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Putting the red light on human trafficking

by Thomasina Larkin

“Neary grew up in rural Cambodia. Her parents died when she was a child, and in an effort to give her a better life, her sister married her off when she was 17. Three months later, they went to visit a fishing village. Her husband rented a room in what Neary thought was a guest house. But when she woke the next morning, her husband was gone.

“The owner of the house told her she had been sold by her husband for $300 and that she was actually in a brothel. For five years, Neary was raped by five to seven men every day. In addition to brutal physical abuse, Neary was infected with HIV and contracted AIDS.

“The brothel threw her out when she became sick, and she eventually found her way to a local shelter. She died of HIV/AIDS at the age of 23.”

Neary’s story, posted on Georgetown University’s Web site, is just one of a portion of such stories that actually get reported each year.

Hundreds of thousands of other stories are never heard, and remain cloaked in the dark underworld of human trafficking — a world Shihoko Fujiwara first heard about while attending college in the U.S. in 2004.

“I learned about the internal trafficking of Thai women to foreigners, to men from Germany or America or Japan,” Fujiwara says, adding that the status of women in her home country then started to become more obvious to her. “That’s when the issue became personal for me. Every time I came back to Japan, I felt so pressured. Society expects women to be feminine and submissive.”

Fujiwara realized that this form of passivity was just a scratch on the surface of a much larger issue, one into which she felt compelled to dig deeper.

She searched the Internet for organizations in the U.S. that help combat the sex slave industry and she soon found Polaris Project, which just happened to be looking for Japanese-speaking volunteers to help launch a Tokyo branch.

Fujiwara’s dedication was put to the test from the get-go.

“I worked all day at Polaris and during the night I worked at a restaurant,” Fujiwara says. “I saw the development of the antitrafficking movement in the U.S., and then after a year I was finally able to come back to Japan to launch Polaris here.”

Humantrafficking.org reported in 2005 that an estimated 150,000 trafficking victims could be working in Japan, according to the Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration.

It wasn’t long before Fujiwara would find herself flooded with work.

Since 2005, Fujiwara has brought on 40 more volunteers and interns, started a multilingual outreach hotline, held seminars across the country, advocated for better antitrafficking laws, organized workshops with police officers and embassies, run awareness-raising campaigns on college campuses and helped raise awareness among the victims themselves.

“When we met this one woman, she had called us three times before she finally trusted us and understood that she was being trafficked,” Fujiwara says.

“Her brothel owner was forcing her to sleep with women and men and if she failed to do so she threatened her: ‘If you don’t go out with these people, I’ll tell your family in your home country what you’re doing here — selling your body — and your family will reject you,” Fujiwara recalls of one of more than 340 cases Polaris Japan has heard. “She was psychologically controlled by her traffickers.”

For the first couple of years, all of Polaris’ clients in Japan were foreign women. But Fujiwara decided last year to start focusing on Japanese women.

“There’s a lot of gender inequality here. It’s a culture of seeing women as sex objects,” Fujiwara says. “If you look at men’s magazines, you always see naked women. Even women’s and teen’s magazines have strange info on how to be loved by your boyfriend, or how to please your man, which gives readers the wrong ideas about sex.

“I just want to have a healthy and safe environment for women and men,” she says, adding that Polaris teaches about how condoms protect against STDs and that women should wait until they’re ready to have sex. “All these things are so connected to adults, who are uncomfortable talking about sex and who learn about it from magazines, which are violent and objectify women. Men see those magazines and they go to sex parlors.”

However, after two years of research, Fujiwara still finds it difficult to make contact with Japanese victims.

“The sex industry here is so much under the realm of entertainment,” she says. “Women are being told that their job is fun, easy and that they can make money instantly for clothes and bags or debts. They’re being glorified in media such as TV and magazines.

“I’m not against women’s work,” Fujiwara says. “I’m just so afraid the industry tries to hide the reality of the exploited women.”

Fujiwara hopes a photo exhibition called “Human Trafficking — Unrecognized Reality” Oct. 12-13 at the Tokyo Women’s Plaza Forum in Shibuya, Tokyo, will help further shed some light onto the shady underworld of human trafficking.

To report a human-trafficking case, call 0120-879-871. For more information about Polaris, visit www.PolarisProject.jp More information about the photo exhibit can be found (in Japanese only) at www.tokyo-womens-plaza.metro.tokyo.jp/contents/seminar2_07082801.html