As the next Olympic host, Japan has become the focus of a global campaign against child prostitution and exploitation linked to sports, with activists working to shed light on “hidden crimes” they say have a symbiotic relationship with mega-events.
Major sporting events attract troves of tourists to host cities, and it is believed criminal organizations follow, looking to cash in by exploiting vulnerable children pushed into the sex trade or by trafficking them into forced labor.
Despite its reputation for safety and high living standards, Japan is far from immune, according to It’s a Penalty, a Britain-based activist group.
“It does exist here, it is just that it is not talked about,” said Sarah de Carvalho, founder and CEO of IAP, during a recent visit to Tokyo.
“If you educate people who are attending the event about the signs to look out for, and that’s labor as well as sexual exploitation, it is happening everywhere. But unless we talk about it we think it is not happening.”
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is among many sports figures who will feature in a campaign video titled “It’s a Penalty” produced by the group. In it, people are encouraged to report crimes and to “say something if you see something.”
“Sport has the power to change the world, Tokyo 2020 will be a happy occasion but please be aware millions of children are trafficked and exploited around the world, offenders can be prosecuted either in-country or when they get back home. Your call can save lives,” the athletes will recite in the video.
IAP launches campaigns during major sporting events, using them as platforms to educate the general public about the risks faced by children, while equipping people with mechanisms to identify crimes and report anything suspicious.
In doing so, it aims to widen the safety net provided by communities, which IAP considers to be the first line of defense.
“The reason we run it during major sporting events is … firstly, we know when there is an influx of hundreds of thousands of people that demand increases, but secondly because it is a global problem it provides a platform to get the message out all over the world,” said de Carvalho.
According to the United Nations-backed International Labor Organization, there are 24.9 million people who are victims of forced labor, nearly a quarter of whom are children.
De Carvalho said during her visit to Japan last month to meet 2020 organizers that crimes against children are a major issue for Japan and that action must be taken.
IAP has so far facilitated the rescue of more than 16,800 victims by partnering with police, airlines, sporting bodies and nongovernment organizations during sporting events, including soccer’s 2014 World Cup, 2016 Rio Olympics and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
IAP also works with the International Olympic Committee, which has pledged its support.
In the campaign around the Super Bowl in February, the NFL’s biggest day each year, the IAP, with the help of 200 or so volunteers, handed out leaflets and wristbands bearing a hotline number to about 300 Atlanta hotels and motels. These efforts led to some 170 arrests by an FBI task force, it said.
Government statistics show that 46 human trafficking survivors, both foreign and Japanese, were taken into protective custody in Japan in 2017.
Of those rescued, 28 were Japanese, which was then a record, eight were Thais and seven Filipinos. There was also one victim each from Vietnam, Brazil and Mongolia.
But those figures may not be a true reflection of the extent of the problem.
In response, IAP and its local partners pulled together a list of big-name Japanese stars who were willing to be the faces of the 2020 campaign to promote child protection.
In 2016 a campaign video featuring Bolt and other high-profile athletes was shown on international airlines, in hotels and on giant screens at the venues for the Rio Olympics.
Mie Kajikawa, head of Sport For Smile, the IAP’s strategic partner in Tokyo, said she would like to see the Tokyo Olympics prove sports have the power to change the world.
“We hope to use sports as an effective instrument to combat difficult social problems,” Kajikawa said.
De Carvalho said that when light is shed on the dark side of sporting events, it allows people to come face to face with societal problems rather than turn a blind eye to events we are ignorant of or ignore.
In Japan, de Carvalho met with senior officials at Narita and Haneda airports, as well as university students and young leaders who expressed a desire to initiate action to help end human trafficking and exploitation.
“Japan is a destination, and source and transit country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking and for children subjected to sex trafficking,” de Carvalho said while pointing out the scale of the problem.
“There are 24.9 million people trapped in modern-day slavery and 5.5 million children are trafficked each year (around the world).
“The problem is increasing because of the internet, so people coming in from abroad for an event, sporting fans, they will be targeted.”