Japan aims to stop trafficking in prostitutes
After years of denying it had a problem with human trafficking, Japan
is now putting the finishing touches on a law that would make the
practice illegal in this country and help foreigners forced into the
Japan aims to stop trafficking in prostitutes
TOKYO After years of denying it had a problem with human trafficking, Japan is now putting the
finishing touches on a law that would make the practice illegal in this country and help foreigners
forced into the sex industry.
Over the next months, the new law, along with programs to assist victims testifying against traffickers,
could begin to slow the illegal flow of women into one of the world's biggest destinations for foreign
In Japan, the foreign women who are victims of trafficking end up working everywhere from Tokyo's
sprawling red-light districts to rural areas unfamiliar to most foreigners. They stand on street corners
and sit behind glass windows; they serve as sex performers or hostesses at clubs outside of which
they are expected to date customers.
A 28-year-old Colombian woman, who spent four years working as a prostitute in Japan, mostly to
repay $45,000 she owed the criminals who sold and bought her, finally fled to her embassy here late
Having given testimony that could help arrest her traffickers, she now waits for authorization from
immigration officials to return to Medellín, Colombia, to be reunited with her 12-year-old son and 11-
year-old daughter. "We shouldn't be treated as criminals to be deported out of Japan, but as victims,"
she said in an interview at the Colombian Embassy.
Starting in March, the government is expected to severely restrict the number of entertainer visas
granted, a category that has allowed the entry of, and sometimes trafficking in, women with dubious
skills as entertainers. The number of such visas granted Filipinos alone, now 80,000 annually, could be
slashed to 8,000.
But advocates for trafficking victims are watching cautiously. They say the government seemed
ambivalent about addressing this problem, which they describe as a form of modern slavery, and
began taking serious steps only after American pressure.
Japan, which signed the 2002 United Nations' protocol against human trafficking, but could not ratify it
without a law against it, has long been known for its lax attitudes on the issue. The U.S. State
Department in June placed Japan on a watch list in a report that ranks governments' efforts to fight
human trafficking. It was the only developed nation on the list.
In Japan, some foreign workers come knowing they will become part of the sex industry. But few are
aware that they will incur huge debts to traffickers, who typically confiscate their passports, restrict
their movements and sometimes sell them to Japanese criminals.
Japan has always taken a businesslike attitude toward the sex industry, regarding it as necessary, and
not necessarily evil. The Japanese government organized Asian sex slaves for its soldiers during
World War II and brothels for American soldiers during the postwar occupation.
Today, the Japanese authorities take a laissez-faire attitude. At the main crossroads in the Shibuya
district, touts openly solicit young women for the sex trade.
Japanese schoolgirls meet older men in a widespread practice euphemistically called "compensated
dating." The sex industry remains a part of the business culture, as was shown in 2003 when an
Osaka company organized a three-day sex party with 500 prostitutes in Zhuhai, a city in southern
China. The party infuriated the Chinese, especially because it ended on Sept. 18, the anniversary of
Japan's invasion of China in 1931.
For the first nine months of 2004, Japan's National Police Agency recorded 46 cases of human
trafficking, and arrested 12 brokers on immigration or other charges. But the figures hide the problem's
true magnitude, since most cases are never reported, according to diplomats, victims' advocates and
the Japanese authorities.
Victims are said to number in the thousands, with the three largest sources being Thailand, Colombia
and the Philippines. The Colombian Embassy estimates that 3,500 Colombian women work as
prostitutes in Japan.
Yoko Yoshida, a lawyer for the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons, a private organization,
said many Japanese women do not stop their husbands from hiring prostitutes. "If the husbands really
fall in love with the foreign women, that would be a problem," she said. "But as long as that doesn't
happen, there is little sense that these foreign women are human beings like them."
Motohisa Suzuki, the official coordinating the government's new antitrafficking campaign at the prime
minister's cabinet office, said the Japanese had already started taking measures against trafficking,
using criminal and labor laws.
In addition to a new antitrafficking law that will punish perpetrators, revisions of immigration laws will
exempt victims without proper papers from being deported so that they can cooperate in investigations
against traffickers, Suzuki said. Until recently, the women - even those few willing to testify against
traffickers - were deported immediately.
How many of those with entertainment visas end up as trafficking victims and are coerced into
prostitution is unclear, Suzuki said, though he added that the visa "offered a tool for human trafficking."
About 70 percent of them end up doing work other than entertainment, including working as bar
hostesses, he said.
But Joji Imai, president of the Association of Japanese Promoters Recruiting Foreign Entertainers, said
cases of prostitution were isolated. "Many of the customers who like to patronize clubs with foreign
entertainers are interested in learning foreign languages or discovering foreign cultures," Imai said.
"They enjoy different cultures, such as Filipinos' cheerfulness."
Koki Kobayashi, a lawmaker in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said the visas allowed Filipinos
to earn good wages and support their families back home. "It is Japanese economic aid," he said.
"Why is only Japan criticized?" he added. "I just can't help thinking that the Japanese government is
targeting innocent people just because it has been told to do something by the U.S."
The 28-year-old Colombian woman waiting to return home was approached about working in Japan -
as a waitress - four years ago by a Colombian woman in Medellín, she said. But three hours after
arriving in Tokyo, she was dropped off in a red-light area, Shin Okubo, and taught four Japanese
phrases: "Good evening. Where are you going? Let's go to the hotel. Twenty thousand yen," or $200.
She had to hand over $80 a night to two Japanese criminals and make regular payments on a $35,000
debt to her Colombian traffickers, allowing her to send home only $300 a month. Her passport was
taken. She was largely confined in her off hours to a small apartment with other Colombian women.
After she had repaid all but $5,000 of the debt, she was sold to one of the Japanese criminals, who
demanded an additional $5,000. She repaid the Japanese, but then went into hiding. She worked by
herself for six months to buy a plane ticket home.
Deported from Japan, she went back to Colombia, with $130 left.
But after only three days in Colombia, one of the Colombian traffickers called her at home, saying,
"You still owe me $5,000." He threatened to kill her children unless she returned to Japan and worked
off the debt. A few weeks later, holding a forged passport that cost her yet another $5,000, she was
back in Japan, she said.