Sigma Huda

TOKYO (WOMENSENEWS)–There are about 10,000 parlors in Japan that offer sex to patrons.

Many advertise that they have foreign women by using such names as Filipina Pub, Russian Bar or Thai Delight. The patrons pay $60 to $100 for drinks and then an additional $150 to $300 to take women out of the bar to have sex with them.

Most of these women come to Japan on falsified passports or with entertainer or short-term visas, says Hidenori Sakanaka, who until a year ago was the director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. They are told that they have to pay off fake debts and their passports often are taken away upon arrival in Japan. The women are beaten and controlled by threats to family members in their home countries.

"Most women are moved from place to place and are too scared to complain," Sakanaka says.

Sakanaka, who now directs the Japan Aid Association for North Korean Returnees, is credited with pushing through revisions to the law to combat trafficking while in his former post. Passed by the National Diet last month, it has helped abate international concerns about a country that has long been criticized for a too-tolerant an approach to trafficking.

On Saturday, the National Police Agency said police had uncovered 29 cases of human trafficking of foreign women from January to the end of June, up by five from the same period last year.

Despite these and other promising moves by Japan–brought about in part by the activism of Japanese women’s groups–international and local advocates continue to worry about the country’s problem with human trafficking, the world’s third-largest underworld business after trade in drugs and arms, netting $9.5 billion annually.

In a recent report the Japan Network against Trafficking in Persons said that the government’s heightened anti-trafficking efforts had so far not "made a dent."

Fact-Finding Mission Last Week

Last week, Sigma Huda, the special rapporteur on trafficking for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, came here on an unofficial fact-finding mission with activists, lawyers, lawmakers, academics and others concerned about human trafficking. The visit followed widespread reports–including by Amnesty International Japan–of South Asian women from developing nations being trafficked in this highly developed country.

"It’s the dark side of globalization," says Huda, who is based in Bangladesh.

Reports indicate that about 130,000 women come to Japan on entertainer visas every year, but only about 10 percent of them actually perform in legitimate shows at hotels and other venues. Many obtain entertainment visas through agents who recruit them to Japan with promises of jobs that don’t exist.

Sakanaka traces the problem to immigration officials who bend to politicians and businessmen who hire foreign women for illicit purposes. "Some men even said I was out of my mind to try to do something about human trafficking," he says. "They claimed it was part of Japanese culture to have sex with foreign women. They were addicted to the parlors. I received phone calls from politicians and anonymous threats on my life."

Japan Kept Off Worst-Trafficker List

Earlier this month, the U.S. State department removed Japan from a special watch list of countries that were to be included on an updated listed as the worst condoners of human trafficking after the Japanese government compiled an action program to combat human traffickers. The State Department had put Japan on that list a year ago.

Under the new Japanese legislation, those who "purchase" people in order to control their activities will face punishment of up to five years in prison. The maximum punishment could be increased to seven years imprisonment if the victim is a minor.

The new legislation will also grant victims, on a case-by-case basis, special residency status even if they have overstayed their original visa, so that they can be rehabilitated.

Before these revisions, police dealt with trafficking by arresting the victims as illegal aliens, jailing them and deporting them as soon as they had enough money to fly home. Traffickers received a fine or a short jail sentence.

One of the most notorious traffickers, Koichi Hagiwara, known as Sony for his habit of videotaping his victims while he humiliated and tortured them, was sentenced in March 2003 and served less than two years in prison for violating labor laws.

Japanese Women Enraged

Japanese women have also pressured the government to do something about human trafficking.

"Many women were enraged by an article in the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily newspaper in Japan, about the practice," says Sakanaka, the former director of the Immigration Bureau, referring to an investigative article published Oct. 18, 2003. "Until this article came out, Japanese women knew little about the situation. Women’s groups mobilized, and called up magazines and newspapers to protest the treatment of the women victims."

The government, Sakanaka says, has neglected to investigate many of the abuse cases. These women, he says, live horrific, lonely lives, forced into having unprotected sex and perform other risky acts with dozens of customers a day. "These new laws are valuable. But they also need to strike at the center of organized crime."

Sakanaka is concerned that most foreign women will be too scared to go to the police because they think they will be killed if they try to escape.

Chieko Tatsumi, an official in the International Organized Crime Division of Japan’s Foreign Ministry, disagrees. She believes the victims would seek protection from the police.

"There has already been an increase in the number of women asking for protection," Tatsumi says. "In 2002, there were only two Thais who sought help, but in 2004 there were 25."

She says that the government set a budget of $100,000 in April for helping women who come to a public shelter.

"The government will pay for rehabilitation for the victims of sexual enslavement and tickets for them to return to their home countries," Tatsumi says. Not enough, says Sono Kawakami, campaign manager for Victims of Violence of Japan Amnesty International. The government’s measures fail to sufficiently protect victims and the amount of money budgeted to stop trafficking is insufficient, she says.

Her organization wants separate facilities for trafficking victims, rather than housing them with victims of domestic violence. Many victims are so traumatized that they won’t talk to anyone, so they require specialists to handle them, Kawakami says. Since many do not speak Japanese she also wants language translation support for the victims and specialists in human trafficking to assist them. Although she believes the government can do more, she says the revisions to the criminal law affecting trafficking are a good start.

Keiko Otsu, director of Asian Women’s Shelter in Tokyo, is also pleased with the new laws, but says there are currently only two shelters available for these women.

"The women don’t have any income, assistance or support," she says. "Some may be pregnant and many have mental and other health problems, including AIDs and other sexually transmitted diseases and need expensive medial care."

Catherine Makino is a freelance writer in Tokyo. She has written for San Francisco Chronicle, the Japan Times, The Asian Wall Street Journal and the China Morning Post.

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