Dive deeper into Japan
with Japan correspondent
Kjeld Duits
Home » Archives » August 2006 » Japan has Tackled Sex Trafficking, but Challenges Remain

Japan has Tackled Sex Trafficking, but Challenges Remain

Friday, August 18, 2006 Posted: 03:28 PM JST

(by Steve Silver) - Her journey began with an invitation from a wealthy neighbor " her mother’s childhood friend " in her small Thai village to come and work at a restaurant she claimed she owned in Japan. It ended with her in a Japanese prison, serving a sentence for murder.

Urairat Soimee, like many poor and uneducated women of Thailand, was deceived into moving to Yokkaichi, Mie prefecture nearly seven years ago with the hope of earning enough to provide for her children and disabled husband. Instead, she was saddled with a large debt and told that she would have to prostitute herself " or face serious injury, even death, if she did not comply.

It was after months of horrific abuse that she solicited assistance from her Thai friend to help her escape " an escape that led to the killing of her pimp and her conviction for murder.

While in prison she developed a fatal form of cancer. With the help of human rights organizations, she was allowed to return to Thailand to spend the last days of her life with her family.

She did not intend to go quietly, however. Her traffickers " the family of three who were her neighbors " were convicted for trafficking and sentenced for thirteen years in prison. She also filed a 4.68M baht (14.3M yen) civil lawsuit against them " thought to be the first of its kind in Thailand. “I hope that I may witness the end of this story,” she was quoted as saying.

Urairat Soimee did not realize that hope. The 38-year old died in May of this year before her trial began. Her adoptive mother has vowed to continue her fight.

Thailand is one of the primary source countries of women trafficked as sex workers in Japan, along with the Philippines, Columbia, and increasingly China, South Korea, and Indonesia. For years, there was resistance by the Japanese government in taking significant steps to reduce human trafficking. While Japan was a signatory to the UN protocol against human trafficking, it could not ratify it due to Japan not having a specific law outlawing human trafficking. In June of 2004, it was placed on the “Tier 2” watch list in the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons report, stating that Japan was not complying with the minimum standards towards the elimination of human trafficking.

“The Japanese government was very shocked to know that they were placed on that list,” said Nobuki Fujimoto of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Center in Osaka.

That same year, the Japanese foreign ministry adopted an action plan outlining measures to combat human trafficking. Many of the measures have been adopted, among them being the passage of a criminal law against human trafficking and the revision of immigration procedures that allow victims to stay in Japan for their own safety and to assist the government in prosecuting traffickers.

However, this temporary visa does not allow them to work, thus denying victims much needed resources to support themselves through the long process of a criminal trial. Shelters and other non-governmental organizations often support victims, but such organizations are almost entirely dependent on support from the general public as they receive little in the way of funding or tax breaks from the government. “The government should go further in securing victims’ testimony against traffickers,” said Mr. Fujimoto. “Now there is no institutional support to do this.”

An Organized Crime Control Department was established in the National Police Agency in 2004 to carry out anti-trafficking activities. Last year the National Police Agency reported 81 arrests for human trafficking " a record number for the second straight year. Yet while there have been increased law enforcement resources committed to fighting human trafficking, many convictions result in light sentences and few traffickers have done any hard time. Only five cases have been prosecuted under the new law so far, all of which resulted in suspended sentences.

“The NGOs are becoming more vocal,” said Andrea Bertone, director of HumanTrafficking.org, a clearinghouse for trafficking-related issues. “But the primary motivation for the Japanese government is the U.S. pressure. Laws are wonderful, but you need to implement them.”

While it is widely known that Japan is a major destination country for women who are trafficked for sexual exploitation, it is perhaps not as commonly known that Japan once served in the opposite role -- that of a source country. For almost eighty years, largely uneducated and poor Japanese girls and women known as karayuki-san were trafficked into prostitution across Southeast Asia and China well into the 1930s " largely the culmination of a long history of human trafficking and prostitution within Japan. These forces " class and gender " are the same ones largely feeding the demand for sex workers that are trafficked into the country eighty years later.

Yet to paint a picture of the victims of trafficking as poor, uneducated women duped into prostitution and kept under close guard would not be completely accurate. “Most cases are not that simple,” says Ms. Fujiwara of the Polaris Project.

She tells a story of one woman from an East Asian country who had a degree from a vocational school and was making a decent living in the social welfare field, but wanted to change careers and save enough money to study in Japan. She read an advertisement for a position in a café in Tokyo that would provide her with transportation and a free place to stay. The mamasan in charge of the bar even flew from Japan to meet her and interview her in person. Although her friends said it sounded sketchy, she decided to take the job and flew to Japan.

However, she soon realized that the café where she would work was really a hostess bar. Soon after she started working, the mamasan closed the bar, citing financial troubles. She provided her with a high-interest loan, and referred her to another hostess club. But her new club required dohan, which is “dating” clients, and usually included sex. Other women working at the bar advised her to do it, as it would be “dangerous” for her to refuse.

