Colombian single mother Marcela Loaiza was dreaming big when she set foot in Japan in May 1999. The broker who had arranged her trip told her she would be working as a dancer and make enough money within a few years to pull her family out of poverty back home.
She fell for his words, hook, line and sinker.
Within hours of her arrival, Loaiza, then 21, was standing helplessly on a street in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, side by side with a group of foreign prostitutes. Like her, they had come to Japan looking for a better life, only to wind up in the hands of the yakuza.
In the days to come, all Loaiza could do as a rookie hooker was approach potential customers with the only Japanese phrase she was taught: ni man en (¥20,000).
Her two-year ordeal was recounted in the Japanese version of her memoir “Survivor,” which hit bookstores last month.
“I felt moved that Japanese people will know there is a harsh reality in their beautiful country,” Loaiza, 38 and now living in the United States, said of the book’s release in an email interview. “Damage caused by traffickers to exploited women will leave scars on their souls forever.”
Today, non-Japanese sex workers have virtually disappeared from the streets of Tokyo because of a police crackdown.
But experts say Loaiza’s story underlines the reality of human trafficking that, 17 years on, continues to plague the seamiest part of Japan’s sex industry. They say victimization now increasingly extends to Japanese women, who have fallen prey to mixed tactics involving both coercion and enticement by their traffickers.
Despite improvement over the years, Japan remains a “destination, source and transit country” for sex trafficking, according to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons report released by the U.S. State Department. Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven industrialized countries to be placed in Tier 2, which is for countries that do not fully meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The situation, however, was even worse in the early 2000s when Loaiza was forced into prostitution.
Back then, the nation didn’t have a law banning human trafficking.
With the help of brokers, women from countries including Thailand, the Philippines and Colombia flocked to Japan under false identities, often on entertainment visas.
Upon arrival, their yakuza-affiliated “managers,” as Loaiza called her handler, would strip them of their passports, coop them up in a shared apartment and tell them they needed to work as prostitutes to repay the several million yen they had incurred in travel expenses.
Loaiza felt forced to work as a prostitute and a stripper to pay off an alleged ¥5 million debt before taking refuge at the Colombian Embassy in Tokyo in summer 2001.
“The situation was terrible back then,” said an official at the embassy who is familiar with human trafficking cases. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “The women were treated like animals.”
The situation dramatically improved after a government-sponsored bill penalizing human trafficking cleared the Diet in 2005. At the same time, police stepped up measures to crack down on illicit entertainment businesses and tightened immigration controls.
The crackdown has led to a rapid drop in foreign victims of human trafficking. According to the National Police Agency, foreign victims reported to the police numbered 12 in 2014, down from a peak of 117 in 2005.
The Colombian Embassy has not received any complaint regarding forced prostitution since 2005, the official said.
Kaoru Aoyama, a professor of sociology at Kobe University who has conducted extensive research into Japan’s sex industry, agreed that the enslavement of foreign women is rarely seen today thanks to the new legislation.
Instead, brokers have turned to a more sophisticated approach to lure them, such as offering to get them student or spouse visas in exchange for working at sex parlors.
“The overall condition is much safer and less exploitative than before,” Aoyama said.
The apparent improvement, however, does not make Loaiza’s memoir irrelevant today, said Aiki Segawa, a spokeswoman for Lighthouse, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization battling human trafficking.
Although foreign victims are on the decline, the NPA statistics show that Japanese women accounted for 12 of the 24 victims of human trafficking in 2014, the highest in a decade. Segawa attributed the rise in domestic victims to Japan’s growing poverty and income disparities, which have left women more prone to social marginalization.
Like Loaiza, those victims are often asked why they didn’t run away before things got out of control, Segawa said.
“But the truth is they really have no option but to succumb,” she said.
This is particularly so in one particular kind of case that has recently attention from the media — coerced appearances in porn films.
In 2015, Lighthouse handled 62 such cases jointly with the like-minded group People Against Pornography & Sexual Violence. This year, the number of cases topped that figure in July.
Even the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned such abuse as “violence against women” in a statement in June.
Typically, girls are approached by recruiters on the street and coaxed into signing contracts that promise them careers as TV stars or models, unaware they will be tricked into becoming porn actresses. The films they get involved in are widely shared on the internet, leaving them forever with the fear that someone they know may recognize them.
“The tricky thing about human trafficking is that traffickers rarely hurt the victims physically” and thus avoid being arrested, Segawa said.
Instead, “they have your IDs all copied and threaten to divulge your activities to your parents or school if you don’t obey them, or say they will charge you with colossal ‘penalty fees’ if you say you want to quit in breach of the contracts. They even sweet-talk and seduce you into building a relationship that is inseparable.”
“Traffickers know everything about you, threaten you all the time,” she said. “I never wanted to risk the lives of my daughter and the rest of my family.”
Today, the Colombian runs her own nonprofit organization called Marcela Loaiza Foundation to raise awareness of human trafficking and to save victims.
Fifteen years since leaving Japan, Loaiza, who says she still recoils at the sight of Japanese men, remains traumatized. But moving forward, she is driven by a strong sense of mission.
“My goal is to eliminate modern slavery,” she said.