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Colonialism and Surveillance

Midori Ogasawara

[Midori Ogasawara]
Photo by Greg Black

Did you know fingerprinting was invented by the British for colonization purposes? How about that Japan used surveillance technologies to unjustly classify and imprison people living in Japanese-occupied China in the 1920s?

As a PhD student in the Surveillance Studies Centre, Midori Ogasawara is researching the colonial history of national identification and surveillance systems in Japan, and the influence that the US continues to have on modern practices. Alongside her supervisor, Dr. David Lyon, she has brought historical insight to the discriminatory implications of many modern surveillance technologies and strategies.

For instance, the Koseki system is the national identification system used in Japan. It was developed in the 1870s under the direct influence of the United States, which had just forced Japan to open its markets globally, and has barely evolved since. The system continues to keep tabs on its citizens and denies citizenship to the many who do not fall under its strict terms of acceptance. It has some modern-day problems.

“In Japan,” Ogasawara says, “you register your baby on a family basis, not an individual basis. Every Japanese child needs Japanese parents to be registered as a Japanese citizen. You always have to be part of the Japanese family first.” The need to have legitimate Japanese parents in order to obtain citizenship denies entry to immigrants, refugees, and children born out of wedlock. The Koseki also dictates that members of one family must all share one last name, which promotes the erasure of individual female identities when marrying a Japanese male.

Fingerprinting is another colonial invention leftover in modern times. The seemingly innocuous technology is used today by governments to identify people. “The Imperial Police invented the technology of fingerprinting in India under the British Empire,” Ogasawara explains. “Then, they tested the same technology in South Africa, which was also under the British Empire as a colony. Then, the Japanese started to use the same technology when they occupied Northeast China after the 1920s. Fingerprinting has a history in colonization and occupation.”

Ogasawara believes these troubling histories are important issues for people around the world. “It used to be that those technologies were used only on populations being colonized,” she says, “which has a lot of racist context because those people are mainly non-white. In the case of Japanese colonizing history, it was Chinese people who were exposed to those technologies. But nowadays, all of us, including Western citizens, are exposed to the same technologies so we can be under the control of the authorities.” Ogasawara’s research has taken her beyond just the Japanese context to look at how these colonial technologies are beginning to police and control citizens of all countries.

To learn more about the use of modern surveillance strategies in Japan, Ogasawara interviewed famous National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden worked as an NSA contractor in Japan for two years and held valuable insight into the US’s influence on Japan.

Ogasawara was moved by Snowden’s sincerity and passion. “He was really passionate in wanting me to know how the NSA surveillance system is working against Japanese citizenship,” she says, “and how they have already created a really wide range of surveillance systems.” The NSA, for example, tapped 35 phone lines in Japan’s national bank (a project called “Target Tokyo”) in order to hear private conversations about Japan’s opinions on American foreign trade, energy policies, and environmental issues. As a previously cooperative American-occupied country, Snowden was surprised at America’s sharp surveillance of Japanese officials.

Her goal for the interview, published as a series of five articles for the Japanese weekly magazine Sunday Mainichi, was to bring Snowden’s revelations into the Japanese context. “The ultimate goal of this interview was to make the Japanese people feel this is their problem, not only an American problem. They are part of the issue – their emails and phone calls are tapped or surveilled by the US authorities. What’s the implication for the Japanese society? How does it affect Japanese freedom of speech, freedom of press, civil liberties, and democracy?”

Ogasawara believes that, “to understand this picture, we must go back to the colonial history.” Sharing the disturbing historical context of these technologies with the world can bring greater understanding and a call for widespread change from Japanese and global citizens.

What’s the solution?

Going forward, Ogasawara believes peace is the only way to reduce the global surveillance system. Past divisions and occupations of countries by colonizing forces have created an environment of violence and distrust in the 21st century. Reparations and peacemaking efforts are crucial to ending the widespread mass surveillance system operating today.

Leigh Cameron
(e)AFFECT Issue 10 Fall/Winter 2016

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Midori Ogasawara's research