Still smarting from a sharp rebuke by the U.S., the government is studying ways to implement sweeping changes to the Penal Code or the enactment of a new law to combat human trafficking and protect victims, government officials said Saturday.

The Justice Ministry, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the National Police Agency and other government agencies are set to meet Tuesday to prepare bills for submission to the Diet next year, the officials said.

The latest moves follow the release of an annual report in which the United States downgraded its assessment of Japan’s efforts against human trafficking, putting the nation on a special watch list of countries on the verge of falling into the worst category.

According to the officials, the government is studying measures such as a revision of the Penal Code to make human trafficking a crime or the enactment of a new law that would stipulate criminal punishment for human trafficking.

The new law envisions a comprehensive set of measures that would include protection and relief provisions for victims of trafficking.

The move is also in line with efforts mainly by the Justice Ministry to prod Japan to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols.

Japan signed the three protocols in December 2002, which urges countries to stipulate clearly that human trafficking is a crime.

Methods on how to protect the victims have to be discussed among relevant authorities, given that many of the victims have issues regarding their legal status such as expired visas, officials said.

Currently, Japan does not have a law that directly bans human trafficking, but instead employs the code and a variety of laws such as immigration and anti-prostitution legislation to carry out trafficking-related prosecution.

As a result, enforcement methods are limited to people such as low-end brokers or the victims’ employers.

In its “Trafficking in Persons” report released last month, the U.S. State Department pressed Japan to boost efforts to combat human trafficking, including increased investigations, prosecutions and convictions of trafficking crimes, and to provide better assistance for victims.

“Japan is a destination country for Asian, Latin American and Eastern European women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation,” the report said.

Japan was put on a newly created Tier 2 Watch List, citing a lack of a comprehensive law against human trafficking and victim protection efforts. “Japan’s trafficking problem is large and Japanese organized crime groups that operate internationally are involved,” the report said.

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