It could be a scene from most neighborhoods in urban Japan but it happened to be mine in Hashimoto, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Weary male commuters file through the ticket barriers of the JR Yokohama Line greeted by half a dozen leggy beauties carrying fliers for a local bar called “Partner.”

Speaking in broken Japanese, the women zeroed in on salarymen who looked unsteady on their feet as a stocky man wearing shades and too much gold jewelry hovered in the background, giving orders.

Bigger versions of the flier with its promise of “Filipino Women Galore!” and its subliminal message of easy sexual opportunity can be found on billboards for bars and nightclubs all over Hashimoto and neighboring Sagamihara.

All questions to the women about their working conditions and lives in Japan were redirected to “Mr. Yamanouchi,” who, not surprisingly, refused to comment.

Many of these women come to a country where a good tip can be worth the equivalent of a week’s wages in the Philippines.

Some walk the tightrope between the flirting that is a job requirement and the prostitution that lurks on the fringes of their profession, while also avoiding obstacles that include unscrupulous employers, violence and police harassment, and somehow manage to save or send money home.

Those that don’t sometimes end up at Friendship Asia House Cosmos.

Battered and bruised

Set in a secluded part of Chiba, the facility provides refuge for about a dozen women from the Philippines, Thailand and other Asian countries who often arrive battered and bruised from whatever life in Japan has thrown at them.

The smiles, short skirts and bronzed skin on display at Hashimoto Station have been replaced here with baggy, shapeless clothes, dull complexions and wary expressions. Sari (not her real name) had arrived a few weeks previously with her two children, fathered by a Japanese man.

“I was recruited in the Philippines by a broker who said I would be working as an entertainer and would have my own apartment and short hours.

“When I got to Nagano I found myself with 10 other women in an 8-mat room, and we worked every day from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. for an allowance of 2,000 yen a week.

“The other girls said the boss was Yakuza and when he threatened me I ran away to Tokyo and then to Uwami, but always things were the same. I met a “tekiya” (stall) owner and married him. I just wanted to get away but he beat me so I came here.”

Women escaping from bad experiences into bad marriages are not uncommon, says Misao Hanazaki, who set up Friendship Asia House in 1991 to accompany her orphanage next door.

Terrible cases

“We’ve had some terrible cases,” she says. “A Filipino woman ran into problems and was locked away in a detention center for two years while her visa case was being sorted out, leaving her children to fend for themselves.”

Despite the recession, Japan still has Asia’s largest and most voracious sex market, one that has sucked in as many as 150,000 non-Japanese women, mainly from the Philippines and Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The sex industry likes foreign workers for the same reason every other industry likes them: they’re cheaper and willing to do jobs few others are, says Takashi Kadokura, an economist with Dai Ichi Life Research Institute, who recently set the size of Japan’s “entertainment trade” at a staggering 2.37 trillion yen (2001).

Filipinos, Thais and increasingly Chinese and South American women can be found doing everything from pouring drinks in karaoke and hostess bars to offering cut-price sex massages. The boundaries between many of these services intersect and the pressure to please the customer is intense.

A survey by U.N. researcher Sally Cameron found that 19 of the 20 subjects she interviewed were “forced to engage in sexual practices in their job.”

Cameron says her personal “bug bear” is Japan’s “entertainer visas,” which are stamped on about 40,000 Filipino passports a year.

“There are very few people with this kind of visa actually doing this sort of job,” she says.

“The regulations are stringent and the visa is meant for use only by professional singers and dancers, but many Filipino women are still being brought to Japan on entertainer visas in conditions that are blatantly contrary to their visa conditions.

“The government said it would crack down on illegal categories, but there are still enormous numbers of workers coming in. The entertainment industry is huge and it’s fundamental and the government is not interested in changing that or in creating the legal infrastructure to fight this.”

But the government points to the arrest and trial of former travel agent Koichi Hagiwara as evidence that it is cracking down on illegal practices in the industry.

Not taken seriously

Hagiwara, who police say earned 10 million yen a month as a broker for women like Sari, is up on charges of forcing two Colombian women to engage in prostitution.

But campaigners point to Hagiwara’s earlier conviction in 1999 for similar offenses, when he received a suspended sentence and a puny 300,000 yen fine as evidence that Japan is not taking the problem seriously.

“There’s no antitrafficking law in Japan,” says Keiko Otsu, director of Asian Women’s Shelter Help in Tokyo, which provides help for women who are forced into prostitution.

“The problem is just starting to be recognized in Japan.

“The police use the Prostitution Law and only arrest the foreign women, who they blame, not the men. Local police in particular do nothing because they do not recognize that many of these women are trapped.”

In a typical incident, a Columbian woman was coerced into Japan, told she was 5 million yen in debt and forced to work off her debts in a strip joint in Yamanashi.

She had her passport confiscated and was beaten, raped and tied up before she fled to Tokyo.

It’s not the worst case.

Mrs. Otsu says a 13-year-old foreign girl was recently found working in a brothel in Yokohama.

Hanazaki-san’s biggest worry is the children who are being born here in increasingly large numbers to foreign women of indeterminate visa status.

“Many of these women are living in fear of their visa being cut off, so they keep their children out of school.

“We’re building up a lot of problems. What will all these kids do when they grow up without abilities or qualifications?

“The government has to change the law to either accept more people or, if they’re illegal, send them home.”

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