Japan: pink heaven for traffickers


How many of the 700,000 to 4 million global victims of human trafficking a year (according to a 2002 U.S. State Department survey) end up in Japan?

Given the secretive nature of the trade, nobody knows for sure, but the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration estimates that, at any one time, the estimated 2.37 trillion yen-a-year Japanese sex industry (according to Takashi Kadokura of the Tokyo-based Dai-ichi Life Research Institute) involves as many as 150,000 foreign women, many of whom are coerced or lured here under false pretenses.

Pushed out by poverty and high unemployment back home, the women come mainly from the Philippines and Thailand, and increasingly from the crumbling economies of Colombia and Eastern Europe. Most are recruited locally to work in nonspecified “entertainment” jobs. Many arrive here legally, including, for example, about 10,500 Filipinas who entered last year on entertainment visas, while others come from countries such as Colombia, whose citizens do not need a visa to get into Japan, but whose passports are stamped at the port of entry with a 90-day visitors’ visa. (From this month, however, the government is advising, but not requiring, Colombians to obtain a visa prior to leaving their home country.)

Once here, the women are told by those who brought them that they must pay off their “debt” (normally 4-5 million yen for documents, transport, board and keep), and their passports are confiscated, making it impossible for them to make a visa-renewal application and throwing them into Japan’s pool of 250,000 illegal residents. “The traffickers use the fact that the women are illegal to intimidate them into not going to the authorities,” says Francisco J. Sierra, the Colombian ambassador to Japan. “Even if they want to go back, they can’t, which is why so many end up coming here for help.” The Colombian Embassy in Tokyo, which deals daily with the distressed and often battered victims of the traffickers, has been compiling their testimony since 1997. However, last year there was a rare cause for celebration, with the conviction of underworld figure Koichi Hagiwara. Nicknamed “Sony” by his victims because of his penchant for videotaping them naked, Hagiwara trafficked 400 Colombian women into Japan from February 1999 to December 2002. The business was lucrative: Police say Hagiwara earned a reported 10 million yen a month in kickbacks from strip clubs across the country, and had $9 million in a bank account.

At first glance, the 22-month sentence handed down to Hagiwara last March was a welcome sign that the courts here are finally taking the problem seriously. However, those involved in the case say it’s still business as usual for the traffickers. “We had a small break with Hagiwara, but it hasn’t made much difference,” says Colombian Embassy official Luis Amadeo Hernandez, whose testimony helped put Hagiwara in prison. “There is more awareness about the problem, but it hasn’t been coupled with new legal measures. The people who traffic are more cautious, but they are still almost totally free to do what they want.”

The problem, say antitrafficking activists, is that the Japanese authorities seem reluctant to tackle the crime syndicates that run the trade, relying instead on outdated laws (such as antiprostitution legislation) and restrictive visa policies that have created “extraordinary opportunities for profit” for those who facilitate illegal immigration into Japan, according to Human Rights Watch.

“There is a lack of specific legislation here and the whole industry and organized crime operates untouched,” says Sally Cameron, project researcher on trafficking issues at the United Nations University. “There needs to be a specific antitrafficking law that targets the people behind the scenes.”

The campaigners point out that Hagiwara was convicted not of trafficking, but for violating immigration and labor laws — and only after Hernandez testified about his use of violence on the women he controlled. Hagiwara had been previously convicted of a similar offense and given a slap on the wrist.

In the absence of a willingness to seriously go after the big fish, the authorities seem content to target the victims as “illegal aliens” and “prostitutes,” claim campaigners.

“Women who overstay are treated as criminals,” says Keiko Otsu, who runs one of the few refuges for trafficked women, the Asian Women’s Shelter Help in Tokyo. “The only way they are going to end this trade is by getting the victims to testify against the men who brought them here, but they’re too frightened. We should be helping the women, providing them with counseling and shelter, instead of arresting them.”

Former Social Democrat lawmaker Masako Owaki agrees that the current system does not provide enough punishment for the buyers and brokers behind the sex industry. But she says there are signs the Diet may be creaking into gear. “Some lawmakers are trying to create new laws to deal with the problem, but this will take time.”

Most believe the Koizumi government’s recently announced pledge to halve the number of undocumented foreigners in Japan will do little to help. “Are the authorities going to arrest the people who employ the women,” asks Cameron. “Are they going to get behind the business? If they just arrest the women and deport them they’re not getting behind the issue, and the danger is that trafficking will be pushed underground.”

“This is a new type of enslavement, involving a lot of money and organization, and it needs new laws,” says Ambassador Sierra.