Human Trafficking and the Sex Trade in Japan

Japan has been a major country of destination for human trafficking, especially into its notorious sex industry. Women and children are trafficked to Japan for commercial sexual exploitation from China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America. The majority of identified trafficking victims are foreign women who migrate to Japan with hopes of working and sending remittances to their families back home. Upon arrival however, they are subjected to debt bondage and forced prostitution. Debts of up to $50,000 are imposed on the women and they are subjected to physical and psychological violence and coercion.   Japanese women and girls are also targeted for exploitation in pornography and prostitution. Many female victims are reluctant to seek help from authorities for fear of reprisal by their traffickers, who are often related to Japanese organized crime, called the Yakuza.

The trafficking of women to Japan began in the early 1980s and continued to gain momentum in the following decade. In the mid 1980’s to 1990, most of the trafficked women were from the Philippines, and then a surge in women from Thailand followed. Among the first to offer help to these exploited foreign women were Christian women’s organizations. The Japan Women’s Christian Temperance Union opened a shelter in 1986, called HELP Asian Women’s Shelter. For over 20 years now, they have sheltered thousands of women and children. I myself worked at HELP as a caseworker in the beginning of my career as a missionary.  Women risked their lives to escape from their bondage and those that were lucky found their way to HELP shelter, where they would stay until being deported home. They were deported because the government treated these women as illegal aliens, for entering the county on false passports, overstaying their visa limits and “working” illegally.

In different areas of Japan, other non-profit agencies and citizens groups organized to offer help to trafficking victims. The YWCA in Kyoto is one such group that organized around this issue. After leaving HELP, I moved to Kyoto to help start up a hotline and support service for foreign migrant workers called “Asian People Together”.  Then in 2003, a group of NGOs and concerned citizens formed a national network to combat trafficking, the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons (JNATIP). JNATIP has been active in lobbying and advocating for anti-trafficking legislation and organizing symposiums and lectures to build awareness about the issue. In addition, JNATIP undertook an investigative research project to identify trafficked victims and their needs. This research was done by interviewing various shelters and organizations throughout the country and was published as a report in 2007. 

It is not until recent years that the Japanese government has recognized the problem of human trafficking and made any effort to address it. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of JNATIP the government finally made some policy changes. In 2005 the Japan amended its criminal laws to make trafficking illegal. International pressure generated by human rights organizations and the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report also provided incentive for the government to act on the issue after years of denial that the problem even existed.

The government has stepped up efforts to crack down on traffickers. The number of identified victims has decreased since the enactment of their anti-trafficking policy, from 117 in 2005, 58 in 2006, 43 in 2007 and 36 in 2008. However, NGOs point out that there are many more victims that are not identified. Many foreign women that work as hostesses in nightclubs or bars, are working illegally, and may be victims of trafficking.  Also, sex related businesses are increasingly moving underground due to police crackdowns on red-light districts. Many sex businesses have changed to disguise prostitution as “delivery” or escort services.  And finally, another type of trafficking that can go unrecognized are when women are exploited by arranged marriage brokers.

In addition to its inadequacies in identifying victims, the government policy is also lacking in measures for victim protection. Forty of the 43 identified trafficking victims in 2007 were provided services by government shelters, Women’s Consulting Centers. These centers were originally created to care for Japanese victims of domestic violence and have not been adequate to provide care for trafficked victims who need trained psychological counselors with native language ability. Another issue is the inadequacy in provision of legal assistance. Victims are eligible for special stay status in cases where victims would face hardship or retribution. But victims are unaware of this status or of the option of applying for a change in status to one that permits employment. The lack of native language counseling and the lack of options to work in Japan mean that most victims are repatriated back to their home country. And even back home they lack access to the counseling that they really need, and return again to a place with little or no hope for making a living.

Other than women trafficked into the sex industry, labor exploitation of both men and women has been widely reported by activists and NGOs.  Abuses of the “Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program (the “foreign trainee program”) included fraudulent terms of employment, debt bondage, restrictions on movement, and withholding of salary payments. Although most companies employ the foreign trainees appropriately, 1,209 violations of labor laws were identified in 2006. With increased attention on the exploitation of these trainees, the government made some efforts to address oversight of the program with a list of regulations, but there were no criminal penalties enforced on companies who violated them. NGOs point out that a major problem is the lack of enforcement of labor laws.

As this goes to press, JNATIP is lobbying for adoption of a draft bill on trafficking and has submitted a list of proposals to the government. Some of the issues include:

1) Coordination between the government, NGOs and related organizations in the victims’ home countries remains ineffective (in both identifying and caring for victims),

2) Identification of victims – A comprehensive check list is needed to identify victims, with a more realistic understanding of how victims experience coercion and threat. (Officials tend to be strict in demanding proof of coercion),

3) Need for long term shelters – Special shelters for trafficked victims that provide counseling in the appropriate languages, where they can stay long enough for their rehabilitation and vocational training,

4) Medical and mental health care, legal assistance and vocational training – Victims need culturally appropriate and gender sensitive counseling, as well as medical attention including treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, legal assistance is needed enabling victims to bring their cases to court, and a vocational training program should be made available to victims so that they can earn some income while staying at the shelters, facilitating recovery of self-esteem and economic independence,

5) Measures to protect male victims and children– Many of the foreign trainees who suffer serious exploitation are men and need to be recognized as victims of trafficking. And child victims should be given special protection,

6) Education and training on the issue – Trainings for police, judges, immigration officials, social workers, and legislators are needed to increase awareness and sensitivity about the issue, as well as competence in handling cases.

The US State Department’s TIP Report ranks Japan as Tier 2– as a country that does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Japan has not yet ratified the UN Protocol, or the “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime 2000”. Ratification would require national laws to meet the protocol standards, which Japan has been slow to proceed with.

It is much to the credit of women’s organizations and NGOs concerned with the rights of migrant workers that the issue of human trafficking is being  addressed in Japan. These groups were there on the frontline, helping victims who were exploited and abused, way before the word “human trafficking” was even being used. And this outreach to victims of trafficking has been an example of an ecumenical movement. Christian organizations and leaders helped lead the way to organize a movement.  As a Christian missionary in Japan, I feel called to continue to be a part of this effort to put an end to this modern form of slavery.

Martha Mensendiek serves with Doshisha University in Japan.