Urairat Soimee’s journey began with an invitation from a wealthy neighbor — her mother’s childhood friend — in her small Thai village to come and work at a restaurant she claimed she owned in Japan. It ended with her in a Japanese prison, serving a sentence for murder.

Like many poor and uneducated women from Thailand, Urairat came to Japan, moving to Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, nearly seven years ago in the hope of earning enough to provide for her children and disabled husband.

Instead, she was saddled with a large debt and told that she would have to prostitute herself — or face serious injury, even death — if she did not comply.

It was after months of horrific abuse that she solicited assistance from her Thai friend to help her escape — an escape that led to the killing of her pimp and her conviction for murder.

Thailand is one of the primary source countries of women trafficked as sex workers in Japan, along with the Philippines, Columbia, and increasingly China, South Korea and Indonesia. For years, there was resistance by the Japanese government in taking significant steps to reduce human trafficking. While Japan was a signatory to the U.N. protocol against human trafficking, it could not ratify it due to Japan not having a law outlawing human trafficking.

In June 2004, Japan was placed on the “Tier 2” watch list in the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report, which stated that it was not complying with the minimum standards toward the elimination of human trafficking.

“The Japanese government was very shocked to know that they were placed on that list,” said Nobuki Fujimoto of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Center in Osaka.

That same year, the Japanese Foreign Ministry adopted an action plan outlining measures to combat human trafficking. Many of the measures have been adopted, among them being the passage of a criminal law against human trafficking and the revision of immigration procedures that allow victims to stay in Japan for their own safety and to assist the government in prosecuting traffickers.

However, this temporary visa does not allow them to work, thus denying victims much needed resources to support themselves through the long process of a criminal trial. Shelters and other nongovernmental organizations often support victims, but such organizations are almost entirely dependent on support from the general public as they receive little in the way of funding or tax breaks from the government.

“The government should go further in securing victims’ testimony against traffickers,” said Fujimoto. “Now there is no institutional support to do this.”

An Organized Crime Control Department was established in the National Police Agency in 2004 to carry out antitrafficking activities. Last year the National Police Agency reported 81 arrests for human trafficking — a record number for the second straight year.

Yet while there have been increased law enforcement resources committed to fighting human trafficking, many convictions result in light sentences and few traffickers have done any hard time. Only five cases have been prosecuted under the new law so far, all of which resulted in suspended sentences.

“The NGOs are becoming more vocal,” said Andrea Bertone, director of HumanTrafficking.org, a clearinghouse for trafficking-related issues. “But the primary motivation for the Japanese government is the U.S. pressure. Laws are wonderful, but you need to implement them.”

There is a common misconception that most of the victims of trafficking are poor, uneducated women duped into prostitution and kept under close guard, though this is not completely accurate. “Most cases are not that simple,” says Fujiwara of the Polaris Project.

She tells a story of one woman from an East Asian country who had a degree from a vocational school, was making a decent living in the social welfare field, but wanted to change careers and save enough money to study in Japan. She read an advertisement for a position in a cafe in Tokyo that would provide her with transportation and a free place to stay.

The mama san in charge of the bar even flew from Japan to meet her and interview her in person. Although her friends said it sounded sketchy, she decided to take the job and flew to Japan.

However, she soon realized that the cafe where she was to work was really a hostess bar. Soon after she started working, the mama san closed the bar, citing financial troubles. She provided her with a high-interest loan, and referred her to another hostess club, but her new club required “dohan,” which is “dating” clients, and usually includes sex. Other women working at the bar advised her to do it, as it would be “dangerous” for her to refuse.

Two years later, unable to pay off her debt, she contacted Fujiwara. She was identified as a trafficking victim and the authorities were contacted. However, soon after she vanished and her whereabouts remain unknown. The club she worked at is still in business.

Many trafficking victims come to Japan on entertainment visas, with Filipinos being the largest group. The number of entertainers from the Philippines has steadily increased over the last 30 years, and reached over 82,000 in 2004. Most wind up working in hostess bars, where the working conditions are usually much different than they had been expecting, and they are often forced to perform work that was not stated in the contract — such as “dohan” — for lower wages than they had been promised.

Although foreign entertainers are forbidden by law to work as hostesses, the government often turns a blind eye to the practice.

Hidenori Sakanaka, retired head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, attempted 10 years ago to enforce the law by investigating establishments that hired women on entertainment visas.

In one year, the number of women entering Japan on entertainment visas dropped from about 90,000 to 55,000. In response, Sakanaka received threatening phone calls and pressure from lawmakers to back off, and he was eventually transferred to the immigration bureau in Sendai. By the time of his appointment to the Tokyo bureau in 2002, the number had shot up dramatically to 120,000.

Under international pressure, however, the government has begun to crack down, starting last year with the tightening of procedures under which Filipinos could be issued entertainment visas, which has greatly reduced the number of such visas issued.

The Ministry of Justice last June also imposed stricter requirements on club owners, prohibiting those with a record of trafficking, as well as those who have engaged in illegal employment or the forging of immigration documents within the last five years, from hiring foreign entertainers

The drop in visas issued to Filipinos has led to an increasing number of Indonesian women being recruited to fill their role, according to several NGOs. In addition, there is the risk that the crackdown could push the issue further underground, given the demand for foreign hostesses and the large number of Filipino women wanting to work in Japan. “The Japanese and the Philippine governments and the NGOs should closely monitor the situation,” Fujimoto warns.

While Japan was removed from the U.S. State Department watch list the year following its placement, in recognition of its efforts to fight human trafficking, it still remains in the list of “Tier 2” nations, according to the most recent report released in June of this year.

The report lauds Japan’s “remarkable progress,” particularly with regard to the tightening of restrictions on entertainment visas as well as other antitrafficking reforms. The report also notes that Japan has provided funding to the U.N. and the International Labor Organization for antitrafficking and rehabilitation programs in Thailand and the Philippines.

While it states that Japan is beginning to address the demand for trafficking through education programs in secondary schools, it also chastised the Japanese government for failing to criminalize demand for prostitution.

“Prostitution and sex trafficking are linked together,” says Fujiwara, arguing that “johns” must be made aware that they are participating in a crime.

“Society accepts this kind of exploitation,” says Fujiwara.

“The demand remains the same — booming.”

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