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106 foreigners went missing in 2018 after arriving in Japan on cruise ships

This partially retouched photo taken on Jan. 10, 2019 shows foreign tourists disembarking from a cruise ship moored at the port of Hakata in the southern Japan city of Fukuoka. (Mainichi/Kenta Miyahara)

FUKUOKA -- A total of 106 foreigners who came to Japan on cruise ships went missing after their arrival in 2018, surpassing the 100-person mark for the first time, according to the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau.

Kyushu, in particular, has experienced a spike in the number of foreign visitors on cruise ships using Japan's visa waiver program, including many from China. In 2017 such visitors accounted for about 70 percent of those who went missing.

Most of the missing foreigners apparently came to Japan to work illegally with the help of brokers. Immigration authorities are stepping up efforts to prevent the entry of such visitors into the country.

One such foreigner is a Chinese woman in her 50s who arrived at the port of Nagasaki in late 2017 as a tourist on a cruise ship. She was later arrested by Nagasaki Prefectural Police. According to the police, the true purpose of her visit was to see her son, who was staying illegally in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. A mediator instructed her via a social networking service to use the cruise ship.

The woman then met with a male Chinese student at Nagasaki Peace Park, and was driven by the student to Fukuoka where she was handed a Shinkansen bullet train ticket, allowing her to make her way to Saitama.

The woman worked at a factory with her son to pay for her return trip home, but left the job because the working conditions were terrible. She visited the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau to bring the case to authorities' attention. The Nagasaki Prefectural Police arrested her and the student in June and July last year on suspicion of immigration law violations. Police also caught seven other Chinese nationals who had gone missing after their arrivals in Japan on cruise ships. Investigators are looking for brokers and fixers who they suspect are offering jobs to such foreign nationals.

Cruise ship visits to Japan are becoming popular, with as many as 2.44 million foreigners arriving in 2018 -- a six-fold jump from around 410,000 visitors in 2014. The surge comes largely from the introduction in 2015 of a landing permit for cruise ship tourists, which allows visa-free entry into Japan on condition that the tourists use designated ships for entry into and departure from Japan and provide their fingerprints. As a result, the processing time for visiting tourists has been shortened by more than 60 minutes from about two and a half hours because facial photographing is also skipped for those entering Japan under the system. Almost all cruise ships are designated as eligible for the program.

But as the number of cruise ship tourists has increased, so has the number of missing visitors. The figure of 106 recorded in 2018 was higher than the 79 in 2017, which in turn was above the 21 recorded in 2015. Many of the missing people were reported in Kyushu, where cruise ships often make port calls. Nagasaki Prefecture counted 20 such visitors in 2018, compared to 29 over the three-year period from 2015 through 2017.

"Wrong information that running away from cruise ships is easy is being circulated on the internet in China," an individual close to immigration authorities says. "But the number of missing visitors is not that big considering the total number of cruise ship tourists."

In response, immigration officials have stepped up countermeasures, instructing cruise ship operators to confirm their passengers' financial statuses beforehand. The officials also have those operators submit the names of all visitors, confirm their past records and bar entry of anyone who has been involved in suspicious activities. In July last year, immigration authorities for the first time revoked the landing permit for a particular cruise ship that had many missing passengers.

Professor Megumi Sakamoto of Fukushima University, who studies issues related to foreign workers, suggests that the immigration authorities should publicize their stringent efforts to winnow out foreigners who intend to work illegally in Japan. "If such measures don't work, then they have to reconsider the current condition of entry into Japan."

(Japanese original by Kenta Miyahara, Kyushu News Center, and Shotaro Asano, Nagasaki Bureau)

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