The Japanese Cabinet took aim this week at the most significant civil disobedience movement in the country, a coalition of foreigners and Japanese fighting a 30-year-old requirement that foreign residents be fingerprinted.
The Cabinet announced cosmetic changes in the print-taking procedure -- clear liquid will be substituted for black ink, for instance -- but said it would order prosecution of anyone who refused to submit.
The measures were quickly condemned by leaders of the movement, which is centered in the 700,000-member Korean community, Japan's only sizable minority group. It also includes labor unions, various local governments and opposition parties.
On Wednesday, about 4,000 Korean residents loyal to Communist North Korea demonstrated in Tokyo's Hibiya Park against the program. It was also condemned by the South Korean government, which has warned it could poison relations with Japan.
Giving fingerprints is part of the procedure for obtaining an alien registration card, a document that foreign residents need for many day-to-day tasks in Japan. New prints must be given every five years.
Central government officials say prints are needed for identification of aliens. Opponents say it is degrading, violates basic human rights and puts foreign residents in the same category as criminals. They have demanded that it be abolished.
The issued gained added prominence last year when South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan met Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone here and won a promise that Japan would take action to improve the status of Korean residents, who have long been the target of job and social discrimination.
Following months of deliberation, the Cabinet announced Tuesday that it would not end the fingerprinting but would make what government officials depicted as significant changes.
Instead of police station-style black ink, authorities will now use a colorless medical fluid to take the prints, a demonstration of which was seen on Japanese television Tuesday night. Instead of rotating the fingers to obtain prints of the front and sides, foreign residents will be required only to press the face of their fingers to the sheet.
Justice Minister Hitoshi Shimasaki told members of the Diet, or national legislature, that these steps would "decrease the psychological burden" on people required to give prints.
Any of the more than 800,000 foreigners resident in Japan who refuse will be given three months to change their minds, the Cabinet said. Any who persist after that will be prosecuted.
"This is a step backward compared to the present system," said Park Pyung Hyun, president of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, a group that is allied with South Korea. " . . . we will continue our fight to abolish the entire fingerprint system," he declared.
A pro-North Korean association of residents here, which routinely feuds bitterly with its southern-oriented rival, issued a nearly identical statement.
The issue is a nationalistic one that cuts across ideological lines for the Koreans. Their community here was established in the 1930s and 1940s due to wartime relocations by Japan, which then ruled Korea as a colony. Many see the fingerprinting rule as a vestige of the colonial spirit.
In a larger sense, the law is viewed by some members of the foreign community as part of a system by which Japan, one of the world's most homogeneous societies, makes outsiders feel unwelcome. Japanese officials, however, maintain that most countries have similar laws regulating foreigners.
The disobedience drive has escalated with the approach of summer, when about 370,000 people will be due for renewal of their alien registration cards.
The campaign has used tactics reminiscent of the civil rights movement in the American South in the early 1960s, with protest songs, door-to-door canvassing and courtroom rhetoric. Korean groups have said that 5,000 women will defy the law this summer.
Media exposure is a major goal. "Refusing to be fingerprinted is the best way to appeal to the Japanese public and authorities for change," said Korean youth association vice president Bae Cheol Eun, who became a resister last November.
Japanese newspapers have followed the court cases closely, including the conviction and appeal of Kathleen Morikawa, an American married to a Japanese. She refused fingerprinting in 1982 and was later ordered to pay a fine of 10,000 yen (about $40).
According to Ministry of Justice figures, 233 people so far have formally refused to be fingerprinted, but of those only 14 have been formally charged with an offense.
The movement has met with growing sympathy in local governments in Japan, where responsibility for prosecution lies. In 1982, Ota ward in Tokyo became the first ward to pass a resolution against the law. By March of last year, according to the movement, more than 400 municipalities had called for an end to fingerprinting.
Some, like the industrial city of Kawasaki just south of Tokyo, have announced they will not prosecute.
But the central government continues to argue that fingerprinting is a key administrative tool. "Japanese are established here and there are many ways to identify them," a Justice Ministry spokesman said this week. "But foreigners come in from the outside and are less fixed. Fingerprinting is the best way to identify them."