TOKYO -- A small but growing number of tourists arriving in Japan aboard cruise ships have absconded in recent years, having come via a system that allows for temporary visa-free entry to the country.
As of the end of June 2018, an estimated 171 such passengers had gone missing since the system's introduction three and a half years earlier, and many are believed to have become illegal workers.
The authorities have increased security measures due to growing suspicion of the involvement of people smugglers.
In April 2017, a couple from Shanghai disembarked from a cruise ship at Hakata Port on the southern island of Kyushu, but disappeared during a coach tour of the city of Fukuoka. When they failed to show up at a designated meeting time following a visit to a famous shrine, the travel agency reported the incident to the police.
According to sources close to the investigation, the couple met a woman who drove them to Hakata train station and made their way to Tokyo by bullet train. They reportedly moved on to Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of the capital, and met with another woman, who was also believed to be Chinese, but have not been seen since.
In July 2017, police in Ibaraki and Fukuoka arrested two women on suspicion of helping foreigners with landing permission abscond and of transporting illegal migrants pursuant to the immigration control and refugee recognition act. But the two women provided no information regarding the couple's whereabouts.
The couple had entered Japan under the country's "landing permission for cruise ship tourists" system, which was introduced in January 2015 to speed up immigration clearance for visitors arriving on the increasing number of such vessels calling at Japanese ports.
Under the scheme, foreign passengers are allowed to enter Japan without a visa or photo, on condition that they depart on the same vessel within 30 days and submit their fingerprints.
According to data from the Justice Ministry's Entry and Status Division, about 1.07 million foreign passengers entered the country under the system in 2015. The figure rose to about 1.93 million in 2016 and about 2.44 million in 2017, when over 95% of tourists entering aboard cruise ships used the system.
An estimated 21 such tourists absconded in 2015, 36 did so the following year and the number reached 79 in 2017. As of the end of June, 35 passengers had been reported missing this year.
The disappearances often occur when vessels dock at ports in Kyushu having left from China. "People smugglers may be involved, but we are yet to establish a complete picture," said an investigator.
The Ministry of Justice has called on vessel operators to submit lists of passenger names for immigration officials to cross-check, and for companies that have seen tourists go missing to take preventive measures.
A total of 2.53 million foreign tourists entered Japan by cruise ship in 2017, up from 174,000 in 2013.
The Japanese government has set a target of increasing that number to 5 million in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Although missing cruise ship passengers make up a small fraction of the total number of illegal immigrants, the government has to ensure that the credibility of the system can be maintained, said a Justice Ministry official.