fiscal year.

The Narita Airport District Immigration Office under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau had expected there to be congestion, but flights arriving earlier than scheduled in addition to flights that had been delayed brought a flood of people all at once. The office admitted that the immigration officers dispersed among four passport control areas across the three terminals "weren't prepared enough to support one another." They faced complaints such as, "I couldn't understand what was happening," and, "The facility isn't providing a sufficient response to the several thousands of passengers (that arrived)."

To offer foreign visitors a stress-free entrance into Japan and encourage a long-term stay in the country, shortening the lines at immigration and passport control is crucial. The Ministerial Council on the Promotion of Japan as a Tourism-Oriented Country set a goal of decreasing maximum queue time to 20 minutes or less for immigration procedures in 2016, and wait times at each airport were publicly released beginning in January 2017. Narita ranked in the top 10 longest queue times four times during fiscal 2017, and also earned first place with the aforementioned time of 3 hours and 5 minutes on March 25, 2018.

Immigration authorities are not standing idly by. The number of immigration officers was increased around the country, and the "Bio Cart" system, which allows travelers to take headshots and scan their fingerprints while waiting in line, was implemented for foreign nationals in April 2017. Automated gates using facial recognition technology were also installed this June for Japanese nationals reentering the country, allowing for the number of immigration officers in charge of foreign passport control to be increased. Currently, there are no plans to use the facial recognition gates for those holding foreign passports.

Meanwhile, a total of 7,181 foreign nationals were refused entry into Japan in 2017, a 23.7 percent increase from the previous year, and 2.5 times more compared to 2013. Methods for illegal entry have become increasingly hard to detect, and there have even been cases in which people have undergone fingerprint surgery to disguise their identities.

Takashi Maruoka, deputy director-general of the Narita Airport District Immigration Office explained, "We aim to cut the maximum waiting time to 20 minutes or less, and to take all possible measures in our rigorous counterterrorism examinations to prevent anyone from slipping through the cracks."

(Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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