Japan Institutes New Fingerprint System for Visitors

Japan has always been at the forefront of new technology. Carrying on in that tradition, visitors to Japan will be able to check into hotels and make tax-free purchases at stores and restaurants using a new high tech fingerprint system that the government is launching just in time for the summer tourism boom. It is hoped that the state-of-the-art system will eliminate credit card-related theft and make it safer for tourists, who will not have to carry large amounts of cash with them. Ultimately, Japan hopes to have the system perfected and in place for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, which will take place in Tokyo.

How the New Fingerprint System Works

To participate in the voluntary program, tourists would register two fingerprints, as well as their credit card information, upon arrival at Tokyo’s airport. (They would also be able to register at other public verification centers that have not yet been established.) Once in the system, visitors could check into their hotels or make purchases by simply placing two fingers on special readers at facilities participating in the program.

According to Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, the system is part of the government’s efforts to increase the annual number of foreign tourists to 40 million by 2020. It is also designed to demonstrate the country’s advanced technology.

Currently 300 souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels in areas popular among foreign tourists such as Hakone, Kamakura, Yugawara in Kanagawa Prefecture and Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture have been selected to participate in the initial launch. If it proves successful, the list will be increased by spring 2017.

The idea of using fingerprints to make purchases is not new, at least in Japan. Last October the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, introduced a system that allows guests to make payments using their fingerprints at about 30 stores and restaurants within the park. In addition to being quick and convenient, the system offers foreign travelers unaccustomed to using yen an attractive option.

The biometric system in place at Huis Ten Bosch was developed by Liquid, a Tokyo-based startup that is expanding the technology to department stores, hotels, fitness clubs and restaurants. An article posted on biometricupdate.com points out that the Liquid system is particularly useful at public bathhouses, beaches and other places where people are typically concerned about their wallets being stolen or lost.

Concerns About New Fingerprint System

Although many believe the Japanese government has touched upon a good idea, not everyone is sold on this new fingerprint system. While Japanese law requires tourists to authenticate their identities by showing their passports when checking into hotels, it is unclear whether foreign visitors will cooperate when it comes to also divulging personal data such as their credit card numbers.

Yet it is true that interest in (and familiarity with) using fingerprints as a method to verify identity and authenticate payment is growing worldwide. Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay all allow smartphone owners to link their credit cards to their phones in order to make payments or transactions using a touch ID fingerprint scanners. And Tokyo’s Aeon Bank recently agreed to become the first bank in Japan to institute a fingerprint ATM system.

Perhaps the biggest concern surrounds the security of the data. Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the anonymous data will be managed by a consultative body led by the government. Not everyone is comfortable with that idea. The government wants to assure foreigners that the data will be safely stored in the cloud, and that information garnered from it will be used to improve infrastructure and procedures in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. After carefully analyzing the patterns and spending habits of foreign visitors, the government says it will use the information to devise policies and management strategies for the tourism industry.

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