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November marks one year since the Metropolitan Police Department began a program to reduce street prostitution in Tokyo by connecting women to welfare counseling.

The initiative to help women in the capital to get back on their feet came as a result of realizing that exposing incidents was not enough to crack down on street prostitution.

A plain-clothed male MPD investigator strolled around Okubo Park in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district one night in mid-September. Many women were leaning on the guardrails or sitting by the roadside.

“There are many cheap hotels around here,” the investigator said.

At around 8 p.m., he approached a woman in a dress in her 20s and escorted her to a nearby multitenant building.

The MPD had rented a room in the building facing the district, and a female investigator was waiting inside to speak with the woman.

The woman revealed that her former employer, a restaurant, closed in July last year due to the coronavirus crisis. Despite efforts to make ends meet, her savings ran out and she became unable to pay her rent.

This prompted her to head to Kabukicho, about 30 minutes by train from her home, to engage in street prostitution. She said that she earns about ¥15,000 per customer.

After listening to the advice of the female investigator, the woman promised to seek help from her local government office and went home.

Another woman was near the park one day in mid-October, waiting for a customer.

She used to work at a brothel and continues to visit Kabukicho sometimes even after becoming a corporate worker.

“I can kill time and make money,” she said. “The going rate around here is between ¥10,000 and ¥15,000.”

According to the MPD, most women caught for allegedly violating the Anti-Prostitution Act are not indicted and immediately resume the life they were leading before they went on the streets.

But many return to prostitution when they face financial hardship.

Recognizing that exposing such incidents alone will not lead to preventing relapses, the Tokyo police began listening to the women talk about their financial struggles and introducing them to consultation services offered by the metropolitan government or the capital’s wards from last November. The MPD also offers to accompany women to such consultations.

The department has helped more than 60 women through the initiative in the past year.

“Some women refuse to seek assistance or don’t show up when we try to accompany them to consultations,” an MPD official said.

“There’s no precedent for this initiative in Japan,” the official said, adding that, “We hope other police departments will follow our example.”

“Catching (prostitutes) alone won’t save anyone,” Asako Kobayashi, acting head of a metropolitan government section working with the MPD for welfare consultations, said. “We’re aiming for a solid support system through cooperation among the police, the government and other agencies.”

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