It’s 6:30 in the morning and Bonnie Jinmon is scanning the streets of Dogenzaka in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. She sees young women, trudging out from under shabby storefronts and love hotels, just finishing their shifts. Others are still luring customers in, working tirelessly to meet their daily quota.
Amid this changing of the guard, Jinmon and a few volunteers from her church approach the women cautiously. They’re armed with goody bags filled with lip creams, cookies and, stuffed in among the gifts, the number of a hotline for victims of sex trafficking.
Japan, a nation that boasts the world’s third-highest GDP, is not often associated with modern slavery. Yet of the 20 to 30 million slaves in the world today, approximately 45,000 victims live here. Lighthouse, a Japan-based NPO working to end human trafficking, identified 103 of the 241 cases they received in 2018 as crimes of sex trafficking. This number is less than the 138 cases they received the previous year, but activists continue to demand greater crackdowns and tighter regulations.
Jinmon, 66, has been fighting sex trafficking in Japan for 10 years. Some of the volunteer work she does is through Not for Sale Japan, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness of the crime. It’s there that she helps with translation work and outreach in a way that differs considerably from her day job as an English teacher.
The group began to take shape in 2007 after its director, Mariko Yamaoka, read the book “Not for Sale” by David Batstone. In it, the American journalist details first-hand accounts of human trafficking in underdeveloped countries and profiles the people fighting it. Moved by his writing, Yamaoka wanted to translate the text for a Japanese readership. She approached Batstone and, in 2010, a Japanese version of the book was published. Not for Sale Japan was founded a year later.
Jinmon met Yamaoka the same year as Not for Sale Japan’s creation and began working with her soon after. Their team is rounded out by people with similar backgrounds, working 9-to-5 jobs and tireless in their efforts to achieve justice.
Most of Not for Sale Japan’s work is outreach, hosting seminars and lectures at schools or similar education-based organizations, in order to raise public awareness. However, the group also works with the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons (JNATIP), a consortium of researchers, lawyers and NGOs collaborating to prevent the trafficking of people domestically by working with the government.
Coming to a realization
Jinmon first came to Japan in the mid-1970s at the age of 22. The economy began to ramp up in the years that followed, which led to a high demand for English conversation classes. She started teaching at a church and it was there that she met her future husband. The pair continue to reside in Tokyo.
“It’s tempting to think about going back (to the States) to retire,” she says when asked if she’d ever return home. “The lifestyle is easier and cheaper than living in Tokyo, but my husband doesn’t want to live in the States. He’s used to Japan.”
It wasn’t until 2009, 30 years after moving here, that Jinmon first learned about human trafficking in her adopted country by way of a photo journal detailing the topic. It contained harrowing photos of children victimized by trafficking, poverty and war, and motivated her to become an activist.
When Jinmon uses the term “modern slavery,” she is referring in part to the idea that victims are overwhelmed, coerced and intimidated into remaining with their abusers. “Now, it’s more about psychological binding,” she says, instead of the physical shackles many might think of.
Jinmon says a volunteer from her church began to notice young women coming out of a certain building, crying with papers in their hands. The activists were never allowed to approach these women, but they suspected a pornography studio was operating in the building. The papers the girls clutched were presumably contracts they were beguiled into signing, requiring their sexual performance.
“Some girls who are trafficked into the sex industry are deceived into thinking they’re auditioning for modeling or TV jobs,” Jinmon says. “But when they show up, it’s an adult video set.”
She adds that the “employment” paperwork given to these women is littered with unclear terms designed to deceive. Jinmon says that though young women are often the target of these contracts, traffickers will also prey on children as young as 7 or 8. In all cases, it’s hard for the victims to quit their “jobs.” It’s even more difficult for victims of overseas sex trafficking, as the people who bring them over are likely to confiscate their passports or even assign a physically intimidating handler to watch over them.
“A woman I know in Aichi, when she went to renew her gaikokujin tōrokushō (alien registration card) at the ward office, she saw this intimidating looking guy with some Filipino ladies,” Jinmon recalls. “One lady took my friend’s hand when the man wasn’t looking and pleaded for help. My friend wanted to help them, but the imposing guy was right there, so she went into the restroom and wrote her phone number on some paper to slip it to the girl. But by the time she came back, they had already gone.”
Unfortunately, Jinmon has many of these types of anecdotes. Rather than get deterred by them, however, she seems determined to try to help victims in even more ways.
“I want my work to be bigger,” she says as a bright smile takes over her face. “I started out not knowing anything but became more educated and well-informed. It has allowed me to gain confidence that I could be in the position to teach others about this.
“But I would like to retire soon; I’m doing all of this in my free time. Ideally, I’d be heading something like the Colabo bus, and see Japanese laws tighten to stop trafficking.”
The Colabo bus Jinmon mentions is known on the streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku wards as the Tsubomi Cafe. It’s a traveling van that offers free food, shelter and help to vulnerable and sexually exploited teenage girls.
Above all, she stresses the need to be able to replace the current group of older volunteers with some younger ones. To get involved, she advises to first educate yourself on the topic like she did: by listening. Listen to people’s stories, listen to the experience of other activists and learn about the situation wherever you live.
“I don’t want the traffickers to just be arrested,” Jinmon says as she leans forward and gets serious for a minute. “I want them to learn and to reform. Only once they’ve grasped the heinousness of their crimes will the evil cycle of trafficking end.”