Two years later, unable to pay off her debt, she contacted Ms. Fujiwara. She was identified as a trafficking victim, and the authorities were contacted. However, soon after, she ceased contact with Ms. Fujiwara, and her whereabouts are currently unknown. The club she worked at is still in business.

Many trafficking victims come to Japan on entertainment visas, among them Filipinos being the largest group. The number of entertainers from the Philippines has steadily increased over the last thirty years, and reached over 82,000 in 2004. Most wind up working in hostess bars, where the working conditions are usually much different than they had been expecting, and they are often are forced to perform work that was not stated in the contract " such as dohan " for lower wages than they had been promised. Although foreign entertainers are forbidden by law to work as hostesses, the government often turned a blind eye to the practice.

Hidenori Sakanaka, retired head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, attempted ten years ago to enforce the law by investigating establishments that hired women on entertainment visas. In one year, the number of women entering Japan on entertainment visas dropped from about 90,000 to 55,000 in 1996. In response, he received threatening phone calls and pressure from legislators to back off, and he eventually was transferred to the immigration bureau in Sendai. Upon his appointment at the Tokyo bureau in 2002, the number had shot up dramatically to 120,000.

Under international pressure, however, the government has begun to crack down, starting last year with the tightening of procedures under which Filipinos could be issued entertainment visas, which has greatly reduced the number of such visas issued. The Ministry of Justice last June also imposed stricter requirements on club owners, prohibiting those with a record of trafficking from hiring foreign entertainers as well as those who have engaged in illegal employment or forging immigration documents within the last five years. In addition, the employer must not have a record of shortchanging any of the staff for the last three years, helping to ensure that entertainers are paid a decent wage.

The drop in visas issued to Filipinos has led to an increasing number of Indonesian women being recruited to fill their role, according to several NGOs. In addition, there is the risk that the crack down could push the issue further underground, given the demand for foreign hostesses and the large number of Filipino women wanting to work in Japan. “The Japanese and the Philippine governments and the NGOs should closely monitor the implementation,” Mr. Fujimoto warns.

While Japan was removed from the U.S. State Department watch list the year following its placement in recognition of its efforts to fight human trafficking, it still remains in the list of “Tier 2” nations, according to the most recent report released in June of this year. The report lauds Japan’s “remarkable progress”, particularly with regard to the tightening of restrictions on entertainment visas as well as other anti-trafficking reforms. The report also notes that the Japanese government has provided funding to the UN and the International Labor Organization for anti-trafficking and rehabilitation programs in Thailand and the Philippines. While it states that Japan is beginning to address the demand for trafficking through education programs in secondary schools, it also chastised the Japanese government for failing to criminalize the demand for prostitution that fuels the industry.

“Prostitution and sex trafficking are linked together,” says Ms. Fujiwara, arguing that johns must be made aware that they are participating in a crime.

In fact, prostitution is virtually legal in Japan -- only the act of coitus is banned. In Tobita Shinchi in Osaka, women can be seen sitting in open air “rooms” along the street, surrounded by decorations and ornaments along various themes. Some women are dressed in lace lying on a leather couch, while others are infantilized with red ribbons in their hair, surrounded by stuffed animals and blankets emblazoned with the ubiquitous “Hello Kitty”. Men walk the streets, leisurely browsing as though they were window shopping at a department store. Women will take their clients upstairs, leaving the room below empty " a notification that she is working.

“We must raise awareness that women are not a commodity,” said Mr. Fujimoto. “Many males believe that prostitution is needed in order to prevent rape,” he said, citing a common justification among men for what is known as the “water trade”" estimated to be a 10 trillion yen a year industry in Japan.

Trafficking is not limited to only foreign women " it also has ensnared Japanese girls. Three girls in Kobe were approached by karasuzoku " literally “crow gangs” " men named for their trademark black suits. The girls, all of whom were minors, were induced to come with the men to a “host club”, where they were charged outrageously high prices for drinks. Eventually, they found themselves with a bill for millions of yen, and were threatened with physical harm to them and their families if they did not pay. They were coerced into prostituting themselves and were sold to a brothel in October 2003, where they were kept under house arrest. After two months of forced prostitution, they were able to escape, and charges were eventually filed by the Hyogo police.

“Society accepts this kind of exploitation,” says Ms. Fujiwara. “The demand is the same. It is still booming.”

Steve Silver is a Japan based educator and photographer. He writes about politics, culture, society, and humor. This article was published in an edited version in The Japan Times on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006.

Keywords: national_news

*   *   *

Subscribe to newsletter:
First name:
Daily:   Biweekly:

(Unsubscribe or Update)

We Recommend:


The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Stone Bridge Press

Syndicate iKjeld news

Powered By Greymatter

© 2001~ iKjeld.com/Kjeld Duits. All rights reserved.
To publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material, please contact us.